You’re all alone on this one. The clock is ticking, and a client who recently hated all of your carefully harvested ideas expects 20 new (fantastic) options by the end of the day. What’s a brainstormer to do?

Everyone has experienced difficult clients, and much worse—difficult topics. This article will cover ideas and strategies to help you turn a time sensitive ideation task into something pleasant and fun to do.


Set aside anything distracting or upsetting (like an angry red email from an impatient client). The ideation process demands 100% of your attention, so all misguided attempts to multi-task will only result in failure. Here’s a checklist you should follow for each ideation session:

  • Close out of your email, TweetDeck, unnecessary windows, chats, and Skype.
  • Turn off your phone.
  • Move out of a busy workspace into the hall if necessary or to a café where you’re anonymous.
  • Adjust the temperature, go to the bathroom, and get a drink to eliminate excuses to get up.
  • Tell your boss you’re going on a creative pilgrimage (preferably while wearing a black turtleneck).

When you’ve completely turned off the outside world, it’s time to plug-in to helpful tools. Open a search tab and a blank Word document.


Before you leverage the interwebs for ideas, you should squeeze yourself for creative insights. List all ideas that instantly come to mind, without concern for ideas that were rejected, or are repeated, obvious angles. Here are a few ways to force yourself to think from a fresh perspective (for this exercise, I’m sticking to ‘airline’ as the assigned topic):

  • Topic + X
    • Force yourself to come up with one strange idea based upon the topic you are stuck with and a random object. Associating the topic to random objects will give you a new way of looking at the topic.
      • For example: Airline + Umbrellas = X Strange Airline Regulations for Personal Items: Might as well Forget Your Umbrella!
      • Second example: Airline + Cheese = How Airlines Keep Foods Fresh, Even on Long Hauls
    • Challenge yourself to choose a variable based upon whatever is right in front of you. Whether it’s a pencil or a clock, you should be inspired to associate your topic and the object in a funny way.
  • What do you want to learn about the topic?
    • While this might read as a simple idea, it could be something others have wondered about as well.
      • For example: X Safety Features on Airplanes You Won’t Know About Until a Crash
      • Second example: Could Airplanes Fly Without Wings? X Surprising Facts
  • What bad/good experiences have you had with the topic?
    • Do you hate food in airports? Do you love drinking with strangers in airport bars? Do you secretly enjoy the anticipation of an airplane descending into a new city? Turn these things into ideas others will relate to easily. Correlating an assigned topic to a personal experience will make the idea more engaging.
      • For example: Hobo’s Guide to Free Meals in Airports: Where to Score Free Goods
      • Second example: X Underrated Experiences Everyone Should Encounter at the Airport
  • Change your setting. Go for a walk, or take your session to Starbucks.
    • New surroundings kick your brain into gear, but they also provide new variables for the correlation exercise.

Keep in mind that when your ideation session ends, your brain won’t just stop cooking-up ideas; brilliant titles might pop into your mind hours later, after your subconscious has worked on it. For that reason, you should always keep a notebook with you and be prepared to capture ideas.

Only after you feel mentally exhausted from thinking about the topic, you are finally primed to find original ideas online. Not only did your personal session yield a few great ideas, but it also demonstrated for you the easiest ideas to come up with, so that you can avoid those ideas when you see them online.



When it’s time to attack the interwebs you must face everything trendy head-on, and become one with bacon. Or Narwhals. Or whatever it is that your target audience blindly loves at the moment. Here are a few places to get started:

    • Trendy social news aggregator where crowd sourced voting determines popularity.
      • Read the first front pages and note title trends. Catchy phrases like “Like a Boss,” “Meanwhile in [country],” or “…seems legit” lend insights into user interests. While you shouldn’t mimic these phrases (because once they’re apparent, they’re already decaying), they are useful insights.
    • Mainstream social news aggregator that has overhauled itself repeatedly.
    • Risqué version of Reddit that suffers from extreme hive-mindedness.
    • Discovery site that ‘randomly’ leads users to unexpected, new content.

