I Say This With Love: You Need to Be Harder on Your Content Ideas
Updated: Jul 13, 2022
I'm going to be a little bit of a B-word here, but I say this with love—because I want to see you succeed.
If every one of your content ideas is sparkling with greatness the instant it pops out of your brain, you’re doing it wrong.
How do I know this? The Brainstorm Buddy App aggregates data from users. I occasionally check through the reports to see if they offer any insights on how to improve the tool. (Don’t worry: The system doesn’t identify users and I don’t ever share ideas or scores!)
And I’m seeing an awful lot of very high scores on ideas—which doesn’t jibe with my experiences coaching and critiquing ideas for writers in real life. In the real world, my students and clients struggled with ideas and needed guidance to help shape and fine-tune them. Yet on the Brainstorm Buddy App, every writer instantly produces nothing but fantastic content ideas. What gives?
It seems that a lot of people go into the analysis already convinced that their idea is all the good things—so they rush through, click all the “best” options, congratulate themselves that they have an incredible idea once again…
…and then they wonder why their idea doesn’t take off like they thought it would.
I’m sure some ideas are already perfect. But in my experience—25 years of it!—great ideas rarely emerge from a writer’s head fully formed and ready to go. If they did, we’d all have a lot more freelance assignments, and a lot more engagement on our content!
So let’s get real about what goes into critiquing a content idea. This advice applies both to Brainstorm Buddy App subscribers and to writers who are analyzing their own content ideas.
(And lest you feel discouraged: Remember that the Brainstorm Buddy App also offers customized tips on how to improve each idea!)
Wouldn’t it be easier to just throw stuff out there and see what sticks, instead of wasting time trying to figure out if each individual idea is good enough?
After all, if the topic is great, it will sell to your target markets, be accepted by your clients, or get engagement from your audience. And if not, oh well…at least you didn’t put too much effort into it.
But here’s the thing:
Your audience, clients, and prospects don’t want to be the subjects of your content experiments.
They, like you, are busy. They, like you, don’t want to spend their precious life energy on content ideas that aren’t relevant to them, that are old news, or that they’ve already seen elsewhere.
And they’re not going to patiently wait around until you finally offer something worth reading, watching, or listening to. Disappoint them enough times, and they’ll leave. This is not an empty threat: I have talked with assigning editors who banned writers who kept sending them bad pitches—and I’m sure that even you have unsubscribed from a blog or newsletter that continued to disappoint.
The Middle Ground Method of Idea Analysis
There is a better way! Let’s call it the middle ground method for analyzing (and improving) your content ideas.
This method, which is used by top professionals in content, offers the best of both worlds:
You don’t spend too much time, and your content topics start getting the results you want. (Great for you!)
You don’t waste your audience's time, and your prospects breathe a sigh of relief that finally someone gets it. (Great for them!)
Even better, over time this method will become intuitive, so it will be even quicker. (And the Brainstorm Buddy App will eventually make itself obsolete for you, which is a good thing!)
Finally, and most important: Wouldn’t you appreciate it if content publishers spent a mere 20 minutes making sure their ideas are good before subjecting you to them? Me, too.
WATCH NOW: How to Get the Most Accurate Scores in the Brainstorm Buddy App (This advice also applies if you're analyzing your ideas without the tool!)
Do Bad Research
You can eliminate a lot of unusable ideas—and improve on the “just OK” ones—simply by doing some quick research.
And by quick I mean quick. As in, I encourage you to half-ass this research.
You’ll do just enough investigating to get a rough idea of how usable your idea is. No rabbit holes allowed!
Below are three questions to ask yourself about your idea, plus how to find out the answer with as little pain and effort as possible.
(Idea analysis typically involves more questions—and those questions need to be weighted against one another in the right way—but if you’re not using a tool like the Brainstorm Buddy App, this is an acceptable way to DIY the process.)
QUESTION 1: HAS MY AUDIENCE ALREADY SEEN THIS IDEA?
TIME REQUIREMENT: 5 MINUTES
A good content idea is unique, meaning your target audience hasn’t seen it already. Your idea itself may be uncommon, or it might be your take on the topic or the way you package it that makes it different. Here’s how to find out how unique your idea really is.
If You’re a Content Professional or Entrepreneur
If you’re working on an idea for a client or employer, or developing an idea for your own business, Google to see if your competition has already run a similar topic.
Did you discover your content idea has been done to death? Don’t throw it out! Brainstorm new ways to approach or package the idea to differentiate it from the competition. Or simply make sure the content you develop based on your idea is longer, is more up-to-date, has stronger SEO, and is overall better than the competition’s.
If You’re a Freelance Writer
Wondering if you should pitch that idea? First, do a Google search. If pages and pages of similar content ideas pop up, that’s an indication that you’ll need to brainstorm a new twist on it.
If you don’t see a whole lot like your topic, the next step is to check through your target publication’s archives to ensure they haven’t run a similar piece.
Early in my career as a freelance writer, I often skipped the step of researching my target market because it meant actually purchasing physical back issues of a magazine—or finding them at the library—and painstakingly scanning the table of contents of each issue.
But now there’s no excuse: You can simply surf over to the publication’s website and glance through the archives using their handy search tool. Time investment? Ten seconds.
