Keep a steady stream of ideas with a content idea map

Last week, I went step-by-step through one of many ways you can follow to build a blog post. But a blog should include many posts that are relevant to your business and its purpose. So this week, I’ll walk you through how to build a content map (or several) as one method to keep the ideas coming.

If you’re familiar with mind mapping, you may already have a good idea of where I’m going with this. Just to be clear, this isn’t about mapping content to personas or buyer stage. It’s about using a mind map to brainstorm and build a repository of connected content ideas you can pull from as you plan.

Here’s a conceptual image of what a content map can look like:

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I find it can be challenging to generate enough ideas to build a content map on my own steam in a reasonable amount of time, so I like to bring friends (colleagues) into the brainstorm with me. Getting a group of people together in a room to bounce ideas around makes for a lively conversation since all the possibilities trigger creativity in different ways for different people. This is one of my favorite parts of planning - brainstorming all the things with smart, creative people!

Start with one major topic or key message as the central focus

When I build marketing strategies with my clients, one of the exercises I do with them is to take each key message and brainstorm all the different content ideas we can think of to help get that message across.

Everything is fair game. I don’t restrict the discussion to topics - we bring medium into the discussion as well since some content ideas are better suited to specific channels.

We also discuss different ways to position the content, such as covering a topic through a negative perspective. Or asserting a point of view about a topic.

It may seem a bit granular for a brainstorm session, but it’s all about keeping the conversation flowing naturally. Don’t get caught up in the details, but don’t restrict them from being part of the ideas that come forward unless the discussion starts to go off the rails.

Drop down a level and add topic branches to each major topic

This is where the content ideas can start to really flow. You’re taking that big topic and breaking it down into smaller topics based on a few essential factors:

  • Your message - keep it in mind so you stay focused and don’t veer off into irrelevant territory.

  • Your audience - keep them in mind to ensure the ideas are addressing their needs.

  • Your goals - keep them in mind to filter out content that may not help you achieve your goals.

These three factors are ideal to stay laser focused on content that will fit within your plan and provide valuable information to your audience.

Dig even deeper to break down your topic branches into subtopics

This is usually where you might start to see connections between different content ideas more clearly, along with more granular details like the channel or medium because the topics are small enough now that you might get a mix of content titles and more generalized ideas. This is fine.

Keep breaking down each topic and subtopic until you can’t break it down anymore or until it doesn’t make sense to. The end result should provide you with a pretty comprehensive repository of ideas. Like this (click to enlarge):

I spent about 20 minutes putting this mind map together and it’s nowhere near as comprehensive as I could have done. I added subtopics I’ve already written about or have drafted in my queue for upcoming content. And that’s okay. The value of having it in the map is also in seeing how everything is connected.

Go and map your way to regular content

One of the most challenging aspects to keeping a content program going is having a steady stream of ideas. The second problem is having enough time. I can’t give you more time, but I can give you a way to generate ideas.

How to successfully blog your expertise

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I’ve been blogging for over 10 years and I’ve written thousands of blog posts across multiple sites, not all of them under my byline. I’ve spoken with dozens of clients and even colleagues about blogging and I get the same questions and concerns over and over again, which means lots of people have similar things that hold them back.

Blogging about your expertise can be intimidating and it can also feel like you’re giving away what you do for free. Will you give away a lot of your expertise? Absolutely. Will it impact the business you get? Highly unlikely.

  1. The person who will only ever read your blog and book a free consult with you without signing a contract isn’t in your target market. There are ways to filter this person out.

  2. You can blog everything you know about what you do and it will never equate to you providing the experience that backs up your expertise for that person/business.

With that in mind, I’ve decided to share some of my blogging expertise with you that I’ve gained over the last 10 years in a couple of posts that I hope will help you gain more comfort and confidence in the process. Today, I want you to write down a single topic you can write about and I’ll break down a process you can use to craft a blog post on the topic you’ve chosen.

1) Write down 3-5 key points you want to make in your post

This doesn’t have to be a well-crafted outline. By writing out the points you want to make before you start filling in your post, you’ll stay focused on the most important things you want to say and you’ll be able to decide how you want to organize the content.

One option is to have a free-flowing narrative (I don’t recommend this for readability reasons). Or you might lay it out with headers breaking up the different points you’re making. Another option is to make an orderly numbered list (or “listicle” = list + article). This post is a step-by-step how-to, which is another option.

2) Draft your first paragraph to hook the reader in

This paragraph is critical. It needs to have enough information help the reader determine whether to keep reading. Not everyone will and that’s okay. But you don’t want people to stop because the first paragraph is rambly or vague.

Give them a clue about what value you’re going to provide in the rest of the post that makes it worth their time. There are too many things competing for our attention in the world right now to waste time on a blog (or any other content) you don’t need to read.

