The simplest things are often the most difficult.
How hard should it be to come up with a single content idea? Considering it’s a few words, you’d think it would only take a few seconds.
You and I both know that there’s a lot more that goes into solidifying a good content idea than the first few words that come to mind.
As content marketing becomes more popular and properly utilized, marketers will be producing more and more content. Currently, 91% of B2B marketers have started using content marketing. In addition, 77% of marketers plan to increase their content production over the next year.
A single good idea every now and again is not enough—you need several. And if you’re working efficiently (in batches), you should be coming up with at least 50 at a time, but then writing about only the best ones.
When you start a new content marketing campaign, ideas are relatively free flowing. You can write about just about anything in your niche. But once those “easy” ideas are exhausted, most marketers struggle.
They spend hours only to come up with a handful of mediocre content ideas. Not only is it a huge waste of time, but it is also mentally draining and frustrating. Most content creators struggle more with ideation than they do with the actual content creation.
I don’t want you to be one of them.
In this post, you will learn seven highly effective ways to find great content ideas—quickly.
While there can be some abstract thinking behind idea generation (which is the hardest part), you can minimize it by sticking to any combination of these tactics.
Let’s dive in…
1. Take Good Ideas and Make Them Great
This method is by far the fastest way to come up with solid content ideas.
The basic idea here is to monitor your competitors. When they publish a piece of content, you want to see if you could improve upon the idea or make it better.
I’m not telling you to copy the article, but you can certainly create content on a similar topic but do it from your own perspective.
If you get an idea to improve upon a post of mine, then by all means, go ahead and create it. This is innovation, and it’s how most things (including content and education) get better over time.
There is one big limitation to this tactic: you limit yourself on what you write about because you’re relying on competitors to give you ideas. If they ignore topics important to your readers, you could easily end up missing out on some great content ideas.
That’s why I recommend you use at least a few other content idea generation tactics along with this one. With that in mind, here’s the step-by-step breakdown of how to use this method:
Making Monitoring Competitors Easy
If you like to do things the hard way, you can just visit all your competitors on a regular basis and see if they’ve published anything new. But that seems like a big waste of time to me.
A better option is to use an RSS reader such as Feedly. You can check it once in a while and instantly have an easy to browse list of recently published posts by your competitors.
Create an account, and then click the “add content” button in the left sidebar:
You can search by a keyword, use a specific competitor’s URL, or choose from one of the starter kits (organized by category). The goal is to find all of your top competitors as they’re the ones who are likely producing content around solid ideas already.
If you’d like to add one to your RSS feed, just click the green “+” button:
It’s up to you how many you add, but around 5-10 will be sufficient for most.
Once you’ve done that, you can click the “all” label in the left side bar (or a category if you have multiple):
This will bring up all the articles published by those sites that you selected with the newest articles at the top.
After that, you can click a title to expand it so that you can see the text. For now, start by noting down interesting topic ideas. Then, you’ll need to figure out a way to improve upon the idea or look at it from a different angle.
In general, there are 3 common ways for you to add more value to your content…
Make it Longer
If you’ve read many of my posts, you know how I feel about length. In general, longer is better, which is why longer content ranks better in Google.
Here’s an example of what I’m talking about:
Say you find an article such as “7 Tools to Level Up Your Content Promotion Game.”
How could you make it more valuable? Look at more than seven content promotion tools that your readers could benefit from.
While I haven’t written about that exact topic yet, I’ve created list posts on similar topics, and they often contain a number of items much greater than seven:
If you match the detail provided in the original article about each tool, but double, triple, or quadruple the number of tools reviewed, your article automatically becomes much more valuable.
Make it More In-Depth
Sometimes, you’ll find content that is already pretty lengthy. Maybe it’s a list of 30 tools.
However, those articles typically lack any real depth. They mention the tool name, maybe include a picture, and that’s it. But there’s no overview of important features, pricing information, or guidance on who would benefit from each tool.
By adding more depth on valuable aspects of each tool, you add a ton of value to the content idea.
Here’s an example: Marketing Profs published an article “Five Quick Tips for Thinking Like a Marketing Revolutionary.” And when they say “quick”, they aren’t kidding. Most of the sections have 100-200 words:
This is useful to a very small percentage of marketers. Most would find the content much more valuable if it was more in-depth.
