Once you’ve started to develop a content marketing strategy, one of the barriers you’ll run up against (and fast!) is having enough consistent ideas to create regularly published content from.
It might sound counterintuitive, but you can easily come up with a system in order to generate content ideas. It’s all about knowing where to look for inspiration, and looking there before the well runs dry, instead of trying to force inspiration in the ten minutes before you write a blog post. (Believe me, we’ve all been there – and it’s not a good place to be.) Once you create your idea generation system, you’ll be surprised at how many ideas you have, and how you can keep the ideas flowing so easily.
Once you have your idea generator in place, it’s just a matter of keeping those ideas organized and translating them into your content strategy and you’ll be a content-making machine. Ready to get started?
Creating a System to Generate Content Ideas
Creating an idea generation system that works is all about consuming as much information as possible while being selective in your consumption. As much fun as it might be, browsing Buzzfeed and aimlessly wandering Twitter all day is probably not going to translate to any great content ideas for your editorial calendar. But don’t worry, we’ve got alternatives for you:
News and Trends:
Google’s Alerts tool is useful here–you can type in keywords related to your industry and get daily (or weekly) updates on news stories that have been posted with those keywords. For example, for an e-commerce related client of ours, I have Google Alerts set up with phrases like “ecommerce study,” “ecommerce news,” and “ecommerce trends.” This gives me a heads up any time that a new study or research is released, which lets me then turn that into blog post ideas that are timely and relevant. Also, using Google Suggest will provide suggestions as you type in your search queries, often times giving you results you may not have even thought of before!
You can also use the Circa app (free for both iPhone and Android) to keep up on news and follow specific stories. Having a bird’s eye view on trending news stories can immediately give you a heads up when there’s a story relevant to your industry or niche. You can also brainstorm how news stories that are from other industries or are more related to world events could be spun into content for your site–“Six things (news event A) can tell us about (your industry),” for example.
Engage in the Community:
If you have a way to keep up with what questions people are talking about related to your industry, you’ll never run out of ideas. Here are some options with tips for each:
- Forums aren’t as popular now as they used to be, but can still be a good source of inspiration if you can find an active one.
- If there’s a subreddit that your ideal customers would be hanging out on, then Reddit might be a good way to get inspiration. (Even if there’s not, looking at the trending stories can give you inspiration in the same way that keeping up with the news will.)
- Quora is entirely designed around giving people the ability to ask questions and get answers from experts, which makes it a great place to get ideas.
- Most of the major social media sites have groups built-in. LinkedIn is the most common B2B suggestion, but there are also business oriented groups on Facebook, and if you’re in a more technical industry, Google+ communities might also be worth looking at.
Plug in to Influencers on Social Media:
If you can keep track of what industry influencers are talking about, you’ll be able to watch for trends or news that are ripe for commentary. Twitter lists are great for this–you can create an “industry influencers” list and check in to it once a day or so, where it will show you only tweets from people on the list. Google+ circles can be used in much the same way. And tools like Follower Wonk can help you find and analyze the people you should be interacting with. Watch both for commentary from high-profile people, but also keep an eye out for discussions. If there’s a hot-button issue being discussed, it’s probably worth writing a blog post about.
Capturing and Organizing Your Content Ideas
Now that you’ve been able to generate content ideas, you have more than you even know what to do with. How are you going to keep it all organized?!
How to Use Google Docs for Content Marketing:
Google Docs, the cloud’s answer to Microsoft Word, is an easy-to-use tool that lets you write and organize blog posts, with your whole team being able to comment on the posts and collaborate in real-time (even if they’re across the globe from each other!). You could have a folder for your content marketing strategy, with a sub-folder for each month. At the beginning of the month, you and your team can outline each post for the month and move the outlines into Google Docs in the appropriate month’s folder, so that when it comes time to write, it’s all ready to go.
One person writes the post, another person reviews and edits, leaving commentary (which the original writer can respond to or not), then the first person finishes it, and you’ve got a blog post ready to go. It’s a great way to keep a whole team on the same page as a blog post goes from none to done.
In addition, you can also use Sheets, which is Google’s version of Microsoft Excel, in order to keep your editorial calendar organized and available to anyone on your team.
How to Use Evernote for Content Marketing:
If you haven’t at least heard of Evernote before, you might actually be living under the proverbial rock. It’s an incredibly powerful tool for taking and storing notes (and it’s free, to boot), but some people have mixed feelings about it. In my experience, the problem isn’t that Evernote won’t work–it’s just the opposite. Evernote is so open-ended and powerful that it can be overwhelming and difficult to see how it can fit into your workflow unless you have a very specific use-case and tips on how to use it specifically for that. Which, luckily for you, I will provide below!
Here’s a few different ways that Evernote can fit into your content marketing workflow:
- Receive an email from a competitor or someone else that looks like good inspiration for a blog post? You can forward it to your Evernote account from inside your email, specify which notebook to add it to, and even add tags to the note. (Read more on forwarding into email here. You can also clip entire threads from Gmail into Evernote using the web clipper for Chrome, as described here.)
