We travel to 2020 Presidential town hall events in New Hampshire to ask a simple question of each candidate: “Outside of your work and your family, what are you a fan of, what are you passionate about?” Today we share what Jay Inslee, the Governor of Washington state, told us.
These are the two axes of professional design and engineering.
Did you produce within the constraints?
Did you deliver measurable results?
Good design doesn’t exceed the available resources and produces measurable change against the agreed upon objectives.
Great design is better than good design because it uses fewer resources and/or creates even better results.
If you need to build a bridge, yes, of course you could build one out of unobtainium and even an amateur could build one that can’t carry truck traffic, but a professional engineer eagerly accepts the constraints she signed up for and insists on measuring just how much wear and tear the bridge can actually handle.
Direct marketing, curriculum design, product testing, movie-making–they all live within the axes of constraints and performance.
They just opened the long-awaited Terminal B at LaGuardia Airport, previously one of the worst major airports in the world. And while it’s shiny, the failures of engineering and design are everywhere. At 6 am, the line for the ladies room is 20 people long. The space constraints can’t be eased (constraints enable architecture) but the throughput would have been easy to measure at the blueprint stage. This part of the billion-dollar facility had just one job, and it failed.
The same is true for the design of the simple coffee stand. It doesn’t require a breakthrough in retail engineering to create an espresso bar that can serve grumpy pre-caffeinated travelers with speed and grace. But despite the hard work of the tradespeople who followed the plans, the plans themselves were defective. The outcome of their poor design decisions is obvious to anyone looking at the line of 30 people.
Forward motion happens when we see the best practices of our craft and exceed them. The privilege of design and engineering comes with the responsibility to be measured, and to redo our work when it doesn’t measure up.
“Give me constraints” and “Measure my performance” are rarely heard, except when talented and passionate designers go to work.
Updated on June 25, 2019, to include current research tools and resources.
One of the first tools I fell in love with when I started mountaineering was an ice axe. An ice axe probably doesn’t sound like something you could love. It’s certainly not warm and fuzzy. You can definitely use it as a weapon. But hear me out! It’s essential for scrambling and climbing on snow and ice and is jaw-droppingly versatile. You can use it as a walking stick to keep balance, for self-arrest if you fall, and to maintain control when glissading down a slope. It’s literally a lifesaver.
Thinking about how much mountaineering tools make my adventuring life easier and how I enjoy suggesting that other people use them, made me realize how many content research and ideation tools make my process way more efficient and that I should probably share those with people, too.
Why Do You Need Content Research Tools?
One of the main reasons for using tools for content ideation is to understand what your users are searching for, so you can deliver the most engaging and useful content to them.
In Content Strategy for the Web, Kristina Halvorson and Melissa Rach write:
“Great content meets users’ needs and supports key business objectives. It keeps people coming back for more.”
When you’re coming up with content ideas, it’s essential to think about what’s going to make people return to your site. One way to do this is by answering people’s questions. Not only is this a great way to engage with people on your website, but writing blog posts in this way can help you drive a lot of organic traffic, especially if you grab the “featured snippet” or “people also ask” sections of the SERPs.
A Few of My Favorite Research Tools
If you currently write content but need some new methods for finding topics for your blog, read below for my favorite content research tools (some free, some paid).
1. Free Content Research Tools
Content topic research is more of an art than a science. There isn’t a prescriptive, one-size-fits-all approach. It’s best to pick a starting point and then see where you end up from there. To begin to get a feel for what people are searching for, I suggest starting with one of the free content research tools and then dive into the paid tools to find out how viable your ideas are (I’ll talk about my favorite paid tools later on in this post).
One fantastic place to start is Quora. Quora is a website where people ask, answer, edit, and organize questions. Its sole purpose is to solve people’s problems by responding to questions, just like you do with the content on your website.
Let’s pretend your company sells matcha. If you search “matcha,” it pulls up questions people asked around the topic. The inquiry below is an excellent potential topic to explore on your website or social media platforms:
Try typing in different keywords and seeing what questions come up—some will most likely be potential content topics, or at least help you verify your current ideas.
A search engine’s goal is to match up a searcher’s intent with a quality piece of content that satisfies that purpose. When someone enters a query into the search bar, the engine will attempt to find the most relevant pages to display in its search results.