Adding examples, specific action steps, and even some explanatory pictures to each section would dramatically increase the value of this content.
Make it More Practical or Readable
Finally, you’ll come across some content that has a lot of value, but only to certain people.
For example, Seth Godin is one of the best known entrepreneurial and marketing writers. He is known for his extremely short, strategic blog posts:
They are often under a few hundred words. They always contain a good message and something to think about. But only some marketers want to think or have the background knowledge to make the message useful.
If you catered to a different type of marketer, a beginner marketer, you could write on similar topics as Seth does but make them more accessible.
Spell things out, give as many examples as possible, and make the content as actionable as possible for beginners. Your content wouldn’t have as much value to his audience, but it would have much more to yours.
You can also make your content more readable by using pictures and formatting (see example in way #2).
Content Ideas Should Serve as Answers, so Find the Questions
The basic purpose for all content is to solve problems for the audience.
People consume content because they’re trying to make their lives better. What this means is that if you could identify the problems your audience has, you could create content around the solutions to those problems. Your content becomes the answer to their questions.
And you can do this by finding the questions that your audience asks.
There are many ways to find these questions, but I want to point you to two sources in particular.
Source #1: Blog Comments
Probably the best source of content ideas is your readers themselves. If they take the time to express a problem that they are having in a comment or email – listen!
That not only means that it’s a significant problem, but it also means that many other readers in your audience are also having it. Here’s an example of one I quickly pulled up from Joel on a Quick Sprout article:
Firstly, he’s expressing that he likes the header pictures I use on Quick Sprout (credit to my designer). This is something I’ve heard many times (but never too many times!).
The most interesting part of his comment is the next sentence/question:
Have you ever thought about doing an article on how to find just the right art?
Boom! Great content idea right there.
Just from that comment, I could easily come up with a few different angles to explore it from:
- The complete guide to creating featured images that WOW your readers
- 10 sources of mind blowing art that will capture your readers’ attention
There’s one potential problem with this source…what if you don’t get many comments?
It takes time to start getting multiple comments on each post on a regular basis.
Source #2: Forums and Q&A Sites
If you can’t find out what problems your readers are having using comments, the next best thing is to find your target audience on other sites.
You could look at the comments on a competitor’s site for content ideas. More reliably, find a niche forum to browse, which will enable you to come up with hundreds of content ideas quickly.
Start by searching for “(your niche) + forum”:
For over 95% of niches, the top few results will be active forums. From there, just browse through the thread topics.
From the top garden forum result, I spotted 3 threads that were updated recently:
The content ideas are pretty simple to come up with from there. For example:
- “Do you really need to prune Ficus Lyrata?”
- “The complete guide to pruning: Which plants need and don’t need it”
- The definitive guide to fern identification
The tub one would depend on whether you specifically wrote about gardening or covered other “home” topics as well.
Regardless, you can easily find over 100 good content ideas in under an hour from a good forum.
Have Just a Single 20-Minute Talk With Your Target Audience Member
This tactic might scare you…
Most marketers don’t like talking on the phone, let alone to an actual member of their target audience. But it’s the single most effective way to not only come up with great content ideas but to create better content as well.
Where do you find someone who will be willing to talk with you for 15-30 minutes? Here are a few potential ways:
- find a friend who is in your target audience, and ask for a favor
- email your existing email list, and offer free coaching or a product discount in exchange for the talk
- go to a local meeting group (you can find one through Meetup.com) of your target audience. Approach one of the members after, explain your goal/purpose, and offer to buy them lunch if they’ll talk with you
As long as you come off as someone who genuinely is trying to add to your community, you’ll find quite a few people who are willing to help.
This one short interview could make you thousands of dollars in the future.
Once you find someone to talk with, what do you do?
The main thing is to listen. If they’re passionately talking about your topic of interest, don’t stop them. Ideally, record the interview (ask them if that’s okay) so you don’t miss anything. Otherwise, write down every single problem they mention. Afterwards, create content ideas that would solve those problems.
If they’re not sure what to talk about, use questions like these to ignite conversation:
- why do you find (topic) interesting?
- what major problems have you faced when it comes to (topic)?
