More Tips for Unblocking the Idea Jam

<a href=This is the second installment in a multi-part series on how to write killer content for your blog. It continues the thread I began last week on how to come up with ideas for topics.

Defy conventional wisdom. This is an old newspaper columnist trick, but it works well. Think of a topic that most people agree upon and argue the exact opposite point of view. For example, try to build a case for why social networks are a passing fad or the New York Jets are the team to beat in the NFL this year (okay, that last one’s a stretch). You have to think creatively to argue your point, and the result may be more satire than opinion, but just let the idea take you where it wants to go. Going against conventional wisdom is one of the best ways to fuel creativity.

Get Angry. The best writing is driven by emotion. Think about something you’ve heard or seen recently that really made you mad. Are there lessons you can share? Or can you abstract the issue into a more general commentary ? Maybe you got cut off by a driver talking on a cell phone. That could lead to a bigger essay on distraction. Let your passion guide you, but be careful not to push the “publish” button till you’ve calmed down.

Aggregate other opinions. Go to a news/blog aggregation site like and browse a category that interests you. Find a topic that several people are commenting upon, summarize their comments and add your own. For an extra twist, try the tactic mentioned in the first item above and arguing the opposite case.

Tell a story. It’s the most powerful form of human communication. Reach back to an experience that was meaningful to you and start writing it down. What did you learn from that experience? How can those lessons help others?

Revisit. The simple act of scrolling through your past blog entries can yield ideas about new topics or new angles on old topics. If your predictions were wrong, tell why. If they were right, build on them.

Conduct a small research project. Two of my most well-received blog entries of the last year were quick experiments, each of which took less than an hour to conduct:

  • Last year, I visited 15 corporate blogs shortly after the financial meltdown and looked at what they were saying about the economy. The lack of attention to this hugely important story was stunning. It made me angry, and that’s a good formula for writing.
  • Last month I picked a stream of 100 tweets at random and analyzed them for content and value. The results surprised me and my essay generated quite a few tweets from others.

Make a list. This is the most popular organizational tools in the blogosphere. Pick a topic about which you have some expertise and offer quick hits of advice. For example: “10 Ways to Research a Company on the Web,” or “Seven software utilities I couldn’t live without.” Or you can skip the numbers and just organize your thoughts in modules, like I’m doing here. I get tired of all the numbered lists after a while, but I have to admit, readers love ’em.

Predict. Predictions are hugely popular at the end of the year, but you can make them any time. To add variety, limit your time frame or endpoint. Neville Hobson and Shel Holtz did this effectively with the 500th edition of their “For Immediate Release” podcast by asking their listeners to predict what topics the two will be discussing during their next 500 shows. Pick a topic, make a prediction and argue your case. Then revisit later and write about how you did.

Recommend. Are there blogs, discussion forums, podcasts or how-to websites that you love? Write them down, tell what you like about each and share them with your readers.

Explore everyday things. This is an offbeat approach, but it’s a great way to satisfy your curiosity while delving into little-known corners of the Web. Pick a topic about which you know very little and research it. For example, learn why golf balls have dimples or find the origin of the phrase “the whole 9 yards.” This work may have limited relevance to your business, but it’ll probably yield a fascinating tidbit of information and help you learn new ways to find things online.

Serialize. Take any of the ideas above and publish it as short thematic entries. Few people read long articles anymore, anyway, so break out those ideas and sprinkle them around. Just be sure to tag and categorize them appropriately so you can reassemble later.

I could go on. There are dozens of other ways to generate ideas. But let’s hear from you. Comment below on some tactics that you use to unblock those creative juices.

All About Social Media ROI

Social Media ROI title screenI’ve devoted quite a bit of time recently to researching the topic of social media ROI, which is probably one of the hottest issues in marketing today. I developed a new 90-minute slide presentation on this subject, which can be expanded to a half-day workshop if you’re interested. Bottom-line: not only can you measure ROI, but you can unearth some fantastic insights about your prospects and customers in the process. View and download my slide presentation here. I also borrowed liberally from two other experts on the topic: Katie Paine and Olivier Blanchard. I recommend following them both.

