Coming up with great blog post ideas is hard.
The best articles are helpful, and thought-provoking, and original. You have to attract the right people. You have to motivate those people to action. It’s hard to juggle all of those necessary objectives in your head and harder still to create great ideas on a schedule. You can’t fall back on phrases like “writer’s block” and “muse” to buy yourself time—you need to be consistent in your output. You have to show up, every day.
As a team of content marketers, we feel this challenge acutely. We also know that the best writers have a concrete process and know how to systematize creativity.
One such process has evolved organically throughout Animalz, used by writers in every part of the company. It’s a natural answer to the problem of ideation, and it’s the best way we’ve found to show up, every day, and keep kicking butt with content marketing.
We call it the idea farm.
Coming up with great blog post ideas is hard.
The Idea Farm
An idea farm—or idea garden, or idea file, or story pot—is a single document that serves as the collection point for every nascent thought, opinion, or idea you have during the course of the day (or, let’s be honest, night).
An idea farm contains dozens upon dozens of article ideas. Most are ugly and ill-formed, but by collecting them in one place, they’re allowed to influence each other and generate new, better ideas.
This is where the “farm” concept comes in: ideas are treated like seeds. They’re planted, nurtured, and allowed to cross-pollinate. The idea farm takes a handful of scattered, inconsistent thoughts, and from those thoughts grow beautiful, fully-formed blog post ideas.
I use an idea farm for the Animalz blog. At the time of writing, it has over one hundred ideas, most of which will end up on the scrap heap. But these article ideas aren’t wasted energy: this scrap heap is the perfect environment for better ideas to grow.
Idea farms are powerful:
- They collect every nascent idea. When an idea appears, you need to grasp it with both hands. Instead of relegating precious ideas to that dusty Pocket account (or was it Notion or Evernote? A Chrome tab? Did I read it in Slack?), an idea farm lets you save it, secure, in a single centralized place where all your ideas live. It’s a guarantee: nothing is forgotten.
- They develop an “always-on” mindset. Using an idea farm reinforces the belief that every interaction, conversation, article, data point, and idea is potential fodder for writing. Nothing is discounted, and it triggers the realization that we’re bombarded by inspiration a hundred times a day—we just need to become better at recognizing it.
- They generate a constant stream of ideas. Many people approach ideation as a one-off task, something that happens every month, even every quarter. They create a single batch of ideas, expending a huge amount of mental energy in the process—and instead of using that momentum to create a dozen more, and then a dozen more, they switch off and go back to other tasks. The idea farm changes your entire approach to ideation. It ensures you’ll never run out of things to write.
- They allow cross-pollination between ideas. It feels like you’re breaking a rule of physics, but it’s unarguably true: three bad ideas can create one great idea. Dumping bad ideas into a melting pot allows you to identify the “big picture” themes that tie them together and pick out elements—angles, individual ideas, data points—that can be recombined into a new idea, something greater than the sum of its parts.
Creating a Google Doc with the aspirational title “Idea Farm” is a good starting point, but there are a few key processes that will help you get the most from it. Following our farm metaphor, they are 1) collecting the seeds of good ideas, 2) nurturing ideas to fruition, and 3) harvesting them when they’re ripe.
1) Collecting the Seeds of Good Ideas
An idea farm works by collecting as much raw material—quotes, data points, observations, questions, you name it—as possible and “planting” it in a centralized place. This can be anything: a Google Doc, a Quip file, a Trello board, a Notion database, a spreadsheet tab, a note on your phone...
This raw material doesn’t have to be polished and perfect. In fact, ugly and half-formed ideas are to be encouraged because they might provide exactly what’s needed—a useful hook or complementary angle—to improve another idea in the future. There is no downside to saving something in your idea farm, so be generous with ideas. Discount nothing, save everything, and listen to your gut—if something piques your interest, save it.
Research for content marketing is a whole separate topic (which we’ll cover in another post—it’s still growing in my idea garden), but for now, here are my favorite sources of raw ideas:
- Sales conversations and customer feedback
- Internal meetings, conversations, and Slack channels
- Keyword research
- Unfinished snippets from past articles
- Books, blogs, newsletters, and research papers
- Forums, social media, and communities
(While less predictable, great ideas can also come from unexpected places—one of our most popular articles came from my experience researching digital cameras for a birthday present.)
When saving ideas, avoid going into too much detail. From experience, two to four short sentences are usually the best format for understanding, processing, and workshopping a new idea. A detailed bullet point outline at this early stage can limit your creativity and make it harder to imagine a new angle or framing.