If they’ve covered your idea in the last five years, again, you can change up the idea to make it different/better. I offer tips on how to do that here and here.
For instance, say you’re developing an article pitch on how to break bad news: Your pet hamster died, your breath stinks, I saw your partner with another woman.
If you discover your idea has already been done, you might make it more unique by pitching it as a chart. Put one piece of bad news in each row and then create columns with headers like “Should you tell?" “What to say,” “What not to say,” and “Expert tip.” This packaging takes a been-there-done-that idea and makes it fresh and new.
QUESTION 2: HOW INTERESTING IS THIS IDEA TO MY AUDIENCE?
TIME REQUIREMENT: 10 MINUTES
You may have the most amazing, incredible, scorching hot idea on the face of the planet…but if it’s not relevant to your audience, no one will want to buy, publish, or engage with it. (In other words, don’t pitch or publish a piece of content about cat health for a dog magazine.) Here’s how to figure out how relevant your idea really is.
If You’re a Content Professional or Entrepreneur
Take a look at your customer/audience personas and do a bit of casual research on their demographics.
Example: You work for a company that makes software solutions for restaurant owners, and you have three customer personas: new restaurant owners, managers of small chains, and managers of large chains. Your job in this example is to develop content ideas for the large-chain persona.
You come up with an idea on how to improve your loyalty program to attract more guests. The question to ask here is:
How many large chains already have a loyalty program?
If the answer is “not many,” it may not be worth developing an entire piece of content around this topic. You have to have a loyalty program before you can improve it, right?
So you check. Type “restaurant loyalty plans” into Google and you’ll discover a load of articles on how loyalty programs have exploded since Covid. Examples in these articles include McDonald’s and other large restaurant chains.
Yes! Sounds like your idea will resonate with a good portion of your target persona.
“But wait,” you may be saying. “That’s the research? Where’s the data? Where are the numbers?”
Remember, the point is to get this done fast. Guesstimate, extrapolate, use your gut…you just want enough proof to convince yourself that your idea isn’t failing in some major way.
Hold up: What if my brand doesn’t have customer personas to research?
Use your brain.
If you've been at your job for any amount of time, you can likely figure out the demographics of your audience. Heck, even if you're brand new to the company you can probably do a little research and make some pretty educated guesses. You didn't get where you are by being clueless.
If You’re a Freelance Writer
Figuring out how relevant your idea is may actually be easier for you than for a content pro at a brand, because many publications offer media kits right on their websites—and these media kits helpfully list the demographics of their audience. Like so:
Say you want to pitch an article to a parenting magazine about developments in treatments for anxiety. Check the media kit. How old are the kids of the magazine’s readers?
For the sake of this example, we’ll pretend the media kit says this magazine targets moms of elementary school-aged kids.
Now, the big question to ask to determine relevance is:
How many elementary school-aged kids suffer from anxiety?
The CDC reports that 9.4% of children aged 3-17 years had diagnosed anxiety in 2016-2019. This includes middle-schoolers and high-schoolers, so I wouldn’t assume too much from just this stat. In addition, this report is from before Covid, and newer research shows that anxiety in kids has increased a lot during those years.
My verdict? From this combination of info, I’d deduce that a heck of a lot of elementary school-aged kids suffer from anxiety—making this content topic relevant to a good percentage of the publication’s readership.
(I could probably dig up more up-to-date stats, or numbers that target that age group in particular, but remember: We need to balance accuracy with speed! This is good enough for me to continue evaluating this content topic.)
QUESTION 3: HOW NEWSWORTHY IS THIS IDEA?
TIME REQUIREMENT: 5-10 MINUTES
Why would someone be compelled to buy, publish, or engage with this content idea NOW? Would anyone have blinked an eye if this idea was published five years ago? Is it old news? Here’s how to find out.
If You’re a Content Professional, Entrepreneur, or Freelance Writer (Yes, the advice is the same for all!)
First, do a quick search on your idea to see if your keywords pop up on any news sites.
Example: You want to develop a podcast episode for retailers on tech-based methods to deter theft.
Did a news outlet report that shoplifting has spiked in the last month?
Is there a TikTok meme where people stroll out of stores with large (unpaid-for) items like TVs and pool floats?
Did a retail industry trade magazine run a study showing a recent increase in shoplifting?
If the answer is yes...go!
If the answer is no, it’s time to do a bit more digging.
Make Google Trends your next stop. If you see a spike right about now, or if your keyphrase spikes at the same time every year (and it’s almost that time right now), that might be an indication your idea is timely.
You might also look for anecdotal evidence that your idea is newsworthy. In this case, search for the term “shoplifting” on relevant forums and discussion groups on LinkedIn, Facebook, or other sites to see if retailers are talking about it. “News” doesn’t always mean national news…and there may be some buzz going on around your topic that shows you’re actually ahead of the trend.
Let’s Get Real
I want to see you reach all your content goals, to make a ton of money as a freelance writer, to impress your boss, to become your clients’ go-to content developer, to grow a fan base of devoted followers. So please don’t skip this quick but important process. Just 20 minutes can make the difference between exasperated clients, bosses, and readers—and a thriving, successful career.