You gotta love this definition of writer’s block from Wikipedia:
Writer’s block is a condition, primarily associated with writing, [emphasis mine] in which an author loses the ability to produce new work or experiences a creative slowdown.
Primarily associated with writing? Yeah, I would think so. I’ve never heard a speaker stop in the middle of a talk and say “One sec…I’ve got writer’s block.” But I digress, and I haven’t even started this post yet.
I recently wrote 23 Ways to Find Topics to Blog About, but some of you wanted more insight into how I come up with ideas for my articles, so I thought I’d give you a behind-the-scenes look at how I decided to write some of my more popular (or infamous) pieces. Then I’ll share how I’ve modified the way I think to never run out of ideas for articles.
This is the only article I’ve written that resulted in me receiving hate mail. I’ve received criticism before, but not actual hate mail like this:
So to answer your question…
No, you are not the only idiot against net neutrality.
I supposed that’s relatively tame hate mail in this day and age of people feeling compelled to say all sorts of insanely psychopathic things online, but it was still a new experience for me. I wasn’t surprised, I knew I was inviting controversy when I wrote the piece. So why did I write it? How did the idea come to me?
It was in May of 2014, and the debate over net neutrality was going hot and heavy in the US. Since I lean libertarian, I tend to see virtually all problems in society as the result of one person using force against another, and there is no group of people who exercise more power over others than those in government. Net neutrality seemed like one more instance of the government inserting itself where it isn’t needed to “fix” problems that wouldn’t exist if the government hadn’t gotten involved in the first place. I had a hard time finding any other people with a tech background who shared my perspective, so in about 45 minutes I went from “Someone in the tech community has got to say something about this,” to having written and published this piece.
Because it was well-timed and controversial the piece took off and not only did it become my most popular post ever, it also led to me being featured on national TV and radio. After all, who else wanted to take an opposing view to the vast majority?
Did I expect it to do anything for my business? No. Was I looking to become the face of the anti-net neutrality movement? No. Did I receive any benefit from writing the article? Not really. The exposure I got was great, but the audience was not the audience I target professionally. Am I still glad I wrote it? Definitely. But it was more about writing about something I believe in than trying to further my professional accomplishments.
I started writing for Forbes in early 2013. When I started, I didn’t want to mention anything about what I did for a living. I was afraid if I wrote anything that was in the least way self promotional, or could be interpreted as such, I might get kicked off the platform. But after I had been writing for several months I realized there were other SEO experts on Forbes who only wrote about what they did for a living. If they were doing it, why couldn’t I?
I decided to test the waters, and I wrote this article because it was a point of frustration for me. I knew my agency MWI was awesome, and yet we were constantly passed over for projects and campaigns because potential clients went with the lowest bid, ignoring other factors. This was especially common with companies that had never done SEO before. Because we were 2-4 times the price of competitors, they just couldn’t wrap their minds around how we could cost so much more. But we did very well signing up clients who had already worked with 2-3 other SEO firms, because they would come to us and say “I’ve tried working with other SEO firms and I’ve been ripped off every time. I went with them because they were cheaper than guys like you, but now I’ve paid out a bunch of money, lost 18 months, and I have absolutely nothing to show for it. Now I understand why you guys cost more and I’m ready to work with you.”
In cases where companies had rejected us and then came back with this story it was tempting to say “I told you so,” but I don’t take any pleasure in seeing someone throw money away. We always work to educate potential clients as to why we’re the best choice for them, and this piece was born out of the frustration of not being able to break through with some clients, and wanting to help others who were searching for an SEO firm to avoid getting ripped off.
After I wrote this article, things went a bit crazy. The post ranked well for searches like “hire an seo firm” and of course people who type that into Google are exactly the people my agency wants to talk to. We ended up getting tons of leads from this piece and still do, even though the piece doesn’t promote MWI and steers some clients away from MWI, since we aren’t the right fit for everyone and anyone who follows my tips will not necessarily end up doing business with us.
Did I know this post would drive business like that to my agency? I thought it might generate a lead or two, but it was more born out of emotion than any sort of plan. I certainly had no idea how many leads it would generate for us over the years.
In 2007 I was fat and depressed and my business was in the dumps. Since then I’ve done two marathons, two half-Ironman events, and have become an ultra-marathon trail runner. I try to do strenuous exercise three times each week, and get mild exercise the other days walking around Hong Kong or biking around our village. When I exercise, my business does better. When I don’t exercise, everything goes south. That’s why exercise is a higher priority for me than my business.
The idea came to me to write this because I felt like I needed to justify publicly why I put so much time into exercise. Some people take time to exercise out of their personal time. For me that would mean spending less time with my wife and kids. Instead, I take exercise time out of my work time. I know this is the right way for me, but I don’t expect others, especially members of my team, to understand it if I don’t explain why I do things this way. I also want people on my team at MWI to feel like they have permission to make exercise a higher priority than their jobs, because I know if they’re exercising and getting fit they’ll be happier members of our team, they’ll do better work for our clients, our clients will be happier, and everyone wins.
I don’t know the exact stats, but this may be the only article I’ve written that has been more popular than my net neutrality article. It got syndicated by Time magazine, and I continue to get lots of feedback from people who have read it.
