How To Generate Ideas For Content

Your client wants a piece of content and they want it to generate links. A lot of links. The word ‘viral’ has been thrown in there.

The reality is that users produce 64.3 million new posts, each month, on WordPress alone.

Talk about a crowded workspace.

And, how do we have a unique, fresh and engaging idea in a world where everything has been said and done before?

Feel the pressure.

I have to generate ideas, every month, for clients. To create engaging pieces of content that get audiences to interact with and link to. It’s a tough job.

The following is my process of how I generate ideas.

Let me introduce you to our (fictional) client:
A car rental company that operates nationwide throughout the UK.
Turnover of 2-5 million and the website currently has 900k unique hits a month.

They want to make sure their main competitor,, who is snapping at their heels, doesn’t take the number one position.

So, we need good solid links from hard to replicate sites to strengthen their position.

Why are you producing content at all?

Start a project by asking why? Unless you can answer this question, you are producing content for content’s sake and wasting money for your client (or yourself).

You might also want to read, Why content campaigns fail? for more insights.

In our client example, we want to gain links from media sites to strengthen the link profile of the website and get more traffic. Your objective might be to get more traffic and a content audit combined with keyword research, will offer insight into where you can increase traffic through search results.

Once we have an objective and know why we are doing this and what we want to achieve, then we can start to put a plan together.

Who do we need to target to achieve this?

The next stage is to consider who the target audience will be for the content. We want to achieve links, so our target is to find a high domain authority site that we can pitch our concept and story to, and achieve the link back to the client site.

Our direct audience is the target site but they also have an audience and readership that we will need to consider as an indirect audience.

Start out by drafting out the niches related to your site:

To find our audience, we consider topics relevant to the brand. Relevancy is now an important factor for link building, so we want links from sites aligned with our niche. For example, links from a recipe blog to a car site offer no relevancy (in Google terms) and should be avoided.

Possible niches with relevancy to car hire are:

  • Driving/cars
  • Travel
  • Corporate/business

Drafting out themes

Starting with our niche of driving, we can start to look for ideas of themes. This is where keeping up-to-date with trends and what is popular within content pays off and it really helps to work within a specific niche consistently (but it’s not essential).

When I was an illustrator I used to keep huge scrapbooks of magazine cuttings, cards and pictures – anything that visually attracted me or was representative of a popular trend went into the scrapbook. When creating a new illustration, this was always my starting point to review what style, colour palette and compositions I wanted to include. In much the same way, I now have countless Pinterest boards and bookmarks of content that appeals and which can be referred back to as inspiration.

Valuable sources to start researching themes are:

Reddit is one of the best sites on the web to have insight into what is popular content. Be aware that this isn’t your end point. At this stage we are looking for wider themes to expand on our niche before we search for influencers. So, drill down into Subreddits around your niche and look at what is hot and trending.

If you are a content producer, Reddit should be one of your regular haunts.

how to generate ideas for contenthow to generate ideas for content

You can see here a question about music making you drive faster. This sparks my interest.

Here we have a mention of traffic rules in various countries. Another seed is planted.

Quora is one of the most valuable resources for finding questions that users are asking. I tend to find this more appropriate for blog articles and smaller pieces of content, and it offers an insight into what conversations users are having and what questions they are asking for clues into various potential themes. I type in driving:

how to generate ideas for content

Texting and driving are a potential thread of an idea I like and what are some interesting roads in the world to travel on is another.

Twitter. Search hashtags around keywords. For niches, you watch on a regular basis save keywords and hashtags to check the stream. I use Hootsuite to manage countless streams and lists.

how to generate ideas for content

The future of self-driving cars, combined with hire cars has great potential.

Pinterest can be a goldmine for reference material when brainstorming and is a natural visual scrapbook resource.
how to generate ideas for content

Another idea about great roads to drive on. The North Coast 500 in Scotland is supposed to be one of the world’s best drives. Could we produce a photo gallery or guide of where to stay on the NC500?

Google image search, see what other visual content already exists for ideas you can improve on.

how to generate ideas for content

Hmmmm, an ultimate guide to driving a rental, which could have value.

Buzzsumo (paid)
Most likely one of the favourite tools of content marketers. Buzzsumo will give you an exhaustive list of the most popular pieces of content in any niche. Simply type in your term and then mine through the list.

how to generate ideas for content

What about best places to visit within driving distance of [location]?

There are no new ideas

A key tip to remember when thinking of ideas is that you don’t have to have an original idea. Look for something that is a starting point and which can spark off a thought process. Or, anything that kinda takes an idea half way there but the execution can be vastly improved (known as the skyscraper technique).

It’s all about planting seeds.


Start your brain splurge. The following two techniques always work for me:

The USE process

Create three columns:

  • Useful
  • Surprising/unexpected
  • Emotional

For each row write the first things that come into your head on your theme – don’t be precious or think too hard. The key is to let it flow and continue even after you have written something you think is a great idea. Set a timer of ten minutes – having constraints helps with creativity.

Example (these are as random as you can get):

Useful Surprising Emotional
Driving in the dark with night vision headlights along a haunted lane.
Local road maps pop-up book style landmarks of places you would like to go on holiday.
Learn whilst driving skills to impress your boss and make more money.
Improve speaking techniques for conferences and overcome nerves.
Be prepared turn your car into a bathroom and look your best for meetings.

