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Since I started at New Breed, our internal marketing team has been publishing a blog post every single weekday in addition to periodically producing webinars and longform content offers.
With so much content constantly flowing out of us, we’re also constantly having to come up with new ideas to keep our editorial calendar dynamic. How do we come up with those ideas? I wish there was an easy answer.
Trying to come up with quality ideas is like walking around outside looking to be struck by lightning — you can tailor your environment and actions to increase the odds of it happening, but there’s no guarantee.
There are days when ideas are pouring out of me — some of which are better than others — and other days where I sit at my desk like, “ah, yes: words.”
Keywords vs. Topics
There’s no single right way to generate ideas. The way you think and work will influence your approach, which is definitely evident in the differences between how Guido and I approach ideation.
When Guido is determining whether or not to create a piece of content on a topic, he asks three questions:
- Does it speak to my personas’ pain points and challenges?
- How are my personas thinking about and searching for solutions to this challenge?
- Is it interesting?
“If you’re trying to think at a high level where do good ideas come from, those are the three things to start off with,” Guido says.
However, those three questions aren’t very tangible or actionable. How interesting a topic is can be very subjective. For example, Guido finds content about reporting and metrics interesting, and I struggle to get through blogs on those topics without my eyes glazing over. Meanwhile, I could spend days reading up on etymology and the development of modern grammar and punctuation practices, which isn’t information Guido actively seeks out.
And if you don’t have sufficient research on your personas to know what will resonate with them or how they’re looking for information, the first two questions won’t be of much help either. However, if you do have your buyer personas built out, you can use them as a starting point for ideation.
“But if I’m handed a persona with a bit of an outline of what that person looks like, what role they’re in and a list of some of their day-to-day challenges and the things they’re thinking about, I’ll literally just start typing those things into Google and see what comes up,” Guido says.
Then he’ll dig into those search results and narrow the broader searches into specific topics and keywords he wants to rank for and develop content based on those keywords. The keyword approach is useful for attracting visitors to your website initially, but your content strategy should be about more than just generating website traffic.
“A lot of what your content strategy should be intended to do is take somebody from where they are to where you want them to be and reframe whatever challenges they have to get them to the solution you provide and how it solves for that challenge,” Guido says.
On the other hand, I don’t take keywords into account at all when determining whether an idea is worth pursuing. While this is in part because I have the luxury of teammates who focus on the SEO side of our blog, it’s also because I care more about the quality of the content than how it’s found.
If I come up with an idea that is interesting and relevant to our personas, I’ll create it even if we can’t rank for it organically or there’s no associated keyword with a high search volume. If you have a strong piece of content, you can promote it to gain traction. But if you created content to rank for a keyword that doesn’t provide value to the reader then you just wasted everyone’s time.
Those two approaches work well in combination with each other: Guido’s keyword approach brings high-fit audiences to our website, and my topic-based content strategy helps guide those visitors to other relevant content offers through inline hyperlinks, CTAs and email nurture campaigns.
Look for Content Gaps to Fill
When I’m trying to come up with topics to pitch for our blog, a new content offer or an outside publication, I always start by looking at what already exists. If I finish reading an existing piece of content and I still have questions, or I disagree with what I read then I have an idea of what I can create to contribute to the conversation about that topic.
I also gain ideas from what I need to hyperlink to while writing. In addition to guiding visitors to other content related to what they’re reading, inline links can be used to provide context that’s relevant to the piece but not important enough to devote an entire section to.
For example, we write a lot of posts about how to use inbound marketing tactics. To gain value from a post about specific inbound tactics, the reader needs to understand what inbound marketing is. However, if we devoted a section to defining inbound marketing in every post related to the topic, our readers would get annoyed at constantly having to read the same information over and over again. Instead, we hyperlink out to a blog post defining the topic so the readers who need more information can access it easily, and there’s no friction for readers who don’t need that context.
If you find yourself frequently hyperlinking to an external site in order to provide that background information, it’s a sign you might want to create content on that topic yourself. We decided to write the post “What is Inbound Marketing?” to create an alternative to linking out for that information.
However, you also don’t need to own content on everything you talk about. You still need to think about how you’re providing value to the reader. If you can’t provide any more information than the external link you use, you should keep linking out instead of trying to own that content yourself. But if you can add to content that already exists, either by including your own perspective, supplying specific examples or incorporating a broader range of background knowledge into a single post then you have the right to try and own that content.
Whether you should own content on a particular topic as opposed to linking out comes down to whether or not linking to an external source hurts your credibility and your chance of making a sale. As experts on inbound marketing, it’d be bad if we didn’t have our own foundational definition of the concept. However, there are other technical aspects of HubSpot that it’s OK for us to link out to. Their in-depth documentation of their CMS, for example, is more comprehensive than anything we can create. While we have experts in using the tool, as the people who created and now maintain the tool, HubSpot is better equipped to define what the CMS is and how it works, whereas we can write more about how to use it.
Gain Inspiration from Partners and Competitors
Both Guido and I look at our competitors and complementary partners to help us gain ideas. Those companies are targeting similar audiences as us, so we should be covering similar topics with our content.
When Guido does this, he looks at companies that also target our buyer personas and then checks for what keywords they’re ranking for and how much traffic they’re bringing in. That can help you determine what keywords to target, though your content should address those keywords in a way that’s unique to your solution offering.
I also take inspiration from what our partners and competitors are doing. When I said that during our interview, Guido responded “I love the word ‘inspiration.’ It sounds so much better than ‘copying.’” I said “inspiration” for a reason though. You shouldn’t just be copying content that other people in your space are producing. That doesn’t provide value to your audience.
