Posted by SimonPenson
“Ideas are like rabbits. You get a couple and learn how to handle them, and pretty soon you have a dozen.”
â John Steinbeck
John Steinbeck has a point. Outside of being one of America’s most celebrated authors he was also a man that understood the life or death importance of ideas in the context of content.
As a lowly magazine journalist I remember routinely being told that “ideas are the lifeblood of content strategy” and that lesson has lived with me ever since.
It’s why I have spent thousands of hours since the early 2000s iterating my own process to maximize the output from time spent working on creating them.
Creativity as a process
It seems strange, then, to suggest that the process of creating brilliant ideas consistently should be just that: a “process.” After all, isn’t creativity best performed in an environment free from constraint and boundaries? There is evidence to suggest that is the case, but in practice structure ensures that those ideas are consistently award-winning and hit-you-between-the-eyes awesome.
But why is this even important in the first place? I’m sure I don’t have to convince you, as a learned reader of this blog, that content strategy is now the heartland of any effective digital strategy. Content, after all, is what has been creating audiences for thousands of years, and that will not change anytime soon.
In fact, it’s perhaps even more important than you are led to believe, and nobody puts it better than Yahoo! co-founder Jerry Yang when he said:
“I think that it’s always possible to have a great company if you have great ideas.”
Great ideas permeate every level of an organization, and so while this is focused squarely on digital content ideation, a similarly structured approach will produce equally consistent results across the board. And given that the biological process behind creating ideas (more on this later) is a real process our best bet is to mimic that as closely as possible in the physical world.
The problem with ideas
By their very nature ideas are subjective. Beauty truly is in the eye of the beholder, and so without any kind of structure, the ones that make it onto the final to-do list will often come from one or two that “shout loudest” in any open brainstorm scenario.
Before we even get into the actual structure, then, it is worth considering for a moment how you should set up the actual environment in which you plan to execute your ideation strategy.
Before you start
Deciding how often you want, or need, to create new ideas is the first step in the process, and this will be different for every business. If you are agency-side like us at Zazzle Media then the answer will be multiple times per month, but in house it really depends on how “big” your content ambitions are and an understanding of your audience in terms of what they want and expect you to create.
If you are working in-house at a large brand, then with multiple blog and social channels as well as work “off page” around digital PR, the answer may be once or twice per month. If you only have a single blog and do a “bit in social,” once every quarter may suffice.
How you answer this comes back to what you know about those you are writing for and also what resources you have to create the content.
The “where” of content ideation is critical to the success of the process. Working in the same room that is cognitively associated with mundane tasks can inhibit key synapses, or brain connections. What your brain is looking for, in simple terms, is to “loosen up.”
This is because our brains look for new experiences and stimulation and will work at their most creative when the three main areas known to be involved in idea creation are at their most relaxed. They are:
This is the part of the brain used when you are really thinking hard, such as in a conference or client meeting, where concentration is critical. It links to memory, so you “store” those ideas for later and block distractions, allowing you to focus more intently.
This area of the brain is able to process the information and break it down, mixing it with past, present, and future scenarios to create possible new ideas.
This monitors what is happening around you and passes the information to the appropriate area of the brain. It is the “switch,” if you like.
New surroundings help stimulate all of these key areas, and if you can get those participating in a meeting to go for a walk first, then you’ll also tick another key “creativity box” in releasing endorphins, which will serve to boost mental capacity even further.
To this end, we will often choose to run content meetings in the cafÃ© within our offices, at a local bar/pub, or even outside (if the UK weather allows!).
The key to great content strategy, of course, is variation. I have written previously about how you can check content flow, and it’s really important that you first understand the importance, and second are aware of how well you are performing against this critical content metric.
It’s important because of the way humans are built. For decades print publishersâespecially in the world of magazinesâhave worked on improving the “flow” of their titles to ensure that avid readers keep coming back for more.