Tip of the Week: Google’s Similar Pages

Here’s a Google treasure that will save you loads of time, particularly when researching products. One little noticed feature of Google search results is the “Similar” link that appears at the end of the result summary. Click on this link and you kick off a rather sophisticated Google search that looks for pages that have the same characteristics as the search result you chose.

Radian_similarHere’s an example. Suppose you’re interested in conversation monitoring tools. Within the top 10 results you’ll find Radian6, a popular (and very good) product in that category. Click on the “similar” link and you get search results that list dozens of other conversation monitoring tools. The results are more focused than those you would get from a standard search query because Google can infer from the document that you’re probably looking for a technology vendor. Try this next time you’re researching options in a market.

Just For Fun: Old Computer Ads

Penril early computer adIf you think the idea of using sex to sell technology originated with, then you should check out this collection of old computer ads assembled by CIO magazine. The journal, which is put out by venerable publisher International Data Group, dug back into the archives of sister publications like Computerworld and InfoWorld to find some of the funniest ads from the early days of the industry. In addition to the classic bits-and-babes promotion like the one shown at right, they include standouts like Bill Gates’ endorsement of RadioShack computers. I’m old enough to remember when some of these promotions originally ran, and can attest to the fact that these are not exceptions to the rule. Just think of how far we’ve come. Or have we?

Overcoming Blogger’s Block

The best way to sustain visibility, name recognition and search-engine love in our information-saturated world is to write a lot, particularly on a blog, which is a magnet for search engines.

But writing is hard for most people. Just coming up with a topic to write about and something new to say is often the biggest struggle.

I’ve learned a few tricks about how to overcome Web 2.0 writer’s block that I thought I’d share with you over the next couple of issues. I also hope you’ll come to the blog version of this article and add your own. We’ll start at the beginning.

Choose a Topic.The first step is to write about things that inspire you and about which you have strong opinions. If the subject doesn’t move you, it’s hard to get motivated and create ideas.

Use Feeds. All blogs and most news sites support RSS feeds. In some cases, the feed delivers the entire content of the site. In other cases, they’re organized by topic. You assemble feeds in RSS reader.

RSS readers are basically mini newspapers you create out of information streams from online sources. I use Google Reader to set up topical feeds from bloggers and publishers I like who cover these topics. Here’s an example of one I set up about journalism and news. It’s usually a two-click process to add a feed to Google Reader, and another couple of steps to organize the feed into a folder. You can even republish the collection of feeds as a single feed of its own.

Topical feeds inspire great ideas. You can easily see if a topic is trending by the amount of attention it’s getting. Feed collections also give you a quick idea of whether a topic is controversial, since you can easily see if a lot of people are writing about it.

Tweet and be Tweeted. I’ll admit to not being very good at jotting down ideas when I have them. My teachers always told me to carry around a notebook for this purpose, but I’d either forgot the notebook, the pen or both.

Twitter has helped me surmount this disability. Now when I see something interesting, or have an idea, I tweet it. I can then go through my own tweet stream later and look for ideas that have since slipped my mind.

Twitter is also an endless source of ideas. If you carefully manage the list of people you follow, the stream of tweets is a great source of inspiration. With the new Twitter Lists feature, I can now read tweets from people who share interests or affiliations. It’s like the topical RSS feeds described above, only shorter and less predictable.

Bookmark. When you see an interesting article or video, bookmark it and write a comment. Services like Delicious, Reddit and Clipmarks make this easy. My personal favorite is Diigo, because it allows me to highlight and annotate the items I bookmark. Here’s my personal list of the most interesting articles I’ve bookmarked recently. Choose a tag you’ll remember, like “ideas.”

