Give a man 365 content ideas and he will have enough for a year. Teach a man how to generate unlimited content ideas and he will have enough for a lifetime.Lao Tzu – Philosopher and founder of Taoism
Of course, the ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu wasn't really talking about the Brainstorm Matrix when he said: "Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach him how to fish and you feed him for a lifetime." But he may as well have been.
I could easily fill this article with hundreds of generic content ideas and you'd have enough material to fill out a content calendar for the next year, but what then? What would happen once you've squeezed everything you can out of that list and you're once again scraping the barrel for inspiration and ideas?
Enter the Brainstorm Matrix.
The Brainstorm Matrix is easy to implement and can produce a staggering volume and variety of content ideas. It works equally well for groups and individuals, and it uses trusted psychological principles to encourage creative thinking.
This simple yet deceptively powerful brainstorming system will change the way you think about content ideation, and content in general. In fact, if you use it often enough, you'll probably end up using the Brainstorm Matrix without even realising it.
It's one of my favourite methods of content ideation, and I think you'll love it too.
The Brainstorm Matrix
I wasn't joking when I said the Brainstorm Matrix is simple. It's basically just a grid with 12 content bases down the left and 12 content formats across the top.
If you were expecting a complex scientific formula for generating content ideas, or perhaps an interactive AI-powered tool that does the thinking for you, well, I'm sorry to disappoint. But stick with me and I guarantee that simple grid of squares will become the gateway to unlimited content ideas.
So how do the content bases and formats help you generate content ideas?
At their core, all content ideas can be broken down into two key components: the "what" and the "how"; what a piece of content is about and how it's presented. Content bases and formats are the "what" and the "how" respectively.
But before you use them in the Brainstorm Matrix, you need to understand how each of them influences your content ideas.
People-based content is usually focused on well-known or newsworthy people. However, it can be just as meaningful – sometimes even more so – when it's centred on the achievements and experiences of ordinary people.
I relate to people and roles that are about the arc of human experience, things that everyday people deal with every day.Marcia Gay Harden – Actress
While most people-based content is about an individual person, it's also possible to create this type of content about a group of closely connected people, such as companies, societies and even popular movements.
When creating people-based content, many companies tend to focus on people inside the organisation. But telling compelling stories about customers, partners and suppliers can help you resonate more with your target audience.
Examples of people-based content
- Meet [Name], the Woman Who's Changing the Food Industry
- The Skateboarding Hero Who Couldn't Handle Fame
- Grandmother, 70, Comes Out of Retirement to Become a Lifeguard
- [Name] Wins Employee of the Month for the 10th Time
- YouTube Star [Name] Left Fuming After Channel is Banned
Taking your products/services and applying a places-based content focus to them can bring to life even the most boring subjects. It can also reveal content branches you never knew existed.
While locations-based content usually focuses on geographical destinations, it doesn't always have to be the case. Thinking outside the box, you could just as easily create content around item placement, fictional worlds or even other dimensions!
Places-based content is particularly popular with travel blogs (for obvious reasons), but almost any business in any niche could benefit by mixing things up and looking outside their immediate surroundings for ideas and inspiration.
It's worth noting that if you do decide to create a piece of content that's based on a place you've never visited, you'll need to invest some time in researching the location and culture. And if it's not a well-known place, finding high-quality stock imagery may prove a little more difficult than usual.
Examples of places-based content
- 30 Places You Should Be Sharing Your Content
- 10 Most Dangerous Tourist Destinations in the World
- The Ultimate Travel Bucket List: 100 Places to Visit Before You Die
- The Ultimate Guide to In-Store Product Placement
- 10 Unique Places You Wouldn't Expect to See in Africa
By its nature, historical content is almost always about something that happened in the distant past. As a result, it often requires more time to research than other types of content. However, the time and effort it takes to create history-based content can definitely pay off in the long run.
A major benefit of creating content about past events is that it often has a long shelf-life; the content is about something that's already happened, so it rarely needs to be revised or updated.
