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!

Guest blogging? Bring your "A" game!

I really enjoy guest posting on other blogs. It's like being invited to come to a dinner party at a friend's house where you may know some people, but probably not everyone. The dinner party is your chance to meet new, interesting people with fresh perspectives and you might even walk away with newly formed friendships. Let me step away from the analogy now and say it in plain English. Guest blogging gives you:

  • exposure to a new audience
  • backlinks to your site
  • the opportunity to share your expertise
  • potential for increased credibility

Now, let's go back to the dinner party.

Would you show up unwashed in your Saturday schlepping clothes? 

Do you come in poised to sell to every human with a pulse you interact with?

Is the bottle of wine you brought as a host gift worthless or wonderful?

Don't squander guest blogging opportunities 

The guest who walks in prepared to socialize, with their most charming anecdotes and winning personality on display is a guest who will draw the interest of others and have a greater chance of creating meaningful connections.

Understand the rules of etiquette 

Dinner party etiquette is fairly standard. Most people know about BMW (bread, meal water) and using the outside fork first, and waiting until everyone at the table has been served. Blogs are a tad different. 

Know what is expected of you as a guest blogger - from language to content to engagement. Blogs that welcome guest bloggers regularly probably have comprehensive guidelines that will help you get to know their community and what they expect from content on the blog.

When you deliver on those expectations, you leave a good impression of your host and the community you're interacting with. 

It is better to give than receive

Inviting someone to share their expertise on your blog is a risk. Granted, editorial veto power is a must - always. But you also hope you don't have to exercise that all-important veto power. As the host of this guest, you're rooting for them to give you great quality content that resonates with your community.

It's deflating and disappointing to see an email that contains a blog post-sized sales pitch that has no redemptive value. It's too much like opening a bottle of your favourite wine only to find the cork is black and the wine is undrinkable.

Re-gifting isn't a good idea

When I guest post, I will sometimes re-publish a version of the post on my own blog, but I like providing original content. I'm not going to bring an already-open bottle of wine to the dinner party that I got from someone for my birthday. No, I provide new, original, fresh content and if I want to repurpose it for myself later on, so be it (if the blog is okay with that practice).

Impressions matter

All of these things serve to give your host and their audience an impression of who you are as a person, as a business, and as an expert. If you don't bring your "A" game, chances are most blogs simply won't publish what you provide. If they have to heavily edit, they may be slightly less reluctant to invite you back. But if you bring your best work and dress to impress, you will make an impression that won't be forgotten.

Quick tips for successful guest blogging

  1. You're there to give value, not a sales pitch. You have to earn the right to pitch and you're nowhere near that point in a guest post.
  2. This audience is not your audience; make sure you understand who you're talking to, what will help them, and how information is usually presented to them.
  3. Pay attention to social media and the comments on your post. Reply to comments and say thank you for shares. (Your parents will be proud.)

Brutally honest tip: If all you want to do is publish all of your blog posts on a higher authority site, you're better off syndicating. That is not guest blogging.

You can be a highly valued guest blog contributor fairly easily if you keep all these things in mind. Those are the contributors who are asked to come back over and over again. And eventually, they build relationships that cross over into their own audience, which is lead gen gold. 

So, bring your "A" game, and go for the gold. It really does pay off.

Find good quality, legal images for your website

I love creating lovely images for my website. I have developed my own brand style guide so that fonts and colours I use on images are consistent throughout. I've personally invested a lot of money in tools like Adobe Creative Cloud and a subscription to Adobe Stock because I take on occasional graphic design projects for clients, in addition to doing all of my own design work. 

That said, I don't know many business owners that want to buy and use Adobe design tools, because there's a fairly heavy learning curve and it's expensive when design isn't your genius work. 

So, I've compiled a list of just a few of the places you can look for good quality images that you can use with or without attribution. This list is pretty comprehensive and contains image sites that you may find don't work as well for your particular business.  

One quick note before we get into the photo resources - It's always important to check the license available on any image that's free or paid. The least restrictive license for commercial use is Creative Commons Zero, which allows for personal/commercial use without attribution - other licenses are more restrictive so read carefully or choose selectively to ensure your use is permitted. CC0 doesn't waive all rights, but it is the least restrictive.

Free photo pack subscriptions 

I've started to subscribe to sites that send me free pictures and I've developed a pretty extensive library of beautiful stock photos that I have rights to use. There are many photos that I may never need for my own site, but that doesn't mean my clients won't ever need them!

Search free image sites

If you're used to going on to stock image sites and doing searches instead of sifting through your own library of photos, you may prefer these sites for finding images. They are all free, so once again, check the licensing. Note that all of the photo pack subscription sites have various degrees of search function as well. 

The free image sites I use most

Morguefile - Truthfully, I use this one a lot less lately because I can find better quality images elsewhere, but don't discount it entirely. There have been many times it's the only place I can find the right image. 

FreeImages.com - This was my go-to replacement for Morguefile when I realized I wasn't finding good images as often. 

Stock Up - I start on Stock Up these days. The site aggregates search results from a number of different sources and when you hover over pictures, you can see the license. It's just really handy and the quality is excellent.

Pixabay - Even though Pixabay results often show up in Stock Up, I still do a search there separately because I get lucky from time to time. I've been really happy with the quality of the results there too.

