Content Idea Generation: 3 Super Easy Steps

content idea generationIf you’re like most content creators, bloggers and writers, at some point you’ve stared at the blank screen cursing the flashing cursor because you have no content inspiration.

I wish I could tell you that I had a magic Harry Potter type spell that would instantaneously transmit your creativity into tangible format.

But alas like you, I’m only a mere human and I’ve suffered from my share of Blank Screen Syndrome. When it strikes, it’s painful and my writing reflects how badly I feel. I’m sure yours does too.

Bestselling author Stephen King said it best, “Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.”

"Amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work." Stephen King #writingClick To Tweet


To overcome this content creation and writing challenge, I’ve spent time studying content idea generation.

In the process, I’ve learned that brainstorming content ideas requires both creative and analytical skills.

Since these talents are very different in nature, content idea generation is difficult. To generate quality content ideas, you must separate the creative process from the analytical process by letting your mind rest in between. Do these 3 steps together and you’ve got an easy-to-follow process.


Content Idea Generation: 3 Super Easy Steps

content idea generation


Content Idea Generation Step 1: Brainstorm ideas

What are content ideas?

Distilled’s Mark Johnstone defines an idea as a novel combination of previously unconnected elements in a way that adds value. Below Johnstone’s illustration shows how unrelated individual element nodes can be connected in a new way via the red dotted line.

Idea generation

Mark Johnstone defines an idea-Visual via Slideshare

Following this logic you can create new content ideas by randomly mixing elements until you reach a connection that makes sense. To do this, force yourself out of your comfort zone and challenge your need to think objectively.

When I’ve studied writing with the poet John Yau, he gave us exercises to accomplish this. For example, we had to take an article from the New York Times, select every 13th word, and use these random words to create a cohesive page of content.

By contrast, Portent’s Ian Lurie uses “Random Affinities” for inspiration. This is when 2 ideas are connected via a common audience. To discover these connections use Facebook ads, Amazon listings, Google Suggest and Reddit. Of course, you can also survey your existing audience.

Tap into the power of Random Affinities where 2 ideas are connected via a common audience to generate content ideas. @Portentint #contentmarketingClick To Tweet


Content Idea Generation

Use Ian Lurie’s Random Affinities approach to generate ideas – Example via Moz

Brainstorming options

It’s easy for your boss to tell you to produce as many new ideas and approaches for content as quickly as possible. But it’s difficult to come up with good options when you’re under pressure staring at a blank screen!

While many businesses may organize a group of employees to publicly develop and share ideas, this approach is less than optimal since a few executives or know-it-alls may inhibit others from contributing.

Alternatively, this type of brainstorming session can result in groupthink, a term coined by Irving Janis where a group makes poor decisions due to a lack of independent reasoning.

Further, in brainstorming research by Paul B. Paulus, groups switched between independent and group work (referred to as asynchronous brainwriting) to take advantage of the best of both options. As a result, idea generation was 71% higher.

Instead allow individuals to brainstorm ideas on their own for a limited period of time and to share them later to yield more and often better results.

Bear in mind the goal of brainstorming is generating a large quantity of ideas no matter how quacky, not a few over-thought quality concepts. 

James Altucher, author of Choose Yourself, recommends building your idea muscles by generating 10 ideas per day.

@jaltucher recommends building your idea muscles by generating 10 ideas per day. #contentmarketing #writingClick To Tweet


Content Idea Generation Tools:Content Idea Generation

While personally I’m a fan of graph paper and colored pens, these tools offer different options to inspire your ideas:

  • Traditional offline tools: Include notepads, post-its, and/or moleskins. Even better in my opinion, they allow you to spark your imagination with colored pens or pencils. Yes–drawing is encouraged.
  • Mind mapping. Can be done online or offline and takes different formats, often it’s a collection of bubbles connected with lines. Roger Parker is a big fan of mind mapping.
  • Smartphones. Use voice notes or the notepad functionality to capture ideas on-the-go. Don’t overlook the camera to capture an idea or inspiration.
  • Online storage tools: Include Evernote, Dropbox and/or Trello (Michele Linn’s favorite!).
  • Online documents: Depend on your tablet or computer. Use Google Drive (previously called Google Docs) which has the benefit of facilitating sharing.
  • Social media: Includes Pinterest as well as groups or requests to followers on Facebook, Twitter and/or LinkedIn. Also consider Quora and LinkedIn Groups to see what questions people have.

Actionable Content Idea Generation Tips:

  • Keep an idea swipe file. This can be a digital file or resource where you save content, articles and emails that contain great ideas that you can modify and use later. When you use these ideas, think like an artist to make them better.
  • Survey your audience. Ask them what content they want and need. Find out about their interests to discover chance affinities. Use your email autoresponder, SurveyMonkey or GoogleDocs. Example of how to gather information from new email subscribers via Actionable Marketing Guide
  • Take advantage of existing content idea generation tools including  Hubspot’s Idea GeneratorAnswer The Public and Ubersuggest.


