How good are you at generating ideas? For content marketers, that’s a pretty important question.
Ideas are the stuff of writing, and content marketing is no exception. No matter what medium you work in, you will spend lots of time generating ideas. The quality of your ideas will affect your results and even your morale. The better you are at finding those little kernels of thought, the better you will be at bringing results for your organization.
Here are some thoughts to guide you in your search for ideas.
1. Adopt a Customer Mindset
Begin by adopting a customer mindset. While it’s gratifying to find ideas that appeal to you and your team, your real goal is to please your potential customer. To do so, step into your customers’ shoes and consider their needs.
Rachel Lindteigen at Marketing Land makes this point in Content marketing ideation: Where do good ideas come from?. Ask yourself what your audience cares about. Review the search data from your website or analytics to see what visitors are looking for. Ask your frontline people for their insights on customer concerns.
SEO tools like Google Autocomplete or Answer the Public, which we covered in How to Do Keyword Research, can also be helpful here. Review the customer thoughts and feelings you identified for each stage of your marketing funnel, as we discussed in Mapping Content to Your Funnel Stages.
2. Keep a Swipe File
Generating ideas is a lot easier when you see good ones every day.
As a content consumer, you are bound to run across interesting ideas in your own field. Make note of them when you do. Capture the URL of the page and a few words about why the idea interested you and how you can use it in the future.
Add to your swipe file frequently. Review it whenever you’re searching for ideas. Challenge yourself to see how many ideas you can generate from a single inspiring piece of content. Work the angles, and see what comes up.
Ideas are the common property of all humanity. Go forth and swipe. But remember: it’s not enough just to recycle other people’s ideas. Being derivative will only make you sound like your competitors. It won’t make your organization stand out.
So don’t just swipe an idea. Build on it. Extend it. Make it your own. For more information on this point, see 7. Perform Competitive Research.
3. See What’s Hot on Social Media
Tapping into social media can help you in generating ideas. This method also has important side benefits—it can also provide keyword ideas while giving you important insight into your customer’s mindset.
There is no shortage of networks to choose from. Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Instagram, Quora, Reddit, StumbleUpon—the list now is practically endless. Depending on your audience and subject matter, some networks may be more important for your use than others. You’ll quickly learn which ones provide the best material while performing preliminary research.
You can search each social network directly from Google, without navigating to each site and logging in. In your search bar, use a query like keyword site: social network. For example, if you want to see what people are saying about mountain bikes on Reddit, use the query mountain bikes site:reddit.com. Google will return mountain bike-related results only from Reddit.com.
4. Use an Idea Generator
Portent’s Content Idea Generator is simple to use. Just type a keyword into the Enter your subject here: field and press Enter. I entered mountain bike, a keyword we examined earlier in How to Do Keyword Research. Portent suggested the title “Why Mountain Bikes Should be 1 of the 7 Deadly Sins.” The process is worth repeating—just tap the little refresh icon next to the search field. When I tried the phrase a second time, what came back was “14 Ways to Become the Macgyver of Mountain Bikes.” My third try produced “5 Ways Mountain Bikes are Cooler than Michael Jordan.”
I don’t know how Portent built its content idea generator, but it seems to be a programmatic way of finding what Ian Lurie calls “random affinities,” which he wrote about in this guest post for the Moz blog. I find the randomness of the whole thing quite refreshing. If you haven’t read much of Ian, by the way, I suggest you check him out. His posts are solid and actionable, and his writing is endlessly entertaining.
The Hubspot Blog Ideas Generator is less outlandish than Portent’s idea generator. When I entered mountain bikes (in the plural), it suggested the following five eminently practical titles:
- Mountain Bikes: Expectations vs. Reality
- This Week’s Top Stories About Mountain Bikes
- Mountain Bikes Explained in Fewer than 140 Characters
- The Next Big Thing in Mountain Bikes
- Will Mountain Bikes Ever Rule the World?
I doubt mountain bikes will ever rule the world, but it’s fun to entertain the thought.
5. Embrace Serendipity
One method for generating ideas is to simply allow your mind to create them. This method is especially helpful for solo practitioners. Just don’t mistake serendipity for an effortless approach. It’s not as simple or passive as it seems.
First, you have to prepare your mind. That means engaging thoroughly with your subject matter through subject matter research, keyword research, and deep thought. Study your topic—you won’t get anywhere without knowing your stuff.
Second, you must perform an activity that gets your mind working. Only you can know what activity works best for you. Go for a walk. Ride the bus. Get some coffee. I find it helpful to move my legs, either by walking, running, or riding my bike. It’s as if my limbs are levers that activate my mind when I move them.
Write your thoughts down at the earliest opportunity. Capture them in a notebook or a voice recorder or writing app on your phone. (I sketched out this little gem on my phone, using Google Docs.) Be sure to write down the additional steps you need to take to flesh out your idea.
