According to the 2013 B2B Content Marketing Benchmarks Study, the two biggest challenges for content marketers are:
- Producing enough content.
- Producing engaging content that gets read.
Notice that both of these challenges are related to the core problem of coming up with new ideas.
As a content marketer, you need to be able to generate an unending stream of interesting, unique, and valuable content ideas. Let’s face it, that’s a big task!
So to make sure you have what it takes, this chapter offers seven practical tactics for creating your own idea-generation system, so you can easily come up with all the ideas you need.
A mediocre idea that guarantees enthusiasm will go further than a great idea that inspires no one.
To start… create a place to capture all your content ideas.
Ideas are finicky things. They can appear out of nowhere — and disappear just as fast. So it’s important that you create a place where you can collect ideas and have them on hand when you’re ready to plan your content.
Open the Content Plan Excel document you created in Chapter 1.
Double-click the second tab (at the bottom left) and name it “Ideas.”
In cell A1, type the page’s title, “Content Ideas.”
Create your column headings in row 3.
- Column A
- Column B
- Type of Content
- Column C
- Possible Title
- Column D
If you wish, format this row with your brand colors.
Highlight the row below your column heads. (In the example above, that’s row 4.)
Click View > Freeze Panes > Freeze Panes to keep the column heads visible when you scroll.
Begin using this page to collect your content ideas.
As you work through this chapter, ideas for new content will likely pop into your head. That’s a good thing. It means your creative juices are flowing.
From now on, when that happens, record your ideas on your new Ideas page. Don’t try to refine these ideas or make them presentable. Just jot them down as they come to you, no matter how rough (or ridiculous) they may be.
This will give you an idea of how a typical idea log looks: messy and even unclear in sections.
That’s okay. When it’s time to sit down and plan or write content, no matter how messy it may be, this list is invaluable.
On a side note, when you’re away from your computer, you may jot ideas in the notes app on your smart phone.
But don’t try to maintain two lists.
To ensure you don’t lose valuable ideas, you need to keep one master planning document. So when you return to your main computer, transfer new ideas from your notes app to the Content Ideas page in your planning document.
Now… let’s set up your idea-generating system
There are seven key tactics for creating the right environment for new, creative ideas to flow. Put them all together, and you have a powerful idea-generating system.
We use this word, system, for a reason. The process of coming up with ideas depends on a set of interdependent components that work together to generate the desired outcome.
It’s a bit like gears fitted together in a complicated machine. No gear carries the whole load. But when they all work together, the entire system works smoothly and easily.
In the rest of this chapter, you’ll learn the seven gears that work together to create an idea-rich environment. Take time to set each of them up. Then take note of how much easier it is to generate a constant flow of great ideas.
Ready? Let’s go…
Keep up with trends.
As a content marketer, it’s important to keep a finger on the pulse of your audience. What are they watching on TV? What books, magazines and blogs are they reading? What ideas are they discussing with one another?
This insight gives you a head-start in creating content — articles, ebooks, videos and more — that people are eager to read.
Set up Google alerts for your primary keywords.
- Visit http://www.google.com/alerts.
- Put the topic you’d like to monitor in the “search query.”
- Change the options to specify the type of information and how often you receive them.
- Click “Create Alert.”
Do this for every topic you’d like to stay current on. You’ll get regular emails from Google with links to content about your keyword. When they arrive, take a few moments to review the links.
Set up an RSS feed, such as Feedly, to streamline your online reading.
- Visit www.feedly.com
- In the upper right-hand corner, log in with your Google sign-in.
- Click the magnifying glass icon to connect to your Google Reader, Twitter or Facebook accounts.
- In the search bar, type in the name of your favorite blog or website.
- Or check out the blogs that Feedly recommends in the “Starter Kit.”
- Subscribe to blogs and websites that will keep you up-to-date on trends and important news.
After you search for a particular blog, you’ll see suggestions below the search bar.
Select one, and the posts from that site will populate your Feedly stream on the left.
Review the posts to see if you like their content. If you do, click the green +add button.
A form will pop up with the name of the blog. Check the Category you want this blog to show up in.
