We want to help you stay connected to the content industry, even while we all have to stay apart during the COVID-19 pandemic. So, to help replace all the meetups and conferences you’ll be missing, we’re launching a series of virtual conversations between Setka’s CEO and leading content experts.
The world needs great content now more than ever, and we hope these insights inspire you to keep creating it!
Co-founder and CEO at Setka
Before you can write incredible articles or design beautiful content experiences, you’ve got to come up with an idea. Ideally, a lot of ideas, so you can publish regularly to keep your audience engaged and build a relationship with them over time.
And often, that’s the hardest part. What stories or expertise are authentic for your organization to be sharing? What does your audience need that you can provide? What can you do that hasn’t already been done? And how on earth can you keep doing this week after week and keep the ideas fresh and inspiring?
As a trained journalist who spent time as the first editor of branded content at The New York Times, a founding member of HuffPost’s brand storytelling team, and Director of Creative Strategy for Time Inc, she’s done her fair share of brainstorming.
And since branching out on her own to found StoryFuel—which teaches marketers, publishers, creators and companies of all sizes how to tell better brand stories—she’s helped umpteen organizations come up with brilliant content ideas.
She recently decided to round up all of her expertise into a new book, The Content Fuel Framework, which should be a reference on the shelves of any content creator. In the book, Melanie walks you through her system for maximizing creativity by breaking all content ideas down into a focus (what the content is about) plus a format (how you’re presenting the content). By thinking about these two elements separately—and imagining the different ways they may go together—you can quickly generate 100+ ideas for your own content. In the book, she also walks through the ten most common focuses and formats, what they’re especially good for, and inspiring examples to really help spark your creativity
We did a popular interview a while back with Melanie on her secrets to native advertising success, and upon reading her new book, we knew we had to chat with her again ASAP. Read on for her tips on getting past brainstorming blocks, the mistake too many people make when coming up with content ideas, how to make sure your stories are unique to your brand, and more.
— What would you say to someone who is newer to content ideation or isn’t a storyteller at heart and feels like they’re “not creative enough” to come up with good ideas?
There’s no such thing as “not creative enough!” Creativity is a learned skill, and we can all find small and large ways to practice creative thinking and improve our ability to come up with content ideas, if we want to.
The biggest way to shift that mindset is to use a system to come up with your content ideas, instead of just waiting for “the muse” or “inspiration” to strike. Systems are far more productive! In the same way that a recipe allows you to cook something you might not be able to think up all on your own, having a systematic approach to brainstorming content ideas is a great way to practice using your creative muscles and guide yourself toward the type of content creation that will work best for you.
— What’s the biggest mistake you see people make when it comes to brainstorming content ideas?
One of the most common mistakes creators make when brainstorming content ideas, is they get stuck on a particular format or platform first, and then try to force whatever story idea they come up with into that format or platform. For example, you see a lot of brainstorms starting with someone saying, “Ok, let’s come up with some video ideas” or “we need a photo for Instagram.”
When that happens, you get too focused on how the story comes to life that you forget to make sure the story itself is interesting to begin with. This is also when we see a lot of content that would have been much better in a different format. So instead of starting with the format of the content, first brainstorm what the content will focus on, and then ask which format is the best way for that specific story to come to life.
When we start with a format instead of a focus, we are assuming that how we say something is more important than what we say. And that is simply not true.
— With so much content being created, it’s obviously so easy to find inspiration from other content creators or businesses in the same space. When brainstorming content ideas, how can you make sure you’re not just recreating content someone has already made?
While you don’t want to make a habit of simply copying someone else’s content in an attempt to recreate it, it’s actually smart to keep an eye on what your competitors are doing, and note what’s working, and what’s not. Insofar as you can do so ethically, take lessons from the content that performs well for those with similar audiences, and implement those lessons in your own content.
