The real key to standing apart from your content competition? Never stop with your first idea. Keep searching until you find an angle that makes it unique.
Coming up with new content ideas isn’t easy in today’s content-saturated online world. But that’s not surprising when so many marketers compete to attract the same audience within the same topic while drawing upon the same information or facts.
If your business sells auto parts, you might publish regular articles on car maintenance. But how many unique or original takes on 10 things to check regularly on your car can there possibly be?
As it turns out, this hasn’t stopped hundreds of such articles from being published, as evidenced by the Google search results I received:
- 10 Important Things You Should Check On Your Car Regularly
- Routine Vehicle Maintenance 101: What You Should Know
- Car Maintenance Checklist: 9 Essential Steps That Anyone Can Do
- 10 Essential Car Maintenance Tasks That Anyone Can Do
- 10 Important Car Maintenance Tips
- Car Care Basics: 10 Car Maintenance Tips for Beginners
- Top 10 Maintenance Items To Keep Your Car in Top Shape
- 10 Things to Know About Car Maintenance
- 10 Maintenance Things Every Driver Should Know How To Do
Other than settling on a different number of things to check, there isn’t a whole bunch of difference between them. You can probably guess most of these things without reading the articles: tire pressure, oil, water, spark plugs, etc.
Why would someone read any of these articles beyond the first click? What additional value is gained from reading multiple variations of “check your tire pressure?”
Inside the auto parts company, a checklist might seem to make sense as part of its content library. But beyond its website, the content is in an impossible fight to attract readers – battling for rank, armed with the same keywords and information as so many others.
This isn’t content marketing; it’s SEO to the death – where the winning edge is more likely to be determined by each page’s Core Web Vitals than the oh-so-similar content.
The (non-)creative process
Here’s why I think this keeps happening.
A business sells doohickeys, so the marketing team maps a series of topics related to doohickeys and the problems they solve. Every possible content idea is dotted for each persona across the customer journey, from awareness to purchase and beyond.
They make this week’s topic about the common problems users experience with doodads because understanding the limitations of doodads is often the first step to deciding to upgrade to a fully-featured doohickey. The team checks the keyword list, jots down the first few ideas that come to mind, and starts writing the briefs.
However, at this stage, the content ideas are wholly undeveloped.
Anyway, the writer is briefed with a title and a bunch of keywords, so they develop a straightforward structure and smash out 800 words. Time to tell the marketing assistant to look up stock images of attractive women smiling or looking thoughtfully at laptops while sitting in the most impractical and/or uncomfortable places possible. (Does anyone really write their blog posts on the stairs?)
And that’s how the world gets yet another blog post titled 5 Considerations Before You Buy a Doodad.
The information is accurate. The brief’s requirements are met. The writing is perfectly fine. But that doesn’t mean it’s original.”
All the information is accurate, the brief’s requirements are met, and the writing is perfectly fine. It’s just not original. The process has led the marketer, the brief, and ultimately the writer to the same basic and predictable content as every other business trying to sell the same things to the same audience. Including their competitors.
Of course, not all marketers follow this process. I’m sure all of you reading this are brilliantly creative. (Group hug.)
But I’m also sure I’m not alone in having come across many such production processes that – for one reason or another – unintentionally reduce content to a cookie-cutter commodity with little, if any, room for creative development.
After all, that relentless week-in, week-out content schedule can’t be put on hold while the creative types stare out of windows or take long walks in the hope that inspiration will eventually strike.
As it turns out, that’s not how inspiration works at all.
The creativity myth
Many of you know the story of Archimedes – a bath, a splash, and a naked dash shouting “Eureka.”
To be exact, Archimedes would have shouted, “Heureka,” Greek for “I have it.”
To be even more pedantic, Archimedes’ bath was likely a hip bath he would have stood in while a slave poured water over him – proving once again that the best ideas happen in the shower. And if you want to be completely accurate, the whole thing probably never happened. But, hey, I’m making a point here.
True or not, the story of Archimedes in the bath has become a major part of the creativity myth, perpetuating the belief that inspiration strikes out of nowhere. An idea suddenly enters your head, and you instantly know it’s perfect. Eureka!
Except, Archimedes’ great idea wasn’t a sudden or random revelation at all but rather the culmination of a series of events and a lot of brain strain. According to the tale, Archimedes was consumed with solving how to calculate the volume of the king’s ornate new gold crown without melting it down. I’ll leave the whys and wherefores of angry kings and golden crowns to your individual Google skills if you’re curious.
The point is Archimedes was desperately searching for a method to measure the volume of complex objects. He had already been pondering hypotheses long before he stepped into his apocryphal bath. Otherwise, he would probably have missed the significance of the water spilling out of the bath entirely – just as he had every previous bath time.
