Content marketing is hard work. Anyone who thinks it isn’t, probably hasn’t done it.
But what’s hard about it varies with your particular responsibility or emphasis. If you’re in placements and outreach, then making your case to the right publishers is a hard job. If you’re in strategy, then determining the right type and mix of content is a hard job.
But if your primary role is actually creating the content, then I can say with a high degree of confidence that your hardest job is coming up with enough good ideas.
If you’re an avid blogger, and your experience is anything like mine, once you’ve got a good idea, the content just flows. But there’s the rub: once you’ve got the idea.
When publishers, management, or just your own work ethic is hammering for new content, you might feel like this guy (just substitute “ideas” for “jobs”):
Of course, good content ideas don’t come from “idea land, where ideas grow on ideasies.” But over the years I’ve developed some techniques that keep me on the next best thing to “idea land.”
Now I have a constant and ever-growing list of blog post topics, so when that deadline is looming, it’s just a matter of picking an appropriate one and getting down to work.
1. Get Content Eyes
By far, training yourself to have what I call “content eyes” is the most important skill you can have as a content creator. Having content eyes means developing the ability to see content everywhere.
Now whenever I’m reading something, watching a video, listening to a podcast, or attending a presentation, I have one eye and ear on the content itself (presumably I’m there to learn from it), and the other eye and ear watching and listening for content ideas.
I’ve come to believe that almost any content can be a source of new ideas, even if it doesn’t directly relate to my usual topic areas. For example, this whole idea of having “content eyes” was originally inspired by the movie “The Sixth Sense”.
In a pivotal scene the little boy, played by Haley Joel Osment, tells Bruce Willis’s character that he “sees dead people.” In other words, he could see things that were there all the time, but which most people don’t see.
It occurred to me that this was where many of my blog post ideas came from: I’d see a topic idea in someone else’s post that might not occur to anyone else.
How do content eyes work?
When you’re viewing a piece of content, look for the following opportunities:
- Question all the things. Questioning what you’re consuming is a good thing in general. It can keep you from being tricked or fooled, and help you to learn. But it also can stimulate many new content ideas. As you read, ask why is that so? How does the author know? What’s being left out here? Write down those questions and then explore them to develop new content.
- Activate your question radar. Not only your own questions, but the questions of others, can be great content idea sources. Often I’ll see in the comments under a post some questions from other readers that either go unanswered or are incorrectly or inadequately answered. If I know the answer (or can research to find it out), instead of just answering the comment on the post, I’ll jot it down as something I should write about myself. In most cases, if one person has a question, many have it, and you could end up writing the authoritative piece that all those people are referred to.
- Become a Venn diesel. Do you know what a Venn diagram is? Even if you don’t, I’m sure you’ve seen one. A Venn diagram shows two or more circles, with each circle representing a set of things. The two sets are usually completely different, but there are some members who belong in each set. These common members are represented in the area where the circles intersect. So we could diagram the set of yoga instructors and the set of “Star Trek” fans:
Most yoga instructors aren’t fans of “Star Trek”, and most “Star Trek” devotees are not leading yoga classes. But inevitably some people are in both sets, and they fall into the dark-shaded intersection of the two circles.
What does that have to do with content ideas? Look for the Venn intersection between two or more topics or content pieces, and write about that. In other words, look for the overlap between the two. For example, if you actually found that there are yoga teachers who are crazy about “Star Trek”, you could write an article about something like “Why These Yoga Instructors Love the Star Trek Ethos.”
But Venn intersections aren’t the only vein of ideas in the mine of multiple content pieces. Also look for things that contrast between the two or more groups, or even for outright contradictions (“Star Trek Fans Make Terrible Yoga Teachers: Here’s Why”).
2. Clear the Fog
Another way to generate content ideas is to look for issues, problems, and misunderstandings that you can clear up. If you’ve become an expert in the areas you write about, inevitably you see people discussing or writing about your topic with a certain amount of confusion or bad thinking.
Instead of just getting upset or leaving an angry comment, jot down your thoughts on how you would clarify the issue or misunderstanding.
- What are the missing facts?
- Where is the thinking off?
- What’s the better way to approach this issue?
This doesn’t mean that your end product has to be a rant or refutation (although it could be). You can actually generate positive content out of such observations, content that points out a better way or sets the issues out as no one has before.
3. Broaden Your Horizons
Often when I talk to other content producers who tell me they get stuck for new ideas, I find that their interests are too narrow. They spend too much time only reading and researching in their own areas of expertise. While doing that is essential to becoming an expert, it can also limit the possibilities for creative new content.
In “Thoughts on Art and Life”, Leonardo da Vinci said:
Whence wrongly, O writers, you have excluded painting from the liberal arts, since it not only includes in its range the works of nature, but also infinite things which nature never created.
While da Vinci had a specific problem in mind (the exclusion of painting as a topic of the liberal arts), the implications of his insight are broader. Put simply, going outside your box feeds the imagination, essential to a good writer.
To get original ideas that lead to more valuable content, you need to be able to imagine “infinite things which nature never created.” In other words, you need to gather insights and ways of thinking that help you see your own discipline in ways no one else has before.
Here’s a personal example:
I came across the da Vinci quote above while reading the excellent biography of the Renaissance genius by Walter Isaacson. Because I’ve developed “content eyes,” I recognized that da Vinci’s thought had broad applications. One of those applications might be for content producers (da Vinci was directly addressing writers, after all), with the message that being too narrow in their interests and definitions stunts their imaginations. I wrote the quote down in my content idea notebook, and months later it became one of the seeds for the post you’re reading right now.
My advice to you is do whatever you can to broaden your interests and the content you consume.
If you only read or view things about your own area, you’re stunting your possibilities. And while you’re reading that book on neuroscience or watching that documentary on great historical developments – or even enjoying the latest episode of “Rick and Morty” – keep your content eyes open and think about how what you’re learning might apply to whatever you usually write about.
4. Be Notable
All of the above ideas will get you nowhere if they provide a flash of inspiration that ends up being forgotten.
The final essential tool for generating an endless flow of content ideas is you must get in the habit of jotting notes.
Almost all great writers keep some kind of notebook. Its form isn’t important; it’s more important that it’s always accessible and that it’s something you’ll use.
For me, because I always have a digital device at hand, I use Evernote. You might prefer another digital note-taking app, or a good, old-fashioned paper and pen notebook.
The point is that you need to develop the habit of jotting down anything and everything that might possibly stimulate a future blog post idea.
For example, as I mentioned above, when I saw that DaVinci quote I found it interesting. Even though at the time I wasn’t fully sure how I’d use it for a blog post, I jotted it down in my Evernote content ideas notebook.
Then months later, as I was preparing this post, it sprang out at me and became the stimulus for the entire “Broaden Your Horizons” section.
For magical content ideas like that to happen, of course it’s not enough to just note down any idea or fragment of an idea that comes to you. You also need to regularly browse that list for the idea spark to ignite a flame. In fact, sometimes some of my “venn diagram” post ideas come from two seemingly-unrelated notes in my notebook.
Rarely will great blog post ideas just spring to life out of thin air just because you’re seated in front of your keyboard with a cursor blinking at you. That can happen, and it’s magical when it does, but you can’t count on it.
If you’re responsible for a blog you know it’s an insatiable beast. As soon as you’ve fed it some content, it wants more, and that means more fresh topic ideas. The only way to keep the beast from eating you is to have an ever-flowing pipeline of new ideas.
The techniques I gave you above, if turned into habits, will become the water of new ideas flowing into that pipeline.
Animated GIF: Giphy
All other images from Shutterstock, used under license.