10 Strategies to Unearth Amazing Content Ideas

By Joe Pulizzi

Most content entrepreneurs and content marketers fail at developing ideas for their content because they fail to plan. If you are at a point where you are sitting in front of the computer waiting for inspiration to strike, you’re doing it wrong.

There is no one right way to develop ideas for your content projects, but you do need a process. Here are ten different strategies and tactics that work to unearth amazing content ideas.

1. The Content Audit

Before you can determine what kind of content you need, you first need to figure out what you have. In addition, you need to determine whether what you have is any good at all or, better yet, whether you have some raw content that is still incredibly valuable that you can leverage throughout your content marketing strategy.

Why is this so critical?

I’ve worked with hundreds of companies that launched new e-books and white papers and hired freelancers and editors, only to find out midway through the process that much of the content initiative had already been created somewhere else in the organization. Conducting even a simple content audit would have saved those companies time and money.

Content audits can be expensive and time consuming. But there are a number of free content audit templates out there for you to use. For now, let’s keep it simple and focus on your core content assets. Your spreadsheet might look something like this:

You can go as far down the rabbit hole as you want on this. Many organizations do a full content audit of their website and analyze every page (using tools like Google Analytics, Site Orbiter or Screaming Frog). Let’s save that for later. Right now, we just want to know what we’re working with.

2. 50 Questions

One of the amazing things about Marcus Sheridan’s success with River Pools & Spas is that he’s never actually installed a fiberglass pool, even though the majority of the world believes he is the expert. His secret: “The ultimate content strategy is listening.”

Marcus listens to customers, to employees, to podcasts . . . he’s a consummate learner. Then he brainstorms for content ideas. “If you don’t come up with at least 50 questions, you haven’t tried hard enough,” says Sheridan. “If you write two times per week, that’s a whole year’s worth of content.”

Open a notebook and make a list of questions your audience would like to know about (keep your content mission in mind while you do this). At this point, there is no wrong answer. Don’t stop and correct anything—just write questions. Finish your list of 50 questions and take a break. After a while, come back to the list to find the diamonds.

3. Leveraging Freewriting

Mark Levy (author of Accidental Genius) gave me a crash course in something called “freewriting.” Freewriting, also called stream-of-consciousness writing, is a writing technique where the person writes for a set period without regard for spelling or even the topic. Mark uses this technique with his clients to unearth the raw content at the heart of the content creator.

Natalie Goldberg, author of The True Secret of Writing, outlines the rules of freewriting to include:

  • Give yourself a time limit. Write for a set period, and then stop.
  • Keep your hand moving until the time is up. Do not pause to stare into space or to read what you’ve written. Write quickly but do not rush.
  • Pay no attention to grammar, spelling, punctuation, neatness, or style. Nobody else needs to read what you produce.
  • If you get off topic or run out of ideas, keep writing anyway. If necessary, write nonsense or whatever comes into your head, or simply scribble: do anything to keep the hand moving.
  • If you feel bored or uncomfortable as you’re writing, ask yourself what’s bothering you, and write about that.
  • When the time is up, look over what you’ve written, and mark passages that contain ideas or phrases that might be worth keeping or elaborating on in a subsequent freewriting session.

4. Having Fun with Google Alerts

Google Alerts is a free service (all you need is a Gmail account) that delivers web content to your inbox related to the words you are searching for. For example, if you are interested in content around the multiplayer game Minecraft, you could ask Google Alerts to send you a notification when Google finds a new page, say, on Minecraft tips or Minecraft releases.

You can receive alerts as they happen, every day, or every week. These articles can become new fodder for your content ideas.

Note: Also, don’t forget that Google Trends trending searches is a great resource for this as well.

5. Hashtags

As with Google Alerts, your industry may have a number of hashtags that can be a beacon for new content. For example, there are multiple conversations on the web going on around “business-to-business marketing.” The hashtag for this would be #b2bmarketing.

By searching Twitter (via their tool Tweetdeck) or LinkedIn or Facebook or Instagram, you can monitor what is going on around the topic in social media. Other paid tools include Brand24, SproutSocial and Brandmentions.com.

6. Analyze Your Analytics

Jay Baer would never have found his content tilt (differentiation area) of social media without analyzing his web traffic. After publishing a post about social media, he was seeing double and triple the traffic versus his former topic of e-mail marketing.

Make a habit of looking into your analytics on a weekly basis. Find out what people are most interested in and how they are finding your content. It may make sense to create more content around what’s most important to your audience.

Note: While there are hundreds of analytics systems, Google Analytics is free and is relatively easy to install on your website.

7. Employee Discussions

So many employees are afraid to help you create content because they don’t understand that much of the value is added in the editing process. For your purposes, you want the “raw” content from them . . . the information that makes them subject-matter experts.

Relieve the members of your team of their worries by assuring them that the copy will be “polished up” during editing. Then get them rolling by offering the following tips:

  • Record it. Just as in your 50 questions or freewriting exercise, just have them get it out. Get together for coffee with your employees and record the conversation. Simply talk with them about the challenges they are seeing. Before you know it, you’ll have 20 content ideas.
  • Storyboard it out. If the employees are having a tough time opening up, tell them to visualize what they want to say and write down key phrases or concepts onto sticky notes. They can even draw what they’re thinking on sticky notes. This is an especially great way to organize thoughts for a longer piece.

8. Ask Your Social Networks

Although it’s important not to abuse this, asking your social networks can be helpful, especially if it’s around a specific area. The reason why you are reading this content marketing article right now, and not reading about my next mystery novel, is because the idea for Content Inc. (my newly released book) was far and away the most requested piece of information my social network asked for.

9. Talk to Your Customers or Prospects

Hands down, my best generator of new ideas is going to conferences and events and talking directly to my audience of marketers. My 2013 book, Epic Content Marketing, was generated almost entirely by chatting with marketers at events (I can’t wait to get back to events).

If you don’t have direct access to your customers, try email or a phone call. You’d be surprised how open your customers will be when you are not asking them to buy anything. Just ask, “what’s keeping you up at night these days?” and just sit back and listen.

10. Read a Completely Irrelevant Book

Every once in a while I dry up creatively. No matter what I do, I just can’t get focused on a compelling topic.

In this case of last resort, I pick up a book that is completely irrelevant to my content area. I’ve always found that my best content ideas pop into my head while I’m reading a good book. I highly recommend Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert Heinlein or classics like To Kill a Mockingbird or The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

There is more where this came from…

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