An Expert Guide to Idea Curation: How to Get More Ideas for Great Content

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Where do blog post ideas come from? This one came from someone else’s headline.

We are constantly inspired by the amazing work of others, and we owe a lot to the deep thinking and amazing resources that are readily available within the industry.

How can we get more ideas more consistently? There’s inspiration everywhere. We’ve just got to keep our eyes open.

Copyblogger gave us the inspiration for this post. One of their recent headlines mentioned “idea curation,” a new-to-us term that really hit home. We so often talk about the way we curate content. What about the way we curate ideas? Seems like a good seed for a story.

So here it is. I’m excited to shed light on this process and show how we curate ideas and how those ideas turn into blogposts. What’s the idea process like for you? Read along and see if we share any of the same steps.

How we curate ideas at Buffer

“I write only when inspiration strikes. Fortunately it strikes every morning at nine o’clock sharp.” – W. Somerset Maugham

This quote about writing and inspiration could work just as easily for idea curating and inspiration. We’ve found that inspiration strikes because we are consistent in our methods for finding it. We’ve erected the lightning rod. Now we wait for lightning.

Our infrastructure for ideas depends on a couple of key points. Maybe these sound familiar to you?

  1. We aren’t shy about taking inspiration from others.
  2. We spend a lot of time reading, thinking, and sharing the stories and ideas we love.
  3. We save all our ideas—no matter how small

Let’s dig a little deeper into each of these.

Lightning rod ideas

Taking inspiration from others

Our cofounder Leo has been fond of a particular phrase when it comes to creating content: Copy the hell out of others. It’s a sentiment that is shared by a huge number of content creators. Take author Austin Kleon, for instance. His bestselling book Steal Like an Artist tackles this topic directly, making the point that every creator takes inspiration from somewhere. And the better you are at seeking out inspiring sources, the better your work can become.

“You are the sum of your influences.” – Austin Kleon

In practice, this concept of inspiration takes on a number of unique looks. We have several different ways in which inspiration adds to our list of ideas.

We come across articles that we love and want to dive even deeper into. We Crafters have the privilege of time to dig into research and cover all angles of a topic to create an in-depth and actionable post. So when we come across articles with an interesting angle or topic we’re into that might not go as deep into a concept as possible, we often see an opportunity to dig in and take it even further.

We find headlines that grab us, and we repurpose them for other topics. Have you ever found just a really solid headline? One that grabbed you, even if the subject wasn’t up your alley? Whenever this happens, we try to take note of the headline and seek new ways to use it somewhere else.

For example, our post Everything I Wish I Knew About Twitter When I Started began with the seed of an idea from a Quora post titled 26 Things Every 20-Something Should Wish to Know. Here’re the notes from the original idea:

Twitter post idea - Trello

We collect interesting phrases and soundbites. Sometimes, all it takes is a phrase to get us started on a topic. One of our best examples of this is from our first content crafter Belle who wrote an entire post based on nothing more than a phrase and image. Leo jotted down a note, “People Don’t Buy Products, They Buy Better Versions of Themselves,” and he dropped in an image:

benefits, not features

Belle took it from there.

We learn from what’s worked in the past, and we build, modify, and iterate on the theme. Our archives are a great source of inspiration for what we might write next. We can take a look at what’s worked well in the past and run with those themes for future posts.

Our recent post about social media stats came as a sequel to an incredibly popular stats post last summer. The goal is to capitalize on a formula that has worked before.

We listen. An incredibly valuable source of inspiration is you, the reader. We listen to blog comments and to conversations on Twitter to see what you’d like to learn more about, what you’re interested in, and where are your pain points. Then we aim to tailor content to provide benefit to you.

Our most recent Instagram post came from a comment. A reader noticed that a past Instagram stats post could use a refresh, so we added the idea to our list and came out with something new.

We take note of our experiences. Inspiration also comes from what we’re learning. We are aware that the kind of topics we’re learning about as we grow Buffer—like A/B testingSlideShare, and email list building—might be some of the things you’re working on for your own growth and marketing, too, and we use these as sources for ideas.