(If you don’t see an appropriate category, add a new one.)
Then click “Subscribe.”
Do this for every blog you’d like to follow. This will fill your reader with your favorite publishers, giving you one place to easily keep up with what’s going on in the world.
Check your Feedly stream every day.
- Browse the articles to keep up with what’s going on in your industry.
- Follow other industries to keep up with societal trends and how things are changing in other industries.
- Look for interesting ideas that you can write about.
- Look for gaps in the coverage of trending topics and what you can add to the conversation.
- Write these ideas in your Idea list.
Be sure to paste in the URL of the post that gave you the idea. That way, when it’s time to write, you have your original source to reference and link to.
Keep an eye on thought leaders and competitors
- Keep up with what other content marketers are writing.
Watch the types of content they produce and the topics they cover. This will help you evaluate reader expectations. It can also fuel opinion pieces.
- Read new and best-selling books in your industry.
The ideas in these books often influence the way people think about life in general. As you read, try to find ideas that intercept with your core topic. Consider writing book reviews or simply introducing new ideas into your own content. (Always give credit where credit is due.)
- Watch the news and other industries to see if trends are restricted to your industry or affecting others as well.
Look for changes that you can forecast to your followers. Respond to news as it relates to your readers. Your goal is to become the news source for your niche.
- Every time you get a new idea, take time to add it to your Idea list.
Tap into the power of Google.
When ideas run dry, let Google help you think about your topic in a new way. Here’s how:
Let Google suggest ideas.
When you type a search term into Google, the search engine makes suggestions based on what other users are searching for.
This is a quick way to see what people are searching for online.
- As you type, watch the list of suggestions Google makes
- Review the list and consider what people are looking for when they type those search terms.
- Then think about how you could answer those questions.
This is a quick and dirty way to see what people are searching for, but it doesn’t give a lot of insight or suggest a lot of new ideas. For more useful information, use Google’s keyword tool (step 2 below).
Perform a keyword search
Google’s keyword tool is your best option for finding out what information people want or need.
- Simply type in your keyword and press the search button.
Google will generate a list of terms people use to search for information about your keyword.
Google’s keyword tool is your best option for finding out what information people want or need.
- Expand each category to see specific search terms for that phrase.
- Review the keywords, how competitive they are, and how many monthly searches are made for each.
- Look for keywords that have sufficient monthly searches and low to medium competition.
Some marketers want to see 10,000 searches minimum. However, for niche keywords or longtail phrases, fewer searches may be acceptable.
Don’t avoid high-competition topics either, particularly if you can create useful, interesting content for that keyword. Just realize that content you develop for competitive terms must be the highest quality possible.
Generate ideas from this search
- Select the keywords that you want to target.
- Perform a brainstorm for specific pieces of content you could create for those keywords.
- Look for a unique angle for talking about the topic.
- Add these ideas to your editorial calendar.
Release your creative mind with brainstorms.
There are two ways to brainstorm new ideas: listing and mind mapping. Let’s start with the list.
Select the topic you want to brainstorm.
You may brainstorm any topic: broad or narrow. But if you start with a broad topic, you’ll also brainstorm broad ideas.
To get specific content ideas, you want to narrow your topic before the brainstorm.
Write the topic you’re brainstorming at the top of your page.
List everything you can think of related to that topic.
Don’t worry about neatness. A brainstorm is about filling your page with ideas, not with having neat rows and columns. Fill in ideas as they come to you, wherever they fit. If you can place them near related ideas, all the better, but don’t restrict yourself.
Review your list to find your best ideas.
As you review your list, some ideas will be generic, dull ideas. Mark through them.
Other ideas could show promise: they’re interesting or have a unique angle on your topic. Circle (or highlight) them so you can easily find them again.
Create new ideas from your list.
New content ideas are sometimes a combination of other ideas. As you review your list, don’t just look for new ideas. Also look for ways to combine list items into an interesting piece of content. Add these connected ideas to your list and circle them.
Other content ideas come from questions you may have about your topic. If you see something in your brainstorm that sparks your curiosity or raises a question, write down the question and circle it. It could make a good content idea.
