A fantastic idea is the heartwood of any content campaign or project. Excitement around an idea is what sustains you through the (sometimes) long slog of creation, and it’s part of what gets your audience to share, share, share.
Putting time and energy into a bad idea is a waste of your resources and has the potential to turn your audience off. Plus, if your decision maker sees too many resources invested in too many ideas that fail, you could lose credibility, autonomy, and—worst case scenario—your job.
Which all makes coming up with the idea sound kind of intimidating. But finding the right idea doesn’t have to be difficult. And finding a truly great idea can result in traffic, conversions, and the adulation of the masses.
You too can find a truly great idea. To help you, we’re going to cover:
- Where ideas come from
- Content freshness
- Inspiration for boring industries
- Recognizing the right idea
- Targeting and providing value
Where ideas come from
Ideas are all around us. Sometimes we need to focus to find them, and sometimes we need to let go a little. These tactics should help you and your team find your best ideas.
Source 1: The swipe file
Swipe files, the old-fashioned way.
If you aren’t already keeping a file of ideas/images/approaches/technologies that inspire you or you’d love to learn from, start now. Keep feeding this file and refer to it whenever you need inspiration. If your swipe file gets thin, go back in history a little because great ideas get used over and over in different ways throughout time. Reviewing ideas that have inspired you can be a great way to prime yourself before a brainstorming session.
A swipe file can take any form that works for you: email folder, app, or physical file, as long as the system works for you. Some favorite programs to collect your ideas in include Pinterest, Trello, and Evernote. Some higher-powered applications like Musepeak and Mural.ly also give you more sophisticated options for collaborating on swipe files (and brainstorms…).
Source 2: Successful brainstorms
Image by Juhan Sonin, licensed under Creative Commons.
Everyone brainstorms, but few people do it well. To set yourself up for success and avoid group think, follow these guidelines and remember the brainstorming space is sacred. That means that whether you’re meeting in a room or building a shared board on Pinterest, all ideas are good ideas (at least for now). This is crucial, because even one person who insists on questioning ideas or dwelling on practicalities during a brainstorm can shut down the creativity of the whole process.
A good brainstorm gathers two or more brains around a shared goal—in person or online. You can have as many people involved as you want; just break up larger groups (five or more) into smaller teams that can then report back to the whole.
It can be helpful to include people who have no familiarity with the project in a brainstorming session because they’ll come in without preconceived notions to weigh them down. Also include members from other teams. Sometimes it takes a designer to tell you about the latest great visual technique, and if you don’t have a designer in the room, you might be starting over again later.
Some people are great brainstormers and some… have other talents. Don’t be afraid to switch up your groups as you plan various brainstorms to find the right mix.
Outline a few crucial parameters at the beginning of your brainstorm (Is your audience 10 or 100? Does the project merit 50 hours or 500?), but it’s important not to get your group too hung up on constraints—”don’ts” can limit the creative thinking in the room. A good moderator can keep all the important constraints in mind and dole them out when the person at the end of the table insists that space monkeys are the only answer. Again. But also maintain the brainstorming spirit.
Tips for running a great brainstorming session
Try some of these tips for running a great brainstorming session.
Get the creativity flowing: If your group is unusually quiet, try an icebreaker or two to get them into the brainstorming spirit.
Keep the field open: Because all ideas are good ideas at this stage, it can be really important for the meeting organizer to keep the conversation on a “yes, and” level rather than a “no, but” one. That means recognizing the validity of each idea and helping to find a way to incorporate it. For example, to our space monkey obsessed friend, you could say, “Yes! Space monkeys are a really creative idea. And what do you think is the best way for them to showcase [product]?”
Find the spark: Vishal Verma from New Media Guru recommends using the AIDA formula to increase potential ROI on your content. That means looking for ideas that spark attention, grab interest, stir desire, and inspire action. Re-focusing your brainstorming partners on these criteria can also help bring the truly off-task brainstorm back to a more productive realm.
Record Everything: Capture all the ideas (however nuts) on a whiteboard or any place that the group can feed off of them. Take a picture or good notes. It’s always important to have a record of your process in case you need to find a second idea (or remember the nuances of the first one). A few tools you might want to try out include bubble.us, MindMapper, Stormboard, and Scapple (for Mac).
Rob Carpenter from Hitshop shared how his team takes these brainstorms to the next level:
“When we think we have a good idea, we use Publicate to flesh out an idea by compiling all of the content out there for that specific topic (especially those that rank for the key term we are aiming for). In Publicate we can add notes to each piece of content we curated on what elements of the post we could expand on, and what we can say differently. We also mark which posts we want to link to and quotes to include in our piece. This step is extremely important for helping us create not just ‘good, unique content,’ but content that is 10x better than what is currently available.”
