Having an empty content calendar in front of you can be….quite daunting.
But there are ways to inspire yourself and change your perspective so you can come up with great ideas in a timely manner.
Melanie Deziel, the founder of StoryFuel and the author of The Content Fuel Framework: How to Generate Unlimited Story Ideas, explains how to generate good content ideas at scale.
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In this episode, you’ll learn:
- What makes an idea work
- Why limitation is creatively useful
- Examples of content “focuses” that can help you brainstorm ideas
- How to prioritize content ideas
- The importance of committing to the story before the format
Amanda: This week on the show, I'm joined by Melanie Deziel, the founder of Storyfuel, a consulting service that equips you with the skills and strategies to tell better brand stories. And she's also the author of The Content Fuel Framework: How to Generate Unlimited Story Ideas. And that's what we're going to talk about today, coming up with good top content ideas at scale. Welcome to the show, Melanie.
Melanie: Thanks for having me. It's exciting to be here and talk about my favorite subject.
Amanda: It's such a relevant one, everybody in content can relate to having a creative block and having no idea what to write next.
Melanie: And it's funny, I was talking about this with someone recently, I feel like creatives are one of the only people who get this kind of block, right? Like you don't, there's no such thing as plumbers block or like, you know, mechanics block, it doesn't happen, it's just us, we tend to get stuck when we have to come up with ideas.
Amanda: Absolutely. Yeah, I didn't think about it that way but you're so right. So, I like to start the shows with kind of a more general question, which sometimes are the hardest answer, but I know there's going to be variations based on the goals of content. But in general, what do you think makes for a great content idea?
Melanie: So, I've got a lot of different answers to this question. We could probably talk about this for the whole day. But I mean, there's a few key things, I think, you know, in order for a content idea to work really well, you have to have a clear goal, up front. And I know that's not so much about the idea itself, but without that it doesn't matter how good the idea is, if you're not sure what you're trying to do with it, you know, any other work that comes after that is going to be wasted time. So, starting with a clear goal up front, I think is key. And the other thing, which is a little squishy, and almost a non-answer, but it has the audience at the center. So, my background is in journalism, so I come at this from, you know, a journalistic perspective and I feel like in marketing, oftentimes we focus on what it is that we want to tell the audience without as much regard for what the audience actually wants or needs to know. And so, I think some of the best content out there, the stuff that performs well, that we idolize, or we put up on this pedestal, is the stuff that really has, its primary concern is like, what does the audience actually want or need in this situation? So, I think the clear goal, and really putting your audience at the center, those are the things that are going to get you on the right path for sure.
Amanda: Your book addresses a problem that you've seen when people focus too much on even the format of the content rather than the substance. Can you speak a little bit more about that? Because it sounds kind of tied to what you're saying now.
Melanie: Yeah, well, it's also a big pet peeve, as a creative person, having been shoved into those brainstorms where someone tells you, hey, we need a video idea. And you're sitting there trying to shoehorn really excellent podcast ideas or infographic ideas, somehow trying to, you know, break them apart and reassemble them as a video idea that's going to do half what it could have done in another format is really, really frustrating because you see what could have been, and you're having to settle for something less. And I feel like, because formats are more tangible, and we have a shared language around it already, you know, we know what a video or an infographic or a podcast is, it becomes the thing that we focus on a little too much. And we forget that, you know, thinking about how you're going to say something before you even decide what you're going to say is totally backward. And you know, in any other context, we would totally recognize that, you know, imagine someone proposing to their partner, by focusing on their tone of voice without any regard for what the words would be, like, it just doesn't make any sense in any other context, right. So, yeah, I mean, this is a big thing for me, it's like, we need to decide what we're going to say, what's the focus of our content, before we hone in on any specific format. And I think, again, a big part of that comes from the journalism side of things where you weren't being assigned an article or a column so much, at least not in, you know, in a modern newsroom now, your goal is to go on, you know, see what the story is and let it unfold and then you determine, okay, what's the best way to bring this to life? Do we need graphics to help people make sense of this? Do we need a chart to, you know, make this data, easy to understand, you know, you start with a story, and then you figure out how to bring it to life.
