I’m an idea guy.
I know it’s unfashionable to say that. I execute, too (I’m writing this post right now, see?).
But at my core, I love the world of ideas.
As a content marketer, your content ideas are of crucial importance. What you write and why you write it will inform how you write it and how effective it is. Great content starts with great ideas.
This is especially true in a world where SEO and content data is largely democratized. Your competitors can pop into Ahrefs and get the exact same list of keywords and search volume that you can. They can then use Clearscope to design a content brief that almost ensures your content will look similar to the competition.
So how the hell do you stand out?
Better content ideas. Content ideas that come from different sources that keyword research tools. Content ideas that align to your audience’s pain points and interests.
10 Ways to Generate Content Ideas
- Have coffee with your audience
- Go to conferences and meetups
- Implement customer feedback loops
- Mine review sites, social media, and forums
- Find hidden search queries on your own website
- Become your audience
- Reverse engineer smaller competitors
- Reverse engineer popular viral content
- Find untapped opportunities in your own content
- Go with your gut
These tips will help you come up with topic ideas for whatever types of content you write – video content, infographics, blog content, case studies, Instagram stories, YouTube videos, landing pages, social media marketing, memes…whatever.
You’ll have no trouble filling up your content calendar and keeping your content creators busy after doing some of these steps
1. Have coffee with your target audience.
First let me get the obvious out of the way. Yes, you can find blog post ideas in keyword research tools like Ahrefs. I do it all the time, and it’s a key piece of my content marketing strategy. Look, I just drew this report up in about 45 seconds:
Reports like this tell me a lot, such as keyword search volume, difficulty, CPC, and which competitors rank for these keywords with which pages.
They can’t, however, tell me anything about how my audience will respond to the topics at hand. Nor can they determine the relevance of *me* writing those articles vs my competitors doing so (I can see that Neil Patel ranks for “quora” but I can’t see if people give a shit about the content he wrote).
Plus, what already exists on search engines is red ocean. It’s hard to use past data to find any interesting *new* ideas.
One of my favorite ways to find net new ideas that both a) resonate with my audience and b) are unique and/or difficult to find in keywords tools is simply to have coffee with people. Or lunch. Doesn’t matter. But in-person conversations tend to kick up sparks and inspiration that you’d never get behind a keyboard.
Before the pandemic, I used to get lunch at least once per week and coffee at least twice per week with folks in my industry. It wasn’t as strategic as looking for content ideas, but they came anyway. Actually, I just enjoy building my network and having conversations with smart people. Sometimes I learn about how they grow their businesses. Sometimes I just have a good conversation about something totally irrelevant, like poker or the paleo diet.
But 7 out of 10 times, I walk away with at least once topic idea for a new article.
Make networking a habit. It will help you come up with new content ideas, but it will also make you new friends.
2. Go to conferences and meetups (or listen to podcasts).
Even more efficient is to just go to a conference or a meetup. Of course, this is sort of like aggregating hundreds of meetings and idea vectors in one single location. So you can have dozens of coffee and lunch conversations in the span of a few days versus several weeks.
And the immersion helps you stay focused. Typically at a conference, you tell your boss you’ll be “offline” for the time being, so you get permission to simply live and meet and learn. In a normal coffee meeting or lunch, there’s always the impending next to do list item or meeting, which can distract from a full, immersive conversation.
And then you get to watch talks from top speakers and meet them at the after party. These people are in the content creation game, having spent hundreds or thousands of hours working on whatever they spoke about in their presentation. They understand content gaps and what people are interested in inherently. A ten minute conversation with a conference speaker should fill you with tons of inspiration, as will the actual presentations they give.
Sit through a few, poke holes in what they’re saying, and see if you can find any rebuttals, spin-offs, or tributaries from the ideas they spoke about.
If you don’t have the means to go to a conference or, if you’re in the middle of a pandemic, you can also get insights from attending virtual conferences and webinars. Even listening to podcasts (like The Long Game) can help you eavesdrop on good conversations and pull together ideas.
3. Implement customer feedback loops.
So the last two tactics are explicitly active. You have to get out of the house and get coffee with someone or pay a few thousand bucks for a conference ticket and hotel room.
An easier, passive way to find content ideas is to ask your audience for topics. You can do this two ways.
First, if you’re collecting email leads (which you should be) and you have set up a nurturing sequence (which you should have), you can introduce a reader survey in one of the first three emails.