Source 3: Competitive research: Find out what’s working for the other guy
Obviously you’re reading your competitors’ content and watching what you think works and what doesn’t (no, really, you have to do this on a somewhat-frequent basis). But there are also ways you can sneak a peek farther behind the curtain of what your competitors are working on.
A note before we get into the “how to do the research” part: You likely have two kinds of competitors. This can get confusing for a lot of businesses, especially when it comes to adding SEO into the content marketing mix. You have your traditional competitors—for example, if you’re selling coffee in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood, that cafe across the street is still your competition. But you also have competition in the SERPs (search engine results pages) who you’re vying against to rank for “Best coffee in Seattle.” There is often overlap between these two groups of competitors, but don’t leave out either group as you’re checking out the competition because you can learn a lot from both.
Here’s a great video that will show you how to use some of the Moz tools to start your competitive research. We’ll also cover some of this below if you want to dig a little deeper or use a wider toolset. Either way, this SEO workflow chart might give you a few ideas of things to consider as you start your analysis.
What you want to know in your research is:
- What’s trending?
- What’s getting links?
- What keywords are the top traffic earners?
- Who follows whom and what do they share?
- What type of content are the Top brands writing?
So, let’s take a look at how to dig into these questions.
To make sure you’re focusing your ideation on the right keywords, plop a few variations of those keywords into Google Trends. Ever wonder why this guide is about content marketing rather than content strategy? This graph explains it all:
What’s getting links?
Use Open Site Explorer to see which pages on your competitors’ sites are getting the most links and who those links are coming from. This can offer insight into what topics and types of content might resonate with your audience. You can also use the link opportunities tool within OSE to find places that are linking to your competitors but not to you.
What keywords are top traffic earners?
Search for your competitors on Similar Web to see what keywords they’re pulling traffic for and what their top referring sites are. Or go straight to Ahrefs to see what their top performing content is. You may just spot a couple of concepts that serve as seeds for a tool or killer piece of content you can create. For example, if you’re a cafe and “peach cobbler recipe” is a top keyword for a competitor, you may decide to share some of your delicious recipes online.
Or use Simply Measured to do your own analysis of your competitors’ top posts.
Who follows whom on social media, and what do they share?
Use a tool like Followerwonk to analyze who your competitor is following and followed by on Twitter. You can even analyze their tweets to see what their audience retweets and favorites, along with who they mention most often. If your cafe competitor is followed by people who use “freelance designer” in their Twitter bios, you might be able to get their attention with a series of interviews of successful freelancers who started out at your coffee shop.
BuzzSumo is a good place to see what content is popular on social Media.
On Facebook, you can type “Pages liked by people who like [brand]” into the search bar to get an idea of other interests that brand’s followers may share. For example, using our coffee shop located on Capitol Hill, you might find that your competitor’s fans love the Capitol Hill Block Party, which could inspire you to write a blog post series, “Where the Stars of the Capitol Hill Block Party Fuel Up Before Their Sets.”
What type of content are the top brands writing?
A tool like Fresh Web Explorer or Google Alerts helps you find brand mentions on the web, which in turn helps you see what kind of content is earning attention for your competitors. This is also a great way to find link opportunities and get intel on what people are saying about your brand.
Competitive research beyond the blog
Don’t forget to include your competitors’ other types of content when you’re doing your analysis. At the very least, subscribe to all their email campaigns to keep an eye on what is (and is not) working. Some things to consider are: subject lines, length, tone, time of day, and imagery, but anything that catches your attention is worth noting.
You should also be looking at and analyzing their landing pages, white papers, and even product descriptions to see what they’re doing well (and not so well). You never know when (or where) an idea is going to strike.
A note about your competitors’ ideas
It can be really easy upon noticing that your competitor gets most of their traffic from that peach cobbler recipe to want to run out and make your own, better peach cobbler recipe. You might have success with that tactic, and it can feel safer to build off of someone else’s success, but imitation always puts you behind your competitor.
A better way to build your own empire through content marketing is to take that inspiration from your competitors as a starting point for your ideation. You may decide that you’re really famous (or would like to be) for your danishes. Or, you could decide that recipes aren’t your bag at all and you want to focus on something entirely different. There isn’t a wrong answer as long as you’re true to your own brand. If you’re really stuck for ideas on what that brand is, the next section should help.