Amanda: Were those types of experiences why you decided to come up with this content full framework, was it being in these ideation meetings, seeing these kinds of problems arise?
Melanie: I think I was solving a different problem, although this certainly helps with that. I think that the biggest thing for me was, you know, I am really lucky in that I got to study journalism and ideas come super easily to me that I recognize that that's a superpower I'm lucky to have, but I couldn't explain how I was coming up with the ideas, and I couldn't teach other people how to do it and that really, really bothered me. You know, when someone would say, okay, well, I don't have this skill, I'm never able to come up with ideas when I need to. And I just thought like, that has to be a solvable problem, because I'm doing something so if I can just figure out what's happening in my head, and share it with other people then they should be able to do the same thing. And so, it was a lot of like, I hate to romanticize it, but a lot of like, soul searching and like thinking through, like, what the heck is happening in my head when these neurons are firing, and I'm just generating content ideas, like, what's the actual process and trying to break down something that, you know, is abstract was challenging, but I think that's where I came to it and realize, I'm asking those two key questions, what is this going to focus on, you know, what is the lens through which we can tell the story? And then asking, what's the best way to bring it to life, and that's choosing the format. So, I think once I realized those were the two questions, I just wanted to create something easy, that was almost like a multiple choice. So, when you ask the question, what is the story focus on? In the book, you know, in the framework, there's 10 possible examples, you know, here's some really common ones, or ones that can help guide you to create a repeatable framework. And then same thing for formats, here's 10 options of how you can bring those stories to life. And if you have those things, which, you know, most of us understand the various formats and focuses already intrinsically, then just putting them in some sort of order makes it so much easier to mix and match, you know? So, that was really the goal, is just trying to break down something abstract that seems like, you know, you're born with it, or you're not, and trying to turn it into something teachable and repeatable.
Amanda: It's an interesting conversation in general about creativity, there's a lot of debate over if you can limit it. And some people say the more limited it is, the more creative you can be, right? It just kind of seems to follow that a little bit, like having--.
Melanie: Yeah, because I think so often, you know, as often as we have those like horrible format first brainstorms, where you're like, we need a video idea or something and you're retrofitting stuff, you also have completely open ended brainstorms, where it's like, okay, we need content for q4 and it's like, my God, where do you even start? Like, what kind? Like, for what purpose? To what end? You know, just when you have nothing to guide you--. I mean, the other example, do you speak another language other than English by chance?
Amanda: I don't.
Melanie: Okay, but you know, someone who does in your life, and you probably had this experience where someone will go, oh, you speak Japanese, say something? And like, in that moment, you can't think of anything, because you have to choose from an entire language. You know what I mean? It's like, your brain doesn't even know where to start or, you know, when people are like, oh, well, you know, Amanda's really funny. Oh, cool, tell a joke. It's like, I got nothing, like you're trying to create from nothing. It's this huge expanse, right. Whereas, if somebody knows you speak another language, and they go, oh, how would you greet someone in Japanese? Like, okay, there's some options there and I'll pick the one I like best. They gave me some guidance about where to go. And so, you know, my other favorite example is, you know, people who say they're not creative, I always say, think of how many creative ways you've imagined that things could go wrong. You know, we absolutely are creative, you know, you're able to think of all these things, you just need the right prompt
Amanda: That's so relatable, especially these days. Also, for me, like, I don't speak another language, but I'm a karaoke nerd, so I've been asked, like, just sing, sing something.
Melanie: Okay, same thing, right. It's like, yeah, just anything, any song that's ever existed? Like any section of it right now? Yeah, no problem.
Amanda: That's so funny, I've never thought about that. But those are great analogies for this. So, you said, there's so many different types of, you basically separate it into goals and format. So, what are some of those standard goals, or like if somebody's listening to this now, they're like, okay, I'm in that situation where I just need to come up with content and I don't know where to start, what is a good launching point?