You can easily reverse engineer this and check it for yourself to see what I mean, but take my word for it; the more you are able to vary the type of content you produce, the better your return visitor stats will look and the larger your audience will grow.
This means that your brainstorm needs to be built to extract as many different ideas as possible, giving you the ammunition necessary to create such a strategy.
Here’s how. The chart below may look relatively simple, but it is the result of 12 years of trial and error, testing, blood, sweat, and tears to define the most effective roadmap for eking out the right mix of content, irrespective of niche.
The version you see here is a static version of the animated process you can play with by clicking on the image or right here (a version on our own site, which then links through to the various tools we use to make the process as effective as possible).
The idea is that you split each brainstorm into eight constituent parts. Let’s run through each stage in turn nowâ¦
1. The brief overall strategy
A critical component of any content process is to ensure there is a clear, shared understanding of the overall aim or strategy of the campaign. Like a company vision statement, it should permeate every level of the business and everyone working on the campaign should be able to recite personas and align everything to the overall aim of the work they are doing.
Sounds simple, but the number of times we see businesses without this kind of alignment has made this a very important first-port-of-call in the process.
It is a relatively easy entry into the overall ideation process and requires a simple conversation and initial centering of all ideas around the objective.
For instance, that may be “to grow an audience of 30-40-year-old white-collar workers who are into skiing.” Centering all ideation on that will keep ideas focused and in line with overall objectives.
An example idea: A series of image-based “how to” guides covering ski techniques (this site does a good job of this), distributed via targeted social amplification to our target demographic.
This then ties into a deeper conversation around what key data we have, or can create, to improve existing or “reach” audience insight.
A previous post of mine on the Moz Blog detailed a way in which we leverage data from social to help inform audience understanding, and often we will run this process beforehand to give us an initial swathe of audience profiling data.
This is also where existing persona detail will be shared so we can ensure that we are coming up with ideas fit for the different “types” of audience being targeted.
A 35-year-old married father of two working in insurance will be intrigued by very different content than a 60-year-old widower looking to invest cautiously for retirement when they are considering financial services businesses, for instance.
This is where we create those audience-centric ideas, and this section can often be one with the greatest depth.
Based on insight into our skiing business example, we may discover that there is a high correlation between our audience and those that also like surfing. If that is the case, an example idea may be a list-based feature looking at X ways in which surfing techniques can help you become a better skier.
3. Long-tail opportunity
Long tail is an increasingly major opportunity, especially for those leading their digital marketing charge with content creation. Google’s Hummingbird update is also designed to better surface more precise answers to queries, and that should mean more traffic for what traditionally we had traditionally known as the long tail.
Creating content that is based squarely on existing search volume as opposed to simply guessing and hoping it may attract visits is a critical component of any strategy.
The research for this can be carried out beforehand, but often we find it more useful to run tools such as Ubersuggest and Grepwords during the session to make it inclusive and more interesting. More people suggesting input phrases can also mean you end up with a wider selection of potential terms to run through.
The idea then is to prioritize those phrases either on potential search volume or ‘fit’ with the mix of the overall content plan.
Here is a snippet of what the former tool has surfaced for our skiing example; clearly there is opportunity to utilize this information in the formation of a daily article creation strategy:
4. Semantic phrases
The marketing world is awash with talk of entity search and semantic association. For those that haven’t the time or inclination to go away and read awesome guides on this area by the likes of Aaron Bradley or Moz’s own Matthew Brown, in simple terms it is the concept of organizing information by understanding individual “things” (entities) and their relationships with other “things,” without there already being an explicit link between them.
Semantic search understands those relationships, and therefore (in theory) the implicit part of any query, and can thus deliver a richer list of results.
Understanding what other phrases, or words, may be semantically linked can be useful in ensuring that you are “whole-of-market” going forwards, and can expand laterally into relevant content areas.