Being familiar with these four sites will put a brainstormer into the right frame of mind to produce ideas for this target audience, but it only works if this is the niche for your content. If a client would prefer to target soccer moms, then you will need to find social networks for that audience to familiarize with for brainstorming purposes.


When you’re mentally primed and prepared to think like a Redditor (or whomever you’re targeting with these ideas), then get started. For this exercise, we’ll use the topic ‘dogs’ as an example.

Search Google

Here are a few terms that you can add to your topic to find listings of published articles on that topic:

  • Top Ten Dogs
    • Ideas will range from Top Ten Dog Tricks to Top Ten Most Popular Dogs in the World. While you don’t want to lift others’ ideas, you will certainly think of your own spin to these ideas.
  • Top Ten Worst Dogs
    • Similar ideas will populate, but new ones will spring up to; you might see Top Ten Evil Man-Eating Dogs, or Ten Worst Dog Parks on the Planet. Again, don’t pilfer these already-used ideas: let them inspire your own spin on the topic.
      • For example: Ten Worst Dog Parks on the Planet could inspire you to think of the 14 Most Beautiful Parks that Allow Dogs.
  • How to Dogs

  • Various processes and paper ideas will appear, including ideas like How to Train Your Dog and How to Pick a Perfect Dog for Your Family. Use these ideas to go one step farther in creativity and come up with better ideas.
    • For example: X Mean Dogs Re-Trained to Be Perfect for Families.
  • Where to Dogs
  • Holidays Dogs
  • [Any Typical Title] + Dogs
  • Dogs Statistics
    • Browse through actual statistics rather than titles. Let the numbers inspire your thoughts to take new directions.
      • For example: If you learn that 72% of dogs know eight tricks or fewer, you could use the idea How to Make Your Dog Smarter than 72% of His Species.
  • Dogs Infographics IGs
    • Click into an images search after entering this text. Browse through infographics on your topic and learn interesting, inspiring statistics. Furthermore, IG titles might get your mind thinking in a new direction, because of their visual nature.

Search Key Competitors

Most of your client’s competitors will be creating similar content for similar end goals. Browsing through their content is a good way to avoid copying ideas, but it’s also a great way to get inspired. Do you see something they did half-heartedly? Re-envision it in a better framework. Are there customer comments that haven’t been addressed? Your client’s customers likely have similar questions that you could answer for them.

Search Social Sites

Return to the social sites that apply to your target audience. Search that site for articles related to your topic, and note others’ fails and wins with content. This is an opportunity to improve upon others’ work, as well as a good source of inspiration.

Check the News

Search the actual news (not just news aggregators) for information or upcoming events related to your topic. This is a great way to come up with content that’s not wholly evergreen. For example, a weird news story could lead to a fabulous article about weird topic-related discoveries.

Plan for Holidays

Remember to generate holiday-related content ideas for clients approximately two months before any holiday, so that there’s adequate time for idea acceptance, content cycle, and publication/promotion. Holidays are inspirational for brainstormers, because of their personal associations. Think through your topic-related holiday experiences, and the ideas will come easily.


Because you are using others’ work for inspiration, it’s important to triple-check your work for stolen ideas. Here are a few ways to avoid copying:

  • Search each of your titles in quotation marks to see if there’s a direct duplicate.
  • Search each title without quotation marks for very similar ideas.
  • Browse your client’s competitor’s sites for similar content.
  • Browse the related social networks for similar content.

When you feel confident that your ideas are original, all that remains is to polish up their presentation and deliver them to a client. Make sure you document every idea every submitted to a client on a spreadsheet to avoid duplication two years down the line, and use codes like red highlight for ‘used’ or strikethrough for ‘rejected.’


This process can be followed for any topic, and generally works for anything that isn’t incredibly specific. However, if your topic is incredibly specific that might be something to address with a client. For insights on how to address issues with clients in general, and specifically with difficult clients, check out next week’s article, Brainstorming for Difficult Clients.

Thanks for reading!