How to prep for a productive blog post brainstorming session
Mar. 16, 2016
A good brainstorming session is akin to idea vomit. Idyllic though that phrase is, however, it doesn’t get at the whole picture.
The most prevalent myth about brainstorming is that all you have to do is show up. That’s a lie. If you want an efficient and effective blog post brainstorm session that results in usable ideas for your website (or anything else), then you need to arrive prepared.
I am an old-school scatterbrain. When I sit down to brainstorm, I tear off a blank page in a college-ruled legal pad, clear off space on a desk or a table or a bed in a dead-quiet room, and open up my zipper pouch of pens (I like RSVP pens from Pentel and Sharpie pens with fine tips, in case you’re wondering, which I totally would if I were in your shoes). I write the topic in the center of the page, draw a cloud around it, and then let the ideas flow. Counting down next to me is a timer set for 10 minutes.
Mind-mapping is my thing. It supports both my everywhere-at-once thought process and my down-a-rabbit-hole tangents in a way that doesn’t screw with my “I want everything to look nice, too” POV.
At the end of 10 minutes, my page is usually full and my brain is usually tired in a good way, like your arms after arm day in the weight room.
But here’s the thing: This is what my blog post brainstorming sessions look like. Your experience will vary, and honestly, it doesn’t really matter what it looks like. The results are the important part. To get valuable results, you need to prep your brain. My method is to ask questions. Seven of them, to be precise.
Note: Some of these questions overlap with overall business strategy. This is important, so don’t blow them off. All of your strategies—business, content, web, sales, visual, customer service—should be cohesive. If they aren’t, go back to the drawing board. Spend time with your strategy, guys. This isn’t a wasted investment. This is the guiding light you’ll be following today, tomorrow, and two years from now.
Nobody sells to everybody. Not presidential campaigns, not food companies, not Apple, not even Beyonce. When you aim to reach everybody, you dilute your message because if you don’t, you’ll alienate part of your audience. But if you broaden your message to encompass everyone, you start sounding general and generic. You sound corporate, beige and boring and bland.
How do you avoid sounding like that? By niching down and targeting one audience or a few smaller audiences. For example, Dell makes PCs for business, for the casual home user, for educators, and for gamers. Those are all separate markets, but their reputation as the custom PC builder with top-notch customer service is very specific. They do a lot of business. But they don’t do all the business in the computer sales market.
Candy Crush cures boredom. What do you cure? It doesn’t have to be cancer or poverty or hunger to be worthwhile. You can provide entertainment. You can cater to a want rather than a need. You can solve huge problems, like cleaning up oil-slicked animals, or small problems, like removing weakness and passivity from business communication.
If you’re stuck on this, talk to a few clients and get their feedback. Here are the questions to ask: “What problems were you having that (your product or service) helped you solve?” and “How did you feel about that problem before we worked together, and how do you feel about it now?”
When I first started SeeBrittWrite, my mission was to be financially dependent, so when I read about all the grandiose visions other entrepreneurs had for their businesses, I felt a little less-than. Hear this: It’s totally fine (and normal!) if your primary mission is to pay your bills.
But it’s nice to have something bigger you can point toward, too. Think of it is a professional purpose. Why do you enjoy doing what you do? What do you firmly believe about your industry? What beliefs do you bring to the table that set you apart from others in your niche? What benefit do you most want to provide to your clients and customers? What experience do you want to provide to everyone who works with you?
During my 24 Hour Blog Brainstorm sessions, I always ask my clients what types of posts they enjoy writing. They always have a quick answer. Some people love writing photo-heavy, step-by-step tutorials. That is so not my jam, but I’m happy to brainstorm away and let them do all the screenshot-ing. Some people love writing lists while others want to do income reports or case studies or personal essays.
If you’re just not sure what you prefer, take note of what you’re reading—both the things you read for fun and the things you read because you feel like you should. What types of content do you look forward to? What do you have to force yourself to slog through? If you’re drawn to a particular type of prose, like a story-based how-to or a Q&A-type interview, that’s a good place to start.
My new mantra is, “A narrow focus is a controlled focus.” That’s especially true when your blog is young and your business is new.
The reason for that is simple: The more categories on your blog, the more ideas you have about the types of content you should put into those categories. The more ideas you have, the more crowded your brain becomes. The more crowded your brain becomes, the crazier you feel. And when you feel crazy, you become paralyzed. Instead of tackling your whoppin’ big to-do list, you freeze up and do diddly squat.
I want you to be ruthless about your focus. Pick three or four narrow categories and stick with them for six months. You’ll find that when you limit your breadth, you’re able to dive really deep into certain areas. Going for a deep dive rather than basic coverage will help you build a reputation as a niche expert rather than as a generalist.
Deadlines are reality. Easter and Memorial Day Weekend and Halloween and Christmas won’t be rescheduled because you didn’t give yourself enough lead time. Neither will WWDC or the fall runway shows or International Women’s Day—all of which might have some affect on the types of content your produce and when you aim to release it.
Rarely is a business able to function outside of its industry’s calendar. If you’re looking to be a part of a community within your industry, the calendar is something you should plan for so that you aren’t left behind. Here are the types of time-sensitive events you need to keep in mind as you get ready to brainstorm:
I’m a believer in competitive research, and in keeping up with the competition and the community. As a reader, I do that by consuming a lot of content. I want to know what is going on so that I can avoid writing about already saturated topics and solve problems that are under-discussed. There are many different ways to conduct market research. Here are the ones I use regularly:
Before you build a house, you lay a foundation. Before you build a fire, you prepare the brush.
A blog is no different. Before a blog comes a brainstorm. And before a brainstorm comes the framework of thoughtful content strategy.
Audience, topics, markets, formats, timelines, pain points, purpose—these are pillars that do the heavy lifting in that beautiful brain of yours. Once you have this foundation poured and set, you’re ready to start constructing your blog, idea by idea.