“People think content happens in a vacuum. It doesn’t. There are all these levers that you pull and use to make something successful. The trick is learning which lever works best, which writer works best, which topic works best, [and] which idea came to you from a brainstorming session.” – Amy Higgins
In this #ContentChat recap, Erika Heald is joined by Amy Higgins, an award-winning marketing director and consultant, and Monica Norton, head of content marketing (B2B and B2C) at Yelp, to discuss how to transform a ‘meh’ content idea into something your community will love. The guests share their content transformation framework and provide actionable ways for content marketing teams to brainstorm and improve content ideas—including ways to push back on requests when needed.
Watch the entire conversation on YouTube or read through the highlights below.
Q1: How do content marketing teams commonly source topic ideas? Are there processes that you think are especially effective?
Form a deep understanding of your audience or community to guide your content strategy.
“The best way to find topic ideas and to get those great ideas is to start with the audience. Having a deep understanding of the audience, what they care about, their pain points, what they’re interested in—always going back to the audience is the first stop and often the last stop in filling up your content calendar with great content.” – Monica Norton
“If you are building those relationships, people will tell you what they’re struggling with and where they need help. If you’re doing a good job of doing actual content marketing, that’s what you want to do: be of service and help them out.” – Erika Heald
Directly ask your community. Then, speak with customer-facing teams at your organization to uncover more audience insights.
“If you build up a community, that’s a perfect place to ask people. And then I go to the places that the audience is talking to the most. So our sales team, our customer service team, our customer marketing team, even our events team. And ask them — some of my favorite questions are — why did the sale not happen? What went wrong? What are we not talking about that they need to hear more about?” – Amy Higgins
Use data to understand what content performs best.
“Look at your data. When you look at your past content, what are some of the top performers? Why are they performing? What are people searching for? What are your competitors doing that you’re not talking enough about?” – Amy Higgins
And document every idea somewhere in your editorial calendar.
“I usually just dump all of that into a spare tab on my editorial calendar. That way, I never lose all those ideas. Inevitably I have like five years’ worth of interesting ideas that we pick from and prioritize and rejigger.” – Erika Heald
Q2: If you receive a questionable content request from an executive, what should you ask to better understand their idea and its intent?
Amy and Monica shared this transformation framework during CMworld 2023. They will discuss each element throughout the conversation.
Examine the intent of the ask. This is especially helpful if you’re being asked to create something “because we’ve always done it.”
“It’s the intent. Why have they always done this? What’s the impetus? What started that?” – Amy Higgins
“If it’s something that’s always been done like that, that in itself is the reason. But also, why did we start doing that? What was the original goal? Why did someone think that was a good idea in the first place? Sometimes just revisiting how you got to that point can help illuminate.” – Monica Norton
“If you do [have a direct relationship with the requester] or know someone who does, find the origin story. Often there’s an emotional or a visceral reason that you’re asked to do something. A great example that Amy likes to use is a CEO saying ‘Hey, I want to do a podcast.’ Oftentimes, there’s not a real business goal associated with that. It’s that their CEO friend started a podcast and they’re kind of jealous and they want to do one. Or they’ve been listening to podcasts and think they’re an amazing way to communicate with your audience.” – Monica Norton
Point back to your content goals.
“The second part of the transformation framework is the goals. Make sure people understand we’re doing it because our audience really cares about and is interested in this information that we’re putting out on a regular basis. But if no one’s actually visiting the page, you’re not getting traffic or any engagement, then that actually isn’t the story that people are telling themselves about why they’re doing this, and the importance of it isn’t true. So highlighting that in a gentle way can be good.” – Monica Norton
Use data to show what content performs best and encourage the executive to allow your team to A/B test ideas.