A well-researched piece of historical content can serve as a useful resource and provide value to your audience for many years to come, with no further input from yourself. Well worth the time it takes to create it, in my opinion.
Examples of history-based content
- Ancient Roman Libraries & Banned Books
- How Was Stonehenge Built
- Why Did They Move Thomas Becket's Bones
- The 10 Oldest Websites Still in Existence Today
- 10 Questions About the Emperor Nero
People strive for certainty due to an inherent desire for it, which is why content that purports to predict the future is often so popular. Future-based content is also relatively easy to create, as you can't be wrong until the future arrives!
Above all else, predicting the future is fun! Products, technology, fashion and business all lend themselves well to future-based content, but this content basis is one of the most versatile and can be applied to virtually any topic in any niche.
Creating content about the future doesn't usually require a huge amount of resources. You don't need to spend hours researching the history of a subject as you would with history-based content, and you probably won't need to create in-depth content that would otherwise take days or weeks to put together.
Examples of future-based content
- How Susceptible Are Jobs to Computerisation?
- How Will the World Be Different after Covid-19?
- Will the World Ever Be Submerged Under Water?
- Flying Cars Could Be a Reality by 2030
- What Does the Future of Gaming Look Like?
This type of content does what it says on the tin: it covers the basics of a topic and can be thought of as "101 content". It's aimed squarely at beginners and assumes little to no prior knowledge or experience of the topic covered.
The main purpose of basics-based content is to help people understand the subject better and, as such, is usually presented in a clear and concise manner.
Basics-based content is quick and easy to produce, but that also means that the barrier to entry is low. As a result, a lot of your competitors will be covering the same kind of content, so differentiating your basics-based content from theirs could be challenging.
For this reason, it's a good idea to stockpile a list of basics-based content ideas for times when you don't have the necessary resources to create more in-depth content. It's useful as filler content, but it's unlikely to stand out on its own.
Examples of basics-based content
- SEO Basics: A Beginner's Guide to SEO
- How to Get Into Forex Trading
- Simple Drawing Exercises for Complete Beginners
- A Beginner's Guide to Investing in Stocks
- Yoga for Everyone: A Beginner's Guide
Where basics-based content is designed to provide introductory information on a subject, details-based content aims to dive much deeper into a topic and deliver more in-depth information.
Details-based content – also known as long-form content – assumes the audience already has a basic understanding of the subject and sets out to deepen that knowledge by surfacing detailed and often complex information.
This type of content can provide significant educational value and attract a large number of visitors over time. As a result, it's often necessary to review and update this content fairly frequently to ensure it remains relevant and accurate as new information emerges.
It's worth remembering that details-based content often takes a long time to create due to the amount of research involved. Because of that, you may be limited to creating this form of content on a monthly or quarterly basis.
Examples of details-based content
- The Advanced Guide to Real Estate Investing
- Advanced Guide to Python 3 Programming
- A Deep Dive into Spiritual Ecology
- The Psychology of Scientific Thought and Behaviour
- The Essential Guide for Experienced Teaching Assistants
If you're anything like me, half of everything you know how to do is a direct result of consuming process-based content. Online courses, how-to guides, interactive tutorials . . . they're all examples of educational content designed to help people understand how something works.
This type of content might focus on physical processes, such as fixing a mirror to a plasterboard wall or perfecting your golf swing. Alternatively, it could focus on less tangible processes such as dealing with conflict or improving self-confidence.
Occasionally, process-based content may reveal behind-the-scenes information that people may be curious about, but might not otherwise see. Typically, this kind of process-based content is informational rather than instructional as it doesn't teach the audience how to replicate the process.
Examples of process-based content
- How to Stop WordPress Compressing JPG Images
- How to Make the Perfect Meat-Free Spaghetti Carbonara
- How to Fix a Broken Zipper in Under 60 Seconds
- How to Cook the Perfect Steak
- 5 Steps to the Perfect Smoothie
The most effective data-based content filters, condenses and simplifies the relevant parts of a data set and then repackages it to create a collection of insights that are more easily understood and consumed by your target audience.
