What does your audience want to learn more about? How can you come up with content ideas that answer their most pressing questions? How can you ensure the content you’re spending so much time on is relevant and engaging? If you’ve ever considered these questions, you’ve run into one of the most common challenges any creator faces: idea generation. To help you escape that dreaded creative block, I’m sharing the seven sources I use whenever I need to come up with lots of content ideas in a short time period.
1. Gather inspiration from other brands
Many of us simply don’t know how to create something new based on someone else’s work. We tend to go to the extremes: either complete replication or no desire to look at others’ work at all. When dealing with content, looking at other brands’ tactics can provide great insights as you develop your own. The key, however, is to use what you see as an ingredient rather than the full brownie.
What works for others is merely a starting point that, added to your own experiences as a content creator, can set the stage for true innovation. These insights are just dots that still need to be connected. Artist Austin Kleon expressed this idea brilliantly in Steal Like an Artist: “You don’t want to look like your heroes, you want to see like your heroes.”
Which brands should you get content ideas from?
Having said that, let’s look at some types of inspiring content ideas you can gather from other brands:
- Successful content pieces shared by competing brands in your same space
- Pieces shared by brands in related spaces, targeting similar audiences
- Pieces shared by brands in totally different spaces, targeting a similar audience
- Pieces shared by large content powerhouses, regardless of whether they’re in or outside of your space.
A four-step method to curate content ideas
I know these four types of research are easier said than done. Trust me, I’ve been there. But precisely because I’ve felt the frustration of trying to keep up with so many brands, I’ve developed a method to keep my sanity and content ideas going strong. It’s a super simple, four-step approach:
- Pick the brands you’ll be inspired by
- Start tracking their feeds (I’ll list a few tools to do this below)
- Analyze top-performing content on a weekly basis
- Jot down replicable ideas using your favorite bookmarking tool (I use a combination of Evernote and Google Spreadsheets)
On to your toolkit. In tracking other brands’ content initiatives, you shouldn’t only focus on their blog feeds, but social media channels where the final pieces are shared. I’ve found three tools to be particularly useful in monitoring this content: Buzzsumo, Feedly, and Facebook Insights. All three of them allow you not just to check out what’s new, but what’s performing well for other brands. And that, my friend, is the key.
In case you haven’t tried any of these, let’s go over what a simple weekly analysis would look like for a DIY blog. Using Buzzsumo, we’d be able to find the most shared content published by a site like Martha Stewart in the last 7 days. If we’ve decided that this brand is worth tracking every week, there’s a “Saved Searches” feature to access new data quickly.
We can also look at our Feedly sources to see what other brands have come up with in the last week. Fortunately, Feedly has a great topic catalog with curated lists of brands to discover and follow. And guess what? There’s a DIY category!
Once you’ve found relevant brands to monitor, organize your feeds as “Cards” to have Feedly indicate the most popular articles at the top. See that tiny fire symbol below the first title? That’s telling you this beautiful house tour article is on fire:
And that’s exactly how you spot valuable content insights on Feedly. As I described in step 4 above, it is now a matter of taking notes and deciding how to tweak what you see to come up with innovative ideas.
The last tool I want to show you is totally free, and it’s something you’re probably already using to find other types of data. I’m talking about Facebook’s Page Insights, an analytics page that they provide to help you understand what’s happening with your audience. Within that page, there’s a slightly hidden feature called “Pages to Watch”. You’ll fall in love with this. Ready?
Facebook sorts your preconfigured list of Pages to Watch according to how large their audience is and shows you key growth metrics. Perhaps most importantly, they’ll also show you this:
Being able to see what type of content is performing for your competitors and other kinds of brands on social is truly enlightening. Browse around and take notes whenever you find an interesting copy, image, or topic approach. If you’re anything like me, you’ll end up buried in those huge comment threads, avidly hunting content opportunities. And that is precisely the next technique I want to share with you today: social content mining.
2. Read social comment threads
Social comment threads are ideal spaces to hunt potential content ideas. People are letting you know precisely how they’re reacting to a piece, what they don’t agree with, and sharing their opinions in a natural setting. All of these data points are valuable materials as you design your own editorial calendar.
Let’s look at an example. Imagine you are trying to create a video series around Millennial parenting topics. First, go to Facebook and type “Millennial parents” in the search box at the top. Look out for articles with lots of comments like the one below:
Bear in mind that while this discussion is at least a year old, the points expressed by users are still perfectly valid. The goal is to spot opportunities to target in your upcoming video series. To find them, go ahead and scan the 70+ comments and subsequent responses.
So many golden nuggets here! Let’s look at some valuable content opportunities:
- When is the “right time” to have a baby? Millennial parents respond. (Interview roundup video)
- How Much It Costs to Have a Baby in 2017. (An animated infographic)
- College or Kids? Millennial Mothers Weigh In.
Reading social comment threads is a great way to become familiar with controversial topics in your space, popular points of view, and common misconceptions.
3. Browse question forums
Along the same lines, many users voice their concerns in public question sites where others can pitch in. This is the case in Quora, for example.
You can simply navigate to a topic that’s relevant to your brand and browse around to see which questions trigger the most interest among users. If a given question merits hundreds of answers and an active conversation, those are signs that it might also make great article material — for example.