- what are you currently spending your time on when you have time for (topic)?
Anything that gets them talking about your topic or industry will start to reveal problems and frustrations that they’d like to see solved.
Some interviews will obviously be more fruitful than others, which is why I recommend doing these on a regular basis as frequently as possible.
Answer the Questions That Other Posts Leave Readers With
This method picks up where #2 left off.
In case you didn’t read about that tactic, the idea behind it is that most of the best content ideas are the solutions to the problems that your target audience is having. The tough part is finding those questions.
With this method, we’ll be finding those questions by using your competitors. And there are 3 basic ways you can do this:
Find Strategic Posts
In general, posts can either be tactical or strategic.
Strategic content focuses on overall best practices and goals, while tactical content focuses on specific ways to accomplish specific things. Think of it this way:
You may have a content marketing strategy that encompasses how you’d like to approach content marketing. Inside that strategy, you will have many tactics that you will use to accomplish your strategic goals.
Big problems are typically solved strategically, while small problems can be solved tactically. The point is to identify writers in your niche who write strategic posts.
These will typically be thought leaders. Seth Godin is the perfect example once again (note that some writers may write both kinds of posts):
His posts are very general and meant to provoke thought. They would help you create better business strategies.
I already showed you that you could simply take the same topic and make it more practical. But in addition, you can easily pick out parts of a post that might leave readers with questions.
From that above post, I can quickly find a couple of areas that leave readers wondering:
- How do you make a non-salesy sales pitch?
- How do you come up with your product presentation strategy?
- How do you get your product in front of people in the first place? (the skeptics and customers)
- How do you create something that is above average?
Those are 4 questions (read: problems) that most readers of Seth’s article would be interested in having answered, which means they would make great content ideas.
Just make sure that your competitor’s readers are the same ones you want to attract.
Look at the Comments
Comments are powerful because they come from real readers. There’s no guesswork about what a reader is thinking.
We already looked at how you can get content ideas from your own content, but there’s no reason why you couldn’t look at your competitor’s comments.
For example, here’s a comment on one of Derek Halpern’s blog posts:
If you created content for entrepreneurs, you could turn that comment into a content idea like:
How you can leverage selling information products to sell more physical products.
Read Any Article From the Reader’s Point of View
In the first option, I noted that you could specifically target “strategic” content because it’ll always reveal multiple content ideas. However, you can get ideas from any piece of content, whether it’s your own or a competitor’s.
Here’s how you do it:
Read through a piece of content from the perspective of your reader. What questions do they have while reading? Can you create content that answers these questions?
Below is part of an article published on the Content Marketing Institute site:
I put a box around an important line. Some readers might be able to formulate a hypothesis, but I would bet that many won’t.
For a reader, the question is:
“How do I make a good hypothesis?” or “What does a good hypothesis look like?”
You could attempt to create content to answer this question from a few different angles:
- How to come up with a better test hypothesis to get more meaningful results
- 20 examples of great test hypotheses (that result in more effective content)
- 15 tools that will help you come up with more informed hypotheses
The better you can get into the head of your typical reader, the more of these questions you’ll spot.
Over time, you will improve, and you’ll be able to get 5-10 solid content ideas from a single post you come across.
No Two Niches are Equal, You can Learn a Lot From Others
All niches become their own echo chambers at times. All the big blogs in your niche will, at times, seem very similar to each other. They all cover hot topics, and they market using the same tactics.
It’s hard to be different if all your input is from these sites in your niche. However, this is also easy to solve.
If you analyze how authoritative sites in other niches are doing their content marketing, you can often take ideas from them and adapt them to your own niche. Let’s go through an example…
Say I really love how The Cat Site creates content. I see that they’re getting a ton of traction with their gift guides:
If you look at any of the top marketing blogs right now, none of them have any content related to gifts.
I could create my own content ideas by adapting this type of content for marketers:
- 10 marketing-themed gifts that will make your coworkers jealous
- 10 great gifts to give to clients and customers to show your appreciation
These aren’t amazing content ideas, but they’re interesting. More importantly, they’re unique.
This is one way to stand out from all the other sites in your niche. And this technique pairs very well with the very first method of generating ideas that we looked at.
