When you’re planning blog posts, it can be hard to keep coming up with good ideas, let alone a good title.
Sure, you have a couple in the pipeline, and some other topics you’re itching to write about. But looking at the calendar a couple months down the line, you’re coming up blank. How is it that some places churn out insightful and well-written content every Wednesday at noon?
Some creative types chalk it up to one glorious “brainstorm”—a crazy spike in energy when you scribble maniacally and then all of a sudden you’ve outlined the next year’s worth of posts, ready to queue them up into WordPress. But in reality, that’s not how it happens. In fact, it can be really frustrating to hear someone talk about idea generation that way — as if it happens totally naturally and suddenly.
We interviewed some of the best content marketers in the game to find out how they come up with the ideas. As it turns out, inspiration doesn’t strike in one magic moment. Their brilliant content writing calendars can be boiled down to one process.
1. Know Thy Audience
The first step of the idea generation process looked different to the content marketers we spoke to. Some browsed Twitter, others scribbled ideas down during their company’s daily standup. But it all came down to one thing: thinking like their audience.
In order to generate an idea for a blog people will actually want to read, you need to know who’s going to be reading it.
This goes beyond a basic demographic understanding of your readers. You need to go deeper. What terms are they searching for? What blogs do they like? What are they reading on Twitter? The good news, these days, is we live in an information-rich world where you don’t have to take a stab in the dark—you can actually find out.
A good way to do this is to create a list on Twitter which consists of the sorts of people you’re targeting. If you’re looking to get in front of the same people as a group of influencers in a field, you can use Buzzsumo to do just that.
Go to Twitter Influencers in the Amplification tab and search for your keyword. I used ‘productivity’.
Filter the selection down to just ‘Influencers’ then start adding them to a Twitter list.
You can monitor this list for just a few minutes every day to get ideas which will likely resonate with your audience.
Before you even think about writing a blog, go research.
Browse the competition
One way to do so is to look at the competition. No, not to steal their content — to know what your readers expect and need.
It’s a strategy a bunch of top content writers use. For one, it gives you an idea of what content is already out there—and what isn’t. Browsing the competition tells you what’s missing from the story, and what gaps you can fill in.
Blake Thorne, head of content at StatusPage.io. says that Basecamp and Buffer are huge inspirations for his content. But he never recycles their content—he builds on it. Looking at other blogs reminds Blake what’s unique about StatusPage. By looking at Buffer and Basecamp, he remembers “not to lose sight of the fact that we’re writing for our customers and our audience, and that’s unique to us. We should always be thinking about them.”
Looking at other blogs is also a good way to push your quality. Jimmy Daly, a content marketer at Vero, told us “There are a few blogs that up the ante, and those influence the level of quality we’re after.”
Get in front of your readers’ questions
Another way to think like your audience is to draw up a list of questions they might have. This is another strategy a lot of content marketers use at this step of the process. They head to the whiteboard and make a list of every kind of question their customers and potential customers might ask of them.
It’s hard to get in someone else’s head. So a good way to figure out what kind of questions people have is to ask your customer service team! No one wants to call into customer service—they’d much rather find the information they’re looking for in one place, online. It’s a technique Janet Choi, head content marketer at Customer.io, often uses, and resulted in some excellent blog posts, that answer customers’ questions before they have to call in to ask them.
Another place to see real life questions from your target audience is Quora. Quora is a Q&A site with millions of entries, some of which are great insights into the pains of your audience. If someone’s typing a question into Quora, not Google, it probably means that Google doesn’t do a good enough job of answering the question.
If you have a sense of what your readers’ pain points are—whether it’s specific to your product or your industry—you can craft great blog posts by answering those questions before they even come to you.
Remember that you’re in a unique position—you’re an insider in your company. What kind of information can you give that no one else can?
2. Prepare to Get Stuck
So now you have a list of big ideas and questions you’d like to answer. Now comes the hard part. Perhaps you should tackle a post from this angle? No, that other angle sounds much better. Or perhaps it should be broken up into two posts? Or maybe it could be a part of a series!
This is where people get stuck. Pinning an idea into something manageable is hard.
Creative processes are sticky. But that doesn’t mean you should abandon them. If anything, it means you need to plan to get stuck when you’re thinking of ideas. Here are some tools content marketers use in this stage.
Mull it over
Sometimes creativity just requires you to slow down.
That’s because our best ideas need time to brew—and that brewing time needs to be scheduled into the process. The marketers we interviewed were clear on this: it doesn’t mean taking the easy or lazy way out. It means actively taking time away from the project to let the ideas stew.
So what do you do with that time? The content marketers we spoke to all have different tactics. Archana Madhavan, a content marketer at Amplitude grabs a cup of coffee, and says that returning back to work in a few minutes (a little caffeinated), can make all the difference. Janet from Customer.io goes for a walk, which has been known to get the creative juices flowing.
Sometimes you just need more time to let the thoughts coalesce. But if you plan time for an idea to stew, you’re more likely to have something worth sharing when you come back to your project.
Learn how to riff
If every story in the book has already been told, why are we still telling stories? Because we’re telling them from new angles. We’re riffing on old material.
