Updated: Jul 13
What separates a content topic that succeeds from one that doesn’t? Here, I unpack four of my most successful ideas—one got 80,000 clicks in two days and another earned me $4,500—to show you why they worked.
A brief summary of each idea pitch.
Its Brainstorm Buddy App score.
The metrics by which I measured the idea's success.
A breakdown of how the idea scored on six different criteria, and how these criteria can play off of one another.
Examples of how an idea that’s lacking in one area can be saved by another.
How to improve a score by fine-tuning other aspects of the idea—from the title to the formatting.
Keep in mind that the concept of a content idea goes way beyond the title; you would normally publish/pitch/promote it as an entire package that encompasses:
Your target audience. For example, a blog post idea may be surprising to nurses in one specialty but not those in another. A podcast episode about the origins of spaghetti would be relevant for a podcast that covers the history of food, but not one that covers food news.
The information you plan to share. (This would be conveyed in your pitch and/or in your promotion of the published piece of content.) A basic topic may not be surprising at first glance—say, how to sell your software—but can become surprising if you're offering tips that go beyond the usual.
The people (if any) you plan to interview. Interviewing someone who’s currently in the news (or has gone viral) can take an idea from untimely to timely.
The packaging (how you organize/format the information). An idea that’s been published all over creation might become unique if you pitch/publish it as a quiz, slideshow, or infographic.
So when I judge an idea here, I’m taking all these aspects into consideration.
Here are four of my most successful ideas, all dissected for your enlightenment. (And lest you think I have a big head, I’ll also be running a post on ideas I pitched or published that didn’t work, and why.)
Analyst Says Whole Foods Competitors Are 'Screwed'
THE PITCH: How will Amazon’s purchase of Whole Foods affect smaller natural-grocery rivals like Sprouts, Earth Fare, and Fresh Thyme?
Published in: Forbes.com
Brainstorm Buddy App Score: 90
Success metric: 80,000+ views in two days
Was this idea:
Forbes.com caters to people interested in reading about business, and my beat was retail—meaning readers of my column were interested in retail news.
The article was published within a couple of days of the sale announcement.
Unique? Kind of
Most news outlets were talking about how the sale would affect other big retailers like Walmart; the unique spin here was to focus on smaller natural-grocery stores. However, there were a few other articles at the time that hit on this topic. The Forbes.com article may have been successful because it was one of the first ones to address this angle—not because it was super unique.
The content topic was narrow enough that I could easily cover it in the space I had.
There was no actionable information in this article; however, it was clearly meant to be a news piece, not service content. It might be what I call an “isn’t this cool?” idea, which offers interesting information but nothing that improves the reader’s [life/business/career/etc.]. “Isn’t this cool” ideas aren’t necessarily bad—you just need to have the right outlet for them (or add in value via a sidebar, download, etc.).
Surprising? Kind of
This content topic may not have been a big surprise to anyone who follows retail. But the fact that the analyst told me Whole Foods competitors were “screwed”—and that he let me quote him in the title—really amped up the surprise factor. I’d say the hard-hitting title contributed the most to this content topic’s success.
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What to Do When You Overdid It
THE PITCH: You had a little too much wine at that (virtual) girl's night out, and now you're paying for it. Or you gulped down two giant cups of coffee to get revved up after a bad night's sleep, and now you're more jittery than a cat at a dog convention. I'll talk with experts to tell your readers what to do when they've accidentally gone overboard with junk food, exercise, caffeine, and more.
Published in: Prevention magazine
Brainstorm Buddy App Score: 74
Success metric: This ended up being a $3,000 assignment in a print newsstand magazine
Was this idea:
Relevant? Kind of
I’m sure that most of us have, at one time in our lives, overdone it on caffeine, alcohol, sunbathing, exercise, or junk food. However, I couldn’t say with 100% confidence that these issues have affected more than three-quarters of the magazine’s audience, so I gave myself a conservative “25% - 75%” in the Brainstorm Buddy App.
These problems have existed since the offending items were created. (I’m sure cavemen got sunburn!) If I wanted to boost this—since a 73 is barely passing—I could have done some research to see if there had been any news I could tie this into, or anything new that was being “overdone.”
Unique? Kind of
You can find articles all over the internet on what to do if you’ve quaffed one too many cups of coffee or spent too much time at the pool and got a sunburn. However, I saved this idea from being completely un-unique by rounding up five common problems.
The way I organized the advice also helped pull the content topic into “kind of unique” territory: Each section was divided into four subsections: “You Know You’ve Had Too Much If…,” “Damage Control,” “It May Be Serious If…,” and “Next Time.”
If this content idea were not at all unique, it would have failed in the Brainstorm Buddy App—though I could have gotten the score back up, and made this into a great evergreen idea, by increasing the relevance factor. For example, perhaps I could have done some more research into the demographics of the reader to figure out which types of things they, in particular, tend to overdo.