Source 4: Horizontal thinking
Sometimes the best way to get a fresh take on a new idea is to come at it sideways. That’s what many artists do and it’s called lateral, horizontal, or tangential thinking. So if you’re finding yourself in a “how do I write one more article about the internal workings of a toilet?” kind of rut, it’s time to look at your subject from a new angle.
To get that fresh take, first take a giant step backward to the place where you have just your original subject (or keyword, if you prefer). Here we’ll focus on plumbing fixtures (because if you can find creative new ways to talk about plumbing fixtures, you can find creative new ways to talk about anything). As we said, the rut we’re trying to get out of where we’re thinking too straightforwardly about the subject matter, and the very best way to do that is to explore all the tangential relationships. If you do this with a bubble chart, it’s even fun (the image below was created usingCoggle, but pen and paper still work).
You could take this a lot farther, but let’s analyze what we’ve got here. The “installation” tangent is pretty good, but you’ve probably explored that pretty well already.
Where things might start to get interesting is in the “materials history” area. For example, if it’s true that more expensive toilets are made from more expensive materials, you might swing an upsell with a post waxing metaphoric about how porcelain helped forge trade between the ancient Islamic and Chinese worlds. Or, you could tell stories of the most indulgent toilets ever purchased.
If you also sell bathroom accessories, get your customers interested with that “Cultural Bathroom Traditions” idea. It’s interesting that some Japanese restrooms are equipped with noise machines to preserve ladies’ modesty or that Indian toilets sometimes come equipped with a hose. A series like this might result in some really unusual and shareable content (and give you a fresh way to look at toilets for the next little while).
Looking at the various angles on “shower heads,” there’s a lot of room to explore based on whether you’re going for an upscale audience, eco, or even DIY. And once you start talking bathroom decor (from shower heads to the perfect guest bathroom) you’ve got a huge potential audience (along with some pretty stiff competition).
Related to lateral thinking, never rule out serendipity when looking for content ideas. If you hear the Senate has just spent some crazy amount on rehabbing a bathroom, consider that a gift from the content idea gods. And there are loads more of those types of gifts out in the ideation ether if you keep your spidey sense tuned.
For a look at how Distilled uses horizontal thinking in ideation, check out Mark Johnstone’s presentation, How to Produce Better Content Ideas. Things start to get really interesting around slide 32 when he posits, “An idea is a novel combination of previously unconnected elements in a way that adds value.” It gets even more exciting in the following slides as he offers insight into his process.
Some companies can base an entire content marketing strategy on newsjacking (responding to the latest news either directly or indirectly), but, especially if you’re just starting out, you’re going to want to find a balance between timely ideas and those that are evergreen and will stay fresh for a good long time.
One way to come up with more timely ideas is to look at when your content will go live and what might be happening at that time, e.g., holidays, big movie releases, seasonal changes, music awards shows. It’s amazing how easy it is to forget about the back-to-school season when you’re pitching ideas in March. Build yourself a calendar of events that are important to your industry, and save it for next year’s ideation.
Inspiration for boring/difficult industries
We already covered how to write about plumbing fixtures. What could be harder? Banking, roofing, hydrology services, you name it. Many people consider anything outside the fashion/entertainment realm (aka anything you can’t link a celebrity’s name to) to be a difficult topic to write about.
That’s just not true. There are no truly difficult topics if you can key into what makes you excited about something. Because there are people out there who are very much like you and are curious and nerdy about the same things you are.
- How can you maximize your benefit from the new IRS IRA laws?
- What are the best kinds of fasteners to use with cedar shingles?
- How much erosion is too much erosion?
These are all completely reasonable (and interesting) topics for the right audience.
If you feel like you’ve exhausted the easy wins and answered all the FAQs, go back to lateral thinking, grab a buddy, and brainstorm what makes your industry fun or interesting to you and your audience. Watch the movies they watch, read the news sources they’re into, and listen to the music they like. Learn about the industry and keep your mind open for questions that occur to you along the way, and then turn answering those questions into your next set of content ideas.
Recognize the right idea
Now that you’ve got a whiteboard, swipe file, or notebook full of ideas, it’s time to winnow those fantastic ideas and select some top contenders. This is usually easiest either alone or in a small group. You’ll want to:
- Cross off anything that bores you.
