“How do you come up with blog post ideas?”

That’s a question I hear a lot, and I never have a tidy response. The answer is hardly ever as straightforward as your garden variety “How to Brainstorm 100 Blog Ideas in an Hour!” post would have you think.

It’s almost always a matter of connecting the dots — a paragraph I came across in Fast Company, say, that reminds me of a conversation I had with Mel from our People Ops team last Thursday. Disparate events converge and start to synthesize into an idea that our specific audience might find relevant.

“That original spark is so variable and messy,” says my teammate Greg Ciotti. “It’s this jumbled mess of: I read some things, I talk to people, I run into problems, I drift off into space from time to time, and those mesh together.”

So it would be disingenuous to give you a bulleted list of the 10 Ways We Come Up With Ideas for the Blog or what have you. Never once has an idea I’ve had for a post taken shape from a single source (or ended up like I expected it to when I started out, for that matter). What I can do is walk you through what the dots tend to look like and how my team and I try to connect them.

If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have time to write

Every time I’ve experienced writer’s block, it’s because I haven’t been reading enough. A compelling reading list doesn’t a writer make, but on the other hand, show me a talented writer who isn’t also an avid reader. Take it from the King:

“If I had a nickel for every person who ever told me he/she wanted to become a writer but ‘didn’t have time to read,’ I could buy myself a pretty good steak dinner. Can I be blunt on this subject? If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”

— Stephen King, “On Writing”

When I come across a passage that sparks an idea, I jot it down — in my journal if I’m reading in bed, or in Evernote if I’m at my computer. (My former colleague Paul Jun takes this to the next level by creating a “commonplace book,” a superb concept for someone with organizational capabilities superior to my own.)

Sometimes connections occur; sometimes they don’t. When they do, and I’ve formulated an idea just enough to articulate it without embarrassing myself, I’ll add it to my team’s “ideas” column in Trello.

Help Scout content team idea's column in Trello

Some of these ideas fly; some of them don’t. Others start to take a different shape once the team offers their feedback.

Marshall Goldsmith’s What Got You Here Won't Get You There, for example, helped inspire the post “Don’t Let Your Professional Shortcomings Hold You Back at Work.” I asked our CEO if he’d read it, and I ended up citing our conversation in the story. Goldsmith’s book also reminded me of some posts Claire Lew from Know Your Company had written, so I called her up for an interview. She put me in touch with some customers of hers, whom I quoted as well.

Nearly every post, including this one (more on that in a bit), has a similarly “variable and messy” origin story.

SEO and the benefit of creative constraints

Content strategy has always been a driver of Help Scout’s business. Lately we’ve amped up those efforts in part by approaching blog ideas with a keyword in mind at the outset. Somewhat counterintuitively, the constraint actually widens the conceptual scope, versus choosing our own topics willy-nilly. Science!

I won’t dive into how SEO works here (even if I were qualified, Google is changing its algorithm all the time, and you can find that info in a million other places), but I will say that if your goal is traffic but you’re short on ideas, there are worse places to start than with a tool like Google’s Keyword Planner.

Here’s the funny thing: Keyword research on one idea often leads to even more fruitful ideas for future posts. While my director and I were researching how to position this post about customer support careers, we stumbled upon a great longtail keyword for a future post we could potentially rank for. Bingo! (Ask me in a few months whether it worked.)

The power of community

Maybe Emily Dickinson could get away with creating in the absence of community, but alas, we are not Emily Dickinson.

Everything I write for this blog is, in part, a result of conversations with my team, customers or comrades in the support world. Whatever your audience, there are probably at least a few online communities chatting about the topics relevant to it. What are the real people in those communities excited about, afraid of, in love with, annoyed by?

Support Driven Slack chat

After the above conversation in the Support Driven Slack chat, I spoke with our head of Customer Success, who confirmed that a post on omnichannel vs. multichannel support would be useful for his team’s efforts. Then I reached out to some customers to ask what their support stacks were, and their responses led to this blog post.

Conferences and meetups are another gold mine. A number of quality talks at SupConf led to posts on the Help Scout blog about how to handle negative customers, creating value with existing data, and getting support a seat at the table.

A real time example of the power of community in shaping ideas: When I brought the nascent idea for the post you’re reading to my director, she put me in touch with her friend Jay Acunzo, creator/host of Unthinkable, a podcast for content creators about the creative process. I asked him how he generates ideas, and this was his fantastic response:

Jay Acunzo on generating ideas

Cool approach, right? I never would have arrived at it by myself. I’m only able to pass it along here because community.

The requirements a blog post idea should meet

When I asked my teammate Mat Patterson how he comes up with ideas for the blog, he answered: “First you’ve got to spend nine years doing support ...”

He was only half-joking. “So much of it for me is just coming from experiences I’ve had where I’ve wished there was more info about this or that thing,” Mat says. For him, the best posts do one or more of the following:

  • provide a reason and a method to do something differently
  • connect two or more different pieces of information in a novel way pertaining to your areas of interest
  • teach you about a person or topic you didn’t know before
  • provide data or research to back up something you already thought was true, but you couldn’t prove to others

“Coming up with blog post ideas is like cooking,” Mat says. You combine:

  • the things you have knowledge on (or where you know people with the knowledge)
  • the common problems your audience faces
  • topics that are prevalent at the moment
  • approaches and techniques that work for online articles
  • things you can be passionate about

After all that, you “chop it all up and see what bits float to the top,” Mat says. “Now that I’ve written that, it sounds revolting.”

There’s just no simple answer. The upside is that, like everything else, this comes more naturally the more you do it. Like nails to a hammer — when you start blogging, everything starts to look like a potential post.

If you enjoyed this post, check out some of our oldie-but-goodie posts about writing: Drop me a line in the comments, or say “hey” on Twitter. I will pretty much always stop what I’m doing to nerd out on books, grammar, great writers and other fun stuff.
Emily Triplett Lentz

About the author: Emily Triplett Lentz is on the Growth team at Help Scout, the invisible help desk that helps you build a company your customers love with more human, more helpful customer support tools.