Few tools really help with this at present, well but one we do use is LSI Keywords, which provides a very simple way of exporting other similar or relevant keywords. Google’s own database of entities, Freebase, is also quite useful, and its search functionality will list other associated entries, giving you a simple map of subjects you could still cover while staying relevant. If you type the word into the top search bar, you are presented with a list of themes relevant to the topic:
You can further expand the list by clicking on the “view more” link at the bottom of the drop-down. This list can give you an amazing framework from which you can work on wider topic areas.
5. Trending content
One of the easiest ways to capture large amounts of new visitor traffic is to jump on existing conversations around trending content themes.
Again, it can pay to get everyone involved in the brainstorm to spend five minutes before the meeting researching news-related blogs, news sites, and social channels for ideas to expedite the process, but it is not impossible to do this live, either. Google Trends, Social listening tools, Fresh Web Explorer, and other tools can be great to get the latest angles on relevant themes.
These will obviously be time-sensitive, so it is important that you brainstorm for this content on a regular basis and leave placeholders within your content calendar for what you find. So, for instance, once a week (say every Wednesday) you’ll enter [news-led article], and the subject matter will be decided based upon the maximum possible impact.
The idea, also, is that you move the debate forward. Don’t simply rewrite what has already been said. Look for exclusive, interesting angles to throw in the mix.
For instance, if I use Social Mention to look at the latest skiing chatter, I soon discover that there is some cool content being shared via Facebook (use the search filtering options in the left column to drill down to specific platforms, sort by sentiment, and look for top users, etc.). Perhaps you can come up with Part Two to the epic “Star Wars Meets The Winter Olympics?”
6. Evergreen content
And then we come to one of the most important areas of all: evergreen content. Why is it so important? Quite simply, it’s the content you will put the most effort into perfecting, that will attract the most traffic, and that will have the most longevity.
It is imperative that you really understand the core concerns, frustrations and gaps in knowledge your audience has so you can fill those gaps in great detail and build trust, association, and engagement with your brand.
So, how do you go about working out what kind of content you should be producing here? The answer lies in keyword analysis, competitor analysis and audience data insight once again.
Tools like Searchmetrics can also help here; its long-tail opportunity tool can help you see what some of the most successful sites rank for alongside their traffic volumes and value. This makes finding the opportunities you don’t have and ranking them in order of priority that much easier. Sort by either volume or opportunity, and you have a list of content creation to-dos right there!
For this section to run smoothly, you should prepare a spreadsheet of keywords with search volumes for your target country. This will help validate any ideas that come out of the brainstorm. Ensuring that what you think is a good idea for a lengthy evergreen piece actually matches real-world search demand. If you’re putting in a heap of effort then this is crucial in ensuring positive ROI from the activity.
You should end up with a list of five to 20 ideas to go away and begin work on.
7. Content types
By now you should have a long list of possible ideas. The key at this point is to start classifying them into “content type” piles. To do this, create a spreadsheet with all the relevant content types for the brand along the top, and then drop in your ideas below. That way you can see which content types may be a little light on the ideas front, and you can further brainstorm around that specific area, filling in the gaps. Here’s an example of such a table:
8. Purchase funnel
The final discussion centres squarely on ensuring that the range of content covers the entire purchase funnel. For those that do not have the classic funnel engrained, you can see the various stages to the right here in the widely accepted classic purchase funnel, based on the AIDA principles first set out by marketer E. St Elmo Lewis.
AIDA stands for:
- A – attention (or awareness): Attract the attention of the customer.
- I – interest: Raise customer interest by focusing on and demonstrating advantages and benefits (instead of focusing on features, as in traditional advertising).
- D – desire: Convince customers that they want and desire the product or service and that it will satisfy their needs.
- A – action: Lead customers towards taking action and/or purchasing.
What regularly happens with ideation is a team will end up with lots of content that sits at the top of that funnel, helping with brand discovery and touching on consideration.
It is critical, however, to brainstorm content ideas that help people through that buying process and also help turn them into evangelists and long-term clients/customers.
