How to generate better content ideas

How to generate better content ideas


Your managing director wants a “big idea” for the next marketing campaign.


So, you gather your colleagues in the boardroom for a brainstorm. And that’s when it starts to go wrong. Confident colleagues who tend to be talkative float their ideas. Others stay silent … hoping to make it through the meeting without being asked to say what they think. The “hippo” in the room – the “Highest-Paid-Person’s-Opinion” – determines what happens next.

Sound familiar?

Have you ever emerged from a brainstorm wondering: “Did we really find the right idea?”


1. Anchor ideas


Discussion often gets stuck – or anchored – in the first idea that “sounds about right” rather than considering a wide range of alternatives.

2. Evaluation anxiety

No-one wants to make a foolish suggestion. That fear of being judged by peers and managers can inhibit people from sharing their ideas. The confident speak up, the shy don’t and their ideas never get aired.

3. Environment

Sometimes the space you’re trying to work in doesn’t suit the work you’re trying to do. When you walk into the boardroom, do you associate the space with free-thinking? You need to find a place that suits a relaxed discussion.

4. Format not concept

“We need to do a video … or infographic or white paper.” A common trap is to discuss formats rather than ideas. The ideas then have to fit the format rather than vice-versa.

5. Pressure to conform

Like conflict? Some people thrive on intellectual fisticuffs, most people prefer to find common ground. And if the idea comes from someone more senior, the pressure to agree – or not contradict – only grows.

These five factors play out, to varying degrees, in traditional brainstorm meetings. They prevent the right idea floating to the surface.

Get the prep right

If you can’t answer some basic questions before you try to generate ideas, the chances of finding the right idea for your marketplace are greatly diminished. You need to prepare.

1. Be clear on your objectives

Are you looking for engagement, traffic acquisition or lead generation? The type of content required – and where it needs to be seen – will vary depending on the desired outcome. Start by knowing what you want to achieve and how you’ll measure it.

2. Define “what good looks like”

Use analytics tools like SimilarWeb and Buzzsumo to audit competitors’ online performance, and to understand traffic and engagement levels across your industry. This will allow you to set realistic targets – and the senior management team’s expectations. You’ll also identify examples of what’s already been done – and what appears to work best.

3. Be clear on budget

You’re going to fly someone to the edge of space in a balloon and ask them to jump, right? Few can match Red Bull’s stellar investment in special projects. But how far could your resources take you? It is best to be clear from the start.

4. Be clear on timeframe

How long will production take and when do you want to start seeing results? The time available may rule-out certain types of content.

5. Know where you’ll find your audience

Sure, you’ll find everyone on Facebook and most B2B folks will pop up on LinkedIn from time to time. But where are you target audience most engaged? Online or offline media – whether mainstream news, trade or special interest magazines and websites? Specialist and influencer blogs? WhatsApp rather than Twitter? Know where you want your content to be seen and by whom. And once you have a list of target publications and websites, understand what content types they prefer. If editors will struggle to upload your content to their CMS, you’ve wasted time, money and effort. Make it easy for them.

If you can answer these five questions, you know the key parameters that will define the success or failure of whatever content idea you produce

Two alternative brainstorming techniques

So, now you’re prepped, you can better brief participants about what’s required and the parameters for the project or campaign. But after you’ve briefed colleagues, how do you overcome the five factors that inhibit traditional brainstorming? Try alternative techniques.


One option is a technique developed by Professor Leigh Thompson at the Kellogg School of Management in the United States: brain-writing.

Avoid one or two voices dominating a creative session by getting every participant to write down their ideas – anonymously if needs be. Then use time for discussion to debate which ideas are best. Brain-writing ensures that everyone gets a chance to give their view – and it’s a good way to uncover quiet creative talent within a business. You can see Professor Thompson’s guide to brain-writing here.


A more active version of the same principles is brain-walking, devised by author and consultant Bryan Mattimore.

Set up a series of “idea stations” around a room: paper pinned to a wall will do. Then assign participants to different stations, and ask them to write an idea before moving to the next station. At the next station, they can either add a new idea, or edit another idea they find there. After four rotations between stations, ask participants to circle the idea they think is best.

Mattimore is convinced the act of moving around adds energy to the creative process. You can read his description of brain-walking here.

So, the next time you’re asked to come up with a winning idea, don’t just call a meeting.

Prep, brief and try brain-walking or brain-writing. You’ll be surprised by the volume and quality of content ideas to emerge.

If you're interested in how to conduct a brainstorming session for content marketing, then sign up to our Advanced Content Strategy course. Aimed at experienced marketers, this two-day course will equip you with practical knowledge and skills to build successful content strategies. 

Paul Hill Course Director CIM
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