“I would ask them pretty directly, have you ever looked at the metrics? Because it might be that the metrics that are on the web are low performing, but they share it and go ‘look what I did, this is published live, this is amazing.’ And so it’s more pride over actual metrics to help the company. Individual versus company. I would ask what if we tried it a different way? What if we did some A/B testing, and see if they’re curious to do that? And that might be something fun to do that your executive would like.” – Amy Higgins
Implement a content brief or creative brief to help content requesters think through their ideas fully.
“If you’re being mindful about the way you’re planning your content and creating your content, you’re going to be using an intake brief or a creative brief to understand the job that you’re trying to have this piece of content actually accomplish. But so frequently, you get these one-off requests from people who have not thought about ‘What’s the objective? What do I want a person to do after they’ve seen this? How does this relate to our overarching themes and content strategy? What pieces of supporting content can we link to and from?’ A lot of times these ideas are just in a vacuum.” – Erika Heald
“A lot of times I’ve had pushback from teams that our briefs are too long. And my pushback is always if you can’t answer these very simple questions — and it’s usually like five — then you really haven’t thought it through. It’s just an idea, but not a fully flourished idea.” – Amy Higgins
Q3: How can marketers map content ideas back to their customer needs to workshop a content idea?
Set up a meeting or take time to discuss the content idea. Use your creative brief as a guide.
“My next step is to set up a meeting with [the team who requested the content] and use the brief as a guiding point and a guiding principle.” – Amy Higgins
Consider implementing content office hours to create dedicated time for people to discuss content ideas. A content intake form can also be helpful if people cannot attend office hours.
“A lot of times we can’t talk to the requester. So how do you set up weekly office hours where they request coming into the office hours, or a form that gets pushed back until they actually fill it out? Use technology and time to your advantage.” – Amy Higgins
It takes extra time to work with people to refine their ideas — but it is a valuable investment that can create great ideas that your team otherwise would not have thought of.
“Through those conversations and working through a brief you can often map the idea to your journey, to your content strategy. So it does take some extra work, and it’s easier to just say yes or not to a request, but through that process, you actually come to an idea that is probably something you wouldn’t have come up with on your own. And it’s a better idea than the original, half-baked suggestion that came in the first place.” – Monica Norton
Q4: Brainstorming sessions are often valuable for generating content ideas. How do you recommend content teams structure a brainstorming session? What questions or activities can be helpful for inspiring new ideas with the brainstorming group?
Explain the purpose of the brainstorm when you send the invite.
“When you send out the invite to the brainstorming, [say] here’s what we’re working through. Erika came to the table with this idea, we want to workshop it, here’s what we need from you in order to be productive. And give them time to do it.” – Amy Higgins
Ask people to come to the brainstorm with ideas. This means you should give at least a few day’s notice before any brainstorming.
“One way I find to kickstart ideas and help get the creative juices flowing for people is to do a teeny tiny bit of homework in advance; having people bring ideas, good examples of things in the genre that you’re wanting to brainstorm around. As an example, if you’re wanting to brainstorm on a podcast idea, have everybody come in and ask them for two minutes to describe their favorite podcast. That almost puts you immediately into the shoes of your audience to start thinking about what they may be interested in.” – Monica Norton
“I try to make sure that we don’t set up meetings with less than 24 hours notice. And something like a brainstorm, give them a good week’s notice, so that they can really think about it.” – Amy Higgins
Never say no during a brainstorm. Build on people’s ideas with “Yes, and…”
“Brainstorms are tricky. They can be really hard. Obviously, brainstorm 101: You never say no. But it’s really hard to resist the urge to do that. You lean in on a few things. One is leaning into the improv technique: Yes, and. You always build on people’s ideas. You also have to let go of your ego a little bit when you do that.” – Monica Norton
Encourage big and impossible ideas to kickstart the process.
“One of my favorite brainstorming tactics—which I learned from Carla Johnson—is throw everything out that is unachievable. Think big, think risky, think illegal. How bad can we do it? Illegal like, ‘let’s have Taylor Swift come in.’ Just go big.” – Amy Higgins
Use timed brainstorms to keep ideas flowing. Don’t discuss ideas until the end—this can alleviate pressure for people who are uncomfortable speaking up in groups.
