I'm constantly looking for new content ideas. When you create a lot, you need a lot of new ideas. Especially since the more you create, the more you tend to throw out in the process, too.
One way I've found useful for coming up with new content ideas is to use existing content (this can be your own or someone else's) as a jumping-off point for creating something new. I do this by digging deeper. That is, I take a short, or fairly superficial piece of content and approach the same topic anew with an aim to go deeper, not wider. Sometimes this means finding a new angle, sometimes choosing one aspect from a well-rounded piece to focus on.
I've used this approach to turn a 15-minute podcast interview into a 2,500-word blog post, a year-old PDF into a 4,500-word blog post, and previously, that same PDF came out of a blog post I'd written 6 months earlier. This is basically strategic recycling of ideas. The reason I can get away with it is because I always dig a little deeper in some way.
Here's the process I use for identifying content I can dig deeper into and expanding those ideas into new content of my own.
Identifying an opportunity to go deep
The first stage of this process is poring through existing content. This can come from your own archives or from other blogs you read. I tend to read through my RSS feeds, the Ghost blog archives, my own bookmarks of things I've written on other blogs, and even the archives of blogs I admire.
I don't usually do this as an active ideation process. I work the following steps into my normal reading routine.
Usually an idea jumps out at me while I'm reading through a few steps:
- I notice a headline that interests me.
- I start reading, because this is something I'd like to learn about.
- I finish the piece feeling dissatisfied.
I'm often dissatisfied for one of these three reasons:
- My specific question didn't get answered
- I didn't take away any actionable ideas
- I just want to know more
For this approach, being dissatisfied with the content already available on a topic is incredibly useful. That feeling tells me there's a gap to fill here. I have a problem (I didn't get what I wanted from the content I read) and I can fix it (by writing the content I want to read).
Figuring out why I'm dissatisfied helps me work out which approach to take when digging deeper.
If I had a specific question I can focus on that aspect of the topic and research what I want to know. If I didn't get enough actionable advice I can look for ways to make the same topic more actionable for others. Or if I just want to know more I can explore the topic further until I find an interesting angle to focus on in my own content.
Creating a new piece from something old
Choosing a piece to work from is just one part of the puzzle. The other part is finding a way to dig deeper and create something new.
When I'm looking for opportunities to dig into a topic, I like to ask myself these questions about the original piece of content:
What does it make me wonder about?
What points does this content bring up that I want to know more about? What does it make me curious about? What related topics does it remind me of that I'm connecting in my mind?
This last question can be really helpful in working out how to make the topic more useful for readers. If I can think of one or two other topics or points that I've read about which are related to this topic in some way, the chances of my readers having that exact same knowledge is unlikely. I can provide more value to them by sharing what this piece of content has to say and showing them how it's connected to other ideas.
Who's missing from this piece?
This question can come in a variety of formats. One is to look for whose opinion, point of view, or experience is relevant to this topic but missing from the original content. Maybe I wrote about something a few months ago and I've since met some of the experts in that field. I could write a new piece that explores their opinions and experience.
You could also look at who the writer of the original piece aimed it at, and whether that audience has been well served. For instance, if it's a piece aimed at beginners, is the topic explained clearly? Is any jargon explained? Is the piece simple enough for beginners to understand or does it assume more knowledge than a beginner would have?
If any of these things are overlooked, I could write a new piece that's very clearly aimed at that same audience but ensure that I'm serving them better than the original piece did.
And finally, I use this question to ask who this topic is relevant to who's not served in the original. If it's a piece aimed at beginners, I could write a piece focusing on an intermediate or expert audience, going deeper into the more complicated aspects of the topic that would serve those readers better.
Could it be easier to understand or implement?
Great journalists know that sharing the news isn't served by using the fanciest words they know. Journalists use the most simple language they can to express their points so everyone can easily read and understand the news. And in fact, trying to sound smart actually makes us sound dumb anyway.
Writing content that aims to impart knowledge works the same way. To get the majority of your audience understanding it and implementing anything actionable you've included, you should be trying to make it more simple, not more complex. If an original piece of content seems unnecessary complex, there's an opportunity to go deeper into simplifying the research, making the concepts easy to understand and making the actionable points clear.
I often ask myself if more screenshots, diagrams or illustrations could make a piece of content easier to understand. Sometimes a lot of visuals to explain concepts can be the difference between an okay piece of content and something that really wows your readers and helps them to implement your strategies.
Examples are another area that content creators (including myself) sometimes skimp on because it takes so much effort to find or create examples for every point you make. But again, they can make a big difference when it comes to how well your audience understands and appreciates your content. If the original piece is lacking examples, that can be a good indicator as to where you can start when digging deeper.
Putting it into practice
Now that we've got an idea of the process for finding content to dig into and where to start with the deeper version, let's look at some real-world examples of where I've done this in the past.