The content topic was narrow enough that I could easily cover it in the space I had. Round-ups can be good for this because the whole concept is that you quickly cover a handful of related topics. (Interestingly, round-ups are also good for broadening an idea that’s not relevant enough!)
This entire article consisted of actionable advice: Here’s how to know if you’ve overdone something, here’s what to do to fix it, and here are signs that the problem is serious—and what to do if that’s the case.
Surprising? Kind of
I don’t think anyone would be shocked by this topic—”yeah, yeah, tips to do damage control after overeating and overdrinking”—but the fact that I included the less-obvious exercise and sunbathing in the idea gave it a little edge. Some of the tips (which I included in the pitch after doing a bit of research) were surprising as well.
What You Don’t Know About Tool Theft—And 10 Tips to Decrease Your Risk
THE PITCH: The UK has seen a spate of tool thefts from tradespeople’s vans. The average insurance claim for stolen tools adds up to over a week’s pay for the typical tradesperson, and the cost of tool theft has even run people out of business. I’ll include anecdotes from tradespeople, information and advice from experts, and different types of media—including a fun, sharable quiz on “How Safe Are Your Tools?”
Published in: The Commusoft Business Blog
Brainstorm Buddy App Score: 93
Success metric: I wish I had kept my stats on all the work I did as Inbound Content Manager for this company. I can’t offer exact metrics, but this post resulted in an uptick of clicks and social media engagement. It was one of the most popular articles on the blog for quite a while. And part of the post was reprinted in a trade magazine in the industry.
Was this idea:
This was a blog for UK-based plumbers, electricians, HVAC technicians, and other tradespeople—who are very, very interested in preventing people from stealing the tools that provide their very livelihood
When I was developing ideas for the content calendar, I researched what people were talking about in the relevant industry trades, forums, etc. That’s how I discovered that tool theft was skyrocketing.
As I said above, people were already talking and writing about this topic. But being a blog for the very people who were being impacted by tool theft, we wanted to be part of the conversation—and the solution. I upped the uniqueness a bit through the packaging, including the quiz, but to be conservative I gave myself a “No” on this one.
Since there’s virtually unlimited space on a blog, and because I could embed other media and create box-outs, it wasn’t difficult to describe the problem, offer stats, include people-on-the-street anecdotes, and give expert advice. I managed to pack a ton of information into the space without overwhelming the reader. In other words, it didn’t feel like I was trying to cram a book’s worth of information into a 300-word piece of content.
The entire second part of the post shares expert advice on how to avoid being a victim.
Surprising? Kind of
No one reading this would have been surprised to hear that tool theft was on the rise. However, the title, video embed, anecdotes, and quiz gave what could be a humdrum content idea a “wow” factor. There were also trick questions in the quiz itself. Some tradespeople thought “the dab” was a tactic thieves used to steal tools, and many were surprised that thieves considered a “no tools in van” sign a challenge, not a deterrent.
THE PITCH: By day, Laura Smith sold rings…and by night, she fought in them. I’ll trail this bridal entrepreneur for one day to share with readers how Laura succeeded in two male-dominated arenas, and the surprising ways MMA helped Laura win as an entrepreneur. The article will include a brief history of MMA, my experiences taking a martial arts class with Laura, and quotes from her fellow MMA fighters.
Published in: Fortune Small Business
Brainstorm Buddy App Score: 87
Success metric: This was an assignment worth around $4,000. I got to travel to New York City to interview the source and take a mixed martial arts class with her. The magazine sadly went under the month before this was to be published, and I ended up selling the topic to Inc. magazine. This was a photo-heavy piece that paid $500 for 200 words.
Was this idea:
This was pitched for the magazine's “Enthusiasms” department, which featured “adventure stories” with a small business owner. So for the audience of this department, the idea was 100% relevant.
Maybe I should cut myself a little slack because at the time (2009), the popularity of MMA was skyrocketing thanks to an MMA-themed video game. However, this article would have worked just as well in 2005 or 2015. In other words, there was no pressing reason to publish it now.
At the time, there was no content that I could find about this source, or even more generally about a female entrepreneur who was also a martial artist.
It was easy to cover this topic in a magazine article, even with a brief history of MMA, a narrative of my experience in the MMA class, details on the source’s business, and information about the source’s experiences as a woman in what were (at the time) two male-dominated activities: start-ups and cage fighting.
Useful? Not really
This is an “isn’t this cool?” idea, meant more for entertainment than education. This type of idea can descend into “fluff” territory, but the high relevance and uniqueness helped save it.
I mean, come on! This was a petite, cute young entrepreneur who had a very unexpected hobby. (And yes, photos were a major part of the story.)