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For most marketers, coming up with ideas is easy at first. We have them when we are at the gym, driving to work, or sitting at our favorite coffee house. Most of us are pretty creative, and we develop some compelling content.

Problems start to arise after we have been generating ideas for a little while and the well starts to run dry.

The same issue creeps up when we focus on one segment of the funnel, or path on a customer journey, and huge gaps surface in our content that cause us to alienate some members of our audience.

And, sometimes, we just don't know where to begin when working with a client in an obscure vertical we cannot relate to.

Over the past 13 years, I have been creating blog posts, articles, and content for many audience types. At Geekswithblogs, I wrote nearly 1,000 posts that were developed for an audience of software developers and new bloggers. I found that when the cupboards were empty and I needed to generate some ideas, three tools or tactics helped me focus and allowed the flow of valuable content to begin.

Warning: These tools require groups of two or more people. To really get the ideas flowing, I would aim at having a group of 4-20 available for 30 minutes or more. The participants should be subject-matter experts, fellow content writers, or (my favorite) audience members.

1. Brainstorming

Over the years, brainstorming has gotten a bad rap. It became a corporate buzzword as we all "synergized" and began thinking in groups. With the mass adoption of the tool, we threw some of the rules out the door, so we could use a refresher course.

When you begin a brainstorming session, someone is assigned as the moderator who presents a problem or question. In content development, the topic could be a persona goal, content type, or any another area you want to focus on.

Then, attendees are asked to individually write down ideas for a short amount of time. When the time is up, the moderator goes around the room and collects the ideas verbally. After the ideas are presented, the group interacts and fleshes out the ideas.

2. Mind-Mapping

When coming up with ideas, it is good to have structure. If you find you have gaps in your content, mind mapping will help you see where those gaps are, or it can be used to prevent these gaps from happening.

Mind-mapping builds from a core focus and branches off into multiple levels. Those branches have branches, and those branches can have branches, but the core purpose is always at the center.

In content idea generation, I like to use a persona at the core, list of goals at the second tier, and content types at the third. Then, I list my content ideas at the fourth tier based on the conversation we want to have with the persona about the goal, using the content type.

After finding a meeting room with the biggest whiteboard possible I draw one circle in the middle and put a persona in it. Then we review the goals of the persona that we want to target and I draw connected circles around the core.

Next, I put the content types around the goals that we reach this audience persona with. At this point, you can go around the third level and at each stop ask the team for a few ideas. You could also use another section of the board to do a brainstorming session if the ideas are not coming along as easily as you hoped.

Either approach can work, but the main goal is to create a few fourth tier items for each third tier content type.

3. Brain-Writing

This is my favorite approach for creating a cache of content for various groups of your audience members. Because of the collaboration level in this approach, I find that the ideas are rich in value and are fleshed out better by the end of the session.

To start a brain-writing session, you need a lot of paper. Give one sheet to each person in the group and present the problem or goal you are trying to generate ideas for. Each person should then write down six ideas in five minutes. When the time is up, have participants pair up and present their ideas to one other member for five minutes. Depending on the conversation level, have each pair stay together and generate another six ideas for five minutes. Then, each pair will group with another pair and present their ideas.

Repeat this process until you have two groups remaining, then present the last set of ideas to the entire room.

At the end of the session, collect all the idea sheets and make sure you write down the group size or members' names on each page for future reference. You will be amazed by the level of creativity that flows out of these groups.

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image of Jeff Julian

Jeff Julian is the chief marketing officer for enterprise content management provider AJi. He has helped companies develop content strategies for over 10 years. Jeff is working on a new book, Agility in Marketing, due out in 2015.

Twitter: @jjulian

LinkedIn: Jeff Julian