Ask a Content Strategist

Ask a Content Strategist: How Do You Keep Coming Up With New Story Ideas?

It’s almost September, which means a few things: I’m going to have to stop wearing tank tops in the office; Joe Pulizzi just dropped off 17 orange suits at the dry cleaners; and it’s time for another edition of “Ask a Content Guy,” my monthly content marketing mailbag.

This month, I’m going to get my Tony Robbins on and talk about story inspiration. Because there are invisible forces motivating all of us. And that invisible force is the desire to keep our jobs.

Even though we reuse content, how do you keep coming up with new content ideas?

—Cass, St. Louis

For the sake of this answer, let’s assume you already have a solid content strategy in place. Your content maps to your company’s business goals, and you’ve figured out all the components of a good content plan.

But now the well is dry. And your audience is thirsty as hell.

Start by examining what’s worked for you in the past. Which stories resonated with your audience and which ones fell flat? An easy way to do this is to tag your stories by different attributes, like topic, format, and contributor. Then compare how many stories you created per attribute and how those stories performed. For example, here’s a snapshot of my Contently Analytics dashboard, which compares stories created by topic with how those stories did across a few different engagement metrics.

story ideas data

This data can help guide your decisions when you’re brainstorming ideas. In this instance, I’d conclude that we should be mixing in a little bit more “Fun” content, like this marketing buzzwords burn piece or this surprisingly popular headline quiz. This type of content takes relatively little effort, and our audience loves it. We should also focus on social media stories a bit more, and probably not publish quite as many stories on content strategy. These are adjustments I’ll make in September.

Another simple yet effective tip is to gauge how different stories about your topic of choice are popping off on other sites. I recommend BuzzSumo, an excellent competitive analysis tool. Here’s a search I did for the most-shared stories on “content marketing” over the last month.

story ideas buzzsumo

This is just a starting point. Obviously, you don’t want to just copy your competitors’ ideas. You want to tell original stories that will make your audience react like they’re at a Beyoncé concert. This could be you on Twitter!

So how do you get inspired? Here are a few tactics we use every week.

Editorial meetings: On Mondays, my team meets for an hour. Everyone is obligated to pitch at least two story ideas. Then we discuss them. We poke holes or suggest new angles. There’s creative energy. There are stakes. The person with the best ideas wins a Groupon for a booze cruise; the person with the worst ideas has to wear a bear suit and ask our VP of finance to approve us expensing a booze cruise. (Note: This reward system is still pending HR approval.)

Tap other departments for story ideas: Even if you’re an edit team of one, there are still ways to brainstorm with your coworkers. I like to think of all the other departments in our company as possible sources. Our sales team, for instance, spends all day talking with marketers. They hear about their concerns and struggles when it comes to content, and they know what questions these folks want answered.

Every two weeks, we hold a meeting called Content Universe. Our edit team spends most of the time listening to what our sales team learns talking to brands. This process has helped us create some of our most popular pieces of content, like this in-depth guide to securing a content budget.

Slack (or some group chat): We spend all day in Slack sharing industry news and tossing around story ideas. It’s a great way to get inspired and maintain a reservoir you can tap for future content. Plus, as I wrote about here, this type of running conversation helps get the entire company involved and makes everyone smarter.

Freelance pitches: One of the biggest advantages of working with freelancers is that they bring fresh angles and perspectives that your internal team just wouldn’t have. (Check out this great guide to working with freelancers.)

(Finally, I sometimes just sit at home with a bottle of wine and text crazy ideas to Jordan, our senior editor, until he asks me to stop ruining his date night or admits that yes, what the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles can teach us about content marketing is a great story idea.)

Hi, Jess, can you please give me advice on how to smile every time I go to a job interview? I may need a voice coach.

—April Ann, Daly City, CA

Even though Jess Black is our head of events, all of our daily and weekly newsletters go out from her email address. This means that “Ask a Content Guy” questions occasionally get directed at her.

Jess is one of the most smiley people I know (evidence)—probably because I bought an inflatable hot tub for her backyard this summer. So I thought I’d let her weigh in with a guest answer:

Hi April Ann,

In my experience, smile/voice coaches are like chiropractors and psychics: They have weird offices. Instead of a smile coach, maybe you’re not applying to funny enough jobs. Is Guy Fieri looking for an assistant? Probably.

Alternatively, you might want to consider occupations in which smiling is actually an occupational hazard—maybe the DMV, or a TGIF Fridays in Atlantic City?

Good luck!


How do you keep your drive while keeping the content flowing?

—Aaron, Sumter, SC

A lot of what I wrote above applies to this question, but it brings up another point: You have to be passionate about the topics you’re covering.

A company’s content should reflect the passions of the people who work there. GE’s stories reflect how much its employees geek out about science. When you read the Moz blog, you know that team really, really loves SEO. In storytelling, enthusiasm is infectious. If you really care, it shows. The opposite is true as well. If you have apathetic content, you’ll have apathetic readers.

If you can’t get excited about the content you’re creating, you’re either covering the wrong topic or hiring the wrong people.

If you have a question for next month’s column, please submit it here. You can also tweet me @JoeLazauskas or tag me with the question on Instagram in the comments section of this photo of President Obama looking very confused by a newspaper. My Instagram handle is @joelazer.

Image by Creative Commons

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