Content Idea Generation Step 2: Let ideas rest

Content Idea Generation

Let your content ideas percolate-Take a walk

Once you’ve got a list of content ideas, walk away from your desk. Allow your mind to work on them while you’re doing something else.

“Contrary to what those who claim to work best under pressure believe, the best blog post creation (or any content creation for that matter) takes place over time” according to John Cleese. Give your mind time to work on ideas while you doing something else. This is why people claim to get good ideas in the shower.

Many writers include solitary walks as a regular part of their daily routine. Graham Greene, author of The Wind In The Willows put it best:

“Nature’s particular gift to the walker, through the semi-mechanical act of walking — a gift no other form of exercise seems to transmit in the same high degree — is to set the mind jogging, to make it garrulous, exalted, a little mad maybe — certainly creative and suprasensitive, until at last it really seems to be outside of you and as if it were talking to you whilst you are talking back to it.”

Content Idea Generation Tool:

  • Your brain. The best content idea generation tool you’ve got is the one in your head! Give it a rest to do it’s magic!
The best content idea generation tool you've got is the one in your head! Give it a rest to do it's magic! #contentmarketing #writingClick To Tweet


Actionable Content Idea Generation Tips:

  • Get out of your office to do something physical. Allow your mind to be creative while you move.
  • Unplug from your connected devices. Train your mind to work without device stimulation. In Deep Work, Cal Newport emphasizes this point.
  • Have paper or smartphone available to capture random ideas when they occur to you. Otherwise, they’ll be gone forever. (Note: This smartphone use differs from the point above since you’re choosing when to use it!)


Content Idea Generation Step 3: Vet and validate your best ideas

After letting the ideas rest, vet the best ideas. Ideally, do this as a group or with other people. To eliminate potential prejudices, the lists of ideas should NOT have any names associated with them.

Before you start vetting your brainstormed list eliminate any ideas you think are a yawn or BS! Chances are if you think so, so will your readers; so why invest any more time in that content?

Why People don't read your content-Research chart

Research By Dejan found readers don’t consume your content if they think it’s boring

4 Tactics To Vet Brainstormed Ideas

Here are 4 tactics to assess and improve your blog post ideas even if you don’t have a team to help you.

  1. Examine your past content marketing results. Use Google Analytics and similar tools to determine which articles resonate best with your readers.
  2. Use search tools to determine where your best opportunities are for specific keywords and topics. This process can uncover new content creation opportunities.
  3. Check your ideas on social media. This can be as basic as testing ideas on Twitter or in Facebook or LinkedIn Groups. Alternatively use a variety of social media monitoring and platform-specific analytic tools.
  4. Get human input. Don’t go it alone. Get feedback from others. Even if you’re a one-man band, send your ideas to a few people you trust for their input. BuzzSumo’s Steve Rayson does this to gut check content. As a bonus he gets influencer input.

Idea validation done well ensures that the ideas you use will yield quality content that stands out.

Content Idea Generation Tools By Tactic:

  • Past Results: Google Analytics, surveys, and sales and customer service employees
  • Search Rankings: Google Search Tools and Trends, Open Site Explorer,, Ahrefs, SimplyMeasured, RivalIQ and Moz
  • Social Media Trends: BuzzSumo, Communities (such as Reddit, GrowthHacker and Inbound.Org), LinkedIn Groups
  • Peers and Influencers: Employees, agency, blog buddy. Also check your competitors (aka: Frenemy Influencers)

Actionable Content Idea Generation Tips:

  • Get a blog buddy. Work with another blogger who is at a similar point in their journey as you. This provides a good sounding board beyond idea generation.
  • Mix your employees off to qualify content and edit each other. MarketingProfs led by writer par excellence Ann Handley has employees check each other’s work.


The Content Idea Generation Conclusion

Great news! You never have to face “Blank Screen Syndrome” again. (Yes-that’s a thing and, yes, I made it up back in October 2010.)

Unlike Harry Potter and he who shall not be named, naming things gives you power. (You’re a grownup—right?)

Please take this advice seriously. This 3 step content idea generation process isn’t a New Year’s resolution that you stop after a week. (I’m looking at you!)

If you want to keep your creative ideas flowing then you must practice generating them consistently.

Unless, of course, you don’t want to create 10X content.

Happy Marketing,
Heidi Cohen

P.S. If you’re interested in learning more about content idea generation, please join me at Social Media Marketing World 2018. I’m presenting on this topic on Friday, March 2nd at 1:30pm.

Heidi CohenHeidi Cohen is the President of Riverside Marketing Strategies.
You can find Heidi on FacebookTwitter and Google+.


Photo Credits:
Light bulbs: cc zero
Pencils: cc Zero
Walk: cc Zero

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