Combine two random ideas

Get a large piece of paper and just keep writing keywords based around your theme. As before, think of useful/practical, unexpected/surprising and emotional words.
When you have a full page, start to link words and phrases – use these links to start seeds of ideas. I’ve cited ideas walls as being valuable for making random connections many times before and you can read more about this in the ebbok, How to have Ideas.

Keep a note of all your ideas

During this process, I presume you will have been filling-up a notepad with your random ideas. I use Evernote to do this but Word, Google Docs or any other preferred note-taking tool can suffice. You can now review and start to select the seedlings that are starting to grow. Take these seedlings and combine them with a story to nurture and give them traction.

Our seedling list:

  • Music making you drive faster.
  • Traffic rules in various countries.
  • Interesting roads in the world to travel on.
  • The future of self-driving cars, combined with hire cars has potential.The North Coast 500 in Scotland.
  • Ultimate guide to driving a rental.
  • Skills you can learn whilst driving. to impress your boss.
  • Improve your speaking technique to overcome nerves, whilst driving.
  • What about best places to visit within driving distance of [location]?

The seedling niches for outreach:

  • Self-driving hire cars
  • Traffic rules
  • Travel ideas
  • Business skills

Let’s see what else is already out there…

Self-driving cars
how to generate ideas for contenthow to generate ideas for content

Nothing showing up for ‘self-driving hire cars’ but I have found the Google Self-Driving Car Project reports. Listed in each month are all the collisions that have occurred – this could make a great visualisation of data.

Traffic rules in different countries
how to generate ideas for content

A few pieces of content exist but on review, there isn’t anything that couldn’t be vastly improved and bettered.

Best roads to drive in Scotlandhow to generate ideas for content

A lot of content around this concept, so we would have to think more laterally and put a unique twist on it to get results from outreach.

Learn whilst driving
Improve your speaking technique whilst driving has no other pieces of contenthow to generate ideas for content

Best business podcasts to listen to whilst driving, is a Google suggest title indicating there is traffic for this term.

I like both of these concepts and think there is room for progression.

Influencers and outreach targets

Once we have the seedling ideas and niches, we can start to think about where and also, who will be sharing the content. This factor is essential and in every case that content hasn’t worked out, it is usually because the content has been created without first knowing who the outreach target will be.

The final stages are about how you will sell the idea to a journalist. Without a ‘story’, a journalist will not be interested in your idea. Understanding this one point has been key to how I generate ideas and create content.

An extract from the excellent book Made To Stick, by Chip and Dan Heath, goes as follows:
Nora Ephron screenwriter recalled her first day in journalism class, lesson one, was asked to create a story. The handout contained the brief will all the research needed and an outline about a teacher training day that would improve student efficiency, to be held the following Thursday. Each student diligently created their piece based on the facts and duly submitted. The teacher then stood at the front of the class and said that everyone had missed the point. The lead of the story was that next Thursday there would be no school.

It was a breathtaking moment,” Ephron recalls. “In that instant I realised that journalism was not just about regurgitating facts but about figuring out the point.

In that analogy, it sums up the thought process you have to adopt to pre-empt how a journalist will create a story about your piece of content. This one piece of learning alone can vastly improve your entire content creation approach.

If we take the self-driving car example, what is interesting within the data is that most of the accidents happen because the car is driving to the letter of the law. Collisions occur from other human-driven cars driving into the Google car. So, our story would be, driverless cars only have accidents because they are so law abiding. Our content would illustrate this story.

How to find influencers

The term influencer is often bandied around. The reason they are so influential, is because they are the gatekeepers to having your link placed on the site you want to target. Getting access to the right person on a big media site is a challenge in itself.
You can’t just go to the Guardian contact page and send an email saying, ‘Please will you share this. I think you might like it?’. Well, you can, but good luck with that.

Personally, I love to take a long approach and pick through sites by hand. I believe that by the action of really getting to know the sites you want to pitch to and reading what articles and content they are producing, is the only way you can really get a grasp on how to produce successful content. And when I say successful, I mean content that gets links and placements from these sites – these are my metrics.

Start by mining your target site. Look at the categories and consider where your idea would fit and then check out those sections. Also look at tags and use the internal search if there is one. Also use google search site:[target domain] [keywords].

When you find articles that are on a similar theme, you have a starting point to make a connection. Check out the author biographies on each article – this is the gatekeeper you will have to connect with to reach your objective. Pay close attention to the kind of content they share and the stories they create. This is the key to your outreach and should be the last piece of the puzzle to fine-tune your idea into a workable concept, with a full plan of how you can create a story to sell. And then sell it.

For our self-driving concept, we could consider sites like TechCrunch, a complement for progressive car technology. A simple internal search for ‘self-driving’ on the site, gives several results:

how to generate ideas for content

Google crosses the two million mile mark with its self-driving cars, is a close match to our concept. If we click through and look at the author, Darrell Etherington:

how to generate ideas for content

We can scroll down and see what other posts he has written about. Darrell has written several posts about car related technology and would be the ideal person to outreach to.
how to generate ideas for content

how to generate ideas for content

So, our content needs to have an emphasis on the developing technology of cars – the final piece to our puzzle.
We now have our concept, title, story and influencer to outreach to. Our idea is generated.

Get busy creating.