A Beginner’s Guide to Content Marketing: Brainstorming Topics (#3 of 5)

Coming Up with Ideas

Sometimes you feel like you have no shortage of good content ideas, other times you’d be hard pressed to develop a good idea if you had a gun to your head. Or you’re in the shower and something brilliant pops into your head but by the time you get dressed and ready to write it down, you’ve lost it. Unfortunately being creative can be frustratingly uncooperative. When you have to generate content ideas for business you often don’t have the luxury of shrugging that challenge off. You need to generate content, it has to be engaging, relevant to your customer, aligned with your marketing strategy and you have a deadline—stress factors that usually make matters worse.

What to do? Employ an effective idea generation process that enables you to keep the winning ideas flowing. In the following section, we’ll show you how to do it.

Tweak Your Perspective

Inspired content ideas aren’t necessarily the product of genius, luck, magic or peyote. They generally happen in unexpected moments. Our big challenge as content marketers is how to come up with them on demand; how to pull them from the deeper recesses of our brains when we need them. Here are a few ways to approach that task:

  1. Observe more strategically—go to events, people watch, see what weird things people are doing.
  2. Talk with people that you wouldn’t otherwise converse with—new perspectives will help you see things differently. We’re all carrying biases that we use to interpret our worlds. Don’t believe it? Go to YouTube and watch a video called The Backwards Brain Bicycle.
  3. Read a lot more—reading stimulates creativity, plain and simple.
  4. Keep a journal—we have a lot of emotions getting in the way of our creativity (even if you’re Mr. Spock). Journaling allows you to get more in touch with those emotions. Go check out the book The Artist’s Way for more on this.

Implement a Process

In his book A Technique for Producing Ideas, James Webb Young writes that creative ideas are merely pre-existing ideas brought together into a new combination. That’s not to dismiss them as easy to generate; it’s a real challenge to re-combine what you have kicking around in your head into something resembling a useful creative thought. That’s why idea generation processes are necessary. A simple, structured exercise can do wonders to jump start your brain. Here are a few ways to do just that:

The Basic Steps of an Idea Generation Process

Step 0: Gather Raw Material

We are calling this “Step 0” because it is one you need to incorporate into your life on an ongoing basis. Like our prior recommendation, if you read a lot, invariably you will consume a lot of thought-provoking raw material that you will always have in reserve to draw from when needed. So make it a habit to be curious about a wide variety of topics and you will always have that “swipe file” of creative fodder residing in your brain. Document somewhere online (e.g. a Google Doc) those ideas that jump out as interesting and refer back to them from time-to-time (we recommend a Google Doc because you can then pull it up on almost any device you have available in the moment—laptop, iPad, Smartphone, etc.)

Step 1: Brainstorm

In ten minutes, come up with as many content ideas on a specific topic or problem you can think up. Strive to get to around 40 ideas but don’t be constrained by quantity just jot down as many as you can. The goal is to loosen up your creative synapses and assemble all that raw material together into new combinations, relationships and connections.

Step 2: Step Away

After step 1, walk away for a little while. The processing will continue to happen in your passive cognition—i.e. your subconscious mind. The power of this resource has been well explained (go check out the book: The Power of the Subscious Mind (https://amzn.to/2ZeWzJS).  If you allow your mind to organize itself without active interference, you’ll be amazed by the results.

Step 3: Find Inspiration

Inspiration will come to you when you least expect it but be ready to write it down. This process is certainly not anything we invented. People have been employing it to great success for centuries for a host of creative pursuits (even if they never broke it into the above steps).

Brainstorming with a Group

Doing a group brainstorm, especially with so-called “non-creative” members of your team, is a great way to generate fresh thinking. Here are our recommendations for structuring a group brainstorm.

Step 1: Create an Agenda & Rules

Brainstorms can easily devolve into unproductive chaos without an agenda that details the run of the meeting and the duration, and a few basic guidelines which serve to set the rules of the exercise. For example:

  • Objective: Our objective is to generate content ideas around  ______ topic. or…Our objective is to generate content ideas for the first quarter content calendar.
  • Ground Rules: The only kind of acceptable feedback is feedback that is constructive in nature. The fundamental idea is to build on each other’s ideas. You can’t call an idea wrong, rather you can only offer solution-oriented feedback on someone else’s idea (e.g. “I like where you are going with that but maybe adding ________ would make the idea even more stronger” or “Maybe we should also included __________.”) 

Step 2: Braindump

A braindump is an uninterrupted period of time (usually 2-3 minutes) where you jot down all the ideas that people throw out. This exercise is a great way to get the juices flowing with your “non-experts” (i.e. no knowledge of a given topic). The goal is quantity, not quality so don’t overthink or edit answers—just get them down as quickly as possible.

Step 3: Track All Ideas

Write down all your ideas on post-it notes so afterwards you can move them around and group them by topic, trend or theme. Be sure to display all ideas so the process feels positive and encouraging. The primary goal of the brainstorm is to generate new, unexpected ideas. Resist the urge to edit, refine or critique. There will be time to do that later. You want to come away with a handful of ideas you can build upon.

Researching Ideas

Obviously Step 0 in the above is a vital foundational step. Here are a few ways to tackle it:

Empathize with Your Customer

What are your customers’ challenges and pain points? If you make it a habit of reading what your customers are reading (blogs, websites, etc), you will be far better positioned to answer that question so you can better understand and empathize with them, and thus build strong connections with them with your content. But how can you go about finding out that what they’re reading?

  • Ask them—add surveys to your website, maybe even call customers directly to interview them.
  • Use tools—use online tools like Buzzsumo (https://buzzsumo.com) to see what content is performing best with your audience in social media.

Keep an eye on competitors

Keep an eye on your competitors’ content marketing efforts to see what they’re producing. Use Buzzsumo to which of their content is resonating.

Check out what your audience searches for and discusses online

Take your set of SEO keywords to do a few online searches to see what comes up on the following platforms:

  • Google: Google is a highly optimized research tool that if used correctly can go a long way towards transforming your content marketing. Whenever you type in a search, Google suggests additional related queries using its proprietary predictive technology. Here’s how to use this in your research. Start by typing in one of your keywords then check out both the suggestions that appear in the search bar (the so-called “Autocomplete” functionality) and those that appear at the bottom (the “Related Searches” area).
  • Quora: Quora is another good tool for gathering insights on your audience. Quora is a site for community-sourced answers to millions of random user-submitted questions. Start by doing a few searches using your set of keywords and see what comes up. This exercise can give you incredible insights into the common questions related to a given topic that people struggle with; develop content that answers those questions and you’ll be providing valuable solutions for your audience.

Additionally, leverage the specific search terms your target audience uses: 

Google Search Console: Google Search Console is an invaluable tool for seeing what topics you’re actually ranking for, that is, the specific search terms your audience is using.