The goal is to turn data into information, and information into insight.Carly Fiorina – Former CEO of Hewlett-Packard
Data-driven content that's based on original research or proprietary data that you discovered or own is great for driving traffic and obtaining backlinks. However, conducting original research often requires a huge amount of testing and analysis and isn't always feasible.
Some of the most compelling and insightful pieces of data-based content are created by analysing and repackaging data collected and shared by others, or by combining different data sources to surface new connections and insights.
This is the approach to data-based content that's favoured by many small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) with limited resources, and often it's the only type of data-driven content they're realistically able to create.
Examples of data-based content
- Show Me the Money: Opening up Big Data in Finance
- Inferring the Impacts of Social Media on Crowdfunding
- The Science Behind Conversion Rate Optimisation
- Climate Change: Evidence and Causes
- Misleading Statistics: Real-World Examples of Misuse of Data
A curated content piece is made up of a specially selected list of items, chosen for a specific characteristic or quality. An example of this can be found in our article "20+ Tools for Repurposing Content", which is a curated list of tools that are used for repurposing content.
The secret to creating an engaging piece of curated content is to create a narrow-focused and refined list of items that meet very specific criteria, or have a set of very closely related characteristics.
Curation-based content is often created when resources are lacking and more in-depth content is impossible to create.
Curated content allows for the selection of a set of related items to serve as the actual structure of the content, which makes it much quicker to create than many other forms of content. For example, the first version of "The Ultimate List of Free Stock Photo Sites" took me less than four hours to put together.
Examples of curated content
- Useful Code Snippets for Your WordPress Functions File
- 10 Most Popular WordPress Caching Plugins
- 10 Bagless Vacuum Cleaners under £150
- Most Powerful Gaming Laptops of 2022
- 5 Quiet Washing Machines for 2022
Example-based content is designed to introduce or demonstrate something that supports or compliments a previous discussion point, and without which your audience would have an incomplete picture of the subject.
Example is the school of mankind, and they will learn at no other.Edmund Burke – Statesman, economist and philosopher
Often, a product or company is used to highlight a broader industry trend or issue that affects similar products and companies. A detailed exploration of a single product or company can also bring into focus tangible evidence of the impact of that trend or issue.
A person can also be the focus of example-based content. Typically, the individual's life and struggles will mirror the experiences other people are having. This enables your audience to better understand the impact of the issue being discussed, and how it could potentially impact them.
Examples of example-based content
- The Impact of Covid-19 on Small Business Owners
- How Women Are Shaping the Future of Business
- Women Who Turned Their Dream into Reality
- How We Helped [Client] Increase Revenue by 25%
- The Man Who Gave up Everything to Follow His Dream
Product-based content most often serves as a sales or marketing tool, designed to guide a potential customer down the sales funnel and towards becoming an actual customer.
A typical example of a product-based piece of content is the product information page on an ecommerce website, where you'll typically find a description of the product's features, benefits, specifications, cost and more.
Other types of product-based content includes image galleries, unboxing videos, product diagrams, reviews and anything else that provides useful and valuable information about a product or its use cases.
Product-based content isn't limited to those who have a physical product for sale. You could just as easily create product-focused content about service packages, membership subscriptions, consulting packages or any other intangible offerings you have for sale.
Examples of product-based content
- [Product Name] Review: Does it Justify the Hype?
- Unboxing the Latest [Product Name]
- Is [Product Name] Really the Best Flat Screen TV on the Market?
- [Product Name] Review
- What Do We Think of the PS5 One Year On
Sharing the perspective, beliefs and views of an individual – either yourself or somebody else – through opinion-based content can be a highly effective way to engage with your audience – particularly if you've built up a level of trust over a prolonged period of time.
