Every marketing team needs fresh content ideas.
Maybe you’ve been producing content on the same subject for so long that your idea well has run dry.
Or maybe it’s your keyword well that’s reaching its limits, leaving you with plenty of ideas, but no clear path forward about how to prioritize them or the distribution channels for which they’re best suited.
Whatever the case may be, the process covered in this article will help you identify new ideas. It will also ensure you align your content creation efforts with your marketing and business goals.
Content planning for sales and marketing goals
By now, you’re probably sick of reading about tying content ideation and execution to the stages of the classic sales funnel. I’m sick of writing about it, and I think we all know by now that users rarely follow a linear path through a funnel in the first place.
But the linear funnel model still has value from a content planning perspective. Each stage ties roughly to different marketing or business goals. So if you’re trying to decide where or how to allocate your content marketing efforts, knowing your biggest goals (or glaring weaknesses) can help you prioritize.
We’ll use a four-stage funnel model with the following steps:
- Awareness, which focuses on visibility, education, and inspiration to draw new prospects into further engagement with your company.
- Evaluation, where differentiation between competitors must occur.
- Purchase, in which the decision to buy is made.
- Post-Purchase, where buyers confirm whether they made the right decision to buy from you.
Within this model, if your goals are to grow your traffic, improve brand awareness, or drive initial engagement, you’ll be best served by focusing on the Awareness stage, which includes (but isn’t limited to) content types like:
- SEO articles;
- Blog articles;
- Social media posts;
- Ungated case studies;
- Ungated reports, resources, lead magnets, etc.
If, instead, you’re focused on increasing total leads, marketing qualified leads (MQLs), or sales qualified leads (SQLs), your efforts should support the Evaluation stage, with content types such as:
- Gated case studies;
- Gated whitepapers;
- Gated lead magnets;
- Content upgrades;
- Explainer videos.
If driving revenue or new customer sign-ups is top priority, focus on building content that bolsters the Purchase stage of the funnel, such as:
- Customer recommendations;
And finally, if you’re dialed in on increasing referrals or positive reviews, accelerating recognition of value, or minimizing churn, then you’ll want to allocate your efforts toward the Post-Purchase stage, with content including:
- Onboarding support documentation;
- Knowledgebase articles.
A healthy funnel includes content to support each stage. If you’re working with a limited budget, you can focus your brainstorming and creative efforts on content that supports:
- Your highest priority funnel stage;
- Multiple funnel stages.
Case studies, for example, can contribute to both the Evaluation and Purchase stages.
Ideation exercise: Brainstorming 30+ new topics
Throughout the rest of the article, I’ll give you 15 questions to use as brainstorming prompts. Not all may apply to you, your company, your industry, your customers, or your business.
But set aside at least 30 minutes for this exercise and try to write down at least two new ideas for each question (or more if you plan to focus on a limited number of funnel stages).
1. What questions are your customers asking?
Marcus Sheridan is the king of the question, having used question-driven content to save his failing River Pools & Spa business during the Great Recession of 2008.
He’s got more on the tactic in his new book, They Ask You Answer, but at its core, it’s a simple concept: Find out which questions your customers are asking, and answer them through content.
(Third-party tools estimate a Domain Rating of 72 and 90,000 monthly organic visitors—virtually unheard of for a small, mainly local business.)
Not only can doing so help move customers into your sales funnel, it can increase your odds of winning a featured snippet if you build content around question-centric queries.
Potential questions can come from plenty of sources, including:
- Search queries driving organic traffic;
- Internal search queries;
- Your sales team;
- Your customer service team;
- Your R&D team.
Ask around. If you can source questions from members of other departments within your company, you may also be able to recruit them to produce the content, minimizing the creative burden on you or your team.
2. What pain points are your customers experiencing?
While you’re speaking with your sales team, ask about specific pain points they sell against (if you haven’t already captured these in your buyer personas).
Content produced around pain points has a high likelihood of resonating with your prospective customers, as it naturally builds rapport by speaking to their experiences. Because this is TOFU content, it shouldn’t feel “salesy.”
Approach pain points from a helpful, educational, or even inspirational perspective.
Here’s an example of the kind of content this prompt can lead to:
For extra impact, loop back with your sales team after producing pain point content so that they can use the finished work in future sales campaigns.
3. What background knowledge do customers need to use your product or service?
Take several steps back and capture the background knowledge that customers need to be successful with your offering.
Take Mailshake, an email marketing automation program. If you were thinking about the types of education customers need, you’d probably think of things like building email campaigns, scheduling messages, and automating replies.
But on an even more basic level, they need to know how to write a good email. Mailshake’s Cold Email Academy pillar page is a great example of a resource that fulfills this need:
Not only is this type of resource valuable to new customers whose email copywriting skills need practice, it’s also useful for prospects who aren’t sure they’re ready for an email marketing automation program. When they are, this is the kind of resource they’re going to remember.
4. What gaps exist in available education and resources in your industry?
Brian Dean built Backlinko by exploiting a need for digital marketing content that didn’t just give advice but backed it up with research and experiential data.