Melanie: Yes, so in the book, we have, we call them focuses and those are like the lens through which you're going to tell the story. So, assuming in this process, you already know why you're creating content, you know, to promote your business or around a new product, or, you know, whatever the case may be, you've got your why already, now, you just need to figure out how. So, you know, the first one we talked about in the book is people focused content. And I think, you know, these really are intended to serve as prompts and you know, like I said, in the book, there's tons of examples and things but at the base level, if you say, I'm launching a new product, could I tell this story about this new product through the lens of people? So, okay, well, who are the people who contributed to making this product? Who are the people that you know, are intended to be helped by this product? Who are the people who make the ingredients or the elements that bring this product to life? You know, that gives you a really good place to start, okay, who are the, could I tell this through the lens of people? And so, people is the one I recommend most because I feel like it's the most relatable content that's out there and it's, there's always people involved with almost any story you're trying to tell. So, it works in most instances. So, people, is a really good place to start. The other one that I think is really relevant right now, especially, you know, I don't know when you're listening to this, but I'm assuming that even if it's years from now that the after effects of COVID and this pandemic are still, you know, raining in some way, you know, people are disconnected from their usual products, people, businesses, and so process focused content, content that's teaching people how to do something is really, really key right now. So, yeah, early part of 2020, right around March, when all the lockdowns and restrictions were coming into place, we saw a tremendous uptick in search activity for phrases like DIY, how-to instructions, and things like that. And a big part of that was people couldn't, you know, just go to a hairdresser so we had to look up how to give our partner a haircut, you know, people couldn't get ahold of the grocery ingredients they normally use so they needed to look up how to make something without specific ingredients. So, this kind of process focused content that's instructional in nature, is some of the most valuable evergreen content you can create.
Amanda: People have said, who have gotten your book already, but they come up with dozens, perhaps even like 100 ideas in one sitting, how do you start to then hone in on the best ideas of this list that you come up with?
Melanie: Yeah, so that's always one of the things I caution people to, is like, you know, the idea with the book is really to change how you think. So, you know, hopefully, what that means is, anytime you need ideas, you can come up with many to choose from, but I don't want people to feel this immense pressure that suddenly you have to execute on all hundred ideas, right? They're not all going to be great, but at least you don't have a blank slate. So, there's a couple different ways you can prioritize. I mean, the one thing I always ask people is you have to understand what your broader business goals are. And so, you know, especially in times of uncertainty, like right now, those may be changing, you know, whereas previously, we may have focused on conversion, maybe right now we're focused really deeply on engagement. So, which of these ideas or you know, these content ideas are going to create the most opportunity for engagement? You could also decide based on your available resources, like, hey, I've got some really awesome ideas for an interactive infographic but I also have $200 in three hours so I guess that's not going to happen today, you know? So, sometimes we have to rein it in based on, you know, time, money, etc. So, I mean, it's some combination of those things. But my thought is always, there's not a bad place to start, you know, if your plan, which hopefully it is, if you're into content, if you're listening to this podcast, you know, it's a marathon, not a sprint. And so, if there's something that's inspiring you, if it has a clear connection to, you know, your business goals, then get started, build something cool and keep going from there. I don't think there's a bad place to start.
Amanda: It's funny, because I've been trying to write more fiction in my personal life and I keep reading that, I guess it's more about habit forming but literally just getting yourself to start doing something, makes it so much easier to finish or edit it, yeah.
Melanie: Well, I mean, one of the things that I did definitely, when I was writing my book, and I use this for content all the time, is I never write any of my content in order. And I know that sounds crazy. But sometimes figuring out that first sentence, or you know, the first clip, or whatever it is, is really difficult, because it feels like you're really committed to something and it sets the tone for the whole thing. So, yeah, write, whatever, you know, instead of starting with the introduction of the character, like start with the description of their dog, because that's what you're feeling and that's what you can see when you picture and then your page isn't blank anymore, and everything else feels so much less stressful.
Amanda: So, this is all really interesting and applicable, but what would you say to people who have been in the situations you've been in, in these meetings, or someone's like, cool, but we need a video idea and we need it, you know, by the end of this meeting, or something, how would you recommend they handle that?