This is where in-depth, unbiased buying guides and looking after your posts comes in. You can also improve retention with work to build a community around your offering (Moz is the perfect example!), offers and competitions, “exclusive” member clubs and offers, and so on.
We had this missing from the mix until around six months ago, but since introducing it we have managed to add a powerful new dimension to the overall content plan, and it works really well.
So, you now have your list of ideas. The next phase is then what we class as content planning, which is a subject all of its own. In short, you then need to distill those ideas into realistic, deliverable, concepts, and once you have that editing process complete you then place those ideas into an editorial calendar that can be delivered with the resources you have available.
Example for each stage of this funnel may include:
- Exposure/awareness: The “Star Wars Meets the Winter Olympics” idea mentioned above.
- Discovery: A thought-leadership piece on why the brand believes a new country is the next big “skiing Mecca”
- Consideration: An expert buyer guide on the products and wider choices, such as the “best skiing holiday for under $ 1,000”
- Conversion: Trust-building content, such as an honest comparison table comparing our brand with other competitors, proving why we are best.
- Customer relationship: An amazing editorial email concept introducing them to the brand initially, with offers, etc.
- Retention: Exclusive offers for those “in-the-club/VIPs” (existing customers).
That’s the process; here are the tools to help
There are a number of tools we use on a regular basis to make this entire process more efficient and effective. I have listed the best of them below to help you through the ideation process:
1. Ubersuggest â a popular long tail opportunity finder based on Google’s suggest feature of previously searched for phrases.
2. Grepwords â The Instant Keyword Tool provides downloadable ‘csvs’ of related keywords along with search volumes and CPCs.
3. Google Trends â This is generally a very useful tool to find trending content and check for demand but it’s especially useful when you use the 2013 round up of top searches. The how to guides could be gold dust for the right businesses?
4. Magazines â A less obvious “tool,” but certainly a great resource for great content ideas. Choose a specialist title for your niche.
5. Bottlenose â A great content-curation engine built to aggregate content based on social “noise” and sharing.
6. Content Idea Generator â not the best tool on the list here but it can help with idea structuring.
7. Topsy â An awesome Twitter-based analytics and analysis tool that can be used to see most shared content.
8. Inboxq â A great tool for surfacing key questions being asked so you can answer them and create content based on them.
9. Murally â This is a useful tool for helping to curate related concepts and ideas in one place
10. Flickr â A fantastic resource for visual content cues. Stick those you like on a Mural.ly board and you soon have a look and feel understanding.
11. Followerwonk â Useful for finding influencers around specific subject matter to see what’s being shared and engaged with in a space.
12. Trello â This is a great tool for organizing more complex ideas.
13. Quora â A fantastic resource for discovering longer-tail content opportunities to answer questions being asked.
14. Google+ circles â Follow the right groups, and they can be fantastic idea resources.
15. Ifttt â Not an idea tool in its own right, but the automation of certain tasks can make collating ideas so much easier.
16. Alltop â An easy one-stop-shop for latest subject matter articles and other content to ‘borrow’ ideas from!
17. Google Alerts â A must-have for the latest on your niche to help with trending content.
18. Zanran â A brilliant “search engine” for stats and facts, which helps with content based on compelling data.
19. Moz Alerts â Another useful tool for keeping an eye on trending content ideas and competitor activity.
20. LinkedIn Groups â Like Google+ Circles, these are fantastic for finding questions to answer.
21. Link Bait Title Generator â We love this simple tool. It may be limited in terms of ideas but it’s quick and simple to use.
22. Delicious âThe original shareable content aggregator and still a great place to discover fantastic content ideas.
23. Trapit â A clever content curation tool that gets the right content to you efficiently
Pulling it together
The next stage of the process, as explained, is to then edit your final list of ideas down into a realistic list of concepts that you CAN deliver with the time and resources you have available, and that can be a significant amount of work in its own right.
Get it right though and you will end up with a content calendar filled to the brim with ideas that grow and engage your audience across every digital channel. That plan becomes the heartbeat of your entire digital marketing strategy.
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