Write your ideas in the Ideas page of your Content Plan.
Don’t lose track of your ideas. Add any circled or highlighted idea to your Content Ideas page.
Drill down for more specific ideas.
If your brainstorm includes broad ideas, perform additional brainstorms on those ideas to narrow their focus. Your goal is to find specific, detailed ideas for content.
As you brainstorm, be careful not to censor new ideas. Write down every thought that comes to mind, whether it seems valuable or not. Sometimes your weird ideas foster a creative, fresh approach to an old topic.
A mind map is similar to the lists you created above, but they’re more visual, mapping out the connections being made.
If you like pictures more than words, color-coded lists, and prefer to “see” what you’re talking about, mind mapping is for you.
For an example of what’s possible, look at this mind map by mindtools.com.
Of course, it can doesn’t have to be that involved. Most mind maps look more like this.
Here’s how to make your own mind map:
Write your brainstorm topic in the center of your page.
Draw lines radiating out from that keyword.
At the end of each, write an idea related to the keyword. They may be subtopics or categories of related ideas. Or they may simply be ideas that connect in some way to your keyword.
Draw lines radiating out from these secondary ideas.
At the end of each, write a related idea or subtopic.
Continue connecting topics and subtopics until you run out of ideas (or paper).
Review your mind map to come up with new content ideas.
As described in “List” above, review your ideas to find interesting topics for content. Be sure to consider unique combinations of ideas, as well as questions raised by your mind map.
Add all new ideas to your Content Ideas list.
Rules for Mind Mapping:
- There are no rules.
- You can use a computer, paper and pen, paper and colored pencils, or canvas and paint.
- You can write, draw or doodle your mind map.
- You can make it black and white or color, plain or fancy.
- Every idea needs to be connected to a previous idea with a line so you can easily see how your ideas connect.
A few online mind mapping tools:
Visit and engage in forums
A forum is an online message board where people can discuss a particular topic. For example, at right is a form that discusses search engine optimization (SEO) topics.
Each conversation is called a thread and any forum member can join and put in their two cents.
Many forums have different categories of subtopics related to the main topic of the forum.
Your goal, then, is to find forums in your core topic so you can see what people are asking and what topics are on their mind.
Find forums in your niche
LinkedIn groups are forums for professionals. They may help you network with peers in your industry or, if you are a B2B seller, follow discussions among your target audience.
To find groups that relate to your topic:
- Hover over the “Groups” tab.
- Select “Groups Directory.”
- Alternatively, browse the “Groups You May Like” for LinkedIn’s suggestions based on your connections.
Review the list LinkedIn generates.
Note the description of the group, the activity level (Very Active, Active, or no rating), and whether any of your connections are members of the group.
You may learn more about a group by clicking the group’s name or the View button.
Some groups are open forums — you can explore threads without joining. Others, you’ll need to click the Join Group button to see discussions.
Some forums can be found in a Google search.
- In Google’s search bar, type “forums [your topic]” and see what comes up.
You may need to try different topics to get good results.
- Follow the links and explore each forum until you find one that fits your needs.
- Follow the group’s membership requirements to join.
- You may learn more about a group by clicking the group’s name or the View button.
Quora is a forum on steroids. Its sole purpose is to give people a place to ask questions. So if you want to know what topics are on people’s mind, this may be a good resource.
- Visit www.quora.com.
- Create an account.
- Log in to Quora and begin typing one of your topics into the search bar.
- Check out the suggested key phrases, and either select one of them or continue typing your search term.
- Explore the different threads and join in the conversation if you feel inclined.
Reddit is an online community where users vote on content, comment on posts, and discuss ideas. Trending topics are at the top of the page, and a search bar allows you to find discussions related to your topic. If you need ideas, this could be a great resource.
- Visit www.reddit.com.
- Type your topic into the search bar in the upper right-hand corner.
- Review the discussion topics that come up, or explore related “sub-reddit” threads.
- Join in the conversation if you feel inclined.
Visit your chosen forums on a regular basis.