Listen to Your Audience. Conferences, meetings and consulting work are good sources of material because they tap into what’s on people’s minds right now. Find an article that interests you and look at the comments to see what questions people are asking. Maybe you can be the one to answer them.

Refresh old material. If you’ve been writing for more than a year, chances are there’s some material in your archives that could use a fresh look. Revisit an old prediction and see if it came true. Or discuss new ideas on an old subject. Be sure to link to the original article to drive a little more traffic to it.

I’ll continue with more ideas next week. Also, as I was writing this piece, I came upon an article by Steve Aitchison on the very same topic. He suggests 100 ways to generate ideas, and many of his suggestions are very good.   What are you tips for overcoming blogger’s block? Share them here.

Hear from the Word of Mouth Supergeniuses!

Andy Sernovitz is arguably the father of word-of-mouth marketing. He founded the association that goes by that name, authored a book on the topic and runs a lively and entertaining blog. I was delighted to be asked by Andy to participate in his new “Word-Of-Mouth Supergenius” one-day conference in Chicago on Dec. 16. Only Andy Sernovitz would come up with a title like that! It actually looks like a great program, with lots of small group interaction and several brands that have had notable social media success. Register here and use the discount code “Paulismyhero” (another Andy original!) to get a $101 discount.

Tip of the Week: Twitter Times

One of the reasons the newspaper industry is in disarray is because people are turning to their friends for the advice they used to get from professional editors. Twitter Times takes this trend to the logical next step. Enter your Twitter account credentials, and Twitter Times generates a customized newspaper based upon the articles your friends are talking about. You can then share your newspaper with others. It’s a simple idea that delivers a strikingly good product. If you’re easily overwhelmed by the volume of tweets that course through your reader, this site makes sense of them all.

Just For Fun: Maybe Google’s Not So Smart After All

We’ve all thought Google may just be the Second Coming of the Internet Genius Companies for many years now. It not only brought the word algorithm back into our vernacular, it’s also done things for our lives we never knew we needed. But it is, at its core, a search engine. That search engine is what we’re here to talk to you about today, folks. It’s boring, we know. It doesn’t stand up to the sexy Google Voice or even Gmail. But maybe we can bring back the search engine, just for one day, and make it cool again.   Go to Google and start typing a question. See what the Genius Google, in its near-infinite wisdom, thinks you’re asking when it provides all those “helpful” suggestions. Type in “Is there any” (sans quotation marks) and see what Google suggests you really mean. (Okay, so we stole that from Let’s get creative… Type in “why will” or “how come” or even “why is it that” and see what you come up with. Let us know if you enter a question to which Google offers some more really bizarre suggestions. We’ll publish your results in a future Just For Fun.

Will All You Learned About SEO Be Worthless?

Last week, Google changed the rules of Web search with a relatively low-key innovation that I expect will permeate the search engine giant’s future strategy.

Google Social Search is an experimental program that integrates content from a user’s social network into search results. When enabled, the first page of Google search results includes a few links at the bottom to related content from a member’s social network. Google derives this information from the profiles people build when creating a Google account. It also taps into other Google tools to make assumptions about what’s important to a member. For example, if you subscribe to blogs in Google Reader, the search engine now presumes that that content is important to you and elevates it in search results.

Social Search continues Google’s efforts – which began with a year ago with SearchWiki – to customize the search process. SearchWiki enables logged-in users to shuffle their own search results, promoting some and demoting or eliminating others. Users can also annotate their search results.

Social Search goes one step further, and it’s a big step. The search engine now makes assumptions about your interests based upon your friends network. This has tremendous utility. If I want to find a steakhouse in Dallas, I can now see recommendations from my friends directly in my search results. Google already annotates some commercial results with reviews it gathers from online review sites. It’s a small step to expect that I’ll soon be able to promote my friends’ reviews to the top of the heap.