Later, be sure to apply an appropriate amount of scrutiny and skepticism to your idea. Just because it’s yours doesn’t mean it’s golden.
6. Hold a Brainstorming Session
What serendipity does for solo practitioners, brainstorming does for teams. In generating ideas as a team, and you also get the added benefits of group cohesion and enthusiasm.
The basic brainstorming method is simple. Assemble a small team—a group of 2–10 people is ideal. Gather your team in one spot, if possible, or online. Make sure you have a good mix of talents—not just members of your marketing team, but also people from other disciplines, such as design or finance. Their unique perspectives will bring fresh ideas to the table.
Appoint a notetaker. To ensure a productive session, set a lighthearted tone at the outset. Start with an icebreaker, if necessary. Emphasize the freewheeling nature of brainstorming. All ideas are good ideas, at least in the generation stage. Tell your team to refrain from criticism and to set aside practical concerns. Just generate ideas. At this stage, you want to encourage creativity.
Running a 6-3-5 Session
One refreshing take I’ve seen on brainstorming is the 6-3-5 idea. Stacey McNaught explains this variation at 635 Brainwriting For Content Marketing Ideas Generation. Its chief advantage is that you can generate many ideas in a short span of time.
To run a 6-3-5 session, gather six people together in a room. To prepare your team, make sure everyone knows the target audience, using a single definition statement that you have supplied. Also provide the team with a “problem statement,” or brief, which contains three elements:
- Some objective information about the core subject matter
- Your audience definition
- Any important practical constraints you face, such as budget or schedule
Provide each person with a sheet of notepaper. The sheet should be numbered for six rounds and marked with three columns for ideas. Stacey links to this handy Google doc, which is ideal for the purpose.
Start Round 1. Ask each person to write three ideas in the first row. Give the team five minutes to complete the round.
After five minutes, tell the participants to pass their sheets to the left (or right—it doesn’t matter as long as everyone passes their sheets in the same direction). Tell your team to read the ideas written by their teammates, but not to discuss them. Then each person uses the previous three ideas as inspiration for three more ideas.
Hold six rounds, one for each person in the room.
Stacey points out a number of pros and cons associated with the 6-3-5 method. The pros include:
- Productivity—you end up with six sheets of paper, each containing 18 ideas, for a total of 108 ideas
- Even participation—the nonverbal nature of the process makes it impossible for anyone to dominate the session by shouting out ideas
- Built-in documentation, with no need to appoint a notetaker
The cons include:
- Ideas are frequently less developed than they would be in a conventional brainstorming session, where people comment on each other’s ideas
- Team fatigue—coming up with three ideas every five minutes is tiring
- Repetitive ideas—with each person using the preceding three ideas as a starting point, the team’s output may lack freshness
Still, you get 108 ideas in a 30-minute session. They might need refinement, but at least you’re off to a good start.
Competitive research can also give you a good foundation for generating ideas.
The SEO firm Moz provides some excellent tools for competitive research, and you might say they wrote the book on that subject, too. They provide an overview of competitive research in their Beginner’s Guide to Content Marketing, Chapter 5: Content Ideation.
Let’s clarify at the outset that there are two types of competitors:
- Business competitors in the traditional sense of the term
- Search competitors, with whom you compete for space on the search engine results pages (SERPs).
Your competitive research will consider both types of competitors.
In addition, your research will consider the potential popularity of your ideas. After all, there’s no point in producing content with only limited public appeal. Fortunately, there are ways to assess popularity.
One way is to see what’s trending. You can use Google Trends to gauge the interest of a keyword over time.
For example, I just checked the search trends for three Netflix shows, Better Call Saul, Black Mirror, and 13 Reasons Why. My search covered the year running from September 2017–September 2018 and focussed on the United States. 13 Reasons Why peaked in May 2018. Black Mirror peaked in search in January 2018, but it was only half as popular as 13 Reasons Why. And Better Call Saul? For all its critical acclaim, that series has been flat in search for the last year.
Also check to see what’s getting links. The Moz tool Link Explorer (formerly Open Site Explorer) will tell you who is linking to your competitor’s sites and which of their pages are receiving the most links. It will also provide you with the domain authority and page authority of the linking sites—strong indicators of how much of a boost your competitor is receiving for those links.
Checking Social Media
Content marketing takes place on social media, not just on websites, so it pays to extend your research into that arena.
Get to know your competitors on social media Use Followerwonk to see who follows whom and what they share. Analyze your competitors’ social media feeds to see what content gives them traction. Use Buzzsumo to see what is popular. Analyze your competitors on Facebook. Type “Pages liked by people who like [brand]” into the Facebook search bar to see what other brands your competitors’ fans follow.
Finally, use Fresh Web Explorer, another Moz tool, or Google Alerts to see what type of content the top brands are writing. But dig beneath the keywords and see what else you can learn from these brands. What voice and tone do they adopt? What techniques are they using to guide visitors through their funnel? What feelings do they try to evoke in their visitors? What questions do they answer?
