It’s that time of the week again. The moment every content marketer dreads.
You sit in front of your computer and a blank page stares back at you.
The title reads “Content Topics for the Coming Week”.
You stand there, brain completely frozen, desperately trying to think of something you haven’t recently said. A fresh new topic – that elusive beast…
It doesn’t need to be this way. In fact, topic research can be an easy structured process that leaves you inspired and motivated rather than tired and deflated.
Today, I want to share some of my go-to tools that make topic research a breeze.
Topic research vs. keyword research – what’s the difference?
Some marketers conflate keyword research and topic research. However, there are substantial differences.
Keyword research is done by SEO experts. It tries to understand the specific phrases people use when discussing a given topic. The end goal is to rank for those keywords that are related to the brand or that will expose new qualified users to the brand.
Topic research is done by content marketers. It tries to understand what topics our target audience is interested in. It doesn’t study the specific phrases as much as it tries to combine them into relevant topics. The end goal is to inform the content plan so that the brand creates content of value to its target.
How to do topic research?
This will be a very short guy as there isn’t much to talk about in terms of process. What you need to do is:
- Get a notebook at the ready or open a file on your computer.
- Fire up your go-to topic research tools.
- Insert a general keyword and see what related phrases and questions pop up.
- Gradually go deeper, trying out more long-tail phrases to research different facets of the topic.
- All along the way, take note of interesting topics you can cover in your content.
- Combine these topics into topic clusters and figure out which ones you want to cover.
- Draft your short-term content plan with these topics in mind.
Obviously, this is a very high-level process, but it’s not easy to go into a lot of detail. The whole idea is to allow enough time for divergent research, trying to note down as many different elements for your topic as possible. Only later will you be doing some convergent actual planning where you take into account:
- Is the topic closely related to your product? You’ll probably start with topics that are close enough to your brand. Then you can organically nudge the reader to learn about your solution.
- Is the topic of real interest to your specific target audience? The fact that a topic pops up during research doesn’t necessarily mean your persona will be researching it. You’ll need to make the call based on your prior knowledge of your target reader’s interests.
- How close to the actual moment of purchase someone interested in the topic is likely to be? Most often, you’d want to start by focusing on topics that show up in the middle or bottom of the purchase funnel. In this way, you’ll be able to naturally pitch your product in your content and drive direct business results. Once your content marketing efforts have proven themselves useful to the business, you’ll gain more freedom to write about topics earlier in your customer’s journey.
My free topic research tools of choice
So where do you start when doing topic research? Here are the tools I usually use.
Your readers will go to Google to find answers. So you can go to Google to find questions.
Let’s say I’m the content marketer for an online retailer that sells outdoor equipment. I want to figure out what topics I should cover on my blog that will cater to the interests of hiking enthusiasts.
First off, I check auto-complete for interesting ideas:
“Hiking quotes” might be an interesting content type for my Instagram account. “Hiking calories burned’ can be a curious blog post to draft out. However, if a person is interested in burning calories, that doesn’t necessarily mean they are ready to buy from my store. So I’ll probably do a roundup post of “hiking boots” as a start.
Then, I’ll hit enter and see a marvelous list of questions people are interested in – in the People also ask search box:
At first, you’ll only see 3-4 questions but the more you click on the expanding results, the more the list gets populated. I see here “What should you not take on a hike?’ which is a curious question – it draws attention and fuels curiosity. I’ll add it to my list of topics.
At the bottom of the SERP I see a related searches list:
It’s not too helpful in this case, but I’ll still keep an eye on it, just in case.
You can use a pro tool like SEMrush or Ahrefs for topic research. But if you’re not willing to spend around $100/month, you might want to start with a free alternative. Ubersuggest is just that. It’s a pretty powerful little tool that lets you access a lot of information in exchange for registration.
You will first see a general keyword overview – to a content marketer, the most interesting element of that is the seasonality trend. I see that I’m best suited to share hiking-related content during the summer months.
Then I will go to the Keyword Ideas section and find a wealth of information there. Ubersuggest basically does something similar to the Google stalking I demonstrated in the previous step but on steroids. The Suggestions and Related tabs present phrases that start with the keyword I entered or contain it within the key phrase:
“Hiking trails near me” is a popular search. This means I can write a few blog posts about the popular trails in my e-store’s region and attract the attention of avid hikers. Maybe I can also add some equipment suggestions for the different routes?
The Questions tab is where a lot of the money lies when it comes to topic research. You can already guess that it shows questions with my keyword:
I see some interesting questions that will make for nice blog posts. “Why hiking is good for you” can even turn into a nice infographic. And “How much water you need while hiking?” can be very useful to my audience while also promoting some of the water bottles in my catalog.
The Prepositions and Comparisons tabs are usually less interesting but that doesn’t mean there are no gems to be found there:
“Hiking with dogs”, “hiking with toddlers”, and “hiking and running shoes” all make it to my topic list. The cool thing is that when you click the phrase, you also see the top 10 search results. You can click through to see what content people are interested in seeing around the topic and what formats are popular – is it just blog posts, are there YouTube videos ranked there, etc.
As you can see, I’m only interested in the phrases and the topics hidden behind them. I’m keeping an eye out at the volume and keyword difficulty for context, but my goal here is not to rank for these keywords – it’s to create relevant content first and foremost.
Answer the Public
When we’re talking about relevant content, the best source of ideas are the questions your reader might ask. And Answer the Public is a tool that reveals these questions in a structured way.
It’s dead simple – you type in a phrase and you get a detailed list of questions that contain that phrase. When you click the Data tag on the results pag you’ll see a neat list of suggestions:
You can find a wealth of ideas here and this is probably the tool that’s responsible for the most topics added to my research notes. Continuing with the hiking example, I can find very specific questions like “Can hiking cause miscarriage?” or “Will hiking shoes stretch?” In the Alphabeticals list you will also find a few neat ideas like “hiking knee support” that can even let me push specific products from my imaginary e-shop.
Answer the Public will convince you of the power questions have in your topic research. QuestionDB is another source for question-based ideas. The tool started off with a database of some 4 million questions sourced from Reddit but has now grown to scrape questions from other sites, as well.
In any case, the reason I go to QuestionDB is because the question here are substantially different from the other sources on the list. And topic research is fuelled by diversity:
After checking the tool, I’ve added completely new content ideas like photography equipment for hikers and “hiking trails safe for women hiking alone”.
KeywordTool.io lets you research content specifically on YouTube. Obviously the results there will be quite different than what you can find for text-based content:
For example, seeing “hiking music” here gives me an idea to create a Spotify playlist with music that my readers might like for a trip to the mountains. Who said that “content” means blog posts only?
Finally, I would also look at Reddit Keyword Research Tool. It is another tool that will give you alternative results. The way it works is that it looks for the most popular keywords within a given subreddit (the site’s equivalent of a niche topic forum).
Since it doesn’t rely on traditional keyword research, it shows you some great topics you might otherwise miss:
For example, when I see the “point and shoot” topic, I understand that photography and hiking go well together. I might provide some advice on camera equipment – and the best backpacks that work for it.
Get ready to write
You need just 40-50 minutes of doing topic research to prepare a list with great content ideas. And the more time you spend on it, the more specific your ideas will get and the more useful your content will be to your target users.