- Set aside anything that doesn’t fit within your parameters (like if it takes too much time or budget). You might be able to preserve some of the idea later if you love it. So don’t throw it out the window or anything 🙂
- Make a separate list of the ideas that call out to you. You don’t have to know why you love them at this stage, you can always build a justification later, but trust your gut. You’re going to need that excitement over the long haul as you shepherd this project.
- Think about whether this idea works for one piece of content or if you can turn it into a series.
- Look for ideas that are both impactful and relevant. This tip from Honed SEO helps highlight ideas that are primed to succeed on two levels.
Applying these parameters to your list of potential ideas should help you find an idea or two that’s ripe to work on. If not, go back through ideation and use what didn’t work this time as your starting point for discussion.
Target and provide value for an audience
Image by Yann Duarte, licensed under Creative Commons.
If you didn’t already do audience research as part of your content strategy, you can start at any phase of ideation. Some people like to use this information to create personas that shape their ideas from the very beginning. Others like to let the ideas flow first to see how crazy they can get and then narrow down the choices using audience information.
To get your feet wet, go through the same process for your company that you did while gathering all the intel on your competitors. Then it’s time to get specific, because you should have access to a lot more information about your own company and customers.
Creating a set of archetypal people to represent your target customers can be a very in-depth process or a basic sketch. You can start with basic demographic information and a few guesses at pain points and goals, but to understand the vast array of qualitative and quantitative research you can do to build a persona. Another helpful read is Kyra Kuik and Harriet Cummings’ look at audience research.
Whether you choose to create detailed personas or basic persona sketches, anything you can do to understand your audience is a good thing for planning and executing your content. Here are some other ways you can get at what ideas your audience might find engaging.
Understand your audience’s needs
Remember as you’re pulling this information together to consider audience intent as part of your process, because it’s not enough to know that your audience is interested in a topic. You have to understand what they want from information about that topic (are they researching? shopping? reselling?) to make your content marketing truly conversion-worthy.
Don’t forget to look at places where your audience is already talking with you, too. Customer service surveys, social interactions, and Q&As are all amazing resources. Find out what all your customer touch points are and what kind of intel you can uncover.
Once you know who your audience is and what they might be looking for, it’s time to take the extra step and find content that will engage their interests. Random affinities are a great way to do this. Related to tangential thinking, you’re looking for an overlap in interests that can help you build a stronger relationship with your audience.
We did this a little above by bringing the Capitol Hill Block Party to the ideation table. But by digging a little deeper you might find that people who like coffeehouses often also like yoga. Although that makes for a smaller audience overall (some people who like coffeehouses probably hate yoga), if you cater to that specific intersection of interests, you’re likely to build a deeper connection with those yoga-loving coffee addicts.
What makes content valuable
As a check in your ideation process (or any time you get stuck), consider what people find valuable about content (from this presentation by Rand):
If your ideas aren’t meeting these criteria, keep thinking. Often something you were working with just needs to be tweaked a little. Sometimes you’ll need to start fresh. It’s all worth it when you find the idea that rocks your readers’ worlds.
Avoid content fatigue
Something else to think about as you’re vetting ideas is that the Internet is increasingly flooded with content. According to Worldometers, more than 2.5 million blog posts are published every day. That means your idea is up against some pretty serious competition to get noticed.
Don’t let the possibility of content fatigue discourage you, but do let it push you to create even better content.
What makes great content, and why content fails
Dejan Marketing has put together some research on the reasons why readers skim your content instead of reading every word:
Some of these (impatience) are harder to fight than others.
So what makes for a great content idea? According to Matthew Brown, great content is:
- Relevant and recent
Don’t write about how to create great video, write about how a political candidate could improve their campaign videos, connecting the advice to a current event.
- Relevant and recent
Instead of writing the same cursory summary of a topic that everyone else has, dig deep into the information like Wait But Why did with the Fermi Paradox.
- Targeted to a specific persona
Make your content extremely useful to one small segment and you’re more likely to win loyal fans.
- Targeted to a specific persona
The more resources you’re investing, the more you want your content to endure through the ages. Do this by updating it periodically.
Allow users to control their experience. Maybe text is the last thing a segment of your audience wants to see. Check out how William Boyd rethought the user’s experience with The Vanishing Game.
We all like things that relate specifically to us. For example, use IP addresses to target content to your reader’s area like The New York Times did with The Best and Worst Places to Grow Up.
- Not created from the “standard article template”
1,500 words, with a few images scattered throughout, and a headline with a number and an emotional trigger, right? There are millions more like that, and we can do better.
Even your best ideas probably won’t check all of these boxes, but they make for a fantastic start to creating ideas that resonate and get shared.