Melanie: So, what I have found, and this probably isn't true for every organization, is whoever is saying that is not usually married to the format, they're married to something else about it. And so, my question when someone says, we need a video idea, my question is always, why, what is it about a video idea that's appealing? Because they say, well, we know video is the most engaging, and then you can work with that, then you know why they're really stuck on video, right? Or maybe they say, because our competition launched a video, you know, or something, you got to get at the why because so often folks are setting goals without a real understanding of whether those goals are relevant. At least that's been my experience in those kinds of meetings, is that the reasoning behind it, sometimes you're better able to accomplish their actual goal, if you can unpack it a little bit. And so, I don't know if that's true for everyone, that's been my experience, is that oftentimes when someone is really, like laser focused in on a particular format, it's rather a characteristic about that format that they're attached to and if you can get to that characteristic and other way and show them, you know, examples of how you can do that, sometimes that's a much better way to go. You know, I can think of a specific example where a client said, we want something to be really interactive, so it needs to be an interactive infographic. And I said, well talk to me about interactive infographic, what is it about that that you really like? And they said, well, we like when people can explore the content in their own way. So, I was like, okay, so what you want is sort of a self-guided experience. There are other ways we can do that, we can give them options, we can have multimedia content. So, there's an article and there's audio, and there's video, you know? If you can get to the reasoning, you get someone is unpacking and get them back on the right track.
Amanda: That makes a lot of sense. I had a boss in the past too, I think he just saw something about Pinterest on the news--
Melanie: There you go.
Amanda: -- and was like, we need to do this. And it was mostly just that it was popular, and people were on it.
Melanie: Right, well, it's like I can imagine in the last like six months or so, the number of bosses who have, probably not six months, because we're all working from home. So, the bosses who have stormed into a zoom meeting and said, we've got to be on Tik Tok somebody get me a Tik Tok strategy. And then like, what you need to ask is like, well, what is it about Tik Tok? And like, well, it's going viral. And you're like, yeah, but our audience isn't there and therefore that's not helpful, like, this is not going to work for us. So, I think, yeah, it's just that we get attracted to these shiny objects, or we confuse a tactic with a strategy and you know, sometimes people just get really attached to, yeah, it's got to be Pinterest, it's got to be Tik Tok, it needs to be a video, when really what they want is a certain outcome and that outcome is better achieved by a different format.
Amanda: Right. Do you have advice for people--? So, that's a situation where it's probably a one off, somebody comes in, they're like, okay, we want to do this or that. And for people who have channels that they work on, like, I have a podcast, people have video channels, or what have you, to come up with, like, when you do have that limitation of, okay, I actually have a weekly, monthly, bimonthly show. How do you come up with ideas when you do have to have a specific medium?
Melanie: Yeah. So, I think, you know, I guess, you can reverse engineer it in that way. What I find is, again, I still think it's better to start with the focus, and then ask, how can I bring this to life through video, right? So, that way, you're not starting with video and then again, trying to reverse engineer what you're going to say, but saying, what are the stories I want to tell? You know, you decide you want to tell, I want to talk about the data behind this and the trend and the evolution of this particular topic and you say, okay, well, how would I bring that to life through video? Okay, I'll probably need some on screen graphics, because just talking about numbers is not super helpful. You know, it'll allow you to set it up in the proper way, just by having started with the topic first. Because I think what happens and everyone's experience of this may be a little bit different. But I think what happens is, sometimes we get locked into a format, because it's comfortable and we can default to the same types of stories over and over again. And on some level, consistency is helpful, right? Like you want, you don't want one week to put out a podcast, that's just you, like riffing on a piano or something, like people would be very confused by that. So, you do need some consistency, in terms of how it's delivered. But what you don't want to do, is just do the same thing, out of like habit or, or fear, you know, just to, I'm just going to interview the same people week after week, because I don't want to mess with what's working. So, I think there's still value in starting with the story and then asking, how do we bring this to life most effectively through video or through, you know, writing or whatever else? So, I'm pretty stuck on this like story before format commitment here, for sure.