Another tool a lot of marketers use at this stage of the process is to riff on other posts that have performed well. Danny Schreiber, a content marketer at Zapier says he really likes riffing on past high-performing content writing—it’s one of the best ways to think of a new angle on an old idea. “That usually gets my gears going,” he told us.
Blake from StatusPage does the same thing: “We’ll revisit old posts and see if there are things we left out, different ways to expand on those stories.” It’s a good way to think of a new angle on an old idea.
But as all the marketers we interviewed mentioned, they don’t just riff blindly. If you’re looking at a previous post that performed particularly well, take a look and try to really understand why it performed the way it did. If you’re trying to replicate success, you need to know why something worked.
And generally, riffing is the starting point for a really great idea. As Janet from Customer.io says, “Sometimes the act of writing is enough to wrestle a big idea down into something concrete and insightful.” If you have a topic you want to cover, like “marketing SEO,” and you need to pin it down, try riffing. You might just riff your way to a great idea.
Use a random word generator
Everyone hits that wall where they feel like there’s nothing new under the sun. Every article idea you’re coming up with has already been written about on another site, and has already received feedback and traffic. How are you supposed to get creative when all your ideas have been done?
But as Steve Jobs famously said, “Creativity is just connecting things.” That’s why Sarah Bartley, head of customer support at Pilot, uses an online random word generator to come up with ideas for her blog posts when she does content writing. Pilot is a fiber-optic Internet service provider. There’s a lot of material there, but everyone gets stuck once in a while. When Sarah’s stuck for ideas, she goes online and makes herself write potential blog post titles based on randomly generated words. Even if those words sound ridiculous at first.
For example, a recent spin on the random word generator spat out the word “cake.” A dessert? What could a dessert have to say when put into conversation with fiber-optic technology? But Sarah instead decided to plow through, and drew up a potential post title: “The Grocery Startup Revolution.”
Even though it started from a silly idea, the creative process is about putting two things together even if they feel incongruous at first.
3. Collaborate, Collaborate, Collaborate
So you’ve come up with your big idea. You’ve gotten through the hard part of taming it into something that can fit into a 1500-word post. Now you need to find out what someone else thinks about it. You might be totally in your own head! Bouncing ideas off of people is incredibly important before you start writing.
Blake from StatusPage bounces ideas with people in an informal way at this stage. “I talk a lot with our co-founder, Steve. Sometimes just talking off the cuff about a topic, without an agenda or structure, engages creativity in a big way.” It lets you see things in a new way.
Contextualize your article
In addition, talking to other people can give you a better idea of where your article belongs in the greater scheme of the company.
Archana from Amplitude agrees. As she told us, “The rest of the marketing team is definitely a tremendous help when it comes to idea generation. I run my ideas past our Director of Marketing, so we can prioritize them and make sure they fit into the greater narrative of what our content is trying to convey at Amplitude.”
It’s easy to have a myopic view and think about the next coming weeks of content. But talking to someone else can give you an idea of where they belong in the broader sense.
Danny from Zapier uses Trello to do just that. “We’ve found hosting our editorial content in Trello has been great, especially when we take advantage of the comment thread for discussing the upcoming post, its title, SEO, art, etc.” A lot goes into a blog post, and laying it out in a visual way can give you a good sense of its context.
Your blog doesn’t exist in a vacuum—talking to other people forces you to remember that.
Think outside the team
Another element of this process is to talk to people outside of your team.
As Meryl Ayres, a marketer at Wistia says, “I mainly bounce ideas off of others on the marketing team, but if I’m super excited about a new idea, I’ve been known to tell just about anybody to get more input.” That’s a great way to get perspective. If you’re only talking to people who understand the jargon you’re using in a post, it can be helpful for someone to take a step back and say “hey, that doesn’t totally make sense to me.”
Talking to other people is also an excellent method of “killing your darlings,” a term every writer has heard but perhaps isn’t too fond of. If something is particularly dear to you, it might not make sense to someone else. The difficulty of killing your darlings is that it really takes an outside perspective for you to get there, to know what needs to go.
Plan Ahead to Alleviate Anxiety
Writing can be a stressful process—especially when you have to generate ideas.
Having a systematic writing process is one way to alleviate some of that stress. This is especially true of content marketing when people are very concerned with calendars and scheduling posts to a deadline.
The marketers we spoke to have a lot of tips up their sleeves, but one trumps them all: planning ahead. These three steps take a lot of time. If you don’t plan ahead, you cram them all together and the process won’t flow correctly. If you want to do the process right, you need to devote some time to it.
It benefits every single step of the process. Janet from Customer.io likes to work ahead of schedule (“although that’s much easier said than done,” she says) because it allows for ideas to breathe. If you’re working down to the last minute, you won’t have the time that you very much need. Jimmy from Vero says he has to “make lots of lists in a paper notebook, it alleviates some of the anxiety of executing an idea.”
Of course, the right path to the perfect post isn’t going to be the same for everyone. Steps 1, 2, and 3 of idea generation might look different for different people. Sometimes it might entail spending more time on one step, or just figuring out what works for you. But no matter what it is, you need to hammer out the system to produce high-quality content writing while maintaining low anxiety levels—it’ll benefit you and your blog.