Where we find inspiration

If writing and publishing were our only activities, we’d quickly run out of ideas. The idea process requires our thinking outside the box of content creation and spending time dipping our toes in elsewhere.

We often find our inspiration in content curation—the regularly scheduled reading, discovering, and sharing of the best stories online.

How do we come across the “best of” content? It requires a lot of reading. We spend time in a lot of places, soaking in all the content we can get (building the lightning rod, so to speak). We aim for variety, both in the places we read our content and the tools we use to surface it. So our reading might take us to KISSmetrics, Crazy Egg, and Seth Godin, and we may use RSS, Twitter, and email newsletters to get there.

Personally, I’ve found a lot of value in keeping a big list of RSS feeds in Feedly, checking in with a number of Twitter lists, and visiting content sites like Inbound.org and BuzzSumo. Here is what my Feedly looks like today:

Feedly list

We also benefit from variety among our content team. Courtney and Leo have different sources than I do when it comes to curation. I still don’t know where they find all the great ideas they do (and I’d imagine they wonder where mine come from, too).

Of course, the next step after coming up with all these ideas is what to do with them. Here’s how we store our ideas.

What our ideas look like: Inside our Trello board

We use Trello to organize our ideas and to assign content for the coming weeks. It’s a rather wide open method of idea curating: Pretty much anything goes. Some ideas are nothing more than a phrase or headline. Others have a half dozen links or comments.

Here’s what the idea list looks like today:

the Buffer Trello board

We currently have 47 ideas in the list for our social media blog (the one you’re reading now) and 36 ideas for our sibling blog, Open. Do any of the ideas sound like something you might like to read?

What our Trello board amounts to is a digital swipe file, a collection of ideas we can reference with ease.

Swipe files began as a means for copywriters to store tested and proven advertising letters, and the practice has since blossomed to a huge number of industries. Newspaper reporters call theirs a “morgue” file—it stores the dead things that you’ll reanimate later. Designers and artists have variations of swipe files at Dribbble and Ffffound.

The value, as Jerod Morris of Copyblogger so eloquently states it, is that swipe files keep your ideas right within reach so that you’re never without inspiration.

Successful writers have a system for recording and recalling ideas… Because if you know that you always have a catalog of great ideas to fall back on for those days when you wake up with nothing fresh in your head, it completely removes that fear of the blank page from the equation.

If you’re interested in creating a swipe file for your ideas, you can do like we do and collect things in boards like Trello. Here are a few other of my favorite alternatives, too.

Evernote – Probably the most popular bookmarking tool, Evernote has an incredibly deep assortment of clipping and saving features. You can clip inspiration you find online as well as in the real world. Evernote even has image recognition that can pull text from photos.

Icebergs – The visual bookmarking service at Icebergs collects screen grabs, uploaded files, text, video, and notes in a beautifully-designed board that you can share and collaborate with team members. Here’s a link to a shared board that I use to grab some favorite GIFs from our Buffer GIF parties.

Gimmebar – Much like Icebergs, Gimmebar lets you save whatever inspiration you find online—even bits of text that stand out to you in the body of your posts. It also provides quick and easy linking to tweets and videos.

Gimmebar sample

From idea to execution: The lifecycle of a blogpost

Now that you know where our ideas come from, I thought I’d quickly explain how an idea goes from Trello board to Buffer blogpost. It’s a constantly evolving process; here’s what it looks like now.

On Fridays, we brainstorm the best posts for the following week. 

We generally aim to focus on at least one statistics post or tools post each week. We’ve been focusing on more thoughtful content, too, so that post fills another slot. Other than those, we simply grab what seems like the most relevant, timely, “blogbuster” idea we see. The more actionable, the better.

I break each story down into a three-day schedule. In a perfect world, each day will include one stage from three different blog posts—I’ll research one, write another, and edit a third.

The 3-day blogpost process

Day one: Research

Research is where a blog post idea really shows its worth. Sometimes we’ll start with an idea that looks completely different once the research is done. If the sources don’t back up the premise, we can be flexible and evolve the idea in a new direction.

Once the research is complete, I place it all into outline form in the post editor, ready for writing on day two.