These are three of my most popular articles. In each one I wrote about something personal, something that evoked an emotional response in me, and perhaps that is the key ingredient that made them so popular.
They also all deal with things other people have strong emotions about; politics, making money, and fitness.
Want More Article Ideas? Think Like A Skateboarder.
Some of my articles come about in a straightforward manner–someone will approach me with an idea, I like it, so I write about it.
But most of them pop into my head. There’s no shortage. I have a list of 50 articles I could write tomorrow. If I sat down to really brainstorm I could come up with 200 more in a few hours. Anyone can do this. You just need to think like a skater.
For example, look at this photo:
What do you see? Some industrial equipment, some big metal pipe things, nothing too interesting, right?
But if you were a skateboarder you would see something else entirely.
You might see something in your mind’s eye more like this.
Photo credit: Sebas Romero
Once you’re a skateboarder you see skate spots everywhere. You can’t escape thinking about it. Even the wrinkles in your pants or the corner of a binder while you’re sitting in a meeting start to look like something fun to skate.
It’s similar for writers. Once you get deep into writing articles, you start to see stories everywhere. Like scoping out a skate spot, you just need to know what to look for. Here are some triggers for me:
- Questions. I own a marketing agency called MWI. One of our services is SEO. We get a lot of questions about SEO. Questions like “How long does SEO take to start working?” and “How much will your SEO services cost?” and “If we hire you to do our SEO what exactly are you going to do?” There are three articles, right there. What questions do you get asked over and over again?
- Processes. When I started working on the Influence Summit virtual event I didn’t know anything about virtual summits, but as I got involved I started to learn a lot about what to do and what not to do. I learned a lot of processes. I could now write 10 “how to” articles about how to launch, market, and manage a virtual summit. Whenever someone asks me “How do you…” or I ask myself “How do I…” then I know there’s an article there somewhere.
- Lists. The other day I was thinking “Gee, I’ve read a lot of sales books. I wonder if I’ve read all the best ones? Someone should have written a list of the best sales books of all time, I’ll go check it.” I was right, there are a lot of those lists. But that doesn’t mean I can’t create another one.
- Dates. You know what else you can do with lists? You can create a new one each year. “The Best Sales Books of 2017” would be an easy one.
- Geography. Just as you can create a new list for a date span, you can also do it for a geography. “The Best Books on Selling in China,” for example.
- Language. “The Best Sales Books in Chinese.”
- Comparisons. Just for fun, I’m going to look out my window right now…and I see a running track. Ok, let’s see…how about “How SEO is Like a Running Race” for an article? I have no idea how I would make that work, but I bet I could figure it out. That’s a bit forced, but I can’t count the number of times I’ve been in a situation and thought, “This is kind of how content marketing works…” or “The way these people are designing this product is kind of how we design a website…”
- Current events. Is something going on in the news like a presidential election? If you run an SEO agency you could analyze the websites of the various candidates. If you run a self storage company you could write an article “What would you expect to find in each candidate’s self storage unit?” Is there a movie that’s popular right now? What’s trending when it comes to products?
- Holidays/seasonal. There are certain articles that always come out at certain times of year. In January you get articles about resolutions.In November you can expect to see plenty of gift buying guides. Can you apply these to your area of focus? Where’s my “Top 10 Products to Buy Your Favorite Influencer Marketer” article?
- Celebrities. We’ll use Kanye, to pick a celebrity at random, or because everything he does is funny. Let’s say you sell products for people who own rabbits, and you blog about rabbits and their stuff, so you’re always looking for ideas for blog posts related to all things rabbit. How about a blog post about what type of rabbit Kanye would be, if Kanye were a rabbit? Or what kind of rabbit Kanye would get along with best? Or what kind of products Kanye would buy for his rabbit? Or how about all of those?
- Sayings. “Takes one to know one,” can spark ideas like “Joke Only SEO Professionals Understand” or “Why We’re So Blind to Sexual Harassment.”
- Copy and change. Go read Drudge or CNN or NYT or any other news website and then look at an article and ask yourself “How could I write that article, but for my industry?” For example, right now the top headline on Drudge is “Spooks Suppress Last JFK Files.” Evidently the CIA still has information about the JFK assassination they don’t want the public to know. What is it companies in your industry are afraid to share publicly? What secrets are they afraid to share? I don’t mean that you’re going to go spy on your competitors and leak their financials, I mean are there taboo topics in your industry? Things everyone knows are there, but nobody will talk about? In the SEO industry it’s rare for higher end agencies to share their pricing, so why not share yours? Another article is about a 10-year old leading police on a 100mph chase. Hmm, what are young people doing in your industry that’s impressive?
- Tell a story. How did you become whoever it is you are? How did you start your business? What was one challenge you overcame yesterday, and what did you learn from it?
Do you see how easy this is? There are thousands of articles out there just waiting for you to write them, and there are new opportunities appearing every day. What triggers would you add to this list for yourself?
Still struggling to come up with ideas for articles or blog posts? Here’s a deal for you–if you think you have a boring business, post about it below and I’ll come up with five headlines for blog posts or articles you could write that would be interesting and which would get you leads. If I can’t do it, I’ll buy you lunch next time I’m in town.Liked it? Share it!