Reviews are a common form of opinion-based content. Audiences tend to find reviews of products, services and experiences extremely valuable, as the opinion of a trusted source can help them separate the wheat from the chaff and assist them in making informed purchase decisions.
92% of respondents reported that a positive recommendation from a friend, family member or someone they trust is the biggest influence on whether they buy a product or service.Paul M Rand – Author and digital marketing expert
A more subtle way of creating opinionated content is to create a rankings-based piece of content. Although it would seem to overlap with curated content, the key differentiator is the criteria by which the items are arranged. For opinion-based content, the order in which items appear would be entirely subjective.
Examples of opinion-based content
- Why I'm Switching to a Different Meal-Kit Company
- My Favourite Horror Films of the Last Decade
- Why I Prefer the PlayStation 5 to the Xbox Series X
- 10 Best Self-Hosted Ecommerce Platforms
- 50 Best Shows on Netflix
When most people hear the term "content marketing" they usually think of blog posts and articles (I know I do, despite spending years creating content in dozens of different formats). But there's so much more to content presentation than the written word.
Articles and blog posts are usually quicker, cheaper and easier to create than, say, videos and webinars, but that doesn't automatically mean they're the right format for every piece of content. In fact, if you're overlooking other formats such as podcasts and infographics, you're leaving money on the table.
Smart Insights' content marketing matrix is one of my all-time favourite marketing tools. I find myself referring to it on a weekly basis, if only to remind myself that blog posts and articles, in the grand scheme of things, are relatively unimportant when it comes to driving revenue.
In fact, it's such an eye-opening and invaluable tool that I've linked to the full-screen version of the content marketing matrix.
Remember: certain content formats lend themselves better to certain industries and niches than others. Some segments of your audience may also be easier to reach with certain types of content.
In other words, identifying the content formats that resonate most with your audience will provide you with a higher ROI.
Main content formats
The most common content formats – and the ones I've included in the Brainstorm Matrix – are listed below:
- Live stream
- Image gallery
- Slide deck
Additional content formats
Different content formats are emerging all the time, and I've listed a few of the less common ones below. I don't find myself creating content in these formats very often, although I do use a link shortening service called Tiddly to create dynamic QR codes, which are super-useful in certain situations.
Of course, just because I don't use them very often doesn't mean you shouldn't. In fact, if you think your audience would respond well to them, I recommend adding them to your Brainstorm Matrix sheet!
- Virtual reality
- QR codes
- Live-updating projects
- Charts and graphs
- Node diagrams
- Custom apps
- Full-page experiences
Choosing the right content format for your audience
As I mentioned earlier, choosing the right format to present your content in can make a huge difference to your ROI. If your audience expects visually stimulating and interactive content like videos, webinars and online courses, then creating a lot of text-based content may not yield the returns you expect.
Likewise, if your audience likes to consume content at their leisure, such as downloadable PDF documents or podcasts, then you'll definitely want to explore those content formats.
To a certain extent, it depends whether you're a B2B or B2C business.
As you can see in the chart below, written content such as email newsletters, white papers, blog posts and case studies is still extremely popular with B2B businesses.
Videos are less popular, which may surprise some people, but it must be remembered that video content can be expensive to produce. It can also take a long time to record and edit videos. I'm putting together some video reviews and courses at the moment, and I can certainly attest to that!
The chart below shows the types of content commonly used by B2C businesses to attract and engage their target customers.
Although text-based content is still popular, videos, illustrations and photos are more commonly used by B2C businesses than B2B ones (relative to the other types of content used).
Pros and cons of popular content formats
I hear you: with so many different content formats to choose from, how on Earth do you go about choosing the best one to bring your awesome content idea to life?
Well, you know your audience better than I do and you should have some sort of handle on what they're looking for. But if you still unsure, the following pros and cons of popular content formats should help you decide how best to present your idea.
