It all starts with an idea.

When it comes to running a successful content marketing campaign, everything rests upon producing something that people want to link to, share with their network, or engage with.

If the idea isn’t there, neither will the performance of the campaign.

You need to find ways to feel inspired and brainstorm content concepts.

But how?

We’ve All Stared at a Blank Whiteboard

When is the last time you sat around a blank whiteboard as a content team, trying your best to come up with that next big idea?

This is how too many people try to do brainstorming.

News flash: It doesn’t work.

Participants are typically unengaged, disconnected from the end goal, and unproductive.

This classic approach to brainstorming is inefficient.

Sadly, for most of us, ideas don’t simply flow when we’re under pressure.

We need to find ways to source seeds of inspiration which can then, in turn, be developed into fantastic concepts.

Don’t forget, though, that a technique which works for one person won’t work the same for another.

Content ideation doesn’t have to be stressful and it doesn’t have to feel like a chore. You need to find a way in which you feel inspired to come up with great ideas.

Ideation should be enjoyable. There’s a real sense of accomplishment when you’re the one responsible for a successful campaign!

But how do you approach it?

Here are eight ways to come up with better ideas for your campaigns.

content-brainstorming

1. Understand That Journalists Cover Stories, Not Content

Perhaps the first thing to understand when trying to come up with concepts for your campaigns is that, above all else, you need to tell stories.

As such, your goal for an ideation session should be to end up with a series of headlines and stories which can be developed further, not simply to come up with ideas for content.

Why?

Because journalists cover stories, not content.

Ask a journalist what their role is at a publication and they’ll likely tell you that it’s to tell stories to their audiences. Stories which they can engage and connect with. Rarely would they tell you that they cover content produced by marketers. That’s not what they’re interested in.

Sadly, journalists generally don’t care about the format of your content, unless it enhances the story. They typically aren’t looking for an infographic or an interactive piece of content to share with their audiences but rather the stories which come from these.

Stop approaching ideation sessions by deciding you want to design an infographic or develop an interactive campaign as the first phase. Avoid the mistake of working format-first.

Start your brainstorming session by coming up with stories and you’ll quickly find yourself in a position to cast aside those ideas that aren’t backed by real headlines.

2. Build a Swipe File of Great Content Assets

One of the most effective ways to feel inspired to come up with great ideas is by taking the time to study campaigns that have worked well for others.

It doesn’t matter whether that’s content produced by your closest competitor, a business in a completely different industry, or even something produced years ago; it’s all about using the ideas of others as inspiration.

If, like most content marketers, you spend hour upon hour searching the web for inspiration, do yourself a favor and begin to build up a swipe file.

This could be as simple as an image folder on your desktop, a Pinterest board, or even an app such as Pocket. What’s important is that you’re creating your own collection of campaigns and content pieces you love.

The rules for creating a swipe file?

There aren’t any!

Whatever inspires you; add it to your swipe file and go back to have a flick through it whenever you’re struggling for inspiration.

It’s a time effective way to drive ideas in that you can quickly swipe through, potentially, hundreds of inspiring ideas in just a few minutes; reminding you what you love about them and what you could do in your own campaigns.

If you’ve yet to start building your swipe file, do so today. You’ll thank yourself for it down the line.

3. Look at What’s Working in Other Industries

It’s all too easy to spend time studying the content which your competitors are producing, especially if you’re an in-house marketer, and to find yourself subconsciously copying what they do; yet working out how you can make it better.

This is sometimes fueled by an unintentional narrow-mindedness within an industry and sometimes by a competitive spark, but it’s important to understand that this isn’t always the most productive of ways to feel inspired.

Take an hour out of your day and spend time studying the content being produced by brands in a totally different industry.

If you’re working in travel, look what’s working in finance. If you’re working in B2B, take a look at what’s smashing it in the B2C world.

Go and find 10 pieces of content that have earned the attention of publishers and the community and take a look at the main metrics; links and social shares. How have they performed? Where have they earned links from?

Either on your own or as a team, now take time to reverse engineer the content.

Can you establish what made it so successful?

  • What’s the hook?
  • Was it timely?
  • Was it data-driven?
  • Is it unique research?

Then go and compare this to the types of content you usually produce. How does it stack up? Is there anything you can take away and try on your own campaigns?

4. Keep A Spreadsheet/Document with ALL of Your Old Ideas

One of the most unproductive things about brainstorming sessions where your team sit around a whiteboard and shout out ideas is that many individuals refrain from sharing their ideas in the worry that it’s not good enough.