What similar gaps exist in your industry? What resources would your customers benefit from (that they may not even know they need)? Finding and exploiting these gaps can go a long way toward building not just awareness-stage interest but perceived thought leadership as well.
5. What knowledge is second-nature to you that your customers don’t know?
This is one of my favorite questions to ask when it comes to TOFU content ideation. Most organizations are sitting on a wealth of internal knowledge they don’t realize they possess.
It’s an inherent challenge of expertise: Once you’re sufficiently advanced, you’ve likely forgotten more about your chosen subject matter than most beginners know in the first place.
As an example, a podcast hosting company I worked with had invested plenty of resources into creating in-depth guides on advanced-level topics, such as producing and marketing podcasts.
But the awareness-stage customers they were attracting had even more basic needs. They needed to know what equipment to buy to start recording or where to host their finished files—two topics the hosting company had assumed their clients would already understand.
Creating content around these topics filled a need for prospective customers and prevented them from leaving the site to seek information elsewhere.
One big benefit of bringing a beginner’s mind to content ideation is that this type of content is incredibly easy to produce. You already have the expertise. All you need to do is package it up.
6. Where is your industry heading, and what future trends can you comment on?
People like to follow experts. They want to work with them. And one of the fastest ways to establish yourself as an authority is by reflecting thoughtfully on the issues you expect to affect your industry and offering guidance to your audience on how they should prepare or react.
This isn’t about newsjacking or cranking out some no-value-added resource round-up. It’s about identifying opportunities to position yourself as an expert using insight you already have, so that when your company is held up against its competitors, you come out ahead as the de facto thought leader.
You can do that by:
- Actually interviewing experts—email answers tend to be cursory, with no chance to ask follow-up questions.
- Create a narrative, not a laundry list of ideas. Which themes come up again and again? Where do respondents agree or disagree?
7. What do others in your industry get wrong, and—without bashing—how can you set the record straight?
A while back, I worked with a woman whose boutique personal training studio was being threatened by a CrossFit facility that had recently opened up in her area. At one point, a customer who’d tried both facilities shared with my client that the owner of the CrossFit gym had advised him that stretching wasn’t really worthwhile—a perspective my client didn’t share.
I’m not a personal trainer, so I can’t comment on the importance of stretching. (And the last thing I want is to get on the wrong side of CrossFit enthusiasts!) But what I encouraged my client to do was to produce a well-researched, academic-sources-cited content piece backing up her stance on stretching.
The result? Not only was she able to enhance her perception as an authority on the topic, she offered up a compelling reason for prospective clients to work with her over her competitor.
Don’t use content to trash your competitors. But do look for opportunities to use it to differentiate yourself and to communicate or reinforce your value proposition.
8. How do your products or services stack up to your competitors?
At the evaluation stage, your prospects are comparing you to your competitors. Why not help them along with comparison content?
Here’s an example from Hubspot’s website, comparing Hubspot with Marketo:
The full page is much longer, but the table above elegantly displays how comparison content allows you to help prospects frame their view of your brand.
That said, the caveat here is that comparison content works only if you give both options a fair shake. Lying about features or being deliberately misleading damages the trust prospects are forming with your company.
(On the other hand, for products that are tangentially related to your own, you’re an impartial judge. You can exploit that to create trusted comparison content that the companies involved in the comparison likely can’t.)
9. Is there anything special about your staff, facilities or community involvement that you could translate into benefits for your customers?
Meet Louie, the therapy dog in residence at Smith-North Little Rock Funeral Home, and the star of some of the business’s most popular Facebook posts:
Understandably, funeral homes have a fine line to walk when it comes to creating content. The approach Smith Family Funeral Homes has taken is to share uplifting stories about staff and their community involvement, primarily on the Facebook pages of its funeral home branches.
As a result, not only do they rarely run out of ideas for new content, but families in their community recognize their brand for its involvement, giving them an advantage over other funeral homes in the area.
Don’t engage in community service for the sole purpose of creating content. But if you happen to have exceptional staff or facilities, or if you’re active in your community—whether that means your local area, networks within your industry, or other affiliate groups—use it to fuel content efforts that celebrate these differentiating factors.
10. What objections do your customers have, and how do you respond?
In his sales trainings, John Barrows talks about how impactful it can be to address prospects’ objections before they even bring them up. The great news is that it doesn’t have to be your salespeople leading these difficult conversations—your content can do it for them.
Here’s a blog post from Savoya, an executive car service, that handles its potential pricing objection upfront by framing the conversation in the context of ROI:
Since some estimates suggest that 20% of buyers don’t even want to hear from sales until they’re in the Purchase stage, content like this lessens the chances that your company will be taken out of consideration due to objections sales could have otherwise overcome.