An excellent tool for discovering what potential customers are searching for is the Google Ads Keyword Planner. This tool allows you to research new keywords and ideas, and you can access the tool without running a campaign—I just recommend following some instructions.
Although Google will hide info for certain terms with extremely high volume, the Keyword Planner tool provides the average search volume for specific terms and phrases, and it can show you how competitive the market is for that query and how expensive a paid search bid might be.
One of our favorite ways to use the Keyword Planner is to find the Wikipedia page for your topic and then plug that into the “Your landing page” field. For example, some of the keyword ideas from looking up the Wikipedia page for “Hiking” are:
Once you uncover what people are actually searching for, you can either optimize your current content for those keyword phrases or create new content.
Plain Old Google
Don’t get so sucked into using tools that you forget to look at the actual search engine results pages. Plugging a keyword into Google and seeing what comes up via Google Suggest can be a simple, but effective way to kick off your content ideation process.
You can use Google Suggest to go down a kind of keyword rabbit hole. Start by inputting a simple query, such as “jogging” and see what Google pulls up.
You can then choose one of the suggestions, plug it back into Google, and see what comes up in Google Suggest this time.
For example, if you sell jogging shoes, you could write a blog post titled, “The Top 5 Jogging Shoes for Flat Feet.”
If you want additional data about these queries directly in the SERPs, you can install the free Chrome and Firefox plugin, Keywords Everywhere. The tool will give you data such as Google keyword search volume, CPC, and competition data of keywords.
They also pull “related keywords” and “people also search for” and display them on the right-hand side of the SERPs, which you can export to a CSV file.
Paid Content Research Tools
Free content tools are fantastic, but they can only give you so much information and data. In addition to free resources, I like to use a few paid tools as well. Most of them have free trials, so you don’t have to be afraid of commitment.
Answer The Public is a tool that collects questions. But instead of using questions from users within its site, they’re provided by Google & Bing. These questions are put in a shareable, visual list and the data is shown in question, preposition, or alphabetical form, and then exported to a CSV file or as a PNG.
For example, if you search for “cherry blossoms,” it brings up questions such as “Are cherry blossoms edible?” and “How to cherry blossom bonsai?”. You can then mold these questions into potential blog posts or content hub pages such as, “Top 10 Cherry Blossom Recipes” or “Cherry Blossom Bonsai Tree Care Guide.”
See the little green circles next to each query? If you click on them, they take you to the SERPs. Quickly reviewing the user intent of the query, the various content types (answer box, videos, links, etc.), and the competitors will allow you to determine whether or not you have a chance to rank for this particular piece of content.
One of the best ways to generate new content ideas is to take a peek at what other people are writing. We’re not suggesting you copy what you see. Instead, use your findings on Buzzsumo to initiate a brainstorm.
Buzzsumo shows you what content performs best for any topic or competitor without having to search the web yourself. You can also sort results by social network to figure out what topics performed best on each platform.
Since clearly, I love the outdoors, I’ll use that example again. This time, imagine you work for an outdoor gear company based in Bend, Oregon. Type in the search query “hiking,” and you’ll see topics such as:
Doctors Explain How Hiking Actually Changes Our Brain
10 California Hiking Trails with Insane Paranormal Activity
“Camping With Dogs” Instagram Will Inspire You To Go Hiking With Your Dog
Here are a few examples of how these search results can turn into ideas for new content just by changing a few words in the previous article titles:
5 Reasons Why Hiking is Great For Stress Relief
5 Ghost Town Hikes in Oregon
Follow These Oregonian Instagram Accounts for Hiking Inspiration
Ahrefs is a robust keyword and competitive research tool with many different capabilities.
There are so many things this tool can do, but one of the best and most straightforward functionalities is the “keywords explorer.” You can type in a query such as “space exploration,” and it will show you keyword ideas under a few different categories: “Having same terms,” “Questions,” “Also rank for,” and “Newly discovered.”
I like using the “Having same terms” functionality. If you click on the full list of results, you can see the keyword difficulty and volume, and get tons of ideas for not only great topics but topics that you have the ability to rank for.