Let’s get one thing straight: there’s no such thing as a bad idea.

Yes, some are more suitable than others, but you shouldn’t ever label an idea as bad.

An idea which maybe isn’t right to run today might spark inspiration for a great idea six months down the line. Don’t fall into the trap of deleting concepts you don’t use.

Compile a spreadsheet or document which contains all of your ideas, used or not, which you can return to at any point; just be sure to mark which move through to production for easy reference.

If you’re looking for fresh inspiration, reading over your old ideas is a great way to start thinking creatively and when this is shared across the whole team, one person’s idea from the past may lead to someone else’s next viral campaign.

It’s a simple and efficient way of developing your own idea library which can be used in various different ways.

5. Find Something That Nearly Worked & Understand Why It Didn’t Quite Make It

You’ve heard of the Skyscraper technique, right?

Forget it!

OK, maybe that’s a little harsh. It has its place.

If your goal is to produce a piece of content that’s meant to rank at the top of the SERPs then it’s a great process; taking something which performed well and making it better.

If your goal is earning links from top-tier publications, however, it simply doesn’t work unless you’re bringing fresh data or insights to the table (which is rare).

Instead, find a piece of content that nearly worked, understand why it didn’t, and then make it better.

Content campaigns underperform for various different reasons, however in many cases its because data is inaccurate, is outdated or there’s simply not a strong enough hook to publications. The underpinning idea, however, could be great.

Where can you find these underperforming ideas?

Maybe you can look at a competitor’s campaigns that hasn’t earned many links or isn’t ranking well.

What you’re looking for is a potentially sound concept, validated using your usual approaches.

Again, having a swipe file here is recommended. Collate content assets that you can later look back on for this purpose.

6. Research the Topics Your Audience Cares About

Coming up with the best ideas for your next content campaign isn’t always about basing everything upon keyword research.

  • What are the hot topics within your industry at the moment?
  • What’s being shared on social?
  • What’s being covered by journalists?

Top rankings aren’t always the primary goal of every piece of content.

A successful piece of content, one deemed as great, allows readers to feel connected and evokes some sort of emotion, feeling or discussion.

Spend some time studying your target audience. Read through the publications they are reading. Note any common themes and topics. Can you spot trends?

If so, start to ask yourself how you can build your own ideas into these hot topics.

Is there a way to present data which hooks to these? Perhaps add fresh opinions or insights?

Use the topics as a starting point for further discussions into concepts.

7. Topic Mindmaps

Whether working alone or as a team in an ideation session, don’t be afraid to use methods you’ve been using for years.

One of these is a topic mindmap, developed through a word-association style process.

Start with your key topic in the center of a whiteboard or large sheet of paper and start to write down associated topics; continuing to branch out as far as you’re able to go.

Don’t stop until you’re either unable to come up with any further sub-topics or those which you are doing are so far removed from the main topic that it’s getting silly.

As an example, let’s say you’re brainstorming ideas for a travel brand.

Start with the main topic of “travel” at the center and begin to branch out. You could jot down associated topics like:

  • Transport.
  • Destinations.
  • Attractions.
  • Weather

And so on.

This is just the beginning. There are no right or wrong answers here.

You’re simply looking to spark inspiration into subtopics which you may not otherwise have come up with. You want to find a potential area of interest which you can develop further or go away and source data from.

This can be a fun exercise to do with team members from different departments, giving you a real mix of topics from this in multiple areas of the business.

8. Involve Those from Outside the Marketing Team

Are you guilty of keeping content ideation sessions exclusively within the marketing team?

If so, you aren’t alone.

Too many brands and agencies keep their ideation to those involved in marketing and don’t think to speak with those in different departments.

While they’re likely not marketers, that doesn’t matter. In fact, sometimes it’s for the best.

Go speak with your sales team, your customer service team or even your CEO. Ask them to share the common questions they’re asked by prospects, customers or other employees. This will:

  • Give you a real insight into actual problems you could solve through your content campaigns.
  • Produce content that answers the questions being asked.
  • Work out ways to build on this into key topics to run campaigns around.

Some of the best ideas can come from those one step removed from marketing on the grounds that they’re not pre-dismissing ideas based upon previous experiences; simply sharing topics and questions being asked and allowing you to go and dig deeper into the potential performance of a concept.

Conclusion

A content brainstorming approach that works for one person might not work for another, but it’s important to keep trying different techniques.

If you find a method that works for you, great! Stick to it until it doesn’t.

However, don’t be afraid to try new things. Look for new sources of inspiration and hang onto those “bad ideas” for another time!

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