If you are taking inspiration from others, be sure you’re adapting the idea and the delivery of that idea to fit your specific goals, brand, voice, and audience to really make it your own. In truth, a lot of the content in the world is similar, in some ways, to existing content. This is true for brands and non-brands alike. (Think of how many news organizations must cover the very same events!) It’s OK for there to be some similarity, as long as you’re delivering something in a unique way, that works for your brand and your audience, then you can still add value to your audience.
— You talk about the importance of having a goal for your content creation, but so often I see marketers or business owners who are just trying to jump on the content bandwagon with the generic goal “I need content!” Do you think people need a more specific goal in order to succeed in creating content? If so, how can they come up with one?
It’s important to have a clear reason for creating content, beyond just creating content for content’s sake. If you don’t have a clear goal, that ties to your overall business, organizational, or personal goals and priorities, content will never be easy to prioritize because it will feel like a task instead of a strategic activity that’s helping you achieve your goals. Take some time to think about what needs to be achieved, either for you personally (if these are your own content pieces) or for your organization or company (for marketing content) and ensure that your content activities are happening in support of those same goals.
When you start seeing, hearing and experiencing some new things, you might find yourself making new connections and coming up with new ideas.
— Besides using the framework, do you have any other favorite tactics for sparking your inspiration when you feel stuck on content ideas?
If you’re feeling like you don’t have enough “inspiration” to come up with something new, consider filling your brain with some new inputs of other types. If you spend your days consuming the same music, movies, TVs, books, and podcasts, with the same people, and doing the same things, you’re bound to feel stagnated! It’s like trying to cook a brand new recipe with the exact same limited ingredients, every day; Eventually, it’ll all feel the same.
So try mixing up your inputs: listen to music you normally don’t listen to, read a book of a different genre, watch a TV show or movie you normally wouldn’t gravitate toward, take different routes to new places, try new things, and meet new people. When you start seeing, hearing and experiencing some new things, you might find yourself making new connections and coming up with new ideas.
— How often should brands or publishers be doing a brainstorm like The Content Fuel Framework?
It often helps create a smoother content workflow if you have larger content brainstorms at predetermined intervals, such as quarterly or monthly, and then have smaller brainstorms intermittently between to help fill in any gaps (weekly, for example). By having larger regular brainstorms, you can do more content planning in advance and have a better sense of what content creation prep work needs to be done for upcoming events, holidays, and more.
The more frequent brainstorms can be used to create more timely, reactive content ideas, or things that were not known at the last larger brainstorm. This balance allows you to both have a structured plan and be able to react to more timely realities that may impact your content delivery or execution.
Looking for more intel on aligning your brand goals with your content?
Read our last interview with Melanie for her 5 secrets to branded content success.Read now
Want to learn how to run the perfect content brainstorm for your organization?
Buy Melanie’s book to get all the tools you need to generate unlimited content ideas.Get The Content Fuel Framework
— Coming up with ideas is one challenge—but actually creating the content can also be overwhelming (especially when you’re suddenly looking at 100+ amazing ideas thanks to the framework). Once a brand has brainstormed all these ideas, what are some of the best ways to decide which to tackle first?
Every creator and organization will have their own priorities, so there isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer to which content ideas you should create first. This is why it’s important to think about your broader goals, your “why,” before you start creating content.
If you have a clear understanding that your goal is to sell more of a specific product, then any content ideas that support the sales funnel should be prioritized. If you have set a goal to grow your audience, then any content ideas that appeal to new audiences or can be distributed widely would probably be the ones to prioritize.
— What are some of your favorite creative focus + format combinations you’ve seen of late?
The wonderful part of The Content Fuel Framework is that any combination of focus and format can work, though some create more natural or obvious pairings. (Such as history-focused content brought to life in a timeline—a natural pair!)
Lately, I’ve been impressed by brands that are creating a gallery of Zoom background images using branded imagery that is relevant to their brand and audience. I’ve seen universities create Zoom backgrounds of landmarks around campus, TV shows share background images from their show sets, and many other similar approaches. These product-focused image galleries provide something useful to their audience, who is likely spending an increased amount of time on video calls as they stay home to protect their health.
IllustratOR: Khadia Ulumbekova