Example 1: from a short podcast interview to a Ghost blog post
A couple of months ago I appeared on a short podcast about writing, called Rough Draft. The host, Demian Farnworth, interviewed me about content syndication. During my time at Buffer and since, I've had my work syndicated on Lifehacker, Fast Company, The Next Web, Time.com, and other sites. This process can be a bit of a mystery (kind of like getting press), so we discussed why it's useful, who should do it, and how to get started. The episode was only 20 minutes long, so we didn't go deep into the topic—which makes it a perfect candidate for digging deeper in a later piece.
That later piece came in the form of a post on the Ghost blog. I used the questions from the podcast interview to start off my blog post, with the idea of giving deeper explanations for each one.
As I write the post I realised it would be much more useful for readers to have more than one opinion on syndication (that one being mine). So I reached out to some if the editors who've republished my work before, and a couple of content writers I know who often have their work syndicated. Adding their thoughts on the process helped to fill out my own experience so readers can get a more well-rounded view from the post than they did from my initial podcast interview.
Example 2: From a free PDF to a 4,000-word blog post
For a few months last year I ran a premium newsletter about content marketing. I sent out monthly updates including 3 articles around a content marketing theme and anyone who signed up for the $20/month subscription received a free PDF to download, detailing my process for writing research based blog posts.
Although this PDF went through my process from start to finish, it didn't offer as much detail as it could have. It also left some questions unanswered—for instance, how to evaluate research and decide what's trustworthy and what's not. By asking my followers on Twitter what they'd most like to know about related to my research writing process, I realised there were some questions I hadn't answered and some I had only touched on that deserved a more in-depth look.
I took the initial PDF and worked from it as a base for a new blog post. The PDF helped me find some sections of the topic to start with and I re-used some of my original writing as a basis for my first draft. I also added a new section on evaluating research that covers some of the rules I use myself.
What was initially a few pages in a PDF became a 4,500-word post on the Ghost blog full of in-depth details and examples of my research and writing process.
That kind of content would be quite difficult to write from scratch, but working from a shorter, more superficial piece to start with gave me a framework to build on.
Finding opportunities to dig deep
Let's take a look at a few more examples of content I could dig into to give you an idea of how I find these opportunities. Since I'm picking on this content for the things it's missing, I'll focus on my own work.
I wrote this post for the Crew blog a few months ago and I still believe there's an important message in it. But when I read over it again, I can see something obviously missing: it needs to be more actionable.
Although it's 1,300 words long, this post really focuses on setting up and explaining the idea of managing customer expectations. I introduce it with an example of when my expectations weren't met. I explain how it's relevant to a company selling products. And I finish up with a few vague tips on finding out what expectations your customers already have.
If I were to dig deeper into this piece I'd take the content that's already there and condense it, making the setup clear but more to-the-point. Then I'd focus on adding several clear takeaways the reader can act on immediately.
In this Crew blog post I focused on three main surprises I've discovered during my time as a startup founder:
- A lot of the work of building a startup takes place via email.
- Networking is more like a game than I expected.
- Getting feedback is harder than I thought.
Can you figure out what's missing from this piece that I could dig deeper on?
It's other voices.
This piece is all about my experience. There's nothing wrong with that—my experience is valid and hopefully interesting. But when I'm ready to dig deeper into this topic, these three points of learning from my experience could be a great starting point for a bigger post that involves other founders.
What have other founders experienced that I haven't? What surprises have they discovered? What's surprising for a startup in a different country or industry to mine?
The more voices I can add to this topic, the more well-rounded the content can be. And hopefully that will make it useful to more readers, who'll have more opportunities to find an experience within the post that they relate to.
Here's a post I wrote for the Zapier blog. It's structured very simply around four basic ideas for writing great blog posts:
- Write an outline and a working title ASAP
- Back up everything you say with research
- Give your readers clear, actionable takeaways
- Focus on crafting the perfect introduction
While I've made an effort to make each of these sections easy to understand, and to back up my reasons for including each piece of advice, I could go a lot further in making them actionable.
Each section includes at least one example of the concept I'm sharing. But I doubt many readers would finish reading that post feeling more confident about implementing those ideas in their own work.
In digging deeper on this post, I would focus on including very simple, clear actions related to each section. There might be several per section—for instance, writing a great introduction (section 4) doesn't boil down to one basic tip. But offering a few concrete actions to the reader would make this post more useful.
Try thinking critically about the content you read. Write down the questions above and ask them of yourself when reading your own work, too. Can you spot anything missing? Does the content make you wonder about a related topic? Could you make this topic easier to understand or implement?
Just asking yourself these questions will help you improve the content you're already writing everyday. But more importantly it can give you a whole new way of finding ideas for new content.