Now that you have a better understanding of the two key components of any content idea (basis and format), you're ready to start using The Brainstorm Matrix to find new ways of reaching your target audience.
To demonstrate the effectiveness of this content ideation method, I've taken a subject I know absolutely nothing about – woodworking – and plugged it into The Brainstorm Matrix.
In exactly 17 minutes, I came up with 35 content ideas for a woodworking / wood carving blog. Not all of those ideas would make the final cut, but I wouldn't expect them to. This is a brainstorming session, and the goal is to generate as many content ideas as possible, as quickly as possible.
The system isn't designed to force you to create hundreds of pieces of content on a single subject. That would be unrealistic – not to mention extremely tedious and exhausting.
Instead, The Brainstorm Matrix gives your brain a framework for rapid content ideation. Essentially, it's a structured approach to an otherwise unstructured method of generating content ideas.
Another advantage of using The Brainstorm Matrix for content ideation is the sheer diversity of content bases and formats you'll explore by using it.
We all have a favourite method of telling a story – I love writing blog posts, for example – and we tend to instinctively fall back on them when we're faced with the prospect of creating new content.
The Brainstorm Matrix encourages you to explore other ways of telling your stories, helping you diversify your content, learn new skills and connect with your audience in different ways.
Now we get to the good bit: brainstorming content ideas!
The Brainstorm Matrix works equally well with small groups and individuals, although you're almost certainly going to get a greater diversity of content ideas if you're brainstorming as part of a group.
Allocate content bases
Take 12 sheets of paper and write a different content basis at the top of each one (People, Places, History, Future, etc). Then divide each sheet into two columns and write "Ideas" in the left-hand column and "Formats" in the right-hand column, as per the image below.
Divide the sheets of paper equally between the group members. This eliminates "basis bias" and forces people to think about the ones they've been given.
Once everyone in the group has been allocated at least one content basis, it's time to move onto the brainstorming stage.
Unlike traditional brainstorming, where everyone shouts out creative ideas and one person writes them down, brain-writing involves participants writing down their own ideas without talking.
A recent study on brain-writing suggests that it can help to improve focus and concentration, and also helps introverted people contribute more effectively to brainstorming sessions.
Some of the other benefits revealed by the study are:
- The very act of writing down one's ideas encourages people to think them through, to express them more clearly and completely.
- It helps participants if previous brainstorming sessions have been monopolised by one or two dominant members.
- Brain-writing provides everyone with equal time to think and write, and it virtually eliminates pressure towards group conformity.
- It's advantageous if the group tends to "socialise" too much.
- Brain-writing provides a very strong task orientation that some groups may need to keep them focused.
- It's useful if there is strong conflict within the group, or if the topic is highly controversial.
- Brain-writing can be successful in tense, highly charged situations where brainstorming may not be manageable.
- Compared to brainstorming, brain-writing tends to result in somewhat fewer, but more fully developed, ideas (Roco, 2004).
Begin the session by asking everyone in the group to use the content basis as the foundation for a creative content idea and to write it down in the left-hand column. It can be a title, a sentence or a paragraph. The important thing is to generate an idea for each content basis.
After five minutes, ask the participants to pass their sheet(s) of paper to the person on their right.
The next stage of the the Brainstorm Matrix ideation process uses the SCAMPER technique to develop or improve the 12 original ideas.
SCAMPER is an acronym for Substitute, Combine, Adapt, Modify, Put to other uses, Eliminate and Reverse.
- Substitute: Create another idea that is similar to the current idea.
- Combine: Add extra information to the original idea.
- Adapt: Add something to the original idea to give it a different meaning.
- Modify: Magnify, maximise or minimise something about the original idea.
- Put to other uses: Identify different scenarios and situations where the idea could be used.
- Eliminate: Remove or simplify an element of the original idea.
- Reverse: Rearrange or reverse engineer the original idea to create a new idea.