Just use a tool like Woorise, Survey Monkey or Typeform. Draw up a few questions of things you’d really like to learn about your audience. A mix of demographic and psychographic questions, such as:
- Describe yourself in a few sentences
- What’s your job role?
- What size company do you work at?
- Which topics do you most like reading about?
- What’s the biggest challenge you’re dealing with at work?
- What content would you like to see more of on this newsletter/blog?
Not only will you get qualitative topic suggestions here, but you can also quantify your audience (which helps make actual data-driven personas) and you can see how their behavior correlates with their survey answers (maybe a certain size company ends up purchasing more from you).
All great audience intelligence and such low hanging fruit.
The second way to set up content feedback loops is to introduce on-site polls on your blog. You can use a tool like HotJar or Qualaroo, or even a messaging app like Intercom or Olark.
On blog pages, simply prompt a question like:
- What content topics would you like to read more of?
- Have you been able to find all the information on this page you were looking for?
- Are there any questions you still have after reading this?
You can ask whichever question you’d like, but the idea is to prompt qualitative and open ended feedback about what kind of questions, pain points, and desires they have with regards to your content.
I’ve gotten so many great ideas from on-site surveys and polls.
4. Mine review sites, social media, and forums.
The last three methods all suffer from one problem: the Hawthorne effect.
When people know they’re being observed or surveyed, their behavior and responses change. They’re conscious of interaction and a motive on your side.
So when possible, it’s best to identify behavior or at least attitudes or opinions expressed in the wild.
What better place to find these opinions in the wild than forums and social media? People are talking about their pain points all the time on Reddit, Hacker News, niche communities and Slack groups, Facebook groups, and Twitter. They’re also voicing their opinions about products on review sites, which could help you map Product Led Content topics to your actually product or category.
I’ll walk you through a few examples:
Imagine I’m writing a conversion optimization blog. I could hop onto Ahrefs and try to steal all of CXL’s keywords, but they’ve probably built up quite a moat. So instead, I’ll hop onto their Facebook group and see what kinds of questions and discussions people are having. Here’s one about how to start a CRO career from a different marketing role:
This could easily be a blog post, and you’ve already got quotes below you can pull & cite (and even reach out to the experts giving that advice and see if you can meet and interview them).
Once you have the general topic and angle in mind, you can always go back and map it to a keyword using Ahrefs:
You can do this on LinkedIn or Twitter as well. Just search for your topic and see who’s writing interesting stuff about it! You can also reach out to these people for guest posts and quotes:
On Twitter, you can follow a certain hashtag or certain influencers, but you can also use their Advanced Search, which is super powerful:
Or imagine I’m working at a company that sells tea. I can look at my own product reviews or those of competitors and see what tangential topics people bring up that led them to purchase or enjoy the product. Here we find someone complaining of stomach issues due to coffee:
This alone is a seed of an idea. I can then reverse engineer it to see if there is demand and search volume. Search something related in Google like “coffee stomach” or “coffee stomach issues”
Then take the first or second page that ranks and pop it into Ahrefs site explorer. See what keywords, if any, it ranks for. Bam! You’ve got a topic idea + an example + associated SEO metrics:
And finally, just join any and all communities and Slack groups where your customers hang out. Go where the fish are. You’ll see discussions in their natural habitat, be able to respond and build credibility, and fish out pain points and topic ideas almost by osmosis.
5. Find hidden search queries on your own website.
Does your blog or website have a ‘site search’ option? If not, it should.
And if it does, are you enabling site search analytics in Google Analytics? It’s easy to do:
This will give you a big list of everything users are searching for on your site, along with corresponding metrics like search exits, which is when someone searches and then leaves your site.
If your site has a small list of search terms, you can just look through all of these and find interesting terms – things you may not have even known people were looking for.
A better way, however, would be to do a time comparison and find trends.
This will give you the most popular terms, but even better than that is a little known feature where you can sort by “absolute change.”
This will let you see the biggest changes over time in your search data:
Of course, this is only a narrow band of searches based on who lands on your site and what they expect to find.
Expand beyond that with Google Search Trends and Exploding Topics. These tools capture the macro environment of search volume and trends and help you jump on rising keywords and trending topics:
6. Become your audience.
If you’re writing about A/B testing, run some A/B tests. If you’re writing about ecommerce, start an ecommerce store.
Honestly, this is table stakes in my opinion. Content written by an expert will always resonate more with other experts than content written by a novice.
Plus, it’s fun. You get to develop new skills and potential income streams.