Some people like to visit forums on a daily basis, say, on their lunch hour. Others visit once a week or so. Find a schedule that works for you.
Browse the topics people are discussing.
In particular, look for comments or questions that relate to your core topic.
Read these threads to see what other people are saying.
One of your key objectives is to understand the conversations taking place about your core topic. This will help you stay current on what people think about your topic and what information they are looking for.
You may see a comment that you disagree with
Consider writing something that addresses the comment, presenting your point of view. Record your thoughts and the URL of the comment in your Idea list.
A comment may make you look at an issue in a new light or question something you thought you knew
Write your question and the comment’s URL in your list of topics. It could make a good thought piece.
You may identify a member of the forum who is particularly knowledgeable
Consider connecting with them outside of the forum. You might be able to interview them or use them as a subject matter expert in future content.
Make it a goal to add at least one new idea to your Content Idea list each time you visit a forum.
Tune in and listen.
A surprisingly simple way to get new ideas is to start listening.
Listen to strangers when you’re out and about
When you’re at the store or coffee shop, listen to what people are saying. (That’s right. We’re giving you permission to eavesdrop. Discretely, of course.)
- What topics do they talk about?
- What questions are they asking?
- What are their biggest concerns? Joys?
Look for ways that everyday conversations relate to your core topic. Write these ideas in your Content Idea list.
Listen to your friends and family
When gathering with family and friends, if the conversation turns to the topic of what you do for a living, encourage them to ask questions.
- Listen for the gaps in their knowledge.
- Look for the things they’re curious or confused about.
- Listen for the words they use to talk about your topic. These are the words your customers likely use too.
Add any ideas that surface to your list of ideas.
Listen to your customers
When you get an email or comment from a customer or peer, make a point of listening more than talking.
- What seems to be the biggest challenge? Concern? Fear?
- What are they trying to do?
- What stops them from doing it?
- What do you know — or what process are you using — that could help?
Get out your idea list and write down possible content topics that would answer these questions.
If you get a chance to talk one-on-one to customers, encourage them to talk about the things that matter to them, including their hobbies and passions. This gives you a wealth of information about who your target audience is — as well as the topics that are guaranteed to pique their interest.
Ask all employees who deal with customers to keep a notepad handy when talking to customers, whether on the phone, instant messaging, or in person. As they talk (or as soon as the conversation ends), have them jot down topics that the customer is confused about or has questions about. Add these to your list of content ideas.
Plug in to the energy of social media
You can get lots of ideas from your social media interactions — if you are present and engaged. (Being present and engaged will not only make you a better content marketer, it will make you a better social media marketer too!)
Part of the secret to this is to follow the right people. Look for the thought leaders in your industry, the people setting trends and coming up with the ideas everyone else shares. These are the people to follow.
Make a list of the terms that you want to talk about.
Include keywords related to your core topic and terms that you use in your secondary messages.
Use these terms in a search in each social media platform.
- Type your keywords in the search bar.
- Look for groups and pages related to your topic.
- Visit the pages and review the posts.
- Are they useful? If so, follow them.
You can also search directly for the people you know are thought leaders in your industry.
- Type #keyword (that’s a hashtag followed by your keyword) in the search bar.
That will generate a list of tweets about your topic. Like this:
- In the panel on the left, click the “People” link.
The stream of tweets about your keyword will become a list of people who are tweeting that keyword.
- Click on each person’s name to read their description and review their tweets.
- Look at how many tweets they have and how often they tweet.
It isn’t worth following someone who isn’t active in Twitter.
- Check the number of followers they have.
If they rarely tweet but have thousands of followers, then the number of followers doesn’t indicate influence. It means they bought followers, which means they aren’t thought leaders.
On the other hand, if they have a lot of followers because they make useful, thoughtful posts, then you may benefit from following them.
- If, based on your review, a tweeter looks knowledgeable about your topic, click the Follow button.
If you want to find people whose name you already know, simply type their name in the search bar.
- Type your topic in the search bar and see who comes up.
- Review their profile, focusing on their description and posts.
- If you like their posts and if they look knowledgeable, follow them.
Use Feedly to identify thought leaders.