Idea Farm Examples
Here are a few examples from my own idea farm. This was the “seed” for the article that became Why Wirecutter Wins: Opinionated Content:
This idea became How to Fast-Track ROI From Your First Blog Post:
Here’s the snippet that eventually morphed into The Second Mover Advantage in Content Marketing:
2) Nurturing Ideas to Fruition
In an idea farm, we accept that not every idea is immediately great—like wine or whiskey, a maturation process can improve its caliber.
Sometimes, this is a passive process: you simply don’t have the right data to make an idea work, or it just needs more time to develop. Great ideas are revealed by letting them grow wild in your idea farm, mulling them over in your subconscious, and adding new data whenever it comes to light.
Other times, this is an active process. I’ve found three strategies particularly helpful:
Often, it’s not the ideas themselves that mature into incredible blog posts but the common threads that connect those ideas. By looking for commonalities between your ideas, you can often find a bigger, better insight lurking just beyond the periphery of your vision.
The Second Mover Advantage in Content Marketing is a perfect example. It started life as three separate-but-related ideas from my idea farm: one about the concept of “first movers,” one analyzing HubSpot’s approach to content, and one arguing that content marketing is no longer in the “early adopter” part of the technology adoption lifecycle.
These half-finished ideas languished next to each other in my idea farm (even getting as far as three bad outlines) until I realized that these ideas were part of a single, bigger idea: that content marketers today have to embrace the role of second movers. Elements of all three appear in the finished draft, and the final article makes a more persuasive argument as a result.
Test New Angles
The difference between a good blog post and a great one can be as simple as finding the right angle—a novel, interesting way of framing the argument. Often, relatively useful ideas will find their way into your idea farm. These could be turned into functional blog posts there and then, but by leaving them to “mature,” you’ll often find a stronger, more interesting way to present the point.
The Auteur Theory of Content Marketing started life as a mind-numbingly simple idea: in marketing, it’s important to repeat yourself. We found a better angle by taking inspiration from another idea from the farm—High-Concept Content: the Hollywood Framework for Crafting Popular Content—and borrowing our hook from the world of cinema.
In a similar vein, “summarize your idea at the start of your article” borrowed from a military communications framework to become BLUF: The Military Standard That Can Make Your Writing More Powerful. “Don’t over-rely on SEO tools” metamorphosed through a few dozen variations until it became Copycat Content: SEO Tools Got Us Here, Humans Will Get Us Out.
Share Them with Someone Else
Commit your ideas to "paper" and it becomes much easier to pair up with a collaborator. They can help you identify your most compelling ideas, ask questions to further your thinking, and add their own brand of experience- and perspective-filled fertilizer into the mix.
These collaborators can be colleagues (I’d be lost without input from people like Andrew, Gail, and Katie), peers from your network (the CMCG Slack group has a dedicated #ask-feedback channel), or if you’re feeling really brave—customers.
3) Harvesting Ideas When They’re Ripe
Some ideas will be planted into your garden almost fully-formed and can be written and published right away. Other ideas will require weeks, months, even years to grow. Some will never make it but might just provide something useful for other ideas—like a decaying crop providing nutrients to the soil for those more successful plants around it.
For those ideas that are somewhere between the two ends of this spectrum, it’s important to identify the characteristics that mean a blog post idea is ready to write. There are four factors I consider when vetting ideas:
- Impact: How will this blog post influence your company and your goals?
- Originality: Are you adding something new to the discourse?
- Credibility: Is your argument the strongest it could be? Do you have the right evidence to validate it?
- Timeliness: Is now the right time to share this story?
A high-impact article might solve a pressing customer problem, or target a lucrative keyword, or articulate a crucial part of your company’s philosophy. An original article offers a fresh perspective, setting you apart from other companies. A credible article has sufficient evidence to make a persuasive case. A timely article is published when the industry discourse is trending a certain way or in response to a certain problem cropping up time and time again.
If it suits you, you could create a database of ideas and assign a point score across each of these dimensions: the highest-scoring article gets written. Personally, I use these like a mental mixing desk, looking for just the right combination of factors to know when an idea is ready.
There are often trade-offs to be made during this evaluation process. If the zeitgeist favors your blog post idea, it might be worth accepting lower credibility just to get it out into the world. Alternatively, your highest-impact idea might be worth postponing to ensure you amass enough data to do it justice. I’ve wanted to write a guide to thought leadership content for years but waited until somebody with greater subject matter experience—Katie—was ready to take it on.
Help Your Ideas Grow
You can’t guarantee that every blog post idea is a winner, but you can increase the odds.
The idea farm is a way of systematizing creativity and encouraging serendipitous interactions between ideas. The actual “idea farm”—your Google Doc or Notion database or physical notebook—is really a side effect of a bigger mindset shift. You’re recognizing that ideas can—and will—come from anywhere, and you’re giving yourself the tools to capture, nurture, and grow those ideas.
What does your ideation process look like? Do you use an idea farm or something radically different? Let me know on Twitter.