Day two: Writing

The first draft of my posts are sometimes quite terrible, and this is OK by me. That’s one of the nice reasons to have the writing process spread out over three days. I can write terrible drafts on Day Two and still have time to fix them up on Day Three.

This writing step is my excuse to get as many thoughts written down as possible. I write long today, knowing I will edit tomorrow. Also at this stage, I’ll add as many visuals and graphics as I can.

(I write exclusively in the WordPress distraction-free editor. It’s been a huge time saver for me. If you want to try it yourself, click on the “distraction-free” icon in the toolbar of the post editor.)

WordPress distraction-free writing

Day three: Editing

By taking a break between writing and editing, I can approach a blog post with a fresh perspective. I have a tendency to get in pretty deep with the stories I write, so I need the space to think and breathe before I edit again. The 24-hour window between writing and editing has been a huge benefit to publishing content I’m confident in.

Publishing, learning, and more ideas

Once the post is out there, we celebrate and share it … and then curate some more. Comments and reaction to the post can be a great source for new ideas—elements we could expound on, parts we missed, areas that really resonated with readers. We’re constantly on the lookout for new ideas as soon as an old idea sees its way through.

What does your idea process look like?

It’s been awesome to share how we curate ideas from start to finish. Do any of our methods hit home for you? What kind of process helps you get more ideas? I’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Image credits: normalityrelief, User Onboarding

  • http://bebrainfit.com/ Deane Alban

    “People Don’t Buy Products, They Buy Better Versions of Themselves,” is going to be my new mantra. I wrote a batch of emails yesterday and am going to review them to see if they are selling people a better version of themselves. I bet they don’t! :(

    • http://blog.bufferapp.com Kevan

      That’s a great one to keep in mind, Deane! :)

  • Keir Harper

    Hey – I’d love to read ‘What I’ve Learned as a Growth Hacker at Buffer’. I’ll be on the look-out for that one.

    • http://blog.bufferapp.com Kevan

      Thanks, Keir! That’s great validation to get moving on writing it. :)

  • http://designerandgeek.com/ Designer and Geek

    Scrivener is also a great tool for collecting, organizing and writing out ideas. I’ve used it myself to write blog posts, the beginnings of a kids’ book, planning my life etc. http://www.literatureandlatte.com/scrivener.php

  • Renée Masur

    This is extremely helpful, Kevan! The creative process is always so elusive, and you wonder if your process is anything like what the other big guys are doing. The article idea board is excellent. Thank you!

    • http://blog.bufferapp.com Kevan

      You’re 100% welcome, Renee! Do we have some creative process in common? I’d be interested to hear what your style is. :)

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  • Ann Mullen

    Kevan, I went all over the glob with these ideas and kept coming back and getting even more. I cannot thank you enough for all the ah-ha moments you have given me.

    • http://blog.bufferapp.com Kevan

      Thanks, Ann! It’s so nice of you to say so!

      • Ann Mullen

        *globe

        You are welcome. I wish I could just write, but I do it all.

        Ann

        Ann Mullen
        Social Media Manager

        BroadVision Marketing

        *817.306.9638*

        *ann@broadvisionmarketing.com * *http://broadvisionmarketing.com *

  • http://sognandoemma.wordpress.com/ Marta Traverso

    Nice and helpful post, Kevan. Thank you.

    Idea Curation is a very interesting concept, as well as to find inspiration everywhere (but really everywhere!). Only one doubt remains: how to overcome shyness in stealing from others? How to respond in kind to that little voice in my head saying, “What you could add that he / she has not already written? How to steal and at the same time give to the idea an angle that is really an added value, a different perspective, and not a mere copy & paste reworked? ”

    Here’s my idea, if you want to steal it: how to fight shyness in content curation?

    Marta the Shy :)

    • http://blog.bufferapp.com Kevan

      Marta the Shy, meet Kevan the Timid! :) I think you bring up an awesome point here. It’s one thing to preach about “stealing” from others, and it’s another thing to practice it, especially with such a wide range of personalities among content creators.