11. How do your customers benefit from your products or services, and what stories can you tell about their successes?
Obviously, this is a clear opportunity for case studies. But too many companies think of case studies as one-and-done content pieces. Once you’ve captured your customer’s success story, there are plenty of ways you can extend its value, including:
- Producing shorter case study variants that speak to different pain points or that are more relevant to different audiences (while still drawing from the same source material);
- Creating a companion content piece that goes into more detail on the behind-the-scenes work your company did to contribute to your customer’s success;
- Pulling out high-impact quotes for use on your website, in social media graphics, or even email signatures;
- Integrating it into your sales team’s cadence (or requesting your case study subject use it when making warm introductions to your company);
- Inviting your case-study subject to join you in creating a conference presentation or podcast interview based on your work together.
These strategies won’t all be appropriate in every situation, but it’s important to remember that consumers engage with stories in different ways. The more opportunities you can identify to share your customer’s successes with them, the more likely it is that they’ll receive your message.
12. What kind of reviews/social praise do you receive, and why do people say that about you?
You’re likely already using the reviews and praise you receive as testimonials in your sales collateral or as social proof on your website. But one underrated opportunity for using this good will is to create content that explains why you get such rave reviews.
For example, imagine that a common theme running through your company’s reviews is praise for your exceptional customer service. Chances are that didn’t happen by accident. So why not create a content piece that explains the steps you’ve taken to ensure customers’ needs are met?
This hypothetical content piece might include things like:
- The overarching philosophy you’ve developed that guides your delivery of customer service;
- How you qualify customer service candidates when hiring;
- Specific training they undergo;
- Metrics to which you hold your customer service reps accountable;
- Mistakes you’ve made in the past, and the lessons you’ve learned as a result.
Show your work. Helping customers see behind the scenes will make you more memorable and trustworthy.
13. How do you take the risk out of making a purchase decision with your company?
Content pieces about your 30-day money back guarantee aren’t going to move the needle. Instead, think about the underlying fears that keep prospects from pulling the trigger with your company:
- Are they scared that they won’t see a positive ROI from their investment?
- Have they been burned in the past when purchasing similar products?
- Are they worried about missing important goals if they don’t choose the right solution?
These types of fears are fertile ground for content ideation. Could you tell the story of another customer who had failed before finding success with your product? Could you create content that walks prospects through the systems, policies, or procedures you’ve put in place to ensure they get good results with your offering?
Show prospects that you understand the risk that they’re taking on when buying from someone new, and that you’ve taken the steps necessary to ensure their fears are unwarranted.
14. What do new customers need to know from you to get to their first moment of value as quickly as possible?
SaaS readers will already be familiar with the idea of “first moment of value,” but it’s relevant to every type of business.
According to Baremetrics, “value,” in this context, is, “the benefit your customer is expecting to receive from your product.”
How long it takes a new customer to realize this value has a significant impact on how happy they are with the purchase they’ve made (and, correspondingly, how likely they are to ask for a refund, refer you to others, or leave a positive review).
It’s up to you to identify your company’s specific first moment of value, but once you know what it is, you can use content to speed new customers toward it. Content that supports this need could include:
- Demo or tutorial content;
- Onboarding videos;
- Training emails for new customers;
- Checklist PDFs.
Here’s a sample onboarding email from Asana that recommends three specific activities as starting points to help new users quickly realize the program’s value:
Getting customers to the first moment of value may not be content’s primary job. It might take more hand-holding (as in cases where personalized onboarding is necessary) to get them over the hump.
But even in these cases, opportunities likely exist to set expectations for new customers via pre-purchase blog, web, or video content. Think through your current onboarding process and look for places to add clarity or instruction through content.
15. What are the biggest mistakes new customers make when using your product or service?
On a related note, have you ever signed up for a new product or service, made a mistake using it, and then immediately regretted your purchase—even if the mistake was clearly the result of user error?
Your new customers are going to make mistakes. When they do, they’re going to get frustrated. Shorten their learning curve by developing content that preemptively solves potential problems and deploying it when customers are most likely to face issues.
Depending on the analytics solutions you have in place, you may be able to trigger a message when user engagement measurements suggest they’re encountering problems (such as not logging into an app for three days within a week of purchase).
In the absence of these solutions, you can make educated guesses based on feedback from your sales, marketing, and customer service teams. If you have a sense of which mistakes customers are likely to make—and when they’re likely to make them—content can turn a frustrating experience into a positive outcome, benefiting you and your customer.
Despite its length, this article isn’t intended to be comprehensive. There are plenty of other ways to generate new ideas and myriad other content formats for deploying them that may be appropriate based on your marketing and business goals.
Regardless of how you approach the process, taking the following steps will reveal a wealth of new content ideas, as well as where they should fall in terms of execution prioritization:
- Identify your company’s most pressing needs and the corresponding marketing or business metrics associated with them.
- Map these metrics to the appropriate funnel stages, as well as the content types most commonly used to support them.
- Use the questions in the sections above to generate new ideas specific to your chosen funnel stages. If you already have ideas, prioritize your list according to target funnel stage and the resources required to execute each idea.
- Evaluate the performance of content you’ve created using this process at least quarterly, ensuring that some effort is allocated to each funnel stage that’s relevant to your overall sales process.
- Make an ongoing effort to capture not just new ideas, but new prompts you think of or encounter that’ll help further fuel your future brainstorming sessions.