Deodorant & Other Challenges: How I Get Content Ideas
Ian Lurie Sep 19 2016
How do you write mind-blowing content about deodorant? It’s easy.
I’m going to walk you through how I research content ideas. This stream-of-consciousness process has never failed me:
Start With Questions
I always start with questions. If the audience is asking a question, and you have an answer, you can help.
My favorite questions research tool at the moment is Answerthepublic.com. Enter a word and the site spits out dozens of ideas. Say I have to write an article about deodorant:
I’ll also look at question and answer sites like Quora.com.
I don’t have a deodorant obsession. But if people have this many questions about deodorant, trust me, you can find questions about anything:
Sniffing deodorant. I have to admit, I’m intrigued. But I’ll stick to Answer the Public and “where did deodorant come from” for now.
A few other question finders:
- Google Suggest. Visit Google and start typing a question. Don’t click “Google Search.” Pick the interesting results and write about them.
- Keywordtool.io. Type a phrase and then select the “Questions” tab.
- Go to Wikipedia. Search for a relevant topic, then see what’s linked from that page. Those links are good hints at related stuff.
- Other Q&A sites, like Stackoverflow
Find Random Affinities & Random Ideas
Random affinities happen when two ideas are connected only by the people who like them both. It’s my favorite way to find unexpected niches.
For example, there are lots of marketers. There are lots of people (I speak the truth) who play Dungeons & Dragons. But there’s a smaller small group of marketers who play Dungeons & Dragons. If I can tie marketing to D&D (that’s Dungeons & Dragons, for the uninitiated), that audience will listen. Not a lot of folks out there connecting D&D to marketing skills.
When I created that presentation, I hit a narrow niche. While it wasn’t that many people, they were motivated and likely to pay attention:
The slideshare got over 40,000 views. And two leads. And a new client.
I didn’t do any research for this. I came up with this idea on my own. Humans are about as random as it gets. Which is why your brain is the first source of random affinities:
Back to deodorant. Lots of sites document the history of deodorant. So, while that’s a good question, it’s old news. I research more and find a compelling “history of deodorant” topic, though: Do astronauts need deodorant? If so, what’ve they used over the years?
It turns out no one’s written about deodorant and whether the Apollo Astronauts or any other space travelers needed it. And there are lots of manned space flight fans. And most of them probably use deodorant. That could be a great random affinity.
Just to be sure, I use Google Suggest to see if anyone ever asks about space travel and deodorant. Turns out they do:
That was a good gut-check. I can work with this idea.
I used my brain to figure this one out. But there are lots of tools to help you find random affinities. For example:
Amazon & Collaborative Filtering
Many sites that show “People who like this product also like…” use collaborative filtering. Collaborative filtering uses the behavior of others to predict what you want. That’s an oversimplification. But it works for our purposes.
Amazon happens to be the world’s largest collaborative filter-er. You can use their book sales data to find random affinities. People read books about things they like or need to learn, and Amazon sells enough books to sink a continent.
I did a quick search on deodorant and couldn’t find a thing about “deodorant space travel” or “deodorant astronauts.” But I’m determined. I keep digging and find a brand of deodorant socks that’s apparently worn by astronauts.
I’m not kidding. I found a brand of deodorant socks astronauts wear. I don’t even have stinky feet, but I’m buying some. Because astronauts.
I’m not going to write about the brand or socks alone, but this is a backup. If I don’t have enough information about deodorant worn by astronauts, I can write about deodorant clothing worn by astronauts.
I’m going with it.
When you click “Like,” Facebook records it. So do Twitter, LinkedIn, and most other sites. They provide this data to advertisers for targeting purposes.
If you create an ad, you can get a peek at random affinities as defined by likes:
Not earth-shattering, but I’m not sure I would’ve thought of it. I’ve also found that cyclists like boxing, that hybrid car owners like comic books, and that tennis players like tobacco. The deeper you dig, the more you’ll find.
I tried my space-travel-deodorant connection. That was too far, apparently. It didn’t show up, which is fine. I’m committed.
Two of my favorite non-digital, fun, weird, uber-creative ways to get ideas:
- Story Cubes: Rory’s Story Cubes are random and great fun. Roll the cubes, then develop a story that integrates your topic with the cubes. It’s a great brainstorming warm-up, if nothing else. There’s a digital version, too.
- Go to an art museum. Look at the t-shirts people wear. Do they have kids? Take pictures? What kind of cameras? More iOS or Android? It sounds a little creepy, but I’m just talking about people watching. A little observation goes a long way. That won’t work for deodorant, I suspect.