There's a way to do it better – find it.Thomas Edison – Inventor and businessman
Ask the participants to spend 15 minutes applying each of the components of the SCAMPER technique to the idea they've been given and to write down 1–11 new content ideas in the left-hand column. From my experience, most people will come up with 3–5 new concepts.
At the end of the second stage of the ideation process, you should have 24–144 content ideas!
The final step of the Brainstorm Matrix ideation process is to explore all the different ways of bringing those ideas to life.
As before, ask the participants to hand their sheet(s) of paper (containing 2–12 content ideas) to the person on their right.
Ask the participants to spend 10 minutes evaluating each of the ideas in front of them and to write down in the right-hand column the best format for each concept. Encourage them to explain why they've chosen that particular format; why they think it's the best way of bringing that content idea to life.
Ask them to think about the pros and cons of each content format, and to consider the main objective of the idea. Is the aim to teach the audience something? Entertain them? Shock them? Surprise them?
The odds of hitting your target go up dramatically when you aim at it.Mal Pancoast – President of The Breakthrough Coach
Thinking about the end goal of a piece of content can make it easier to select the right format to tell the story.
At the end of the 35–minute brainstorming session, you should have a ton of ideas for potential content!
Populate the Brainstorm Matrix
Gather up the sheets of paper and start filling in the blank matrix grid with the group's ideas.
Remember: you're not looking for perfection or even refinement here (that will come later); you simply want to fill the grid with as many ideas as possible.
From my experience of running group brainstorming sessions using the Brainstorm Matrix, you'll end up with at least 36 different ideas – probably a lot more.
Once you've got all of the ideas plotted on the matrix grid, it's time to start evaluating them.
There are numerous tools and systems to help you decide which ideas to develop and which ones to discard. Some of the most popular ones are listed below:
I've designed and refined my own idea evaluation system over several years, and I use it all the time for selecting which ideas are worth investing resources in. And I'll be including it in the downloadable version of the Brainstorm Matrix!
As you may have gathered, the above brainstorming process is aimed squarely at small groups of people. But that doesn't preclude you from using the Brainstorm Matrix!
Whether you're brainstorming ideas as part of a group or on your own, the same applies: start with the content basis. Think about what you want to say. This should be driven not by what you want to create, but what your audience needs you to create.
Think about the problems and challenges your target audience faces every day. Do you get asked the same questions over and over again? Are you always seeing the same questions popping up in threads on forums and social media platforms?
If you sell modular furniture, for example, you might create a guide to buying a sofa for small spaces (product basis).
Do you sell carpets and rugs? Creating a detailed step-by-step guide to removing stubborn stains (process basis) could prove to be a useful resource for your potential customers.
Non-profit organisations might want to shine a spotlight on an individual they've helped (people basis), while a beauty blog could create a list of the best low-cost lipsticks (curation basis). The possibilities are practically endless.
Now put your thinking cap on and use the 12 content bases to help you formulate the first part of your idea.
Next, think about how it could be transformed into a different piece of content in a different format. Could your sofa buying guide be repurposed as an infographic or slide deck? Maybe it would work as an image gallery or a blog post?
Repeat the ideation process, pairing a different idea with a different format to come up with new ways of telling a story. With practice, you'll be able to fill up the matrix grid in a matter of minutes.
At this stage, try to resist the urge to evaluate your content ideas. Instead, focus on filling up as much of the grid as you can. If possible, try to fill in all 144 squares before reviewing your ideas.
Share your feedback on the Brainstorm Matrix
Hopefully the Brainstorm Matrix will help you generate an endless stream of ideas in a structured manner. It works for me and has proved hugely successful for my clients over the years, and I feel confident it will help you take your brainstorming sessions to the next level.
If you've used the Brainstorm Matrix, I'd love to get your feedback. Did it work for you? Did it help you or your group quickly and easily formulate dozens of content ideas? Maybe it stifled your creativity and you prefer traditional brainstorming techniques? Either way, I'd really like to know what you think.
Let me know in the comments below!