Last month, the lightbulb went on with a story idea. Minutes later, it shut off again.
After dealing with the effects of a creative rut, my momentary joy was erased when a Google search revealed that my latest idea had already been done by The Huffington Post, Mashable, and Forbes.
I was dejected, sure, but also surprised. I didn’t expect all those sites to cover content marketing. Now, they write about anything and everything. According to Digiday, Forbes was reportedly publishing 400 articles per day a few years ago. With big media outlets, blogs, and brands pumping out story after story, it’s easy to feel like there’s nothing new to say.
But if your job is to write and edit, there’s always something new to say, if you’re willing to put in the work. When it’s time to brainstorm, here are a few places you can turn to generate ideas.
1. Your employees
No one knows your product and industry better than your employees, right? If you’re stuck creatively, getting input and ideas from coworkers is a simple yet effective way to learn about problems and insights that you might be overlooking.
And it’s okay if employees aren’t gifted writers or don’t have time to contribute articles. You can always interview them instead and create a list of story ideas. In some cases, you can even use the exchanges for videos, podcasts, and Q&As, like when General Electric published an interview with the company’s chief digital officer about innovation.
(Full disclosure: GE is a Contently client.)
2. Reader comments
Comments should be more than an engagement metric. If you ignore the trolls, you’ll find that people are (sometimes) capable of sharing intelligent ideas online—particularly on social media. You can use these comments as inspiration for stories or even collect the best comments on a topic as a standalone piece. If you don’t have a large social following to tap into, use free social media listening tools like Twitter Advanced Search to see what people are saying about an industry or news story. The New York Times even used this approach to develop its own interesting collection of reader comments.
Reddit, also known as the front page of the Internet, is one of the best ways to keep your finger on the pulse of what’s trending. To find information on a specific topic, do a Google site search by using the “site:” command. For example, if you’re looking for ideas on budget travel, search “site:reddit.com budget travel” and Google will surface thousands of reddit.com results, ranging from entire subreddits about traveling on a shoestring budget to recent, popular threads like how much to budget for travel.
4. Company archives
Nostalgia can be a very powerful catalyst for engagement and earned media. If you work for a legacy company, check your archives for material that can be repurposed into compelling content, whether print or digital. Coca-Cola Journey, for instance, resurfaced vintage Coke ads last year in an image gallery. Esquire, meanwhile, put its entire 83-year archive online so users could see old-school articles and ads.
(Full disclosure: Coca-Cola is a Contently client.)
5. Internal website searches
When people use the search function on your website, these searches can—and should—be tracked in your analytics platform. This tactic captures direct insight into the mind of your consumers without the costs and effort needed to set up focus groups or large-scale studies.
Search data not only shows what content people are looking for, but it also reveals what they’re not finding on your site. If people consistently search for tips on cooking chicken, for instance, and you don’t have any how-to articles on the topic, your internal data can clue you in on the need to create that content. Not only will you help your customers, but you’ll also keep them from looking for it somewhere else, perhaps on a competitor’s blog.
Similar to Reddit, Quora’s Q&A platform is replete with user-generated gold. What it lacks in scale compared to Reddit, it makes up for in quality. If the topic calls for it, Quora’s most upvoted answers tend to be in-depth dissertations, and the site also attracts subject-matter experts. In some cases, companies can use Quora to find out what people are saying about their products and services, similar to sourcing ideas from employees.
Think of a topic, no matter how obscure, and there’s probably a forum dedicated to it. The Chinchilla Club, Yo-Yo Experts, and the International Guild of Knot Tyers are just a few gems among the number of oddly specific forums online.
Niche forums can provide insight into uncommon topics better than most mainstream sites. If you’re short on pitches, try browsing the top conversation threads to get an idea of questions that you could answer with useful content.
It helps to remember that everyone struggles to come up with original ideas from time to time. But if you want to make sure writer’s block doesn’t curtail your publishing efforts, you need to put yourself in a position to turn the lightbulb back on when inspiration strikes.