If 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 that I had a magic Harry Potter type spell that would instantaneously transform your creativity into tangible format.
But alas like you, I’m only 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 creative challenge, I studied content idea generation to figure out a better, less painful approach. I discovered that:
Idea generation requires both creative and analytical approaches.
Since creative and analytical work draws on different skills you must separate the creative process from the analytical process to generate quality content ideas. To facilitate content idea generation without stress, I developed the super easy 5 Step BRAVO Method.
This article will explain the research behind content idea generation and then walk you through the 5 Step BRAVO Method including actionable tips.
What are content ideas?
Steve Jobs said, “Creativity is just connecting things.”
Distilled’s Mark Johnstone explained ideas more precisely in a way that you can adapt to enhance your creative thinking. He said that “an idea is a novel combination of previously unconnected elements in a way that adds value.”
Johnstone’s illustration shows how unrelated individual element nodes can be connected in a new way via the red dotted line.
Following this logic you can create new content ideas by randomly mixing elements until you reach a connection that makes sense.
When I’ve studied writing with the poet John Yau, he gave us exercises that forced us out of our comfort zone and made us make new connections. 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
Since there are different ways to generate ideas, test them to discover what works best for you. Realize that the methods may vary depending on your specific project.
Content Idea Generation: Super Easy 5 Step BRAVO Method
Content Idea Generation BRAVO Step 1: Brainstorm ideas independently
The goal of brainstorming is to generate a large quantity of ideas on your own. Don’t evaluate or self-edit them as you document them no matter how wild or unrelated they may seem. At this point, keep these thoughts in their original unvarnished state.
Brainstorming Idea Research
Contrary to common business practice, brainstorming ideas doesn’t involve a group of employees huddled in a conference room with a whiteboard and pizza shouting out random thoughts. Sound familiar?
This approach is less than optimal since a few executives or know-it-alls may inhibit others from contributing. Also, 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.
By contrast, Paul B. Paulus’s research found that groups which switched between independent and group work (referred to as asynchronous brainwriting) were able take advantage of the best of both options. As a result, idea generation results were 71% higher.
Brainstorming Idea Take-Away:
To yield more and, often, better results allow individuals to brainstorm ideas on their own for a limited period of time and to share them later.
How To Build Your Content Idea Brainstorming Muscles
At the heart of our creative block when we’re faced with the blank page or screen is the fear that we’ll never have another idea. EVER.
Often manifest as a sense of dread in the pit of our stomach, we think that even if this creative draught yields even the whisper of an idea, it won’t be worthy of developing.
While these fears feel real, they only exist in our head.
To break out of this cycle of self pity, you need a process that enables you to continue to have more ideas into the future. As a result, you don’t assign too much importance to any one idea.@jaltucher recommends building your idea muscles by generating 10 ideas per day. #contentmarketing #writingClick To Tweet
By developing a daily content idea generation habit you’ll keep filling your idea stockpile so that you no longer have to worry about having an idea draught.
Personally I recommend doing this first thing in the morning before you have your coffee (or tea). This is when your mind is still connected to your dream state and is most creative.
Content Idea Generation Tools
When you’re generating content ideas, feel free to try a different options depending on your mood. Personally I’m a fan of graph paper and colored pens.
Here are 6 content idea generation tools:
- 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—rawing 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 its camera to capture an idea or inspiration.
- Online storage tools: Include Evernote, Dropbox and/or Trello. Copyblogger’s Sonia Simone uses Evernote while Michele Linn uses Trello.
- Online documents: Depend on your tablet or computer. Use Google Drive which has the benefit of facilitating sharing.
- Social media: Source ideas from Pinterest, Facebook, Twitter and/or LinkedIn. Also use Quora, Reddit, and Slack to discover questions and discussions.
Actionable Content Idea Generation Tips
- Keep an idea swipe file. This is a digital or paper file where you save content, articles and emails that contain ideas that you can modify and use later. Also photograph notes and other offline content.
- 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 Generator, Answer The Public and Ubersuggest.
Content Idea Generation BRAVO Step 2: Rest Ideas To Let Your Brain Work
Once you’ve got a list of content ideas, walk away from your desk. Allow your mind to work on them while you do 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 or many writers take solitary walks as part of their daily routine.
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!
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 connected devices. Train your mind to work without device stimulation. In Deep Work, Cal Newport emphasizes this point.
- Jot down random ideas when you get them. Otherwise, they disappear. Use paper or smartphone for idea capture. Ann Handley uses a small notebook while I like post-its.
Content Idea Generation BRAVO Step 3: Assess ideas to select the best
After letting your ideas rest, you’re ready to select and assess the best ones.
While the research shows that groups do a better job of choosing the best ideas, don’t worry if you’re a solo creative or blogger.