Become who you are writing for. Everything is easy after that.
7. Reverse engineer smaller competitors.
The plight of many content marketing programs is a matter of economics. The deck is stacked in favor of the big guys: the more established your domain and the greater the age of your content marketing program, the easier it is for you to compete, and thus, the fewer resources and risk you expend.
Smaller programs and startups have an uphill battle. You must compete on less competitive terms or produce outstanding and expensive content with a lot of link building to usurp larger brands’ rankings.
So instead of just looking at what your biggest competitors are ranking for, try to find a tinier site in your niche and see what they’ve managed to rank for. You’re not a shark eating a minnow or a minnow eating a shark. You’re a minnow eating insects, and hopefully one day you’ll transcend to a greater rung on the status hierarchy.
Let’s say I’m running content for AppSumo. They want to write product review lists to try to pull in software buyers and offer their own marketplace products. I could look at G2 and Capterra, but they have strong domains and a lot of topical authority. Some of these might be feasible.
But I may also be able to look at smaller websites, namely affiliates, that somehow have managed to rank for key terms.
So I would just map out some smaller players and run a content gap analysis in Ahrefs:
If a lower Domain Rating competitor is ranking for a keyword, the logic goes, then I can rank for it too if I just write a superior version of it.
This is a great way to find untapped opportunities for an SEO-driven content strategy.
8. Reverse engineer popular viral content.
On the other side of the barbell strategy, across from our SEO-driven stuff, is what I call “buzzworthy content.” This is the stuff that drives human interest, virality, backlinks. Beautiful, beautiful backlinks.
While you can’t predict virality, you can reverse engineer what formats of content typically go viral.
First, let’s look at Ahrefs’ Content Explorer report. Go to Content Explorer and search your topic of choice. I’ll do “kettlebell” here to see what’s out there in the fitness space.
Your first option is to simply organize by relevant, which gives you a really good lay of the land.
If you’re particularly interested in social shares, though, you can sort by Twitter or Pinterest shares.
Content explorer is a good option, but I like to get narrower. If you have a competitor in mind that you’d like to reverse engineer, you can simply pop their domain into Site Explorer and use the “Pages” reports to see how successful each page is. This report shows best pages by links:
This one is by link growth, which is even more helpful because it shows you what is *currently* picking up steam:
Finally, there’s a “top content” report here that shows all metrics associated with performance and interest, such as social shares and traffic estimates.
While there’s some survivor bias here because you’re analyzing brands that have already built some audience and success, you can cherry pick the best performing pieces and see how they differ from their lower performing pieces.
On these lists from Onnit, I’m seeing a lot of articles about myths and controversial topics, such as the carnivore diet, hangover cures, and debunkings. This would tell me to go to Exploding Topics or to simply listen in on social or conference discussions, find topics of debate, and write a comprehensive piece laying out all the facts and myths to represent a source of truth and authority.
If we’re competing with Onnit, we could do a debunking on the merits of the keto diet or on the false hopes and misreadings of biohacking devices like continuous blood glucose monitors and sleep tracking rings. That would surely fire up some debate!
9. Find untapped opportunities in your own content.
The process of blogging should, itself, lead to more ideas.
Every article you write should spawn at least 2-3 more content ideas. You can break off little pieces of pillar pages easily. You can do the same with any piece of old content, particularly if there’s a comment section and discussion.
For example, every listicle, by definition, contains multiple single items. Look at this article from CXL, on “5 Uncomfortable A/B Testing Questions.” One of the items is what your overall ROI is after several months of running tests:
This then became a standalone piece on how to calculate the ROI of a testing program:
Content marketing is like limitless cell division (…cancer?), where every idea spawns two more ideas. Every question spawns two more questions, ad infinitum.
10. Go with your gut.
In the end, sometimes you’ve gotta risk it to get the biscuit. Even if you don’t have data to justify an idea, you can still write about it. And there’s nothing wrong with a good group brainstorm to think up interesting topics, especially thought leadership ideas.
Especially if you *are* the expert or the audience, you’ll have developed some fingerspitzengefühl.
Do a brainstorming session with your team. Create content. Launch the article. See what happens. Learn and iterate.
Over to You
We put up a lot of barriers around content ideation. Some bloggers live and die by their keyword research tool. Some struggle to fill the editorial calendar. Me? I struggle to slot in and prioritize all the ideas I want to write about.
Hopefully these idea pools help you generate mad levels of content topics as well.