- Speaking of tags, inside Evernote, there’s tags and then there’s notebooks. Notebooks can be used as a “top level” organization, with tags providing more granular sorting abilities. A note can only be in one notebook, but it can have more than one tag for it. So, for example, if you know that you’re going to have a month focused on Topic A as it relates to your industry, and you also have a regular case study feature on your blog, then when you come across a business that looks like a great fit for both the case study about Topic A, you can clip it using the web clipper (more on the web clipper and how it works here) to your “Blog post ideas” notebook, and then tag it with “Topic A” and “case study.”
- Evernote also offers the ability to link between notes. (More on how to do that here.) This lets you have both an “Editorial Calendar” note and a “September Editorial Calendar” note that’s linked to from the main editorial calendar note, along with all the other months. Then the September note can say, for example: “Theme for the month: Transportation (See notes from transportation meeting here)” with a link back to the meeting notes, and also link back to any notes that are relevant to particular blog post ideas (like the case study note above, or any other inspiration notes that are tagged with “transportation”).
- The amount of integrations with project/task management and other productivity tools is worth mentioning too–see the full list of integrated apps here.
- And, of course, there’s shared notebooks in the business version ($10/user/month), which lets your team members collaborate on your editorial calendar and content marketing. It’s available on pretty much OS out there (mobile and desktop), plus there’s a web app, so your whole team can collaborate in one spot.
How to Use Your Notebook for Content Marketing:
After all these fancy cloud-based suggestions, you’re probably surprised to see the good ol’ analog notebook on this list. No matter how high-tech our world gets, handwriting still has its place, given that research shows people learn faster and remember more when writing notes vs. typing and that it’s better for composing and expressing ideas. In fact, our own CEO Bill Rice has a serious weakness for old fashion pen and paper, so you aren’t alone if this is your preferred method.
Here are a few suggestions for getting the most out of a notebook:
- In his book The Accidental Creative, Todd Henry suggests something that is so simple, but totally blew my mind: giving your notebook a table of contents. When you get a new notebook, number the pages (or buy a notebook with pre-numbered pages; here’s a Moleskine-esque alternative). At the beginning of the notebook, draw a vertical line dividing the page, and then every time you get done taking notes from a book or brainstorming, note down what pages you wrote on and what the topic was.
- As an alternative or a supplement, you can also buy notebooks with pre-color coded sections (here’s one that I use and love). I keep all my client meeting notes in the green part, gray is idea generation notes, purple is specific content notes (outlining videos or blog posts), and red is miscellany.
- Have a way to easily skim and extract actionable items from your notes. I use a star or an asterisk at the beginning of a line. You could also do a box or a line in a different color. The idea is that when we’re brainstorming, whether alone or in a meeting, we have ideas, and then we have takeaways to make the idea actually happen. Whether that’s discussing more with your team, researching a topic, or outlining the post, you need to have an easy way to pull out the things you need to do and enter them into your task/project management tool of choice.
Two areas where a notebook is really going to shine when it comes to getting creative with content generation are mind-mapping and sketchnoting.
Mind-mapping is meant to be a way of getting ideas on paper that’s both creative and linear. Sometimes, you just have to write it down! You can see some examples here–the central idea goes in the middle of the mind-map, with additional notes and ideas branching off around it. A third level of information can branch off the branches (twigs, if you will). Here’s an example of what this blog post may look like in a mind-map:
Sketchnoting is pretty much exactly what it sounds like. It adds together actual text notes with quick sketches that correspond to the content. The idea is that by giving your brain more information to look at (not just text, but images too) and create with, you’re making the content more memorable. (My memory isn’t great, so seeing things visually really helps!) You can see examples from around the world here, and here’s a guide to incorporating sketchnoting techniques into your notes.
Here’s an example of an animated video that uses sketchnotes alongside the audio content of the speaker–you can see how it makes it much more engaging and makes you more likely to remember the content, and that’s without you drawing it.
Processing Content Ideas into Your Editorial Plan
Okay, you’ve got all your ideas, and you’ve got them all organized–what’s next?
If you’ve already got an editorial calendar, or the outline for one in place, look at the themes for your editorial calendar and see how they fit with the themes that are coming up in your ideas. Sometimes the match won’t be 100% but can be made to fit with a little bit of tweaking–using the earlier example of transportation as a monthly theme, trending news issues of sustainability could be modified to work well with that theme.
If you don’t already have an editorial calendar in place, look for themes that are coming up in the content. Are there common questions, issues, debates, or struggles? Any breaking news that is going to be around for a bit? You can map them to your editorial calendar, even incorporating seasonal issues if you want. For example, August and September might be a good time to discuss back to school themes as it relates to your industry.
Ideally, you’re aiming for a decent mix of evergreen content that’s going to do well in search engines and on social media for years to come, and content that’s commenting on current news and events in a timely manner. The exact blend is up to you; 50/50 is a good starting point, but you probably don’t want to have your content be more than 50% news-related (because it’s not going to do as well over the long-term).
The next installment in the series will get more into creating a strategic content plan, so stay tuned for that. In the meantime, here’s your homework:
- Sign up for Google Alerts to keep up on trending news in your industry.
- Install the Circa App if you want to keep up with news on the go.
- Pick one community to engage with over the next month, and commit to checking in/using it at least once every other day for 30 days.
- Create a list of influencers on the social media channel of your choice and aim to check in with it every day for 30 days.
- If you’re so inclined to work within the cloud, set up Evernote or Google Docs to help you store and organize content ideas. Or, at least, make sure your notebook is ready to be filled with plenty of new content ideas!