Plus, while sometimes you’ll be inspired by what a competitor is writing about, e.g. “they’re writing about product marketing, so we should too,” there are other times you can be inspired by how someone else does something.
For example, our blog post “TL;DR: the Value of Scannable Content in B2B Marketing” was inspired by Drift’s case study on Glossier. We didn’t copy the case study. I didn’t read it and think, “That was really good. We should write a case study on Glossier too.”
Instead, I really enjoyed the article and asked myself why. The subject matter isn’t super relevant to me personally or professionally. I realized what I liked so much was how the post was structured.
The case study is long, so it’s broken into subsections. Additionally, both the beginning and end have quick recaps, so if you don’t have time to read the whole post, you can skim the tl;dr at the beginning or read the graphic at the end. Another major strength was the use of graphics to reinforce important points and break up blocks of text.
Once I identified the best practices at work, I decided to write a blog to help other writers create similarly consumable content.
Balance Evergreen Content with Timely Reactions
“To a certain extent, you’d want every piece of content that you create to be this evergreen thing that brings traffic to your website forever,” Guido says. “But that’s not always going to be true, and sometimes it’s good to just capitalize on something that people are talking about and interested in in the moment. There are plenty of pieces of content that are worth writing that are going to have a shelf life and going to die.”
When big things happen in your industry, you should acknowledge them. Being up to date on technological evolutions or societal shifts is an important trustmark for prospects. If you work in finance and a global currency collapses, you need to indicate you’re aware of that and how it impacts your work. If you work in cybersecurity and there’s a major data breach, you need to talk about how your company is working to prevent such data breaches. If you work in SEO and there’s a Google algorithm update, you need to create content on it to prove your product or service will still be effective.
However, there’s a difference between reacting to a current event and jumping on a fad. Don’t start incorporating the newest buzzword into every piece of content you create solely because it’s the new trend in your industry. Look past the buzzword and create content based on the core idea.
Fads can show you common pain points across your industry, but if you take them at face value, they won’t help you create meaningful content that’ll resonate with prospects in the long run. They can help you think of initial ideas, but then you need to develop that idea into a more substantive piece of content.
Create Content About What You Care About
“Some people would tell you that your content strategy should be about documentation, taking what you’re doing today and building content from that,” Guido says.
If you match your persona profile, e.g. the product or service you serve to your customers is something you do for yourself as well, the work your team is doing is a great place to look for ideas.
For example, at New Breed, we provide marketing, sales and operations solutions to our clients. We also do all that stuff for ourselves. We experiment with new tools and strategies on ourselves to learn about how they can be used to help our customers.
But our content isn’t limited to just the work we’re currently doing. Our content library is a resource for our prospects and customers — not an autobiography or diary.
“The way I prefer to think about it is not necessarily to document what you’re doing, but more to document what you care about,” Guido says. “That brings more into scope the newsworthy things within the industry that you have an opinion about.”
At the end of the day, you don’t create content for yourself, you create it for your reader. So, you should be creating content around what your readers care about. While there can be value in talking about what you care about as a company, how your reader perceives your content and benefits from it matters more.
How to Determine if an Idea is Relevant
Regardless of how you come up with an idea, you need data to back up your belief that this piece of content will be relevant and valuable to your buyer personas. The type of approach you take determines whether the data you collect is qualitative or quantitative.
When Guido searches for our personas’ pain points and challenges in Google, he can analyze the search results to get quantitative data.
“That search volume and the posts I can see in Google tell me if it’s relevant,” Guido says. “If there’s a lot of search volume for it, it’s at least relevant in the sense that people think of this term. If the posts that show up relate to what we’re trying to provide, it’s relevant in that sense too.”
I don’t have tangible data to prove my ideas are relevant. Instead, I use qualitative data to come up with my ideas to begin with. Many of my ideas are developed based on conversations I have with members of our sales and services teams. By learning about their experiences working with prospects and clients, I can create content to answer questions before our customers need to ask them.
I also can develop relevant ideas based on what people who are similar to our buyer personas are doing. I can look at the marketing of companies in our space and create content about what they’re doing well and what they aren’t. If many people in our space are doing something ineffectively or inefficiently, writing about how to do that better is inherently relevant — even if they’re not searching for solutions on that topic.
How to Validate the Relevance of a Piece of Content Once It’s Created
It’s easy to determine the effectiveness of content written to rank for a keyword. You look at where it appears in the search results for the terms you’re targeting, how many visitors it’s driving organically and what next steps those visitors are taking.
However, if a piece of content isn’t created to rank, then those same metrics aren’t applicable. Ideally, you’ll be able to include a related CTA in the content so you can use that engagement data to determine relevance, but if you’re writing about a newer topic you might not have that option.
Sometimes you have to trust your gut about whether or not a piece of content is valuable. But, if you’re relying on your instincts, you need to examine how your marketing content contributes to your overall strategy, not how you feel about it as a person. “I really like this post” isn’t an acceptable reason to keep a poor performing blog post on your site. “This post directly addresses a pain point we see late in the buying process” is.
Where do good ideas come from? People.
Whether you generate ideas from people’s behavior like Guido or gain them from talking to people directly like me, ideas come from people. The content you create based on those ideas are targeted to specific people: your buyer personas.
Your content needs to speak to your personas, and it should speak through your brand. Your brand might not be where all your ideas come from, but it should inform how you position your content.
Ultimately ideation is an amorphous process that can’t be dictated or defined in a step-by-step list. You can give a deadline to spur the ideation process, but that won’t guarantee quality. Doing research and learning as much as you can about the people you’re targeting can help, but ideation also takes patience and determination.
Quinn is a writer and copyeditor whose work ranges from journalism to travel writing to inbound marketing content.