      Great idea to make this a post of its own. Might I share a couple thoughts in the meantime? I like to try to borrow-and-improve, that way I feel like I’m building off of, rather than simply stealing. I also remind myself that I bring my own opinions, voice, experience, quirks, and personality to what I create so that even if I find myself writing about the same topic as others, it always comes out different!

      Final couple thoughts (this comment got long!): Credit your sources as clearly as possible – there’s no reason to hide your sources of inspiration! And also, I quite like this quote from Wilson Mizner (found in Austin Kleon’s Steal Like an Artist): if you copy from one author, it’s plagiarism, but if you copy from many, it’s research. :)

      Cheers!

  • Diibl

    Wow! This is amazing Kevan. Thank you very much for sharing. I needed something like this to give me guidance on how I should be scheduling my time and what I should be doing to source great content, I’m a sucker for checking out new tools, and most of the above I am not familiar with. Again, the Buffer team over delivers. :D

    • http://blog.bufferapp.com Kevan

      Thanks so much for the comment! I’d love to hear what you think of the new tools – particularly GimmeBar and Icebergs. They’re close to my heart (and my workflows). :)

      • http://www.diibl.com/ Diibl

        GimmeBar is right up my street. I installed it straight away and started using it. I love this kind of visual bookmarking, I’ve tried many. I don’t think I have ever come across one that clips the whole page though, that sold it for me.

        I’m not sure if you have heard of Springpad. It was an excellent tool that ceased to exist as from yesterday. I’m part of a Springpad G+ group who have been sharing alternative tools for a month now, ever since we heard the news of Springpad’s demise.

        GimmeBar has never come up, so I will definitely be letting the group know about it.

        Icebergs was one of the many tools shared by the group. I’ve been on productivity tools overload for the past 4 weeks so maybe I didn’t give Icebergs a fair shake of the stick. It looks good. I was wondering if you have found a conflict between the drag and drop poppy up things, that both these tools feature.

        • http://blog.bufferapp.com Kevan

          Haha, I could talk for days about GimmeBar! It’s been an amazing resource for me! If you get into it, I’d recommend keeping an eye on https://twitter.com/GimmeBarHelp/with_replies for any questions or issues that might come up. The product is a bit light on support and resources (which is what sent me searching for Icebergs in the first place), but they all try real hard. And they’re pretty fun guys!

          Good question about the drag-and-drop pop-ups. I tend to use GB and Icebergs in different ways. For awhile there, GB full-screen web pages weren’t working, so I switched those over to Icebergs. Now, I’ll GB everything but the full-screen web pages. I don’t often find myself using both bookmarklets at once. :)

          What’s the link to your G+ group? I’d love to see the conversations there!

  • Jonathan Henley

    Wonderful piece! Echoes my own tactics closely, but – and I have to be honest – adds so much more to the mixing bowl of sourcing and thinking and …(contd over)

  • Jonathan Henley

    And I will be checking out Gimmebar – Icebergs tried and found wanting.

    • http://blog.bufferapp.com Kevan

      Thanks, Jonathan! Really glad you enjoyed this one! I’m curious what was the deal breaker for you with Icebergs? I’m not in too deep with it yet and would love to know your experience there.

      I’d be super interested to hear your thoughts on Gimmebar, too! :)

      • Jonathan Henley

        Well there’s a question: I think that I was speaking solely of experience with the mobile app…and my mobile has a broken camera so my original purpose for finding the app became redundant.
        I am also close to admitting that I need to get on one or two horses and ride them properly rather than continuing to switch mid-race, so to speak;-) Hence focusing on fewer…wonder if I’ll succeed in that?
        PS Daily + Buffer = totally happy

  • http://www.desanti.it Leonardo De Santi

    Hi Kevan! Thanks for all the useful tips in this post – and all the other posts of yours.
    I’m definitely going to check out the tools you mention!
    Just wondering: what do you think of Pocket ( http://getpocket.com ) ? Are you guys at Buffer using it?
    Also, do you find secret Pinterest boards useful to collect ideas?

    • http://blog.bufferapp.com Kevan

      Hi there, Leonardo! So awesome you mention Pocket. It’s one of my most-used tools! I use Pocket as “bookmarking for articles.” Anything I might be interested to read goes there, and then I schedule Pocket sessions of reading, sorting, sharing, etc.