Amanda: Yeah, yeah, that's what I wanted to ask, because I know that a lot of people have that situation, it's like, how do you dream it and apply it to, when you do have a certain medium. How does that affect like content repackaging, then like, is it a situation where, is it kind of like what you're saying, where you still start with that core concept and then think about how you can apply it to different channels, rather than which product and then trying to figure out how to finesse it in other ways?
Melanie: Yeah, exactly. So, I mean, and again, I think when I talked about in the very beginning about having that goal first, if you know, your goal is to, you know, get as much awareness as possible and spread it as widely as possible, then part of this process should be including multiple formats. So, just as an example, this conversation, if you were like, this is the greatest conversation, I want as many people to see it as possible, and I want to post it in as many places as possible, maybe we would record a video, as well. So, as we're talking, we would have video and then you could use those stills on social media, you could cut the videos down into smaller parts, you could transcribe the audio and turn it into a show notes page or a blog post, you could take the best quotes and turn them into graphics to share on social, you know, you could create an infographic of all that interesting data that we shared, and that would only come from having known upfront, I want this to get shared as widely as possible. And to do that, I need to make sure it's going to belong in all the places I want it to be shared. So, yeah, I think, even when it comes to repurposing, repackaging, you know, reformatting, again, starting out front with that goal. If you know that you have that in mind, then it becomes easier to see how that story could fit into those different formats.
Amanda: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. So, if somebody is listening, and they say, okay, I figured out the goal and then I looked at it through multiple lenses, like you said, people, process, you know, whatever lens comes to mind for them, came up with a bunch of ideas, pick their favorites and now they have to get buy-in from somebody, whether it's a teammate, another team, leadership, what do you recommend to people, in terms of getting buy-in from others at their company.
Melanie: Yeah, I think this is one of the big challenges that we all face. And it's especially true if you're at an organization where you have been stuck in a rut, like we're talking about before, like just putting out press releases every week, or, you know, case studies or white papers or something, and you're trying to mix it up. I think what's most important is to, we talked about the goals, you know, a couple times now just to come back to those goals and whenever you're framing a change in the content strategy, or just the content execution, is to tie it back to that goal. And whenever possible, make it something that they said. So, I know this is going to sound like sneaky, I don't mean it that way. But what I mean is, you go to your boss, and you say, I know you said that you want us to get more traffic on the blog and so we've looked at the options and we think if we do the following things, that's going to help us increase traffic on the blog. Now, they won't argue with their own logic, they're the ones who want more traffic on the blog. So, I find that when you can frame it in that way, like based on the goals, you told me you want us to fulfill, this is the best approach to do that. The other thing that I find really helpful is to build into that conversation, have a plan for evaluating what's working and adapting. So, to say, we're going to do this for two to three weeks and then we're going to look at the numbers and see if there's a significant change in engagement, because then they understand, you're not doing change for changes sake, that there's a plan for measurement and optimization and that can often ease a lot of fear that they have about just doing something new. The other recommendation I would have is, find the content piece or platform or whatever it is that they are most bought into, and try to adapt their first because that's, you know, we know that this is working so I want to make it work even better, is often a lot better than I want us to divert resources to this totally new thing. So, often the easiest place to do this is whatever your version of testimonials or customer stories or case studies are, because you often have those, and they tend to be like if we're being honest, dry, not very detailed, just sort of like, you know, a quote, and a name and a picture, if you're lucky. There's so much opportunity to build those out into a more narrative experience that offers more opportunities for people to connect with those people. And so, I think, you know, taking that approach and saying, hey, I know our testimonials convert really well for us, I'd like to see if we can make them convert even better by building them out a little bit more. So, again, finding something that it's working and looking for opportunities to optimize.
Amanda: Yeah and I like that this is a continuous theme where you kind of, maybe this is the journalism background, but people should try to adopt, but it's kind of getting at what people are, what they mean, when they say things like, or tying it back to what they're actually trying to achieve, rather than how they think that you should do that.