Suppose we were trying to come up with content ideas for a blog for social entrepreneurs. Reading through Quora’s page for social entrepreneurship leaves us with the following:
To begin with, the community has curated a list of frequently asked questions that could perfectly become standalone article titles. I would suggest that you click on “Follow Topic” to stay in the know about emerging questions. After you’ve scanned the Topic FAQ and Feed tabs, go ahead and click on a question that seems like a good starting point. What does that even look like, you ask? Well, here’s what I look for:
- A high number of upvotes, indicating that users thought the question deserved attention
- A high number of responses, showing that there’s interest in opening a conversation around it
- A high number of followers, which is just evidence that lots of users need/want that answer
I thought this, for example, was a great question to pursue:
You could come up with several types of articles that address this question, as well as related topics. Here are just a couple of content ideas that come to mind:
- Who are the most innovative social entrepreneurs of 2016?
- What are the most innovative social startups?
As you read these questions and gauge the amount of interest they’ve triggered, understand that readers will only care about your content as long as it helps them accomplish something.
Go outside of your comfort zone and try to think like one of your audience members. What is he or she wondering right now? What will he/she need to know in order complete vital tasks tomorrow morning? Is there anything they want to learn how to do or create?
4. Read terrible product reviews
Ah, negative product reviews. Don’t we all just love that terrifying dose of anger in the morning? ?
One thing we can all agree on is nobody likes wining. There’s enough tension at work already to add more drama by reading about everything that’s wrong with our own and others’ products. You will find, however, that the information people reveal when something isn’t working for them speaks volumes about their honest needs.
Am I suggesting that you go knee deep in negative comments to come up with incredible content ideas? Absolutely. Is it going to be frustrating? You bet. Negative product reviews, however, are some of the most valuable information nuggets you’ll ever get from people.
Finding content ideas in negative reviews
Bear with me for one minute. Imagine you are a food blogger targeting an audience interested in organic nutrition. How can you use this technique to your advantage? First, consider a few (physical) products that would be relevant to your readers. Here are some that came to mind:
- Organic cereal
- Organic cheese
- Organic meat
Since cereal has a long shelf life, it is widely sold and reviewed online. We’ll go with that for now. Next, I went to Amazon and searched for “organic cereal“. This product had tons of reviews and seemed like something my audience would be interested in:
Here’s where this gets really interesting. Let’s look at those glowing one and two-star reviews!
Aha — there it is. A perfectly honest critique of a product that reveals a lot about your audience. For health-conscious users interested in organic products, food labels are incredibly important! This guy is openly explaining the logic behind many organic food buyers: they are constantly trying to replace non-organic (or unhealthy) favorites with better options. Right there, so many ideas come to mind:
- 10 Sugar-Free Organic Cereals
- How to Read Cereal Labels to Avoid The Sugar Trap
- 10 Perfectly Organic Replacements for Your Cheerios
5. Look at your own past successes
When in doubt, go back to the tried-and-true. Report and analyze your content’s performance periodically to avoid losing touch with what works. Staying on top of your numbers brings clarity, and that’s why selecting a robust content analytics package is so crucial. Fortunately, all of the top social networks have incorporated some form of data analysis (most recently, even Instagram!).
The challenge is finding a tool that can inform your everyday decisions. Should you create more of those movie review articles? Are people sharing your celebrity interviews? How are your new quizzes paying off?
Finding a content analytics tool
There are options for every budget, starting at free. Google Analytics, available at no cost to you, can be set up to provide important data points related to your content pieces. Google has also made it incredibly easy to find Dashboards that other content experts have shared publicly. You’ll find the most popular Content Dashboards right here. Import whichever one you like and start tracking your content’s performance every day.
If you’re feeling ready to try a premium content analytics solution, check out the following tools. I’ve added pricing information whenever available:
- NewsCred, starting at $7,ooo USD per month
- Kapost, starting at $3,500 USD per month
- Marketo, starting at roughly $3,900 USD per month
- SumoMe Content Analytics
- Atomic Reach, starting at $99 USD per month
6. Do your keyword research
I’ll start by admitting that keyword research is a huge beast, so it merits not just an independent article but a whole series. That said, I do want to point out that this stage needs to be a part of your content ideation process. Sure, you can curate ideas from what other brands are doing, you can replicate your own successes, and you can even research your audience to see what they need to know. The missing piece is how you manage to place your content pieces right where active searchers can see them.
How SEO affects content distribution
Think about the last time you used Google and clicked through a piece of content. Chances are you used some very specific terms or expressions to find the answer/link you were looking for. Once you saw it pop up in the first few search results (because, let’s face it, we rarely go past page 2), you clicked on it and found a proper solution to your query. Need satisfied.
Congrats, you can now ice a cake!
Now consider that same scenario, except now you’re the content creator trying to get that searcher to bump into you.
What title, copy, description, and image would you use? Which phrases are related to that person’s intent to find information? How can you better position your piece to appear in a prominent position in search results?
7. Just ask
Have you ever considered asking what your audience wants to hear/read about? I recently gave it a try and found lots of great content ideas to work with.
QUESTION! — Your wish is my command. I’m creating new guides to help you create amazing content this Summer and I’d love to know all your burning questions. What do you want to learn about creating content? Need help with blog, video or image creation? Measurement? Improvement? Content for social media? Comment away! ✨
Hey, and now that you’re here, would you mind letting me know what else you’d like to know about content?
Leave a comment below!