When you first set out to start a blog, you usually have ideas for a few posts and think you always will. However, most bloggers will tell you at some point they feel like they’ve run out of things to say. Where, then, do they get ideas?
Last week I introduced my blogging process and mentioned I would be going into more details in the coming weeks. Today I want talk about generating ideas for blog posts, which might be the aspect of blogging people struggle with most.
The Big Picture
Some people say their business doesn’t lend itself to a blog, because no one wants to hear them talk about their products all the time. In many cases that’s true, however that’s not what your blog should be about.
Assuming the goal of your blog is to generate business, you usually want to talk around your products or services and not directly about them. Your posts aren’t meant to be a direct sales mechanism. Some can be, but most shouldn’t be.
Your blog is there to attract visitors, convert them to customers, and then turn them into loyal customers. Your blog will help build your brand. You do these things by engaging people with useful and entertaining content.
If you sell hiking boots, talk about the best places to hike instead of specifically talking about the boots you sell. Publish pictures from your own hikes. Talk about the camping gear you used. You’ll attract people to your site that are interested in hiking and those people are going to need hiking boots sooner or later. When they do they’ll think of you.
It’s ok to go off topic at times, but the majority of your posts should be focused on your main subject. If your blog is all over the place it won’t be about anything. Make it about something.
How to Generate Ideas
You’ve probably heard this before, but ideas can come from anywhere. The real trick to generating ideas is to learn to recognize them when they’re in front of you. Once you’ve been blogging for awhile this becomes easier. You start to look at ordinary events in your day and see them in the context of your blog.
For example I could walk into a department store and observe the general layout of the different sections and ask myself how the layout controls the flow of people through the store or what the physical layout might teach me about designing a visual layout. Perhaps the colors on the walls evoke an emotion in me or make me more impulsive to buy something.
That’s ultimately the trick to generating ideas. See events from your life through the lens of what you blog about.
Idea Generating Sources
What comes out is only as good as what goes in. Again anything can make for input. In no particular order, here are some things that have worked for me.
- industry blog posts
- non–industry blog posts
- books — fiction and non–fiction
- conversations with people — online and offline
- daily experience
Some of the above are more specific to design, while others can be sources for any subject. Reading leads me to the most ideas. When I come across the ideas of others I think of ways to blog about the same idea from my perspective or come up with a counterpoint to the argument I just read.
Turn a Single Idea Into Multiple Ideas
Many years ago in a book on becoming a freelance writer, the author advised researching a topic thoroughly in order to turn the research into multiple articles. Instead of thinking of one idea leading to one article, think of one idea being written from several angles and becoming many articles.
Think of your research as a hub and all the different articles you might right as spokes coming out of that hub.
A trip to the Grand Canyon might yield articles on the Canyon itself, the best way to hike the canyon, how to prepare for a few days in the canyon, the best places to stay and eat in the surrounding areas, and what camera equipment to bring with you.
Writing a series of posts on a topic can function in the same way. Often when I’m doing research for a single post I’ll encounter information on related topics and I’ll think how I might turn the single idea into a series of related ideas under a more general topic.
This series on my blogging process started as a question about where I get ideas. I could have written the post you’re reading now and been done with it. Instead I’m writing a series of posts. With one post in the series each week, I won’t have to come up with another idea for a Thursday post until sometime in July.
Start seeing a single idea as potential fodder for multiple posts. You don’t have to publish them all as a series, though you can. Let one idea generate multiple ideas. Let your research into one post lead you to ideas for other posts or to different angles around the same topic.
Collect and Record Your Ideas
Ideas are fleeting. You will lose them if you don’t record them somewhere. Find some mechanism to record every idea you have as soon as you have it. Carry around a small notebook or sketchbook. You likely have a smartphone with you. Whatever you use make sure to collect ideas when they come to you.
Next you need to get those ideas into one main place. I use an application called MacJournal as a starting point for collecting ideas and beginning posts. Most every idea I have for a post finds its way in as a unique entry with a title and a few quick notes or links. Most of these entries will never become blog posts, but they’ve all been recorded.
When I feel like the ideas are running low or need some kind of kick start I’ll spend an hour actively brainstorming ideas. You can use mind mapping software if that works for you, but for me it works best just to write down the ideas in a list.
Periodically (once a week for me) you want to look over the ideas you’ve collected. Dump the truly awful ones. Combine several ideas into one new one. Let some of your ideas stimulate more ideas. Organize everything into themes.
I typically choose a few ideas to more actively work on and write down a few thoughts. I create a quick outline for how a post will develop. I’ll go into more detail on that next week. The thoughts and outlines help me decide which ideas I’m ready for now and which need more before I can develop them into a post.
Keep an Editorial Calendar
I wish I could tell you I use editorial calendars to their full potential, but I don’t. For me they’ve mainly been a way to mark down what I’m going to post and when in order to give myself a big picture overview. I’ve gone as far as making notes about which stage of development different posts are in, but not much further.
Editorial calendars should really be more though and I’d encourage you to use one and I’m encouraging myself to make better use of mine.
Joe Pulizzi recently published a post for CopyBlogger about content marketing editorial calendars, with the components of using them successfully.
- Understand that an editorial calendar exists to help map content production to the different goals you have for you content
- Organize the calendar to record all the different information relevant to mapping
- Develop an editorial style guide to keep things focused on telling the same story with all your content
Your editorial calendar doesn’t need to exist in an actual calendar application. Joe recommends a spreadsheet for the year with tabs for each month. Some of the things you might record are
- What persona is a post being written for?
- Where is this person in the buying cycle?
- What’s the status of completion?
- What call to action to use?
Shortly after Joe’s post I came across this one on building a content marketing machine, by Toby Murdock for SEOmoz. It also includes talk of editorial calendars and should help you better understand what you might keep track of in your calendar.
I know that coming up with ideas for blog posts can be challenging. It was for me. If you keep blogging it will get easier. There will be times when you’re not sure what to write about, but you’ll quickly get past those times.
The main trick is to learn to recognize what would make a good post for your blog. Ideas are everywhere and if you let them, they’ll find you. Your goal is to create an environment that will attract them, recognize good ideas, and understand how they fit into your overall blogging strategy.
Find as many sources of input as you can and collect and record ideas always. Most of your ideas won’t become blog posts, but they give you fodder for review to find the ideas that stand out and become something you write about.
Get started as soon as possible with an editorial calendar. Even in the limited state I use them, I can tell you they’re incredibly helpful for keeping you on track and choosing ideas from your collection. Used to their fullest they should suggest new ideas for you to write about and even better help you hone a content strategy.
How about you? Where do you get ideas? Do you find some sources better than others? Do you struggle finding new ideas and what do you do when that happens?
If you liked this post, consider buying my book Design Fundamentals