“One of my coworkers at Salesforce, Sophia, taught me to do a timed brainstorm. Set it up like a Kanban board or different slides with post-it notes on the slide and take two minutes or five minutes to come up with all the ideas. ‘Let’s take two minutes. What ideas have you done in the past that you’d like to try again.’ And everybody puts it up, [but] don’t discuss it. Move forward to the next topic. ‘What’s something that you see a competitor doing that you would like to try out?’ All those go up [in] two minutes. Move on to the next one. ‘What’s something that you know is going to ridiculously fail?’ And none of those ideas actually make it to the final editing, but it gets the creative flow and creative process started.” – Amy Higgins
“That way people don’t feel as much pressure, because speaking up in front of a group of their peers or their managers can feel scary.” – Erika Heald
Always give people credit for their ideas. Show gratitude and publicly thank them.
“Remember that even if you know you have completely transformed an idea from something not great to something great through your process, you have to give the original person their due credit. And keep them involved and make sure that you are grateful to them, you appreciate them, and publicly thank them for their great idea.” – Monica Norton
Q5: What challenges do content marketing teams encounter when receiving and prioritizing content requests?
Content ideas are sometimes filtered before they reach the content team.
“Sometimes these ideas come to the content team indirectly in second or third-hand. So sometimes you’re not even getting the core idea. So you do sometimes have to do that gut checkup. Is that really what the request was? Or did the person receiving the request not understand the context and make some different assumptions? Because that can happen a lot.” – Erika Heald
Executives often request a specific content format, but that may not be the best format to achieve the content goal.
“A lot of times people come to you with a type of content. ‘Hey, we want a blog post that does X, Y, and Z.’ But with probing, you can find out that a blog post isn’t really going to work. Let’s do a webinar instead. Or, a blog post is a great idea, and what if we had a webinar on top of it, to really get to the goals that you elaborated on during our conversation.” – Amy Higgins
“Our requesters think they’re doing us a favor or helping out the content team by getting more specific about what they want. And what they don’t realize is that they’re not helping us, actually, they’re keeping us from doing our job, which is figuring out the best content type, channel, etc. in order to deliver the message to achieve the goal they are seeking.” – Monica Norton
Some ideas simply won’t fit in the budget or work with your resources and existing priorities.
“Resourcing is super important. That’s something you have to talk about a lot. You get a request for something, like a Times Square billboard. But if your entire marketing budget is $5,000 a month, that’s never going to work.” – Monica Norton
“I hear that people don’t like to do editorial calendars, because they don’t want to be beholden to doing things or they want to be flexible. I love a good editorial calendar, because it helps me be able to say ‘no’ or ‘not right now.’ Because otherwise, you can end up in a situation where in a compressed amount of time, you’re having these expectations to deliver way more content than is reasonable given the number of people on your team and your budget for freelancers or contractors.” – Erika Heald
Q6: How can content marketing teams gauge their resources to understand how many new projects they can take on?
Ask content executives or marketing leaders to help your team prioritize and push back on other teams.
“It’s really difficult to understand how to resource these things, how to figure out what budget you need. And even if people are offering you the budget and trying to do things to help, it’s really important to get your boss or the person who oversees all of this on board. We are always, as a content team, asked to do way more than we have bandwidth to do. Everybody’s thing is the most important thing. So I just let my boss make that decision. It’s really important to have a conversation with your manager, keep them posted, keep them in the loop on your capacity and what you’re capable of, and where you can make tradeoffs.” – Monica Norton
Use service level agreements (SLAs) to set expectations on content timelines and the required resources.