Remember that the point of this research is to get in front of your competitors, not bob along in their wake. As you consider your competitors’ efforts, make a plan to exceed their results. Check out Rand Fishkin’s Whiteboard Friday presentation on “10x content,” or content that is 10 times better than anything your competitors are offering. Then see what Brian Dean at Backlinko has to say about the skyscraper technique.
Don’t be content with imitation. Be exceptional.
8. Tie Your Content to Current Events
Another way of generating ideas is to use current or recurring events for inspiration.
News stories, movie and book releases, theater productions, and concerts are all examples of current events that you can use as content hooks. Depending on your audience and subject matter, these events may already be top of mind for your visitors, which can make it easier for you to grab a slice of their attention (or a few moments of their time).
These topics will already be trending on search results and social media, which presents both an advantage and a disadvantage: Search volumes will peak before and during your current events, but so will competition.
Incorporate current events into your planning early enough so that you allow ample time for writing, production, and promotion. To do so, you will have to do some forecasting along with your content planning.
Generating Ideas from the News
News items often break without warning, which can make for a hasty initial response on your part. But some stories have legs, which makes it possible to predict and prepare for follow-on developments.
For example, a natural disaster may catch you off guard initially. But if you want to follow the disaster story, it’s possible to predict subsequent developments, such as relief, cleanup, fundraising, and reconstruction. For nonprofits, these stories can provide great content for fundraising and volunteer recruitment campaigns. For businesses, these stories can provide content for certain product lines, such as emergency preparedness materials.
Generating Ideas from Books and Events
Books and events related to your field can also provide wonderful springboards for content. But how do you find out about them early enough to prepare your content so that it appears at the same time as the book or event?
You probably already have ample resources to help you prepare for upcoming events in your field. Trade publications and associations always list upcoming events. So do local business associations, such as your city’s Chamber of Commerce. In my field, the International Association of Business Communicators and Calgary Marketing Association both keep me posted on upcoming events.
It’s also pretty easy to keep an eye out for upcoming publications in your field. Kirkus Reviews and Publishers Weekly both publish reviews of upcoming books well in advance of their publication dates. My local public library provides access to NoveList, a readers advisory service with a powerful search engine for books. The name of the service implies a tilt towards fiction, but the service actually searches for books of all genres.
By including a future date in your NoveList search parameters—say, three to six months—you can find upcoming books that will interest your audience. Sometimes you can request a review copy from the publisher so that you have time to read the book and prepare your review before the book is available to the general public.
Generating Ideas from Recurring Events
Recurring events such as holidays, seasons, annual conferences, and promotional weeks or months can also provide powerful content hooks. Forecasting them is simple, of course, since they occur once every year. While this content is not evergreen, it does lend itself to annual promotion and reuse. So, by all means, reuse this content, updating it periodically to keep it fresh and improve your search rankings.
9. Find Your Content Gems
Okay, so you’ve compiled dozens, or maybe even hundreds of ideas. Congratulations.
Now start throwing them out.
No, I’m not kidding. Start throwing them out. If ever there was a kill your darlings moment, this is it.
All that brainstorming and idea generation was a great way to limber up your mind and immerse yourself in your subject matter, but you surely realize that some of those ideas are duds. Now it’s time to find your gems.
To find your content gems, start by getting rid of the dross. Rule out anything that doesn’t excite you, because if you’re not interested, there’s a good chance that no one else will be either.
Test your ideas with Moz Keyword Explorer, the Google Ads Keyword Planner, or a similar tool. Rule out ideas with low search volume, or ideas that once had a high volume but are now trailing off in Google Trends. Rule out ideas that get no traction on social media. Rule out ideas that don’t fit your schedule or budget.
Above all, rule out ideas that don’t align with your strategy, no matter how cool those ideas sound. Your job is to sell goods and services. Your objective is to get people to act. Ideas that don’t align with your strategy are counterproductive.
Be disciplined. Use only those ideas that will drive your visitors through your funnel and ultimately lead them to convert. That’s what it means to be strategic.
10. Give Your Audience What It Needs (and Wants)
What it comes down to in the end is giving your audience what it needs and wants. Provide content that is useful, informative, entertaining, and tailored to your objectives. If you like checklists, your great content list will look something like this:
- Relevant—make sure your content meets your audience’s needs
- Informative—make sure your content provides valuable information
- Targeted—make sure your content is written for a closely defined audience
- Evergreen—make sure your content will be relevant and interesting for a long time to come
- Fresh—make sure you provide a fresh perspective on your topic, even (or especially) when others have covered similar subject matter
- Right-sized—not too long, not too short. Just right.
What Is Content Marketing?
Setting Goals, Objectives, and Metrics
Optimizing Content for Your Audience
How to Do Keyword Research
Promoting Your Content
How to Create a Content Calendar