- Log in to your Feedly stream.
- Look for industry-leading blogs that accept guest posts.
- Check out the names of the writers.
- Search for these people in Facebook, Twitter and Google+.
- Follow them, and keep an eye on their posts.
Set up a social media stream to monitor your streams.
A lot of your ideas will come from posts you see in social media. But reading and following social media can eat up a lot of your time. It might help to use an app that lets you view all your streams at once and/or schedule your posts in advance. Here are a few suggestions:
Start generating ideas.
Schedule about 30 minutes a day to review your streams, read posts and interact with your connections. But don’t merely look at the posts people are publishing. Here’s what you need to do:
- Look for the trending topics.
- Pay attention to the ideas being developed, what ideas are added to the conversation, and how people respond to them.
- Join these conversations.
It’s in these interactions that ideas will spring to mind.
- Start engaging with thought leaders.
Build relationships. Down the road, if you need a subject matter expert to give you a quote or interview, you already have access to these people.
Stay relevant with newsjacking
Another great source of ideas is the news. But as a content marketer, you don’t simply report the news. You employ an old journalist’s trick called newsjacking.
What is newsjacking?
It’s finding ideas within the news that intersect with your core topics. This point of intersection allows you to produce relevant, timely content from a unique perspective. Like this:
On January 21, 2013, the big news was President Obama’s inauguration ceremony. Any article that responded to this event was seen as timely and relevant.
People weren’t looking for more reports about the inauguration, though. They were looking for fresh angles or entertaining responses to it.
Mashable reports on the importance of digital innovation and how it empowers and inspires people around the world. How does that intersect with the inauguration?
Social media usage, of course. So it examined how Twitter users felt about a particular aspect of the presidential inauguration.
See how it works? Now you try…
Keep up with the news.
Fill your Feedly stream with news sources as well as industry blogs. Then skim them on a daily basis to look for big events or interesting news.
Look for the connection between the news and your core topic.
Look for industry, local or national activities that you can relate to your own business.
- Do you write about social media? Review Facebook posts about the event.
- Do you write about green products? Report how this event affects the green agenda.
Respond to the event as quickly as possible.
Newsjacking requires immediacy. This strategy is not for you if you need two days to write a post and a week to get it approved.
So don’t add newsjacking ideas to your Ideas list. If you have the resources to respond quickly to news events, here’s what you do:
- Analyze a potential news story from your unique perspective.
- Interview thought leaders if it seems appropriate.
- Look at what people are posting in social media.
- Then create a unique angle for talking about the event.
Keep it tasteful.
If newsjacking seems like a good option for your brand, keep a few thoughts in mind:
- Don’t be rude or offensive.
- Don’t try to profit from natural disaster.
- Use current events as a way to generate interest or to join the conversation, not put the focus on your own business.
Pulling It All Together
Coming up with relevant, interesting content ideas will never be a burden if you implement all seven of the tactics outlined in this chapter.
By adopting these tactics, you’re now primed to generate and capture a steady stream of ideas. You have the resources to stay up-to-date on the ideas circulating in your industry. And you’re well-situated to see new trends before they occur.
But setting up this idea-generating system isn’t enough. You need to practice engaged listening to transform all the information you’re now collecting into useable ideas.
For that, follow this simple 4-step process:
As you read, interact with & talk to people, pay attention.
Come up with ideas that connect with their interests and answer their questions.
Let the ideas you’re collecting & conversations you’re having inspire your own opinions.
Jot these ideas in your Idea list.
Don’t be afraid to stand out from the crowd or shake things up.
If your opinions are different from the mainstream, that’s okay. Never hesitate to add radical new thoughts to your Idea list.
Look for gaps in the conversation.
What parts of the topic aren’t being covered? What questions do you still have? Those are ideal topics for you to write about in your own content, so add them to your Idea list.
Your goal is to continually add content ideas to the list in your planning document. That way, you never run out of subject matter for timely, engaging content for your readers.
But simply having ideas isn’t enough. The next step is to evaluate and refine your ideas and then fit them into an editorial plan. Don’t worry. It’s easier than it sounds.