I recommend that you wait about a week to collect a sufficient quantity of ideas and to allow them sufficient time to marinate. Allowing a period of time to pass between idea generation and selection has a similar effect.
Assuming that you brainstorm 10 ideas for 7 days, this will yield 70 options from which to choose. (Note: To build the idea brainstorming habit, practice everyday including weekends.)
If you do this step with others eliminate potential prejudice by combining all of the ideas into one list and removing the names associated with specific ideas.
Set aside time to review the ideas you’ve collected. Ideally add this time to your weekly schedule.
Before evaluating your brainstormed list, eliminate any ideas you think are a yawn or BS! Chances are if you think so, so will your readers.
As you go through the list you may discover part of one idea works well with part of another one. Don’t worry–You want this to happen. Restate your new idea and change the wording if necessary. This process is aligned with the comments of Steve Jobs and Mark Johnstone.
Based on Upworthy’s “Write 25 potential headline approach”, this step should yield about 2 quality ideas or 8 articles per month.
To help you, here is the Assessed Brainstormed Ideas Worksheet I use.
Content Idea Generation BRAVO Step 4: Vet and validate your best ideas
Once you’ve selected your best ideas, vet and qualify them by connecting them with keywords and other data. Done well, this step reduces your content creation work. It creates the basis for outlining the first draft of your content while ensuring that it’s based on verifiable facts. It taps into your analytical skills.
This is the process that Co-Schedule’s Nathan Ellering followed to develop his Best Times To Post On Social Media blog post. Although his customer service team pre-selected the idea, he still needed to vet it and find relevant data.
Idea validation done well ensures that the ideas you use will yield quality content that stands out.
4 Tactics To Vet and Qualify Brainstormed Ideas
Use all 4 of these tactics to qualify your content or blog post ideas even if you don’t have a team to help you.
- Examine your own data to determine what resonates best with your audience. Tool options include Google Analytics, surveys, and sales and customer service employees.
- Check your ideas on social media.Since social media is key to short-term content amplification and distribution Testing ideas on Twitter or in Facebook or LinkedIn Groups. Also use BuzzSumo, Communities (like Reddit, GrowthHacker and Inbound.Org) and other social media monitoring and platform-specific analytic tools.
- Use search tools to determine your best opportunities to rank for specific keywords and topics. As a long-term content distribution strategy use Google Search Tools and Trends, Open Site Explorer, SimilarWeb.com, Ahrefs, SimplyMeasured, RivalIQ and Moz.
- 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 input. BuzzSumo’s Steve Rayson does this to gut check his content. Also ask employees, agencies, your editor or a blog buddy
Actionable Content Idea Generation Tip:
- Collect information to vet ideas. Use the “Information To Vet Ideas” worksheet. As part of the 5 Step BRAVO Method, I created a worksheet to ensure that you capture the right information to streamline your content creation.
Content Idea Generation BRAVO Step 5: Outline the content
After you’ve done your research to vet your top content ideas, you’ve got the key elements you need to sit down and write what Ann Handley affectionately calls “The First Ugly Draft (or TFUD). As the name implies, you’ll probably need to craft multiple iterations.
Before you sit down to compose your piece, go through the information to create an outline. Not the painful way that you did in fifth grade with Mrs. Thompson peering over your shoulder for structure.
Rather put your thoughts and related information and examples into an organized format that will guide your writing. Start with a very rough outline and move the points around until they follow a sensible order.
The introduction sets up a problem or thesis that causes readers to keep going. Ideally use a strong hook that pulls reader in.
In the body of your piece you make your argument responds to your thesis using 3 to 10 points. Each point should be able to stand on its own. Further, each should include a sub-head, a data point, an explanation with analysis, example and/or quote, your tips and a visual (or eye candy) to attract attention.
Lastly your conclusion should provide concrete advice that answers your thesis and removes barriers to reader action. Outline the reader’s next steps and include a call-to-action.
Gathering the relevant information and organizing it before you start writing reduces your content creation time since you don’t have to stop to check facts. Also your draft is focused on the optimal search term.
Actionable Content Idea Generation Tip:
- Transform your information into an outline. Use the Outline Content Worksheet that I created to organize your content before you start writing.
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. The 5 Step BRAVO Method for content idea generation isn’t a New Year’s resolution that you abandon after a week. (I’m looking at you!)
If you want to keep your creative ideas flowing then you must practice these 5 steps to generate ideas and transform them into quality content consistently.
Unless, of course, you prefer to sit in front of the blank page pretending that you want to create 10X content.
The choice is yours.
Publisher’s Note: This article was originally published on January 30, 2018 and was updated after #SMMW18 to include the BRAVO Method I presented there.
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