Everyone expects that brainstorming ideas for pitches, blog posts, articles, and other content should come easily.
If only. We would all be raking in the engagement, accolades, and dollars from the moment we started our content careers!
In reality, there are three stages to becoming an idea machine—someone who almost effortlessly generates tons of successful content ideas.
Here are the three stages, what they look like, how to level up to the next one, and how to skip straight to Level 3.
STAGE 1: Generating Content Ideas is a Slog
You’re a new freelance writer or content pro, and developing good ideas is just…not…fun. There’s a lot on the line, you’re feeling the stress, and the ideas that emerge from your head feel stale, boring, irrelevant, or otherwise “off.”
Even some mid-career and advanced writers and strategists are still mired in this stage. So let’s dive into what it is and how to get out of it.
What Generating Content Ideas Looks Like at Stage 1
You’ll typically run into any (or all) of three scenarios at this stage.
Scenario 1: Brainstorm Fail
Come up with an idea.
Throw it out.
Scenario 2: Idea Fail
Come up with an idea.
Pitch or publish it.
Scenario 3: Small Wins
Toss out 100 ideas you don't like.
Realize that idea #101 seems good.
Write up the idea and pitch/publish.
Score the occasional win!
Through sheer volume, over time you’ll start to see see results trickling in. But while scoring some small wins is encouraging, it won’t quite pay the bills (or make your boss ecstatic, or let you earn a living from your writing).
How to Level Up to Stage 2: Learn from Feedback
Ready to move on to Stage 2?
Of course you are. This is a painful stage to remain in for long.
All the work you’ve been putting in is helping you inch toward Stage 2, but you can accelerate the transition by analyzing the feedback on your content ideas.
I don’t mean spoken or written feedback you get from your audience, prospects, clients, or boss…because in too many cases, you won’t get any at all.
Instead of relying on sporadic feedback, track your ideas in a spreadsheet and note the results. Include:
The title of your content idea
The details of the idea; i.e., a quick elevator pitch on what the idea is about
Names of the people you send the idea to
The contact info for these people
The date you send the idea
The date of any follow-ups you send
The results: article assignments, interest from a prospect, sales, clicks, shares—whatever is more relevant for you
Every month or so, go through and analyze the results. What are the common characteristics among the ideas that get the best and worst results? Do they vary depending on the type of audience or market you’re targeting?
For example, you may discover that one of your brand’s personas loves to share ideas on Topic X, while another prefers Topic Y. Or that ideas tackling the toughest questions about Topic Z get a lot of love from assigning editors at magazines.
Keep in mind that no response counts as feedback. Give your idea a certain amount of time or a certain number of follow-ups—and if you don’t hear back by then, mark it as a rejection.
With this method, you’ll move much more quickly to the next level in your evolution from idea rookie to idea machine.
STAGE 2: Generating Content Ideas is a Medium-Weight Chore
Through trial and error, you’re starting to gain insight into what goes into a good idea. You’ll notice, say, that you can tweak one aspect of a “meh” idea and boost its chances of success. Or that your counterintuitive topics get more shares. Or that certain types ideas you thought were “bad” are actually solid.
What Generating Content Ideas Looks Like at Stage 2
Now that you’re learning what a good content idea looks like, you’re able to quickly grab the most promising ideas from your brainstorming list, and do a bit of research to make sure the ideas fit the success criteria you ID’d earlier.
So your process might look like this:
While brainstorming, you intuit that a few of your 100 ideas have promise.
You do quick research to determine whether these ideas fit your criteria or need more work; for example, have these ideas been done to death? Are they hard-hitting enough for your market? Are people talking about this topic right now? Will they fit into the ideal format and length for your market?
You tweak and fine-tune the ideas based on your research.
You pitch or publish the ideas.
Results start trickling in!
More of your ideas are landing freelance assignments, getting some nice engagement, or being accepted by your boss or clients.
However, you have to generate a lot of content ideas, and spend time researching and revising them, for a modest amount of success.
Not to mention, there’s a Catch-22: The more great content ideas you develop in Stage 2, the more work you’ll get—and the less time you’ll have to keep generating more ideas.
How can you make the whole process more sustainable?
How to Level Up to Stage 3
You’re already tracking the results of your content ideas. Now, it’s time to step back and trust.
The next time you’re brainstorming ideas, grab the most promising ideas and go through the process we talked about in Stage 2—except do it all in your head.
Don’t research. Don’t scan through your spreadsheet. Don't ask anyone. Just use the knowledge you’ve built up from Stages 1 and 2 to figure out how well the ideas meet whatever success metrics you identified.
Does the idea feel old? If so, how can you make it fresher?
Does your gut tell you the idea is a bit weak? How can you bolster it?
Is your intuition screaming that your audience won’t care enough about the topic? How can you make it more relevant?
Do you get the feeling you’d be better off combining two of the ideas, or slicing one of the ideas into three different ones?
If you’re stuck here, go ahead and research, check your spreadsheet, or talk to a business associate about the idea. That’s not a problem; the idea is to eventually, over time, hone your intuition to the point where you won’t need to do a lot of prep work before an idea is ready.
STAGE 3: Generating Content Ideas is Easy and Intuitive
An idea pops out of your brain and you can tell right off the bat what it needs to become salable or publishable. It's a beautiful thing!
What Generating Content Ideas Looks Like at Stage 3
Researched your target markets enough in the previous stages that you no longer need to do much work to discover if your idea has already been overdone.
Already gotten to know the demographics of your target audience, so you don’t have to wonder whether they’d be affected by/interested in Topic X.
Visited enough industry and media websites that you know what people are buzzing about in that space.
This is the stage I was at when I started teaching and coaching writers. A student would send me an idea for critique, and in most cases the areas that needed improvement would jump out at me—even if I had never written in that industry before. If I was on the fence, a minute or two of research would give me enough insights to move forward.
The most time-consuming part of the process was writing up the critique walking the student through my thought process!
How long does it take to get to the stage where idea generation becomes a fast, easy—and even fun—exercise?
It’s different for everyone.
My brain tends to work on overdrive and naturally makes the most random connections—thank you, ADHD!—so it took me only a couple of years of full-time pitching and writing to be able to simply intuit whether an idea was good, and how to make it better. I started freelancing in 1997, and by 1999 I was writing for top-tier newsstand magazines.
It then took me six years to actually create my list of criteria for a publishable idea, and 15 more years of full-time work to realize that not only were the criteria not equal in priority—but they also played off one one another in interesting ways. (Less of this means you need more of that! More of this means you can get away with none of that! And you always, always need these ones.)
Some content pros may stay in Stages 1 and 2 longer, and some may quickly sail past them into Stage 3.
How to Skip Right to Stage 3
If you could be like Neo in The Matrix and download 25 years worth of knowledge into your brain in 10 minutes, would you do it?
I would have jumped at the chance to do that in 1997, which is why I created Brainstorm Buddy—the secret weapon for writers that uses advanced conditional logic to analyze content ideas.
What took me years to develop can be yours in just minutes—even if you’re at the very start of your career.
You may need to do a bit of research to answer a question in Brainstorm Buddy. But then the tool does the work of weighing your answers against the criteria and against one another…scoring your content idea…and offering customized tips for improvement, plus examples.
Ready to skip to Stage 3? Check out Brainstorm Buddy to get idea-generation superpowers—minus the years of research of study.