For example, the query “space exploration” is difficult to rank for, but by using this tool you can get different ideas such as “space exploration games” and “history of space exploration,” which are both easier to rank for.
There are other sites that pull articles from across the web. Try paper.li, which allows you to enter keywords or an article URL to discover similar articles on the same topic. If you don’t want to keep revisiting the site, they will collect and send you content via email. Alltop is another site that gathers content from across the web. Type in a keyword related to your industry and see what surfaces. We also have our own Content Idea Generator that’s fun, but will also give some unique ideas.
As you can see, there is a variety of content research and ideation tools out there, and I hope you’ll experiment with some of them the next time you’re staring at your screen trying to come up with your next blog or article topic. And if you need ideas for non-promotional content for your social channels, some of these work well for that too.
The simple but hard to follow rule is this: Only borrow money to buy things that go up in value.
In the old days, that meant a house and a college education, because you’d probably earn enough from either to pay back the debt, with interest. Today, housing is unpredictable and many forms of student debt are crushing (and the yield on the most expensive forms of education isn’t as high as it might be).
You can justify borrowing money to buy a car if the car enables you to make enough money to pay the debt back… But medallion cab owners in New York have recently learned that there are few sure things.
The deal with credit card debt, though is simply terrible. The credit card companies pay 2% on their interest-bearing accounts, but charge around NINE times that on the debt that some people carry–that’s a huge gap. It’s a lousy deal you should avoid if you possibly can, regardless of how unfair the economy is.
Lately, there’s been a lot of handwringing about the long-term impact of a daily treat like a cup of coffee. The Times got this completely wrong yesterday, pushing people deeper into a trap that they should run away from. And the Washington Post points out that the number of people getting a loan for their wedding is skyrocketing. This is a problem. Here’s a simple way to see why:
You can make a copy of the spreadsheet I built (hit MAKE A COPY or download) and then play with the numbers yourself.
The sad news is that the best you can do within an industrial system that makes it harder and harder to catch up through effort is to begin by avoiding debt. It turns out that paying interest on interest is a long-term trap.
The real win is to borrow money to embrace high-yield education, and then borrow money if you need it to build an asset, a business that creates value for you and the people you serve.
The system is not fair, and it’s rigged against those that get compounded.
In one of my original conversations with enterprise legend Jason Lemkin about enterprise public relations and marketing, there was one particular thing that stood out. He mentioned a common PR trope around enterprise PR (and I paraphrase) – people would constantly say “oh yeah, enterprise PR is boring, and we love boring.”
The truth is that any great tech and enterprise public relations firm that tells you your product or industry is boring immediately in a conversation likely doesn’t care that much about the conversation. I’m guessing they care about the money far more. Which I understand – I get it – it’s hard running a PR firm and it’s been a while since you could pay people in bread.
So, as a founder looking at an enterprise marketing and PR campaign, I want you to think about the following.
Does The Enterprise PR or Marketing Agency Know Enough?
It stands to reason that an enterprise PR firm would know about the enterprise, but never assume anything with PR people. They can talk in circles about things in a very pleasant, affable way, but you need to be able to establish whether they know enough to actually pitch your product. This doesn’t mean they need to exhaustively understand the substrate of your entire existence, but it does mean they need to know and understand what you’re telling them to execute an enterprise marketing or PR campaign. Ask the right questions – quiz them on previous clients, ask them if they have any opinions on particular news stories. They need to understand the data you give them, too.
What Have They Done That Matches Your Enterprise PR Goals?
This doesn’t just mean they have a good case study. You need to make sure they have good references, good media relationshipsand clearly understand the expectations you have. It’s totally fine to walk away from a PR and marketing effort before it starts if you don’t think that the team in question is going to execute well – it’s much harder once you’ve started.
Are You Talking To The Team You’ll Work With?
One of the greatest scams in marketing and PR is the team-based bait and switch. If you’re talking to someone that’s telling you about how an agency did X Y or Z, be prepared to ask if it was actually the person you’re talking to. Enterprise public relations is a tightrope walk between good personal relationships and understanding of a product, and that’s a very personal choice. If you’re working with someone who’s not actually touched the great successes you bought into, you’re going to find you don’t hit your enterprise marketing goals…and spend a lot of money doing so.