It’s the time of year when everyone who does content work for a startup or tech company here in the Bay area wants to talk about how to generate story ideas. They know I do this work for a living and they want tips as they prepare their 2018 content strategies.
It’s safe to say that if you’re fully committed to content marketing, you have to write a boatload of content. And constantly coming up with new topics and ideas for this is no easy task.
There are many strategies you can use to find new topics. Some of my favorites involve monitoring what your audience is saying online: through visiting industry forums, Q&A sites like Quora and your blog and social media comments.
But even with these strategies, it’s not uncommon to run out of ideas. This post will offer an alternative process you can use to guarantee that you never run out of content ideas again.
1: Use tools to find popular posts you can write better.
This is my go-to strategy for finding out which posts are driving traffic to big-name sites. Since I largely write about topics in the startup, entrepreneur, tech, SEO and content marketing space, I like to look at sites like Entrepreneur (duh), Mashable and TechCrunch, as they typically cover these topics. You’ll likely know which big sites are worth analyzing for your niche or industry.
Using a tool like Buzzsumo, I simply plug in the subject area I’m most interested in, and I can generate a list of the most shared articles on the Internet about that subject.
Once you spend enough time using this tool, you start to get a feel for which subject areas get more shares than others. Now that I know this topic is worth targeting (in terms of potential traffic), I can figure out how to cover this topic in a different and better way.
Although it’s beyond the scope of the post, I’ll share a few strategies I typically use to improve on a competitor’s post:
- Write a longer, more in-depth post. It’s not always the case, but deeper, more thoughtful takes on subjects often end up winning the day on Google.
- Figure out where their on-page content optimization is lacking, and improve on it.
- See how many links that page has to it, and the quality of those links. If their link profile is significantly better than that of your site, that specific topic may not be worth targeting. You can use a tool like Mozbar to help you determine how tough a particular page will be to compete with.
- Take their posts and make them better. Turn good content into amazing content.
2: Rewrite titles to fit your topic or niche
This strategy works well both as a standalone strategy or in conjunction with strategy #1. It can help you with brainstorming topic ideas from scratch, or coming up with stronger headlines for an existing topic idea.
Big-name sites put serious time and effort into coming up with headlines that will grab the attention of their readers. They carefully track which types of headlines work and which don’t….so why not take advantage of all their hard work?
Visit popular posts on big sites and see which ones jump out at you. Keep in mind the topics of these posts don’t even have to be remotely similar to yours – because you’re going to change them to make it fit your topic anyway.
Here’s an example: Go to Buzzfeed Buzz (because BuzzFeed has headlines down to a science). There will probably be at least one headline that jumps out at you that you can easily re-work to fit any niche topic.
A word of warning: Do not use the titles word-for-word. This is not ok. The idea is not to copy that title, but rather to use it as inspiration for your own headline.
3: Test two potential titles.
This strategy is most effective when combined with #1 or #2 above.
I find that when I’ve been working on a topic or pitch idea for a while, I tend to get a bit of tunnel vision. After coming up with dozens of potential topics and headlines, it can be difficult to pinpoint which ones are actually the most compelling!
This is where it helps to bring in a third party. Once you’ve compiled a list of titles, come up with an alternate title for each post.
For instance, let’s say I’ve come up with the title, “50 Content Marketing Cliches You Need to Avoid”. While I may love that title, I’ll still come up with an alternate approach to test it against. In this case, maybe something like, “50 Content Marketing Cliches To Avoid at All Costs”.
Now I’ll grab a friend or colleague and pitch them both options. I ask them to go with their gut, and choose the one that immediately grabs their attention – not the title that’s the most eloquent or that they think they should like best.
This is not about rehashing content
One final note: I’m not suggesting – in any way, shape or form – that you find popular posts and rip them off. Your goal isn’t to just rehash or regurgitate content that’s already out there.
What you are doing is getting an idea of which topics and headline approaches have already proven popular. If you’re pitching a well-known site for a guest post, you’ll want to know what types of topics and headlines they typically use. If you’re writing a post for your own site, you’ll want to see what types of topics and headlines typically get the most traction in your niche.
In other words, you want to find out what’s already working, and use that as your inspiration.
Coming up with engaging topics can be a serious roadblock to content marketing success. And relying solely on your own ideas often isn’t enough. Here’s perhaps the best part. The more time you spend seeing how the best in the business design their headlines, the more you’ll gain that skill as well.
This article originally appeared on Entrepreneur.com on December 5, 2017.