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A New Approach to Thinking of Content Ideas

19 August 2018

One of the most common struggles people face when managing a digital strategy is coming up with new and interesting content to write about. Whatever the subject, no matter how many years of experience you have, it can be difficult to think of a fresh angle on a topic you’ve written about over and over again. I’ve recently come up with a new twist on an old classic that has helped generate content ideas for even the worst writer’s block.

The 5 Whys

In the 1930’s, Sakichi Toyoda, founder of Toyota, developed a technique known as the “5 Whys Approach” as a way to solve problems. The premise was simple, in order to get to the heart of a problem you need to delve deep to find its root cause. He suggested that you do this by asking yourself why that particular problem exists, and each time you answer the question you ask yourself “why” again until you’ve asked “why” five times. This allows you to address the underlying issue rather than fixing symptoms of it. Here’s an example using a fictitious coat company that has noticed a dip in sales:

Problem: People aren’t buying our new winter coats

  1. Why? They aren’t as well-made as last year’s coats.
  2. Why? Customers are saying they aren’t as functional.
  3. Why? We didn’t include as many pockets.
  4. Why? The new design of the coat only allows for 2 pockets, not the 5 pockets we normally have.
  5. Why? The designers chose form over function.

In this example, the coat company was able to figure out that coats weren’t selling because the design didn’t consider the customers’ functional needs. To avoid this issue in the future, the designers should be instructed that style and function need to be equally considered in coat designs.

The 5 Whys is great for businesses that want to get to the heart of a particular issue, or for start-ups that want to understand their place in the market. Even marketers have used it for a variety of reasons, including user research, branding, and brainstorming. It’s also been adopted as a method to generate new content ideas. While the 5 Whys certainly has its place in content marketing, I think it’s time to modernize it for the digital age.

A new twist

The 5 Whys is a very focused way of getting to the root of a problem, but it may be a little too focused for generating new content. My issue with using the 5 Whys to brainstorm content ideas is simple – if all you can do is get to the heart of the problem, then you miss out on ideas that exist outside of those parameters.

Why is that a concern? Well, a strong digital strategy needs a lot of content. Some of it needs to be informative, some of it needs to build relationships, some of it needs to be light-hearted, some of it needs to be serious, some of it needs to focus on a call to action — you get the point. There is so much content that needs to be generated that it’s useful to think outside the 5 Whys and allow your options to expand.

Here’s my suggestion. I love the principle of the 5 Whys because it gets you to think deeper than you normally would. That’s a great starting point for brainstorming because it helps you get creative. But, instead of using the 5 Whys approach, why not simplify it to a 5 Questions approach? In this case, you’re still asking questions five levels deep, but now they can be any format of question, not just a “why.” This simple change helps open up a lot of new lines of thinking that the 5 Whys don’t accommodate. That’s perfect when you’re trying to brainstorm for content ideas. So, let’s go back to that fictitious coat company and imagine we’re in its marketing team. Their mission is to increase the struggling sales of the winter coats:

  1. Why do people buy a new coat? Their old coat is worn out.
  2. What’s wrong with a bit of wear and tear? It doesn’t keep in the warmth in as well as a new coat.
  3. Okay but how warm do people need to be? Well, this winter is expected to be really rough!
  4. Do our coats hold up to a cold winter? Absolutely, they are warm to -50 degrees!
  5. Well what does that really feel like? That’s a good question.

Now the marketing team has a topic they can write about that would interest people: Just how cold is -50 degrees? Think of the opportunities – blog articles, social media posts, emails, etc. – all highlighting what that temperature really feels like and how their coats could keep people warm in them.

Example social media posts that could be written for the fictitious coat company going through the 5 Questions exercise above.

Had the coat company’s marketing team restricted itself to just the 5 Whys approach, they most likely would not have come up with this topic to write about and could have missed out on creating some really engaging content. 

The 5 Whys is a great approach to problem solving and has its place in digital marketing, but don’t let it restrict you. Simply allowing yourself to break beyond the “why” gives you an endless number of possible content topics, and that’s a welcome thought to most digital marketers.

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About the author
Veronica Bagnole
Veronica Bagnole

Veronica has worked in digital marketing for 8 years and has held positions in digital agencies in the US and Great Britain. She has an MA in Globalization & Communication and spent 3 years in the Peace Corps.​

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