Doing it on Your Own
It’s very difficult to just pick a random niche and study the effectiveness of the top sites’ content marketing.
Instead, start observing sites in other areas that interest you. Aside from marketing, you have other interests, right?
Whether it’s entrepreneurship, cooking, decorating, sports, etc., you can learn from the top sites in any niche.
And since you’re interested in the subject (and are a reader), you have a better feel for which types of ideas those sites are using that are truly being effective.
Be aware that not every single tactic you see a site in another niche using will adapt well to your audience. So if you produce ideas that just aren’t quite good enough, don’t hesitate to toss them away.
Find Questions That No One Wants to Answer
This tactic won’t reveal a ton of content ideas, but it will reveal ideas of the highest quality.
In every niche, there are difficult questions to answer that many readers have. These often get asked on forums (if there is one for a topic), but are typically ignored or danced around. Because of this, no one really has a good answer to those types of questions. And yet, readers still want them answered.
If you can produce a great answer to any one of those questions, it will get a lot of attention and basically promote itself in the future after you’ve done your initial promotion.
There’s a catch: The reason why no other top bloggers answer these types of questions is because they are hard to answer.
You’ll have to create exceptional content to answer any of these questions. Why?
Because other bloggers have probably tried to answer the question but couldn’t do it. They end up with a mediocre post that, again, dances around the question and provides no concrete answer.
How much does a swimming pool cost? The best example I’ve heard of using this technique comes from Marcus Sheridan, a pool installer.
Years ago, if a homeowner wanted a pool, they’d have to get a quote to have any idea of what it would cost. Typically, this would also come with aggressive sales tactics. And it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that potential customers were not thrilled with this setup. All they wanted to know was how much a pool would cost.
Marcus published the first of many articles to come that helped answer the questions of his existing customers and potential customers. This content in particular focused on breaking down the cost of a swimming pool installation in as much detail as possible, River Pools and Spas:
He gave the numbers that he would use when estimating the cost of a job and explained why things cost as much as they did. Most homeowners looking for an initial estimate found this really helpful, and it wasn’t long before he started to rank for some impressive terms.
It didn’t take long for Marcus to write the post that got him much attention, but it did take him years to gain the expertise to be able to answer the question.
Think about areas where you are an expert. Then start paying attention to questions that your readers want the answers to (on your site, competing sites, social media, etc.), but no one will answer.
These are the questions that will form the basis for extraordinary content ideas.
Use Your Expertise to Predict the Future
The goal for most content creators should be to become a thought leader in their industry.
You can’t do that if you’re always writing about the same topics that everyone else is writing about. Thought leaders not only produce great content on those topics, but they also pave the way for innovation.
As you become one of the more knowledgeable experts in your niche, you will likely be able to guess how certain aspects of your industry are going to change in the future.
You can’t do these types of posts all the time, but they are another source of great content ideas that you can use to make up 5-20% of your posts.
What if you’re not an expert? That’s okay! You can still use this tactic. However, you’ll have to leverage the knowledge of the true experts in your niche.
For example, SEO writer Trond Lyngbø put together a great article on the future of SEO. He got in touch with several experts to get their predictions:
This is probably more valuable than any single expert’s predictions since you can compare them with each other.
I left this idea generation tactic for last because it’s the most difficult. You’ll need to either have an expert level of knowledge or be able to get responses from influencers in your niche.
Even then, you need to be able to know the areas of your niche that your readers are interested in knowing the future of.
For marketing, among others, readers are interested in the future of:
- Link building
- Email outreach
- Effective types of content
- Content marketing tactics
- Product creation
I could create multiple articles for the future of every single one of those—spread out over time, of course.
Great content ideas give you the potential to produce great content. But coming up with enough content ideas isn’t always easy.
That’s why I’ve given you these seven highly effective tactics. Start with just one or two of them for now and practice. When you get good with them, try out some of the others.
At first, you will probably struggle a bit. I hope the detail I’ve provided is enough to limit that struggle. But over time, you will develop your “idea muscle,” and it will get easier and easier to come up with tons of great content topics. Persistence is key, and it will pay off.
If any of these tactics work well for you, or you have any questions at all, I’d love to hear about it in the comment section below.
This post originally appeared on Quick Sprout, and is re-published with permission.