Melanie: Yeah because I think that's, well, that's exactly what happens, right? And they have hired you or brought you on board or tasked you with this project because of your expertise. But oftentimes, they're the ones who are being asked to make the goals. And so, you know, they are making goals, knowing that you have the best experience, and you know, know-how on how to make those goals happen. And so, I think as long as you're not doing it in a, you set the wrong goals, sort of accusatory way, but to say, since you told me this was a priority, the best way to achieve that is to do this tactic instead. You know, it's a really collaborative way to do it, to say we're all on the same team, we all want the same outcome but this is probably the best way to get to that outcome, it makes it safe for them to agree with you because they don't have to defer, they don't have to admit they were wrong. You know, it doesn't become a, your idea versus my idea. It's, we're all in this together, we have these shared content goals, and you know, I think this is the best path for us to get there.
Amanda: So, as we wrap up the show, are there any other content ideation tips from the book that you are willing to share with us?
Melanie: I think it's a really good system that works well together, there's a couple bits you can pull out. So, one of the things I talked about toward the end of the book is this idea of content multipliers. And so, what I mean by that is, oftentimes we have a successful piece of content, and we sort of like high five each other, pat ourselves on the back and then start from scratch on something new. And so, I talk about some really good ways that you can take what's working and adapt it, to sort of riff on it and create others that are similar You know, a good example of this is, you look at something like BuzzFeed, which I know, we may not want to admit it, we've all taken our fair share BuzzFeed quizzes. It's because they had something that worked and they rift on that, there wasn't just one quiz that performed really well, it was okay, now let's make a bunch of quizzes. Okay, we know that quizzes about friends work really well. So, we need 16 different versions of which friends’ character are you? Okay, now Game of Thrones is going up, okay, we need a bunch of Game of Thrones quizzes, and they don't create just one and say, that's great and move on. They understand that when something works, you do more of it. And so, the book outlines a couple different multipliers that you can use to adapt and make the most, you know, to get the most mileage out of those content ideas that perform well. And the one that I like a lot is resources. And so, what I mean by that is, if you've made, say you did a roundup of the, I don't know, the best, you know, CMS for small businesses or something? I don't know. It depends on your business. But yeah, the best CMS or the best headsets for yeah, let's do that, the best headsets for working from home. Okay, well, that worked really well. Why don't we do the best headsets under $100 for working from home? Why don't we do the best headsets, if you don't have a USB port? So, we take what are the resources that are required in that story, and we adapt the content. So, we have a sub $100, we have a sub $50 one we have, you know, if you have amazon prime, if you don't have amazon prime, you know, we just look at what are the ways we can adapt what the recommendations are, based on the resources that are available. And I think that's often one of the ways to really amp up the success of single piece, is, you know, multiplying it based on available resources.
Amanda: I love that. And it's something we definitely do at Fractl because we're always coming up with content ideas at scale. And we've even looked at what has worked for, like in the vertical, in the past. And it could be methodologies that are really interesting and can be applied in different ways or data sets. You're just absolutely right, there's so many different ways that you can, not even like replicate, but just amplify, compliment all these buzzwords, but just do something similar to something that has already worked and kind of proven that it can work, which puts more people at ease, I think.
Melanie: Yeah, for sure. Especially if you're trying to get buy-in, like this worked, let's do more of it. It's pretty hard to argue with.
Amanda: Right. So, Melanie, knowing the objective of the podcast, do you have recommendations on who should be guests on future episodes?
Melanie: Ooh, this is a good one. Well, I haven't looked at the whole back catalogue so I might, I don't know about you guys. But my podcast listening has been severely disrupted by my lack of a commute so I can't keep up. But I think Ann Handley, if you haven't spoken to her, is a great one. She wrote the book; Everybody Writes and has a really awesome perspective on how to optimize that type of content. Phil M. Jones is another friend of mine, who, he's an expert in exactly what to say and the type of wording that works well in different situations, particularly for sales, so perhaps for sales enablement content, that, he'd be a good guest.
Amanda: Awesome. Well, Melanie, thank you so much for coming on the show and sharing some of the insights from your book on how to come up with quality content ideas, at a higher volume. I appreciate you taking the time.
Melanie: Well, thanks for letting me come share my story.