Gratisography - This is a searchable photo collection that is ever-growing and has quite a mix of content. Some is very artsy. Some is weird. All of it is high quality. I don't think I've used more than one or two images so far, but I made sure to donate so they don't go away. :)

Other free sites I occasionally use

These are but a few sites that are out there. In fact, a fellow WBN member posted this list of the best free stock photo sites recently and I haven't had a chance to check out the ones that I'm not already using just yet. 

A little side note to promote that friend a wee bit more, because it's apropos of this post! Rachela, the owner of Butter and Honey Design is a talented graphic designer who is teaching so much about DIY graphic design. You can join her group on Facebook to get a taste and then be sure to check out her courses which I hear great things about!

Paid stock options

Of course free is easier to fit in the budget, but sometimes it's harder to find what you want or need for free. That's why I suggest you start with Canva if you have to go paid. Canva stock images are $1 each. If you want an image without any other design elements, just pick a layout size, then find an image you want in their library and download the image without adding text/design elements. Just be mindful of the license.

A new comparable Canva alternative is Desygner. For now, it's free and the images available are also free to use. But that never lasts, because they'll need money to keep going eventually. The image library is linked to Wikimedia, which can be limiting in terms of useful images, particularly if you need larger sizes.

I mentioned Adobe Stock above, but I also like Shutterstock for paid stock because of the way they structure payment compared to other paid stock sites. 1 credit = 1 image, regardless of size/file type. They also have pay as you go plans. They tend to cost more per image than a subscription, but if you don't need lots of images regularly, it's cheaper to pay as you go.

I need more images more regularly now, which is why I now have a 10 credits/month subscription at Adobe Stock. Shutterstock became my paid stock site of choice after using iStockBig StockDreamstime, and a few others. They have transparent pricing so I know exactly what to expect. And since I often buy large image sizes and vector graphics, the others cost me more.

Design bundle sites

Last, but not least (IMHO), is membership sites and package deal sites. If you aren't a designer, these will have limited value for you, so skip this section if you're not interested! 

Design Cuts - I stumbled upon Design Cuts sometime last year and I'm addicted. I've bought quite a few of the monthly bundles and now they've launched a marketplace where you can build your own bundles and save a ton of money. The quality has been amazing. The amount of design elements I have is overwhelming, but I have also invested in a couple of bundles that included photo packs. And they're gorgeous. I've used quite a few in blog posts. 

Mighty Deals - Like Design Cuts, this is a site that offers design bundles. They seem to have more photo packs than DC does, though, and I've grabbed a few from them as well. Just be careful if you buy multiple photo pack bundles. I've found some overlap, so vet them carefully, even if you buy from different bundle sites.

As you can see, there are many, many resources to find affordable images to use on your website to maintain a high-quality look. You don't need to use google image search and worry about copyright infringement or the hit and miss caliber of the graphics. 

If you have a favourite photo site that I haven't listed, add it in the comments! 

Grow your audience with guest blogging

If you want to grow your audience and you aren't guest blogging, you're missing out on an important opportunity!

What is guest blogging?

Guest blogging is preparing content that is posted on the blog of a website other than your own. I submit at least one "guest" blog post a month at a minimum as President of the Women's Business Network, because I write the President's Pen which is published at the beginning of each month. I link back to my own site each time, which brings me to the benefits of guest blogging. I occasionally manage to sneak in posts on other sites as well - this is something I want to do more often.

Accumulate backlinks

Your website is your home online. The goal with any content marketing is to lead followers back to your website. Backlinks are links from other sites that lead back to your website. When a site that is linking to yours has greater authority, it gives your site a little boost. Backlinks aren't a one and done activity.

It's important to keep working to get mentions by other sites or use opportunities to be a guest blogger as part of an overall linkbuilding strategy (simply put, linkbuilding is a proactive effort to accumulate backlinks). The better the quality of your backlinks (i.e., links from more popular sites), the more it helps you. Since they have a cumulative effect over time, it's an ongoing process.

New audience

I have a decent sized audience in my own right. It's not huge, but any chance I have to reach out to a new audience is an opportunity to grab the attention of someone I can connect with. It isn't always about getting business. As we all know, the ability to get quality referrals by clearly communicating what you do and who you do it for is every bit as important. Ten quality referrals of clients within my target market are far better than 1,000 cold leads that will go nowhere. 

That's why it's so critical to deliver stellar value when you create guest blog content. There's a delicate balance that you have to achieve between offering valuable information and trying to make a sale. The easiest way to avoid the appearance of trying to sell is not to try to sell. 

Showcase expertise

My dad drilled it into my head growing up. Don't lend money with the expectation of being repaid. Sometimes the loanee just can't seem to get ahead of their financial obligations to be able to repay the loan. Sometimes they just forget, especially if it's a small amount. The point is that if you lend without the expectation of repayment, you will never be disappointed. 

The same goes for guest blogging (and a lot of other content marketing activities, too). Give freely. Give openly. Give without expectation. It's okay if you don't give every last detail of how you do your business - I would never suggest that. But you can give a lot of valuable information away without affecting your bottom line. If you aren't trying to make a sale, the content will resonate more completely with the people you're reaching. 

Guest blogging challenge

I challenge you to write and submit a guest post for another site by the end of April. Will you do it? Don't worry - your post doesn't need to be published by the end of April. Just submitted to the site. This is an honour system challenge. :) 

Try it once. See how it goes and come back and tell me!