But again, your most powerful tool is your brain.
Developing Your Idea
The idea is great. But you have to write about it, too. After all my research, I’m going to go with astronauts and deodorant. I can take that idea in a few directions:
- Do astronauts wear deodorant in space?
- What do astronauts use as deodorant in space?
- How do astronauts deal with body odor in space?
- How have spacefaring stinky armpit solutions changed over time?
But I need content for my content. This is a whole different kind of research, and it’s much harder than finding questions. You have to bounce from resource to resource, collecting data. Hopefully, you know the subject or have experts near at hand. If not, you can try:
- Specialists elsewhere, if you have time and want to interview them
- Sites like Wikipedia, if you carefully check facts
- Textbooks. You can find many on Google
- For data, check out the US Census, the CIA Factbook, the USA, Canadian and UK open data sites, and dozens of others. Try Google Public Data, too
- Academic papers and articles. They’re often in PDF, so add “filetype:pdf” to your Google search and you’ll limit your search results to that format
I did the PDF search and found a doozy:
Digging around some more, I realized I could construct a pretty good timeline. I decided that the best content would be the evolution of space deodorant.
It turns out the space programs have benefitted from improvements in deodorant technology. They couldn’t take aerosol cans with them. The old roll-ons were messy as heck. And so on.
This is crazy stuff, right? It’s also interesting, if you’re a fan of human spaceflight. It’ll be a good piece of content.
We just went from
“Yikes. I have to write an article about deodorant. No one cares.”
“Yeah! Space nerds! They’ll love this!!!”
You don’t have to get this weird, of course. This process works for more mainstream stuff. Go from topic to question, topic to affinities, or topic to brainstorming. You can come up with great content ideas for anything.
Example: Writing About Running Shoes
Everyone who edited this said “Ian, deodorant in space is bizarre, even by your standards. Try something a little, er, more normal.”
I think deodorant in space is a GREAT SUBJECT, but here’s another example: Running shoes.
Say you need to write about running shoes. Everyone writes about running shoes. Finding an original idea is going to be excruciating, right?
Wrong. I go to Answer The Public and find lots of great ideas. Overpronation sounds like a real challenge for runners. I like it right away:
Google Suggest confirms it’s a good idea. People search this question:
The most recent article on the subject was written in 2014. Sweet!!! I could easily write an updated piece.
At least, I could have. I dragged my feet, and someone beat me to it:
They even included “in 2016” in the article, emphasizing that their content is timely. So I know I was on the right track. A hollow victory. Guess I’ll wait for 2017.
That’s a valuable content lesson: When you have an idea, publish. Don’t wait.
Random Thoughts and Questions
These are questions I get a lot. I figured I’d, you know, create some content by answering them:
Do I Have To Find An Idea In All Three Resources?
These three resources are just that: Resources. Questions, random affinities, and wild brainstorming are tools, not dictators. If you like an idea, use it.
What if I Just Can’t Find A Unique Idea?
Impossible. But maybe we’re at the end of the universe. You just found the one topic about which every question has been answered. If you can’t use a unique idea, improve upon what’s already out there:
- If an idea has lots of out-of-date answers/info and write something more up-to-date
- If all the content around an idea is lousy, produce something much better
- Find questions answered in only one format (like blog posts). Upgrade the presentation of information in a slide deck, longform, a graphic, or interactive content. Don’t steal!!!! Get permission to use content, or develop your own
Do I Always Have to Answer A Question?
Absolutely not. Questions are a nice starting point. But there are lots of other sources for kick-ass, audience-focused ideas.
- Tell a great story
- Debunk a myth
- Talk about trends
- Help the audience choose
As long as it’s in some way useful, it’s a good idea.
That Was A Lot Of Work
When you read all these steps, developing unique ideas seems like a lot of work. It’s not. The whole process from start to finish took me about thirty minutes. It takes a little practice.
Like writing, ideation uses a mental muscle. Get that muscle in shape: Know your tools, learn to brainstorm, and figure out your favorite routine. You’ll get faster.
Get out there and ideate!!!!
That sounds awful.
Go get some fantastic content ideas, OK?
CEO & Founder
Ian Lurie is CEO and founder of Portent Inc. He's recorded training for Lynda.com, writes regularly for the Portent Blog and has been published on AllThingsD, Forbes.com and TechCrunch. Ian speaks at conferences around the world, including SearchLove, MozCon, SIC and ad:Tech. Follow him on Twitter at portentint. He also just published a book about strategy for services businesses: One Trick Ponies Get Shot, available on Kindle. Read More