Web publishing has a low barrier to entry. This is great, because it enables anyone to be a publisher, and to reach a world wide audience.
The downside is that because there is a low barrier to entry, the web is saturated with content!
So, how do you choose topics to write about that stand out from the crowd? How do you stay ahead of everyone else? How do you stay ahead of those who have more time/money/energy to publish than you do? One way, of course, is to work smarter.
In this article, we'll look at strategies and tools that will help you do just that. But before we do, let's take a look at the state of the web..
The Evolution Of Personal Publishing
Personal publishing is in a constant state of evolution.
Take blogs, for example.
At one time, is was good enough simply to link to topics. The first blog, Robot Wisdom, took this approach. However, with the rise of social media, like Digg & Twitter, this approach - apart from a few, long-established exceptions aside - is a dead duck.
Next came the "rewriting news stories" approach. This approach still works, but in crowded niches, every blog ends up publishing the same thing. If you're a late follower in a niche, it's unlikely you'll make much headway using this technique, because it doesn't offer anything people can't get - and aren't already getting - elsewhere.
Next came providing opinion, analysis and context to news stories. This works well if the opinions on offer are new, insightful, and unique. This is the current state of the blogshere, and chances are the top blogs you read take this approach. They address a need in the market - i.e. a need for depth and analysis . I suspect you're already reading less and less of the blogs that either just point to sources or rewrite news stories.
It's not quite as linear as I'm making out, but the point is wish to make is that as content more plentiful, the bar gets raised on the quality level of content you need to produce in order to stand out.
Plenty of new opportunities lie in synergising information to provide readers with the new angles and editorial depth they crave. If you aggregate from different sources, and can spot trends before others do, you stand a good chance of standing out from the crowd.
But how do you do this?
Tools & Strategies
1. RSS Reader
Chances are you already use one. But if you don't, an RSS reader is possibly the single most important tool for article and information discovery. An RSS reader brings information to you. It brings the information to you soon after it is published. It's like having your own personal newspaper which auto-updates every few minutes.
The main advantage of an RSS reader is that you can scan a huge number of sources in very little time. Aim to monitor a lot of sources, across related industry verticals.
2. Have A Point Of View About Future Direction
Try to form opinions about the way your market or niche is heading, rather than where it is now, then analyse information through this filter. If asked, could you say where internet marketing is now, and where it will be in five years time? What will it look like? What are the stages it will move through to get there?
If you use such a mental filter, you should be able to spot the nuances in sources more easily. The aim is to weed out the tired, repetitive and redundant. Specifically, try to look for the points where people's behaviors start to deviate from an established norm.
Services like Compete and Google Trends are great for spotting these types of changes. There are a variety of sources data can be pulled from, including government, industry bodies, and free secondary research.
Here's a graphical comparison of various Google services. I'm sure there's an article topic in there somewhere ;)
Of course, you need to watch out for bias. One famous example of the problems of biased data was the 1948 election:
On Election night, the Chicago Tribune printed the headline DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN, which turned out to be mistaken. In the morning the grinning President-Elect, Harry S. Truman, was photographed holding a newspaper bearing this headline. The reason the Tribune was mistaken is that their editor trusted the results of a phone survey. Survey research was then in its infancy, and few academics realized that a sample of telephone users was not representative of the general population. Telephones were not yet widespread, and those who had them tended to be prosperous and have stable addresses
This is why cross-checking is often a good idea. One example, in the field of SEO, is keyword data. Some keyword research tools pull data from small, third party search engines, whilst Adwords data might be a more reliable indicator of the numbers of searches on Google for a specified keyword term, if that's what you're aiming to measure.
TrendWatching.com offers a good definition of trends:
A (new trend) is a manifestation of something that has unlocked or newly serviced an existing (and hardly ever changing) consumer need,* desire, want, or value.
"At the core of this statement is the assumption that human beings, and thus consumers, don't change that much. Their deep needs remain the same, yet can be unlocked or newly serviced. The 'unlockers' can be anything from changes in societal norms and values, to a breakthrough in technology, to a rise in prosperity."
Can you spot anything people have recently started doing differently?
One example was PPC advertising. Before PPC advertising came about, SEOs wouldn't dream of paying for clicks. Why would they when they could get them for free?
So, the established norm was a group of marketers who operated on the principle of getting clicks for free.
PPC emerged because there were a group of advertsiers that were prepared to pay per click, rather than spend time, money and effort in the hit and miss field of SEO. PPC addressed a deep need. PPC, of course, quickly grew into a multi-billion dollar industry.
3. Monitor Cross-Industry
Monitor not just your own vertical, but also look across related industries. What's hot and emerging in one market may not have hit your market yet. See if there is a natural synergy between the two. If there is, and no one is writing about it yet - great - you've just discovered a ground breaking content idea.
There are a wide range of aggregators available, with new options popping up all the time. Aggregators are particularly good for finding new sources. Try Techmeme, FriendFeed, StumbleUpon, Popurls, Topix, and, of course, the recently updated Google Blog Search.
5. Set Up A tips@ Email Address
Your readers might be a rich source of ideas. Some may also have some insider information that they might not feel comfortable publishing yourself.
Set up a tips@ email address, and encourage people to email you with information. Make it easy for them to do so.
BTW, if anyone does have some insider information they want to share, or answers you need, or article suggestions, please email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. :)
6. Cultivate News Stories Using Social Media
Start a Digg-style news community for your niche. Try to create communities of people who enjoy mining for information on a given topic. One search-oriented example of such a community is Sphinn.com.
If you don't have the inclination to set-up a community yourself, find existing communities and monitor them.
7. RSS Remixing
RSS remixing is agrregating different RSS feeds into one feed. You can remix each industry vertical, rather than have multiple feeds, which can make it easier to scan.
Add each feed to your reader, aggregate them into the one big feed, the same folder or view, and viola - you have your own niche news mining engine.
Also check out remixers such as FeedRinse, FeedDigest, and BlastFeed.
8. URL Monitoring On Digg
In the Digg search option, choose "URL only" and "upcoming stories". Type in the domain name of any site you want to watch. You should see an orange RSS button in the right hand corner. Click on it and save the results as an Rss feed.
9. Google Alerts
Why search for news when Google can do it for you? For those who don't know, Google Alerts is an email service that monitors Google result sets for the keyword of your choice.
For example, you can monitor when people talk about you or your site, you can keep track of your competitors or industry, and stay on top of breaking news.
Also check out Track Engine. Similar to Google Alerts, Track Engine can be used to identify when websites update, without you having to visit them. You can also set tracking perameters so customise the information you receive.
10. Google Insights
Insights For Search is a hugely useful tool.
You can use it in a number of ways. For example, you can track seasonal trends. This chart shows when interest is highest in basketball. The pattern of interest is a consistent, shape year after year. You could use this information to dictate the timing of your stories on certain topics.
11. Random Stumbling & Association
Sometimes stumbling about in unknown territory can be a great way to get the creative juices flowing.
Another fun option are Oblique Strategies cards.
Try famous quotes. Quotes contain universal truths, which you might be able to apply to your area of interest, in order to view things in a different way.
Image collections are another. Search on various themes, and see what image comes back. Does the image prompt a fresh way of thinking?
Hold multiple, disconnected ideas in your head and see if you can discover a synergy. For example, a famous example is:
- A Red Traffic Light
- A cigarette
This led to the little red mark on cigarettes encouraging smokers to stop smoking when the cigarette burned down to that point, and thereby they could control their habit. More likely, it was a ruse to get smokers to go through a pack faster.
Got any strategies on how to generate story ideas? Add 'em to the comments below.
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