Social Web

Last week, I had the chance to discuss these developments with Mike Moran, whose book, Search Engine Marketing, Inc., remains one of my favorite texts for understanding the Internet. I proposed to Mike that Google’s ambition was to make the entire Internet a social network. His response was that they’re already mostly there.

In his analysis, Google is extending the customization features of SearchWiki to now include input from trusted third parties. We’re already at the point where no two registered Google users see the same results for most of their queries. And this is just the beginning. For better or for worse, Google knows a lot more about our online behavior than it uses. For people like myself who regularly use Gmail, Google Calendar and Google Documents, the company is now in a position to capture a great deal of information about what I do online because it can peek inside most of the written content I create.

The obvious privacy issues aside (and I’m not a believer in Big Brother), this puts Google in a position to evolve its search strategy in a much more customized direction. Google can only go so far before the “creepiness” factor sets in, but there’s still plenty of runway to experiment in making the search experience more personal.

Search Party

For marketers, this has interesting implications. Many of us are now comfortable with the basics of search engine optimization (SEO) but what will we do when every user’s search results are unique? We could be looking at a future in which search engine performance is determined as much by opinions from people online as it is by page titles and domain names. Although inbound links already factor into Google’s search results, the relationship of the people doing the linking to the person doing the searching will be a new variable. SEO itself may become a social pursuit.

Don’t underestimate the value of social search. estimates that attracted nearly 3,000,000 unique visitors in September. That’s a drop in the bucket compared to Google, but it’s up 550% year-over-year. Now that Twitter has a deal with Microsoft to deliver its search results over Bing (and speculation is that a deal with Google will follow) we likely to see more creative efforts to integrate social content.

Three years from now, the SEO tactics we’ve work so hard to learn may seem quaint indeed.

When PR and Marketing Collide

I know it’s late notice, but there’s a webinar this afternoon that should be of interest to public relations and marketing people alike. Social Media Today is hosting “When PR and Interactive Marketing Collide,” which takes a new and novel look at social media from within the context of corporate governance. The premise is that neither marketing or PR has seized ownership of social media strategies. Will one group emerged dominant over the other, or will they need to redraw the lines of influence? Maggie Fox moderates, and I’ll be on the panel along with Peter Kim and Cathy Brooks.

Tip of the Week: Twitter Lists

Google wasn’t the only one rolling out innovative features this past week. Twitter had the blogosphere buzzing with the announcement of Twitter Lists, a powerful new way to group people together by topic, relationship or whatever criteria you care to use.

The feature provides a customized view of a collection of Twitter users, enabling you to see what they are collectively saying at any given time. Anyone can create lists and share them with others. Twitter currently caps the number of lists a member can create at 20 and the number of names on any one list at 500, but those limitations appear arbitrary and could change.

You can choose to follow an entire list instead of searching out and following each member. Your personal profile on Twitter also now keeps a record of what lists you’re on.

To see how useful this is, check out the National Hockey League’s collection of hockey fans organized by team. The NHL has done the heavy lifting in identifying who tweets about the Detroit Red Wings, for example, and Red Wings fans can see all the comments by subscribing to the list. Or if you’re a New York Times reader, you can follow tweets from all the Times staff writers in one place. Not surprisingly, websites have already sprung up to aggregate lists created by others. We can only imagine the innovation that will emerge from this feature once developers start playing with it.

Just for Fun: My First Dictionary

Ross Horsley describes himself as “Timid librarian by day… Frenzied fan of gory slasher movies by night!” If this is what librarians do in their spare time, we have new respect for the profession.

Horsley publishes a blog called My First Dictionary. It consists of charming, childlike illustrations of acts that range from weird to unspeakable. His juxtaposition of the Highlights for Children-like images with disturbing adult issues is what makes the content so weirdly funny. We felt guilty laughing at some of the material, but had to admit it’s funny as hell. We debated whether to include this site as a “Just for Fun,” but concluded that our readers are mature enough to take it. Warning: some of these situations are a little disturbing. If you’re easily offended, try Awkward Family Photos instead.