The story of Archimedes reveals creativity isn’t a supernatural burst of inspiration but a way of thinking that we can all practice. Creativity isn’t born of a single thought or observation but of colliding trains of thought, of the known meeting the new, of connections between seemingly unrelated things, and – importantly – of actively looking for them.
Creativity isn’t a supernatural burst of inspiration.
It’s a way of thinking that we can all practice.”
And that means any of us can be more creative when trying to come up with original ideas for our content.
Finding the angle
In On Writing, Stephen King writes:
[G]ood story ideas seem to come quite literally from nowhere: Two previously unrelated ideas come together and make something new. Your job isn’t to find these new ideas but to recognize them when they show up.
A haunted hotel is one idea – one we’ve probably seen many times. A young child with supernatural powers is another not particularly original idea. Bring together those two ideas, and you have The Shining.
His advice doesn’t apply only to bestselling horror novels. The collision of two ideas is a big part of what makes some content fresh and original, even when it may be treading familiar ground.
A second idea can give your content an unusual or memorable theme, perhaps a central metaphor that inspires a much more creative approach.
Or it could tackle the topic from a surprising and unusual perspective, placing the information in a different context or causing the audience to assess and consider the same information in a new way.
In short, the second idea is what helps the content to stand out. The second idea provides the angle that makes your content unique.
Back when I still ran content marketing workshops (damn you, COVID), the activities would guide attendees through the creation of personas, the selection of topics and themes, and the mapping of customer journeys. From there, they would extrapolate a handful of content ideas.
At this point, the best ideas in the room were unlikely to be that different from those published by any competitor targeting the same personas with the same information on a journey to a similar product.
So, the next activity was to come up with a second idea to give the first one a new angle or fresh perspective.
One of my favorite pitches to come out of this activity was from an agency marketer working with a veterinary pharmaceuticals company specializing in livestock vaccinations.
The topic was preventative care for horses, with the initial idea being a checklist for owners, which isn’t a million miles from 10 Things to Check on Your Car.
After developing the idea further, he decided to convey the information from the point of view of the horse.
The checklist was replaced by an online diary that would give the horse an opportunity to tell its side of the story.
The content would help owners understand how various medical conditions impact a horse beyond the visible symptoms. Plus, it would demonstrate how the conditions develop even before they might become obvious to an owner.
Each entry would focus on a different symptom or aspect of the horse’s medical experiences – thereby answering more detailed or specific questions a horse owner might have. Plus, each of these would also create more longtail keyword opportunities, so SEO wins too.
The beauty of this idea was that it placed the horse, not the medical condition, at the heart of the content. The inexplicably literate horse would be presented as a living, thinking thing, capable of feeling pain and discomfort, fear and confusion just as we would – fostering greater empathy and understanding between owners and their horses.
The workshop attendee was visibly excited. Sure, more thinking was needed to turn the idea into a concrete proposal, not to mention client pitches, budget discussions, and so on. But the creative process was off and running.
Never stop at the first idea
The key is knowing your first idea is likely everyone else’s first idea too. It comes to mind quickly precisely because it’s familiar, which is exactly how cliché works.
A good creative process recognizes this. A good creative process takes that first idea and asks, “What can I add to this?” A good creative process formalizes the search for a second idea to find a new way of looking at the first.
A good creative process formalizes the search for a second idea to find a new way of looking at the first.”
It’s why my own briefing templates include space for both ideas:
- Core topic – what the content is about.
- Angle or theme – what provides a new or unexpected perspective on the topic.
I can’t just put down “10 Things To Check on Your Car.” I need to provide something more. I need to think of something more.
Sometimes, the answer may be as simple as combining two existing-but-obvious ideas. That one about getting more value from your doodad can be combined with that one about common mistakes with doohickeys to become a new piece about how your doodad can improve your doohickey. Or something.
Other times, out-of-the-box thinking may be required to find less obvious connections with very different topics. If you’ve read many of my articles, you may have noticed certain themes keep cropping up: ancient Greeks, literary quotations, children’s fantasies, myths, and legends. And that’s because I read a lot of them. I also have a small set of books that never leave my desk: Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase & Fable (every writer should own this IMHO) and three quotations dictionaries:
- The Penguin Dictionary of Quotations
- The New Penguin Dictionary of Modern Quotations
- The Oxford Dictionary of Humorous Quotations
If I’m stuck for an angle, I look up related keywords in these books. A Douglas Adams quote might suggest an interesting theme or an old piece of folklore might give me a fun way to explain a new piece of tech.
You get the idea.
Or should that be ideas? After all, you’re going to need two.