3) Fill out the rest of your post with more detail

Take those 3-5 points you wrote down and expand on them:

  • Why are they important?

  • How will they help your reader?

  • What practical action can they take with them?

When you’re fleshing out your content, the 5 Ws+H (who, what, when, where, why, and how) can be a useful way for you to get into the mind of your reader to help them.

4) Make your post easy to scan

I mentioned readability up above because it’s one more way you can help your readers digest your content quickly in today’s fast-paced world. And it’s easy to do:

  • Add headings to break up longer blocks of text.

  • Use bullets or numbered lists to further break up your copy.

  • Keep paragraphs short - 2-3 sentences max.

  • Avoid using all caps. (IT’S TOO SCREAMY!)

The headings and bullet lists are also good for search engine bots that scan your website. They’ll index your post to include in search results and good headings that include the right keywords and rich media (see #5) give you a boost and put your post in the right context for search engines.

5) Add pictures, videos, and links that support your content

Pictures add visual interest and illustrations can can help you explain more complex concepts. They also help make the post more scannable for the reader. (You should also learn how to add images and videos using accessible methods, but that’s a post for another day.)

Videos and links to content that support your points are valuable validation, even if it comes from another source. I just wouldn’t advise using your competitors as a source. External sources do add credibility to your thoughts and ideas by showing you stay up-to-date with what’s going on and you know what you’re talking about.

6) Reiterate the most important points in your conclusion

I avoid using “conclusion” as a heading and I don’t open the concluding paragraph with “in conclusion.” These are both fairly formal practices that don’t fit as well in the blogging world. However, you don’t have to reiterate all of your points. You can stick to a key takeaway based on applying the whole of your post.

7) Indicate the next step for your audience

Figure out what you want your reader to do next and ask them to do it. Every post should have a call to action (CTA), whether it’s directing them to a resource, offering up your time for a call, or asking a question for them to respond to in the comments.

Just avoid salesy CTAs and your audience will be more likely to take action.

8) Finalize your headline

You can write your headline anytime in this process. If you know what you want it to be before you start writing your post, that’s fine.

No matter when you decide the headline, always revisit it after reading through the entire post again. That gives you the chance to ensure it’s still relevant and fitting to the content of your post.

9) Read it one more time

I’m writing this post roughly three weeks before it’s going to be published. I’ll mark it “needs review” and come back to it for another read-through in a day or two. This gives me some time and space between writing and reading so I’m able to catch errors and refine anything I think is unclear.

No one expects absolute perfection in grammar, sentence structure, and spelling. But the more errors you can eliminate (if you don’t have an editor at your disposal), the better for your readers.

Your blogging challenge for this week

I challenge you to try it out. You don’t have to publish it. Just go through the nine steps in a document. You can even send it to me; I’d love to read it!

And next week, I’ll show you how to use a content map to keep a steady stream of content. That way, you can do this over and over as you grow your blog!

Strategic marketing vs. marketing as a service

Marketing is an interesting discipline in today’s world. In some companies, the team ends up relegated to service status, playing a reactive role in supporting sales. I’ve started referring to it as marketing as a service, or MaaS, since everything as a service is all the rage these days. For larger organizations, I’m not a huge fan of this approach since there’s usually significant investment to salaries of qualified individuals who understand the business strategy and build plans that help move it forward.

Relegating those people to reactive roles isn’t the best way to get a return on that investment, though there are times it can make sense. Sadly, this structure means marketing doesn’t have the impact it could if it was given a place at the table to have more strategic influence in the business.

Why should marketing be a driver of strategy?

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This may be an oversimplification to some, but marketing can’t effectively communicate to market what your organization has to offer if it’s always jumping every time sales or a senior executive says jump. When this happens, it’s a possible sign that there’s a lack of understanding or respect for the true impact marketing can have in helping businesses grow.

Instead, broadly speaking, marketing needs to develop messaging, validate it with the appropriate input from other departments and then manage how that message is disseminated so it’s compelling, cohesive and consistent.

But it can’t just be compelling. It has to be compelling to the right audience and meet them where they are. The cohesiveness and consistency should flow through pre- and post-sales touch points, a gargantuan effort that requires working cross-functionally across most of the organization. Marketers have to become adept jugglers of objectives, audience and message to inspire action.

If your marketing is fluff, you’re doing it wrong

Someone once made the argument to me that we should be getting subject matter experts (SMEs) to write content instead of marketing so the content isn’t fluff. My experience with marketers is that the good ones become experts in their particular discipline (content, product marketing, digital marketing) and they work hard to learn as much as humanly possible about the industry as well.

The marketing team that works together well is its own SME. We combine the message we need to communicate with valuable thought leadership to create compelling, useful content. Any team that can’t do this without constant oversight and involvement from SMEs outside of marketing is offloading their job to others. This may sound harsh, but it’s much harder to take something written through a different lens and make it marketable. It’s easier to get SMEs to validate content that was written for marketing purposes.

