Skip to content

The Secrets of Content Ideation: Why 4 Out of 5 Articles Fail


I recently mentioned in an AMA discussion on that I expect – and plan – for most of my content to fail. On average, I expect just one in five of my articles to succeed.

Ultimate failure can happen at the start of the content creation process – the ideation stage.

We might be rushed, unsure of our objectives, or just confused about what it is our audience wants. All of these factors can play into the quality of the content we wind up producing and, in turn, what results that content does (or doesn’t) achieve.

Here are the secrets to coming up with ideas for content your audience wants to see, and consequently, the number of articles you write that can be ticked off as successes, not failures.

Write down all your ideas, all the time

The last time you had a content idea you weren’t sure about, what did you do?

If you didn’t note it down right away, you may have missed a trick.

The fact is that not all article ideas – very few article ideas, in fact – are ready to be written right away. Most of the time, more thought needs to go into developing them. That’s fine.

But you’re losing out when you’re not noting down everything that could become a fully developed idea.

Of course, not everything you write down will turn into an article, but that doesn’t mean recording those ideas isn’t important. One thought could well trigger something worth running with later down the line.

Not every idea you write down will turn into an article, but recording those ideas is important. @SujanPatel. Click To Tweet

If you don’t already, get yourself (and use) an app like Evernote to easily record and organize your ideas wherever you are.

Take your time with the ideation process

A common mistake marketers make is rushing the ideation stage. Generally, they’re working on tight deadlines, but sometimes they just don’t realize how important the idea itself is.

Coming up with ideas and deciding which ones to run with is not something you should rush. Don’t push ahead with an idea because you think (or are being told) you need to get it together and just produce something.

Let’s say you usually spend 15 minutes coming up with an idea for an article, and three hours writing it. If that article fails because the idea wasn’t up to scratch, that’s three hours and 15 minutes of your time wasted.

Now, if you could extend the time you spend on ideation to an hour and still spend three hours writing the article, and in turn that article is a success, those extra 45 minutes are well worth it, right?

Extend your ideation time so you don’t waste hours in creation, says @SujanPatel. Click To Tweet

Don’t be tempted to rush this part of the content creation process. Ensuring that your ideas don’t suck is never a waste of time. Rush past this bit and there’s a good chance you’ll wind up wasting all of your time.

Confirm interest in an idea

This is a mistake I’ve seen marketers make time and again (and I’ll happily admit I’m guilty of it myself).

I’m going to call it ideation blindness. It’s a condition in which we come up with an idea, and because it’s our idea, we automatically think it’s pretty good (if not great) and worth running with.

This is a problem, largely because our brains don’t always act in our best interests.

Science writer David DiSalvo explains this phenomenon in detail in his book What Makes Your Brain Happy and Why You Should Do the Opposite, in which the overriding message is this:

What our brains want is not necessarily what they need. Things that make our brains “happy” can in fact lead to huge errors in judgment. Basically, our brains want to get their own way, regardless of how bad for us it might be.

Your brain is wired to get its own way. Validate your ideas with others, says @Neuronarrative. ‏ Click To Tweet

When it comes to our article ideas, we can’t rely on our brain’s judgment. It’s clouded by our brain’s “happy” response. Consequently, we need to get a second opinion or seek further evidence that our idea will resonate with other people, too.

Let’s take a look at a few ways to do that.

Keyword research

People searching online for information on a topic you’re considering writing about is a solid indicator it’s worth covering.

Google’s Keyword Planner is a great starting point, although you may need to think a little outside the box when it comes to what you search for.

Chances are no one’s searching for the exact title you have in mind. Think up as many related phrases as possible that someone might search for if they were interested in that topic.

For example, here are a few things I might search for if I was using Keyword Planner to validate the idea for this article:


Alternatives to Keyword Planner that you might want to use include Keyword Tool, Keyword Finder, and Moz’s Keyword Explorer.

You can also try looking for evidence that people are talking about the topic in question on sites like Quora and Reddit (chances are, if they’re talking about it there, they’re searching for it on Google, too).

A Nutshell Guide to Proper Keyword Research


Most people think of outreach as something you do after you’ve created content to promote it.

They’re not wrong. But it can also be an incredibly valuable tool at the ideation stage. The process is similar to outreach used for promotion. You:

  • Create a list of people you think might be interested in your idea.
  • Contact them and tell them about your idea (usually with an email).
  • Ask them if they would be interested in reading an article about it.

If you get even a couple of yes responses, chances are you’re onto a winner. What’s more, you’ve already kick-started your promotion by finding people who are interested in it – and likely to share it for you when it’s finished.

Asking people around you

This one is so simple it almost doesn’t feel worth mentioning, but since so many marketers overlook it I’m going to talk about it anyway.

Before pushing ahead with an idea, ask people around you what they think. This could be colleagues or customers. It could even be friends or family if they have enough knowledge of your niche to be able to offer an informed opinion.

Don’t overthink this one. You don’t need to discuss your idea in detail. A quick “does this sound like something you’d be interested in reading” and a yes or no should suffice.

Fine-tune the idea to make it the best it can be

Have you heard about 10x content?

It’s something I talk about quite a bit, though Rand Fishkin coined the idea. You can view the Whiteboard Friday in which 10x content was first mentioned here.

If you’d rather have a summary, 10x content means content that’s 10 times better than anything else currently ranking for that topic.

Basically, if you want to give your content the greatest chance of succeeding you need to ensure that it’s better than anything out there. Making this happen should play an important part in your ideation and research process.

Here’s how you do it:

  1. Search the topic you want to write about.

You may find you need to broaden or narrow your search to get the results you need. For instance, when following this process for this article, I might broaden the topic by searching for “why content marketing fails.”

  1. Open each of the articles ranking on the first page of the search results.

This assumes all the results are relevant. If they aren’t, skip the irrelevant ones and move on to the second results page. Alternatively, change your search phrase.

  1. Read each article carefully.

Write down their best points.

  1. Write an article that incorporates all these elements.

And more.

Even if you choose not to follow this method exactly, you can learn a valuable lesson: Researching your idea properly is an important part of the ideation stage.

Not only can it help confirm whether an idea has legs (if no one’s written anything similar to your idea, it might be unique or it might be no one cares), but it also has a huge impact on the quality and usefulness of the final article.

What processes do you follow to ensure that your article ideas don’t suck, and are going to give you the best chance of success? It’d be great to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Please note: All tools included in our blog posts are suggested by authors, not the CMI editorial team. No one post can provide all relevant tools in the space. Feel free to include additional tools in the comments (from your company or ones that you have used).

Want to create great ideas for your content marketing program? Subscribe to CMI’s free daily or weekly digest newsletter.

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute

What Makes Your Brain Happy and Why You Should Do the Opposite