Creating great ideas is hard. Really hard. If it wasn’t then the whole world would be flooded with brilliant, technological solutions to mankind’s every problem and you’d never have to read a blog post meticulously recounting someone’s uneventful trip to the shops again. But sadly, inspiration remains a problem that afflicts even the most imaginative dreamers of us on occasion so what can you do if you ever find yourself completely stumped?

Look at what works.

Chances are, unless you’re a trail blazing pioneer in the blogging field of dinosaur space basketball (and possibly even still then, this is the internet after all), there will be competitors in your niche who have created decent content at some point that’s brought them some measure of success. Start by casting your eye over any particularly great pieces that they’ve come up with and really get stuck in to analysing what made it so successful.

There are a couple of ways to investigate what content is really taking off for other competitors, firstly by calling on the infinitely useful wizardry of Social Crawlytics. By providing Social Crawlytics with a URL you can drill down into a vast array of interesting metrics fuelled by how much content from the specified URL has been shared through social channels but, most relevantly for this post, you can also check out which are the best performing pages. This is the content that has already proven that it works! Take inspiration from these pages (don’t just plagiarise them word for word – that’s not going to end well for anyone) – they’re already showing you how it’s done. Try to think of an interesting spin you could put on their content to make it your own or a conflicting point of view perhaps. The idea at the heart of the piece is what you’ll be looking to take inspiration from here.

results of an example crawl from SEOMoz

The results of an example crawl on SEOMoz

The second way to analyse the best performing areas of a site is a bit more lengthy and taxing, but it’s one I (as a complete slave to data and statistics) am a big fan of. By calling on yet another selection of brilliant tools, this time SEO Tools for Excel combining with SEO Quake and Majestic SEO, we can break down each page of a targeted website in our search for a glorious font of inspiration!

So let’s start off my getting Google to do the legwork for us. Search for all the pages of a site by using the “site:” operator in Google (I forgot to mention this might be quite an ordeal if it’s a large site!) then extract the data using the lovely handy “Show as CSV” button in the SEO Quake menu at the top of the search engine results page.

SEOQuake csv export


Now that we’ve stolen all this juicy data we need to convert it into some sort of digestible state so throw it into Excel. Now it’s just the same horrible, impenetrable mess, but now in Excel. But we’re almost there! So now highlight the entirety of the horrible data abomination and click on the “Data” tab at the top of Excel and then the “Text to Columns” button.

Excel Data text to columns

This should bring up this handy little “Convert Text to Columns Wizard”. Whilst admittedly, this grey box is at first a pretty disappointing manifestation of a “wizard” (no sweet hat or anything) he’s about to get his Excel magic on in a way that would give Harry Potter an aneurysm. Choose the “Delimited” option on step 1 of 3 then click “Next”. On to Step 2, now make sure that “Semicolon” is selected as a “Delimiter” then click finish.

convert to columns

Success! (I hope). Neatly organised data. Up yours Potter. So this on its own is a pretty solid slice of data for you to sink your analytical molars into but we can still improve it further. I’m going to presume you’ve already got SEO Tools for Excel up and running for the purpose of simplicity (it’s not very difficult to get – and they’ve covered installation flawlessly already over at their site so head over if you need a hand) so click on that tab at the top of Excel then on the “Majestic SEO” button then log in and follow the prompts. Now highlight all of the data in the freshly created “URL” column on your spread sheet and copy it into the “Url(s)” box of the Majestic SEO tab on the left hand side. You’re now free to scroll down through the “Fields” menu of the Majestic SEO tab and include any stats you’d like from the dizzying list of available options provided by Majestic. I tend to just opt for AC Rank and then augment it with TrustFlow and CitationFlow if I’m feeling a bit crazy.

SEO Tools MajesticSEO

Finally click back onto your spread sheet into a suitable location to receive the oncoming deluge of data then click on the “Insert” button at the bottom of the Majestic SEO tab and just like that – it’s raining stats.

If you sort the data using your metric of choice you’ll get a list of pages ordered by whatever criteria you’d like to target. Any page displaying at or near the top of these lists has achieved some sort of popularity so feel free to start discovering why!

Stream of Consciousness

From clever Excel trickery lets hit the total opposite end of the technical spectrum. Pulling out a pen and paper is an invaluable tool in your arsenal when it comes to breaking free from imagination stifling monotony. Obviously this is a process which can be attempted equally successfully by noting down ideas on a computer but, personally, I find it much more effective to turn away from the screen and get out a pen.

Focus on the content you’re trying to create and just begin writing down everything you can come up with. It’s important to write down everything, no matter how far-fetched or ridiculous it might initially seem, until you’ve got a satisfyingly massive page of ideas. Often once you’ve managed to get one or two things down on a page, the creative juices really start flowing and that’s when the really terrific ideas start to come out. Now go back and cast an eye over all your ideas and consider them honestly whilst trying to improve or further focus them. You’ll be surprised how often an idea you initially considered terrible can be fostered into something you’re really excited to start producing.

Put yourself in your audiences shoes

Consider your website from the point of view of the audience that you’re trying to target. If you’re a member of your target demographic, would you want to read your content? If you would, ask yourself what it is about it that makes it appealing then try to magnify that in your next piece. If you wouldn’t, then consider why not. What about it makes it unappealing?

Once you’ve gone through this short analysis you’ll be in a much better position to understand what sort of thing you should be trying to produce with your next piece of content. Try to think of what you as a member of your audience would want to read. What would entice you? Then make it.

Take a break

There is definitely some merit in the theory of working too hard and burning out. I can’t think of many things more morale crushing than the steady blink of the Microsoft Word cursor on a blank page and a looming deadline. It simply isn’t a productive environment to foster innovation. Depression and stress are hardly the catalysts for inspiration! So remove those obstacles from your creative process – get up and go somewhere. Walk down the hall to a quiet area and see how that goes, go for a walk, anything to break the monotony. Remove yourself from the pressure cooker you create for yourself at your desk and ideas will begin to flow much more freely.

Get inspired by current events

There’s little need to take on the necessary stress and burden of thinking up an earth shatteringly great idea for content when the world will do it for you. On any given day there are a number or headlines emblazoned across news websites and blogs around the world. There’s also a calendar chock full of events that capture the imagination of the global population and the best part is that you can predict exactly when they’ll take place. Literally all of the headlines on any major website are potential ideas for content as is every religious festival, anniversary and sporting event that you can think of!

Reacting to news is an easily actionable idea. You have to be nimble with your creation process and ensure that the content is up and running as quickly as possible in order to benefit from the zeitgeist of a big news story. Make sure that you’re wary of your subject matter when using this approach however; news headlines are often particularly divisive and encourage opinion like few other topics. Whilst this might be great for the initial buzz of your content, remember that some may take offense to the mention or discussion of particular topics.

When targeting major scheduled events (such as major holidays; Easter, Christmas, New Year; sporting events; the Super Bowl, the World Cup, the World Series; or other significant dates) preparation and timing are key. As you’re lucky enough to know exactly when these events will happen there’s no excuse not to be prepared. Get your content created and finished as far in advance as possible giving you time to identify a strategy and relevant channels for distribution. Attempt to predict the time when excitement and interest will be at its highest – then unleash your content slightly before that so it’s ready and waiting when the hordes of hungry traffic appear. The beautiful aspect of these ideas is that you know that people will be interested in their subject matter, so half the battle is already won!