The marketing team isn’t fluff either

I alluded to the lack of understanding of marketing’s role earlier. We have a reputation of being the fun, social, wine-drinking folks who spend all their time taking selfies and tweeting, but this not-entirely-wrong-but-rather-superficial view doesn’t account for the hard work we’re celebrating on these occasions. It also doesn’t recognize the continuous learning good marketers do to maintain a depth of knowledge about business, marketing trends, best practices, and what’s going on in our industry of focus.

Marketing, despite popular belief, is  not exclusively a lead-gen machine. Generating a high volume of leads isn’t the goal. Generating high-quality leads isn’t even necessarily the goal. After all, there needs to be a robust process in place to leverage leads that come in. If the infrastructure and process aren’t there, that may be the priority over generating leads in the first place. This is why choosing the right marketing approach and activities is a natural extension of knowing what you want to accomplish. Then marketing can and should have a powerful impact on business results.

The challenge? Many marketing orgs are still reporting on leads generated but since that isn’t a metric that shows on the financials (thank goodness), it’s important for the work of marketing to be tied to revenue in reporting to reflect their true importance to the business. Speaking the language of revenue can get us there.

The most important question a marketer can ask

I firmly believe we have to ask why. Always. If there isn’t a clear purpose, especially with out-of-the-blue, one-off requests, the activity doesn’t pass the smell test in my book. Yes, there will be occasional times when you do a thing just because. But if that’s the status quo, there probably isn’t much strategic marketing going on. Here are a few answers to the “why” question that need further exploration:

  • Sales needs it. (Why? What’s the business case for doing it if it’s not in the plan? Is there a critical gap in our existing content/collateral that needs to be addressed?)

  • We’ve always done it. (Why? Do you know it works? What results did you get from it before? Any leads? Sales? Show data that support the decision.)

  • Exec X asked for it. (Why? What’s the impact of doing it and diverting resources from the plan? If something has to be dropped or delayed, is Exec X okay with that?)

I’m not saying the answer is no when marketing is asked to go off plan. But the answer shouldn’t automatically be a resounding yes. We have to be flexible and provide support, but we can’t lose sight of the work we have to do to achieve our goals in support of the business objectives because we’re accountable for the goals we set, even if we spend all our time in a reactive state. And we need to make data-driven decisions rather than relying on instinct whenever possible.

The fun part of marketing

Working in a team that practices strategic marketing is this perfect blend of creativity (coming up with all the ideas), strategy (building plans that lead to results), execution (getting stuff done and delivered), and learning (business, marketing, and industry). It’s a machine that runs so beautifully when you bring the right people together. And we love when a executing a plan generates the results we expect. That’s well worth celebrating. For the business that has a strategically-minded marketing team, they’ll see the benefits of those people and their contributions in the bottom line.

Making a plan to get where you want to go faster

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When I was in university, I decided to take my first solo road trip from my hometown, Tallahassee, to Orlando, Florida. It was a mere four-ish hours away and I had made the trip many times before. I just wasn’t in the driver’s seat. I also didn’t pay any attention to how we got there (or back). Driving down to Orlando, I had my handy printout of MapQuest directions to get me to Disney World where I was meeting a friend for a day spent at the happiest place on earth. After about 12 hours of exploring 3 parks, it was time for me to head back home. (Yes, I planned a day trip to Disney - as you do when you’re that young and energetic.)

This is when my planning failed me: I didn’t print out directions from Orlando to Tallahassee. And, since I had to go find a gas station before I hit the highway, I ended up quite lost in a not-so-lovely part of town back in the days before smartphones and consumer GPS. I don’t remember how I finally found the highway I needed, but I managed to get there eventually. I also made it back home safely and even went to work the next day, though I did go in late.

Planning starts with knowing your destination

I went to Orlando kind of impulsively. I didn’t have any money (poor college student). I was getting free admission from my friend whose uncle worked for Disney. I thought it was a good idea to drive down and return home in a single day, even after my friend sensibly offered me a couch to sleep on. To this day, I have no idea what my reasons were for going other than just wanting to.

Planning starts with establishing your goals so you can break down the steps it takes to accomplish them. But it’s not as straightforward as simply making a list of things you want to do. There are some questions you’ll want to consider so you start with realistic goals:

  • Why do you want to do each of these things?

  • Have you considered whether this is the right plan for your target market?

  • How do these goals fit into the larger business plan and goals?

  • Are the goals you’ve set measurable?

  • Do you have the resources to accomplish these goals?

Good questions, aren’t they? It’s tempting to get a great idea, see the goal and jump into action. But taking a step back and seeing the big picture can keep you from moving ahead with something that isn’t going to serve you well in the long term.