      We’ve used secret Pinterest boards, too. Our use is typically to create a new, secret board, fill it with some fun pins, then publish it all live and public. I’ve not yet used it to collect ideas. Interesting thought! Is this what you do?

      • http://www.desanti.it Leonardo De Santi

        Thanks for your reply, Kevan – I’ve appreciated it! I’m actually shifting from the “old” del.icio.us to Pocket and it definitely is a great tool!
        As per the secret boards on Pinterest: for instance, they turn out very helpful when we’re preparing for a photoshooting and want to “steal” ideas about mood and up-to-date imagery… so most of the times they don’t go public, as you can imagine. :)

      • Victoriae Eaves

        I am really digging your approach to the secret boards!!!! Clever!

  • http://johnrmeese.com/ John R. Meese

    Super interesting look behind the scenes here, Kevan! I have a similar system of idea curation, I make sure to add notes to a list on Wunderlist whenever I run across an idea, potential title, or image that could become a blog post. When it’s time to write, I sit down Monday nights every week and write the posts from start to finish. I’ve developed a blogging template that helps me do this efficiently while staying true to my focus.

  • http://www.eventchecklist.net/ Arwin Adriano

    Research, Writing, Editing and Publishing. I find the process very helpful and I think I would stick with this process and see how it could contribute with my productivity.

  • Daniel Root

    I do similar, keeping a “Product Incubation Board” that I periodically prioritize, review, etc. I document this in a post I did on the subject (http://www.danielroot.info/2014/04/this-warren-buffet-inspired-trello.html), but the gist is a board like what you have, and then a commitment to focus on 3-5 of them at a time.

    Really loving the Trello posts – I’ve learned a lot from you all and put it in my Trello book (http://leanpub.com/trellodojo). One of my challenges is knowing exactly what works for other organizations, so I really appreciate seeing what works (and what doesn’t!)

  • http://www.praverb.net/ Praverb

    Amazing post I love the willingness to share the behind the scenes content.

  • http://thenameiscasie.com/blog Casie [kay-cee; KC]

    So many great topics coming up that you guys will be exploring! Almost too many for me to list – but really looking forward to “How to Know When to Pull the Plug” and seeing your remote work spaces! I really enjoyed your Day in the Life series on IG too!

  • Start Buffalo

    Anyone get Great Ideas when driving?

    • http://thenameiscasie.com/blog Casie [kay-cee; KC]

      Always!!

  • http://www.dasocialclimber.com/ Kathleen de Gracia

    Such a helpful post Kevan! I use the same research-write-edit process too. But instead of trello I use pen and paper. very traditional since most of the ideas come up at night right before bed. Thank you!

  • Victoriae Eaves

    Love this!!! I am a huge fan of Evernote! Can not recommend it enough! I am the all over the place kinda blogger, millions of ideas, and 2 millions unfinished posts. I think I am going to do your 3 day approach, to try and get some structure into my blogging! Thank you for this!

  • Wilm

    Fantastic tips and ideas, thanks Kevan. Now to implement them…

  • http://www.wmwebdesign.co.uk/ Keith Davis

    Hi Kevan
    I’ve always got plenty of ideas but actually writing and editing and publishing still takes time.

    Finding and preparing images also adds to the time needed.

    Good to know that everyone goes through the same process and takes just as long as me.

  • http://www.nailartaddict.nl/ Nailart-Addict

    Thanks for the helpfull schedule. I always jump from explore (most ideas pop up in my head or pics I see) to publishing. I really should take a break and wait one day. ;-) To fine tune.

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  • https://skim.it Lloyd Jennings

    Hi Kevan, great article and very useful. I’d like to take the opportunity to introduce ( https://skim.it ) We have just finished the beta and think it would be a really useful tool for you and the guys at Buffer to organise and curate your content. I’d love to hear your feedback. Lloyd

    • http://blog.bufferapp.com Kevan

      Awesome stuff, Lloyd! Thanks for the heads up on this. :)

      • https://skim.it Lloyd Jennings

        Thanks Kevan