“Start at the beginning with a service level agreement. Really understand and communicate with your requesters. ‘Hey, if we do an ebook, it takes three months. If we do a blog, it can take a week, most likely four weeks. And here’s why, and here are the steps.’ And then if they want to do the shortcuts, you look at those steps. Does the SVP of marketing need to approve this blog right before it’s final? Or do they need to approve just the outline? Where can you make those requests shorter and build trust along the way?” – Amy Higgins
Use a project management tool to quickly plan timelines and show how new requests will affect the existing pipeline.
“I also love a good project management tool. When something comes in, and it throws off your entire schedule, it’s so much easier with a project management tool to say this needs to be adjusted, and everything comes in line. And then you can have those meetings with the team and say ‘We can do this, this is great, and we have to move this, this, and this out. And here’s our project management tool to see why.” – Amy Higgins
“Having that kind of tool in place where you can see how long it’s taken to get through all of those steps can help you educate other people on how long stuff takes. And, similarly, I recommend people have a documented distribution process that shows from the internal and external standpoints what you do after you create each different kind of content. Because people think all you do is publish this, create this thing and push it live. But, of course, we know that’s not it. You have to tell your internal teams, you have to write the newsletter blurb for it, you have to do whatever the whole process is around distribution for that piece. And the bigger the piece, the more time and money you’ve invested in it, the bigger the distribution plan is.” – Erika Heald
Q7: If content marketers do need to push back on an executive’s request, how do you recommend doing so?
Use Amy and Monica’s transformation framework as a tool to dissect a content idea and workshop it to achieve meaningful results.
“Convince them to decide that it’s not a good idea. That’s what this transformation framework is for — asking these questions about purpose, intent, KPIs, goals, and then trying to lead them to either there’s something different that maybe isn’t so time-consuming, or that it’s a good idea [but] this isn’t the right time.” – Monica Norton
Debunk assumptions the executive might be making.
“Understand the assumptions they’re making. Someone requesting a podcast might assume that was going to drive a lot of traffic to their website, but that is not correct. They’re assuming that it was going to meet the goals, but that’s not going to happen. Probe for ‘What do you think is going to happen? What do you see the end results of this project being? What would success look like for this?’ And then if their vision of success is something that’s not attainable, then that’s another way to talk them out of their own idea.” – Monica Norton
Reinforce the need to create quality content to rank well in search.
“More and more Google is leaning into quality as being so important to winning with SEO. So that enables us to push back more on all these shortcuts that people ask us to take, like ‘Do we really need to edit that twice? Do you really need a proofreader to look at this stuff? Do you have to fact-check this article?’ We do need to do those steps if we want to produce content that Google says is going to rank well.” – Monica Norton
Bring the idea back to the business goals.
“Bring it back to the overall goals of the business. Is this idea helping the goal of the business, helping the goal of the team? And then give them the choice. ‘Sure, we can do this podcast, and we have to adjust our goals, we have to adjust our timeline, we have to adjust our budget.’ In this podcast example, our top goal was to drive people to our website, to get people in the funnel, and be able to track that. The podcast was on a third-party platform with a third-party agency, and there was absolutely no way to link from the podcast back to our website that we could track successfully.” – Amy Higgins
Explain the resource requirements of a request.
“The final straw can be the resource in question. When a CEO asks for a podcast and they find out how much that’s going to be, like one dedicated full-time person has to move to doing that and it’s going to cost this much money to grow and promote the show and produce it. Oftentimes, they just think ‘Oh, a podcast. No problem! It’s like it’s free.’ It’s not free. And people don’t realize how difficult good content can be.” – Monica Norton
“People do think that things are free if somebody on the content team can do it. But that kind of thinking has a couple of pitfalls. We marketers who get voluntold to do a bunch of ‘free work’ get burnt out from doing all this content creation and doing all these random things that get thrown our way. Secondly, the amount of time—maybe we can whip up this blog post in two hours, and everybody loves it and speeds through everything, but, again, it takes four times as much time to then craft that perfect email and those great social posts. Yes, social media is ‘free’, you put your free social content up on Facebook, but if you want it to reach anybody, you have to pay for that.” – Erika Heald