Generating Content Ideas
A content marketer — or any creative for that matter — doesn't have the leisure to have an "off day." Your content ideas fuel your work. Run out of gas and your content initiatives will stall. A process also allows you to think of ideas that may not be easily apparent. Some ideas seem to drop from the heavens right into our minds, while others must be wrestled into submission. Those ideas are hard-earned and not easily captured. You have to fight for them. The benefit is that it feels so much better when you finally unleash them into the world. There are four main reasons why every content marketing professional needs to know how to generate content ideas. First, your days are busy. You've got blog articles to write, webinars to record, and podcasts to produce. And not only do your content ideas need to be good, but they must also be relevant to your buyer personas and in line with your overall marketing strategy. A content generation process allows you to come up with a predictable flow of original, high-quality, and relevant content ideas. Secondly, a content generation process allows you to uncover ideas that you may not have come up with on your own. No matter how inexhaustibly creative you are, I guarantee you'd benefit from having other people help you brainstorm ideas.
Whether it's your colleagues, friends, family, or even your competition, you can benefit from the influence and perspectives of other people. Thirdly, the reality is that sooner or later you will run out of good ideas. During the first few weeks or months on the job, ideas will come to you like bees to a honeypot. Eventually, "content fatigue" will set in, and you'll find yourself looking at the word processor with nothing to write. You might be a creative, but you're also a professional. And one of the major differences between the professional writer and the amateur is that the former doesn't have the leisure to wait for inspiration to strike. Think of a content generation process as your defense against writer's block. Fourth, content marketing “at scale” requires proven processes so your team can grow responsibly and keep up with the increased demand.Additionally, having a process in place helps new hires ramp up and start having an impact as quickly as possible, which also helps free up managers' time. And should your top talent leave or be unavailable, the rest of the team has a proven system to fall back on.
Where do ideas come from?
Where do ideas come from? It’s a bit of an odd question, isn’t it? The Ancients believed that actual goddesses — also known as Muses — were responsible for our creative inspiration. In our day and age, content marketers and creatives need a little more. After all, you don’t have the leisure to wait for the gods! Instead, you can turn to famed advertising executive, James Webb Young. In 1940, Young published the short book, “A Technique for Producing Ideas,” which has become a favorite among copywriters and creatives of all stripes. Young’s thesis is that idea creation isn’t just about waiting for inspiration to strike — there’s a process. And if you can understand that process, then you can build a more efficient ideation process and become a better content marketer. Young starts with the proposition that “an idea is nothing more nor less than a new combination of old elements.” That's the reason why Hollywood producers will pitch a movie like “Jaws meets dinosaurs” or why entrepreneurs describe their startup as the “Uber for dog sitting” — all ideas are made up of different, seemingly disparate, elements in order to produce something new. Now, Young’s not the first person to have reached that conclusion — other creatives and scientists have said as much. What makes his perspective so interesting is how succinct his description of the ideation process is. He breaks it down into four steps: gathering new material, digesting the material, unconscious processing, and the eureka moment. Let’s dig deeper into each, starting with gathering raw material.
Great content marketers read and consume content from a wide variety of places. They are endlessly curious and fascinated by a wide breadth of topics. All of these make up the “raw material”: the facts, concepts, and stories that float in your mind in a sort of suspended animation. So, be curious. Read whatever you can, whenever you can. Develop an appetite for content and consume it regularly — good, bad, old, new, popular, niche. And not just marketing content either! Consume history, poetry, or science magazines on top of Snapchat stories and industry blogs. Let it all seep into your mind. You might be surprised what will come of it. It also helps to maintain a repository for all those ideas. The old school term is “swipe file,” which was an actual folder where people kept newspaper clippings and other bits of content. But in the digital era, this can be tools like Google Docs, Evernote, bookmarks, or whatever other platform works best for you. In the second stage, you’re going to be digesting the material. The goal is to bring those disparate ideas together and see how they fit. You’re looking for relationships, connections, and combinations. The goal is to synthesize those ideas in interesting and compelling ways. In the third stage, you’ll use unconscious processing. Stop trying to bring those ideas together and do something else entirely — listen to music, go out for a run, or watch a movie — anything to take your mind off the process. Let your unconscious take over. Sometimes you have to let your mind rest and organize itself on its own.
Even when you're not T actively thinking about a problem, the mind has its own way of processing information and making connections. Leverage it. And then you have the fourth and final stage: the eureka moment
Suddenly, and seemingly out of nowhere, an idea will pop into your head. As Young says, “It will come to you when you are least expecting it…” You might be brushing your teeth or simply walking to work, and a fully-formed idea will arrive unexpectedly. When that happens, make sure to write it down. Millions of ideas have been lost by people who thought they would remember them. This process isn’t anything new or terribly surprising. It’s how all of us come up with ideas. But as creatives, it’s valuable to be aware of each step so you can work on them and improve. It's especially important to spend time gathering the raw material. Curiosity, and the will to act on it, is a helpful prerequisite for any content marketer. You have to be willing and able to read voraciously and consume content from all places.
How do you generate ideas for content creation?
There are two different ways you can generate content ideas: by yourself or with a group. Experiment with each and soon you'll come up with a process that makes sense for your specific needs. Let’s start with creating ideas on your own. There are four things you should keep in mind when generating content ideas on your own: What are your buyer personas’ reading habits?; What are your competitors doing?; What are people talking about on Quora?; What can you learn from your search engine optimization efforts? Let’s take a look. First, what are your buyer personas’ reading habits? Put yourself in the shoes of your prospects. Empathize with them. What are their challenges and pain points? What do they read on the web and educate themselves about? Is there a specific blog or website they frequently visit? If you can, try interviewing some of your best customers by phone or email to find out about their reading habits. You can even include a question on your form that explores visitors’ go-to outlets. Once you have a list of websites or blogs, use a tool like Buzzsumo to see which content has the best social media performance. Just type a domain name, and you’ll get a list of the pages, along with their performance on each social media channel.