Outline the steps to get to your destination

The entire time I drove around Orlando after the parks closed, I wanted to kick myself for not making a better plan. I knew exactly where I wanted to end up but I had no clue what my exact steps were to get started on my way. That can be a paralyzing feeling when you have a big goal you want to achieve. Or you may end up driving in circles, going in every direction that isn’t the right one.

You can avoid this chaos by mapping out your plan so you know exactly where you are and you can more accurately track your progress. And it’s usually easier to start with the end goal and work your way back to the beginning. This process can help you gain further clarity around the resources you’ll need so you can make tweaks as needed.

Don’t forget to think about how you’re going to measure

You’ve set goals, but you need to know before you start how you’re going to measure the effectiveness of your efforts. If you don’t establish the metrics in advance, it can be challenging to get an accurate picture of how your plan has performed. And in marketing, measurement needs to be considered throughout execution to ensure the chosen tactics are set up properly to provide the data you need.

Expect the unexpected and be ready to react

Wouldn’t it be great if things always went to plan? I’ve heard that half of marketing effort should be spent on planning though I’ve never experienced that and I don’t know if it’s actually realistic. Having a plan is important but we can’t get bogged down by the planning process or get so married to the plan that we can’t adapt when it’s required. No plan should ever be etched in stone. That’s a sure way to frustration.

Enjoy the process of doing great work

Doing a day trip for the purpose of spending the day at Disney open to close wasn’t my smartest idea, but it was an adventure I don’t regret. I learned a lot from the experience, particularly the value of having a comprehensive plan that accounts for every step of the journey. Not having a plan could have robbed me of all the enjoyment of the trip, but I managed to figure it out and things worked out. Knowing that it could have gone very differently has been a good motivator for me to avoid the mistake of winging it on the wrong things.

What are your favourite advantages to making a plan?

Repurposing content starts with rethinking how you view content

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Don’t you love all those Pinterest pictures of people turning trash into treasure? I remember the first time I saw a coffee table made from a pallet. I was convinced I’d never want one. But they really can be made to be lovely and functional without giving you splinters. And repurposing means less trash!

For anyone trying to market their company through evergreen content that demonstrates expertise in their field, the same idea of giving new, and sometimes unexpected, life to older content can make it easier to maintain a flow of content for your business. Because no one likes to throw away hard work - even if it happened years ago.

Building a comprehensive web presence today means being able to answer questions that come up with your clients or customers before they ever talk to you. That’s one of the many ways a good content program for your business can help gain attention and attract the right people to check you out - by showing them you know what you’re talking about.

But the idea of writing regularly is often a barrier for businesses that lack confidence in their writing skills or the funds for staff or outsourcing content creation. And that can make you feel overwhelmed before you ever get started.

There’s good news, though. It doesn’t have to be that complicated and I bet you can start with content you’ve already created and repurpose it to suit your needs. And if you think you have no content, I’d say you probably do. You just might not think of it as content … yet. That’s a good place for us to start.

What is content?

Content can be just about anything spoken, written or drawn that pertains to your business. A lot of your content may not be polished, pretty and ready for the world to see, but a little tender loving care goes a long way. Here are just a few things you probably have in the way of content:

Emails - you communicate about your business to associates, prospects and customers all the time. There’s valuable information and expertise being shared in these pieces of communication.

Conversations - you talk about your business with everyone (I hope). There can be a gold mine of content in the words you use to talk with others about what you do.

Documentation - training manuals for employees, certain aspects of your business and/or product plan, and other internal documentation can be great fodder for external content.

Obviously, in all three of these, it’s important to filter out anything you need to keep confidential. That should never be part of your content program. But thinking about all types of content as possible fodder for marketing is a good way to make sure you aren’t reinventing the wheel. After all, repurposing is all about finding new and sometimes unexpected uses for things that aren’t working for you anymore.

What are the building blocks you need to develop great content?

If you already have regular content you’ve been creating, that means you can use that existing content to build ideas for new content. The trick to saving yourself time is to think about content like building blocks. A single block could be a tweet or other micro content. Multiple tweets that relate to each other can be stitched together to make a blog post. Multiple blog posts that relate to each other can be stitched together to make an ebook.

And the reverse is true as well. If you have an ebook that’s a little older, you can break it up to freshen it up. Piece by piece, refine and update the content and republish as videos or blog posts.

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This is repurposing at its finest here are the advantages for you and your content:

  • Spend less time thinking about and building content by repurposing.

  • Make old things new again with updates to relevant (but out-of-date) content.

  • Present new angles to past ideas and reiterate your message.

There are endless possibilities for content that’s valuable to your audience. It takes some planning and creative thinking to get there. Just don’t try to reinvent the wheel. There’s no reason you have to start every new piece with a blank page.

Now that we’ve build a good foundation for developing content, next week we can talk about the importance of planning and how spending more time planning will save time and reduce the stress of execution.