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Collaborating With Engineers Part 3 - Topics and How to Find Them

Collab with Engineers - Blog 3 3Imagine you are a songwriter. Your client is a country-western crooner on a downturn. Melancholy laments about boozy nights and cheating hearts just aren’t selling. He needs a lift, and he’s come to you for help.

Can you write a love song? Sure you can. That’s what you do. You leave the meeting excited to get back to your desk and start writing. 

At your desk, you fire up Google docs, and wait for the magic words to come. Every lyric that pops into your head is from an old song.  Hasn’t every love song already been written, you think. The cursor blinks away seconds, then minutes, then hours. The blank screen seems more malevolent now, like the cobra in Rikki-Tikki-Tavi.

Writers’ block: it can be crippling. And you get it when you are under the most pressure. Like when your boss tells you they need a few new articles for the corporate blog, or a new video topic for the company YouTube channel. 

“Think of a few ideas,” says your VP of Marketing. How hard can that be?

Take heart, dear marketer. You are not alone. Thinking of topic ideas, or ideation as it’s sometimes called in “the biz,” can be the most underappreciated, yet most important part of the creative process. 

As a marketer, the topics that excite your audience are not always the topics that excite you. You may use the technology, but you haven’t had a hand in its creation. You may be steeped in technology, but bored by watching coders code it, engineers design it, or manufacturers build it. Let’s face it, it’s not something you studied, it’s not what you signed up for, and it’s probably not what you do in your spare time.

Catalysts for Ideas

Often the best way to break the cobra’s spell is to simply get up and walk away from the screen. If the ideas don’t come to you immediately, keep walking. Walk to where the ideas are plentiful. 

Or take a drug. 

That got your attention, huh? Sorry, I mean a legal drug. A catalyst, by definition, is a chemical that supports a reaction but is not the fuel for the reaction. Caffeine is an unregulated psychoactive drug – and the substance of choice for writers.

Not a coffee drinker? Try exercise. Get your blood flowing and it will deliver more oxygen to your brain. Your brain can be jump-started by a brisk walk. You can also run, swim, bike, rollerblade or hit the elliptical machine - whatever will make you breathe harder. [Pro tip: Leave the earbuds behind. You will not think of a single idea with Joe Rogan in your ear].

Let’s use this very article as an example. If you think dreaming up ideas for an article is hard, how about dreaming up ideas for an article about dreaming up ideas? 

That’s (ideas)2 hard!

But all the ideas for this article were conceived 10 minutes into a bike ride. Twenty minutes later, half the article was written in my head.

However, storing articles in your head doesn't typically work . Most of my article ideas dissipate upon my return to my overflowing Inbox.  [Pro Tip: Minimize or close your Inbox during a creative process and commit your ideas from an activity-inspired brainstorm to written notes as soon as you return to your desk].

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Go to Where the Ideas are Plentiful

Caffeine and oxygen might be catalysts, but like the catalysts you learned about in high school (and promptly forgot), they start a reaction but cannot sustain it. You can have a spark of an idea but without fuel, the idea will not light up your page. For example, your spark could be “Let’s write about our latest software update,” but if there is no material for you to draw upon, you have no fuel for your spark. 

You will need to go to, or find the material - the fuel.

In the old days, you could hang by the water cooler or break room and pick up on the buzz. What are the engineers talking about? Who is doing most of the talking? The water cooler is long gone and COVID-19 has left the break room deserted. The engineers you need for your story have returned to their digital retreats: chat groups, emails, and file sharing. 

Time to modernize your information gathering techniques.

Online Forums and Chat Groups

In Part 2 of this series, we discussed how to find contributors through a variety of means - talking to engineers directly, embedding yourself in their groups, internal and public forums, going to their conferences (virtually for now). These same methods and places are also great for generating content ideas and topics.

Your company has forums and chat groups that are public (for customer support) and others that are for internal use but may be open to all employees. Developers, engineers, and others likely have sections in which they can congregate. Whether it be Slack, Microsoft Teams, GitHub, a content management or project management system, or internally developed communication processes, engineers have likely carved out their own little corner. 

Permission to snoop join can be requested and will most likely be given. You may have to state your purpose is benign and that you  just looking for meaningful and relevant topics.

The details of what engineers and developers are working on may be a yawner. We understand, so skim. You’re not going to have to take a test or answer questions about it. You are looking for key points that will serve as ideas for topics.

Look for What's New

What’s new almost always sells. What’s new is found in real news, industry media, your competitors’ websites, and most importantly, your company’s press releases. 

While the PR team is confined to a terse one-pager, you, the marketer, can be far more creative. Dig into the press release and look closely, past the obligatory quotes from the CEO and before the boilerplate verbiage to see what is really interesting that you can expand on. 

What does the latest acquisition bring, and for whom? Maybe a profile on key individuals at the new company that’s being acquired? Perhaps a video interview, or a podcast appearance?

With a new product launch, what is the reaction from customers so far? What do you expect it to be, and why? The press release may have the standard “customers asked us for X and we have delivered” but you can bring those customers to life through written, audible, and visual mediums.

And don’t forget the engineers bleary-eyed from staring at 3D models, the guys in the machine shop that made the prototypes, those in the developers’ dungeons who wrote the code. They are the foot soldiers of every new and improved product. Isn’t it time someone made heroes of them?

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Conferences and Meeting Notes

You can attend virtual conferences not just to get contributors, as suggested in Part 2, but also to get ideas for topics. 

But here, you need to be careful. You don’t want to copy topics verbatim. Use the topics you find for inspiration. You can pick a topic from a conference a year ago that can be updated with the most recent information available, for example. 

Finding a company that uses your products in an interesting or unique way may help you think of another company that does something similar. Finding one top ten set of tips and tricks may help you think of 10 more.  Misguided or incomplete coverage of a product by a user may give you the idea to “correct” or fill in missing information from a more knowledgeable product manager. 

Use the information you gather from conferences and meetings to your advantage; you’re probably taking notes while you’re attending anyhow, so jot down the blog, podcast, or video topics that come to mind while you’re at it!

The Silver Bullet

The hard truth is that there isn’t one single silver bullet that will solve all of your topic search-related problems. A combination of catalysts, coupled with exposure to different people, forums, and areas of discussion within your industry will help spur your creative thought processes.

Remember, you’re a marketer and not an engineer. You’re not expected to know the ins and outs of mechanical, electrical, manufacturing, or other disciplines. But, you should absorb as much information and inspiration as possible from the people who do know.

If you are already someone who considers themselves an expert in the industry your company is a part of, you should have no problem thinking of ideas for topics. But, it’s likely anyone who considers themselves as such has already stopped reading this. 

For everyone else, for those who think every love song has already been written and what more could they possibly add - they only need to be reminded that new songs are created every day! If a cup of strong coffee and a brisk walk doesn’t do the trick, get out to where people are rich with ideas, and that will stimulate you to think of your own.

Coming Up Next: Collaboration Structures and Workflows

You've got your contributor(s), and even a topic idea or two. Now, how do you actually begin the writing or recording process? Should you, the marketer, take the lead? Or should your engineer-contributors?

In our next blog, we'll provide a few collaboration structures we've encountered over the years that have proven to be most useful and productive.


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