For example, let's imagine you're writing for a travel company based out of New York. Type "travel New York" in Buzzsumo and check out the top results. You’ll find posts about the Finger Lakes in New York being voted the best wine region in the U.S. and the opening of the Museum of the Dog. From just a simple search, you can get a sense of the most talked-about social media posts about New York travel — and get plenty of topic ideas to fuel your content marketing.
Next, what are your competitors doing? Another tactic — especially if you’re unsure about your personas’ reading habits — is to look at your competitors’ content marketing efforts. If you share a similar target audience, it’s likely that the content that performs well on their site will also appeal to your prospects. So look at what they’re producing and what’s really resonating. Here again, use Buzzsumo to quickly scan their websites and see what's performing well. Next, what are people talking about on Quora? Sometimes you might not be able to find out where your audience lives online. That’s okay. Another approach to coming up with content generation ideas is to start with a set of keywords. For example, let’s assume your target audience is people looking to learn video marketing. Now go to Quora, a popular question-and-answer site where anyone can ask questions and get answers from the community. Although anyone can participate, moderators do a great job at limiting noise and keeping quality high. After searching for “video marketing,” Quora will return a series of popular questions that contain the keyword, like, “how effective is online video marketing?” and “what is video marketing?” Without even looking at the answers, this tactic provides valuable insights into common challenges and questions based on this topic.
Lastly, what can you learn from your search engine optimization efforts? There are a few search engine optimization tools and techniques you can use to generate content ideas. A go-to is the Google Search Console. Assuming it’s properly verified with your domain, you should be able to view which queries users typed into Google to find your website, as well as topics you're ranking for, even if your site’s not on the first page. This is super valuable intel because you’re getting actual keywords people are typing in. If you want to learn more about how to set up and use Google Search Console, then check out the resources section of this lesson. I’ve included a link to a helpful article. Three other quick ways to leverage Google are the autocomplete functionality, “related searches” section, and the “people also search for” box. Let’s review the autocomplete functionality first. Autocomplete is when Google suggests a query as you type in the search bar. These “search predictions” might uncover ideas around a topic that you hadn’t thought about. Let's assume you're looking for content ideas about influencer marketing. Type "influencer marketing" and Google will autocomplete with "influencer marketing platform" or "influencer marketing examples."
Next up is the ”related searches” section. "Related searches" appears at the bottom of the search results page and offers additional suggestions. For example, let's assume you type "how to network?" Google's related searches will suggest, "how to network at work” and “how to network for a job." And lastly, there’s the “people also search for” box. The “people also search for” box appears in search results when a user conducts an organic search, clicks on a result, and then returns back to the search results page.
Let’s say, for example, you’re interested in writing more about “inbound marketing personas,” so you perform a search on Google. If you want to get some ideas on alternative search queries Google might recommend, then click a listing, then click the back button. Notice how Google offers some alternative searches associated with that listing, like “HubSpot marketing 101” and “what is the consideration phase?” As you can see, there are many ways to come out with content ideas on your own. But what about leveraging others? You could host a company brainstorm. A brainstorm can be an incredibly productive way to generate fresh and creative content ideas. By inviting team members who don’t spend their day thinking about content, you’ll likely get new ideas from a different perspective. There are hundreds of ways to format and host a brainstorm. To help you get started, here are a few best practices that all successful brainstorms have in common. First, pick someone to moderate and set a clear agenda. Agenda items could include items like, “what’s the problem we’re trying to solve?”; “how long will the session last?”; rules of engagement; and so on. Brainstorms can quickly dissolve into an unproductive group hangout if there’s no direction. Make sure someone owns the meeting and that everyone follows their guidelines.
Next, create an atmosphere where people feel comfortable sharing their ideas. It can be uncomfortable to ask coworkers to come up with random ideas, especially those who aren't used to doing so on a regular basis. People easily get self-conscious, so use icebreakers. For example, run through a basic word association game. The first person says a word — let's say, "fries," then the following person mentions another association, like "French" or “cheese,” and on and on until either the first word is mentioned again or a certain amount of time has elapsed. It's amazing what connections people make. This is a great way to get your creative juices flowing. Next, leverage “braindumps.” A braindump is an uninterrupted period of time (typically no more than two to three minutes long) when you jot down all the ideas that come to your mind. The goal is quantity, not quality. Don’t overthink your answers or wonder how good they are. Just get them on paper as quickly as possible. For example, if you were writing content for an HVAC manufacturer, you could suggest a braindump about all the topics that come to mind when you think about home heating, ventilating, and air conditioning. Suggestions might include “tips to keep your house cool during the summer” or “eco-friendly ways to heat your garage.” Note that this type of exercise works equally well with experts and people who don't know anything about the topic.
Also, use sticky notes, whiteboards, and other visual aids to keep track of ideas. Sticky notes are especially effective, as it's easy to group them together by topic and identify trends and common themes. Try and display everyone’s ideas so the process feels democratic and transparent. You want the experience to be positive so people will want to do it again in the future. You should know that “constraints breed creativity.” So make sure to set strict time limits — both for the length of the meeting (no longer than an hour) and the braindumps. You can sometimes let people voice really good ideas after the time is up, but make sure they’re exceptions. Finally, remember that the main goal of a brainstorm is to generate new, unexpected ideas. It might not be the time to refine those ideas or critique them. So if all you get out of them is a dozen or so ideas for you to expand and improve upon — that might be enough. And there you have it. Now you have a process to help you generate content ideas. Keep these in mind as part of your content ideation process and you’ll ensure a consistent flow of ideas to fuel your content creation efforts.