12 Must-have (mostly) free tools for creating a content strategy
A solid strategy is essential for effective content creation, unless you’re happy firing your content into the ether with no idea of how it will perform. This article covers twelve tools we consider absolutely vital for building an effective content strategy.
Why do I need this guide?
It’s barely an exaggeration that #fakenews has shaken the foundations of our society in the past few years. The next generation (i.e. children) struggle to determine whether what they read online is true or not. We believe there is a moral duty to ensure your content is well researched, grounded in truth, and created with the intent of enriching the reader in some way.
Not only that, but Google assesses the quality a website’s content when deciding how to rank it, meaning high-quality content correlates with better rankings. And better rankings correlate with more visitors to your site, longer sessions, and a greater conversion rate.
This guide will teach you how to build upon an initial content idea, understand your target audience and tailor content to their tastes, as well as assess and replicate other successful content in your niche. You will learn how to make sure your content is found, enjoyed and shared.
These are tools that a content team can use to cast an increasingly wide net around their initial ideas, hopefully sparking many others. Insights are then collected to see whether the ideas align with the interests and browsing habits of the target audience(s).
We’ll use coffee as the example product in this guide where an example is necessary. Because it powers us, and we love it.
A notebook - good old fashioned idea generation.
There’s nothing like the feel of pen on paper. Your ideas are given free rein to grow, with no platform limitations to box you in.
For this step, just start with writing some words around your chosen topic. Make a mind map by drawing lines between different, related words. Throw down initial ideas and don’t worry if they aren’t very sophisticated: they will be bolstered later.
- Cost: Notebook and pen ~£1. Mindmup is freemium, with a $50/year charge for small teams. Google Docs is free.
Answer the Public (ATP) - casting a wide net around your ideas.
This tool takes a term and uses it to generate questions (‘how does coffee keep you awake?’), terms with prepositions (‘coffee for hangover’), comparisons (‘coffee vs caffeine pills’), and alphabetical pairings (‘coffee addiction’), leading to hundreds of potential idea stems. A certain amount of sifting is required, as some of the suggestions are rubbish due to the partially random nature of the recommendations: 'cofficenear.me', 'coffee is too hot 18+’, and my favourite, ‘coffee with Jesus’.
We’d like to give an honourable mention to Hubspot’s Blog Ideas Generator here - another source of mostly-random-but-occasionally-useful ideas:
Number 3 looks eerily familiar…
- Cost: ATP is free, and you can currently request early access to a Pro version.
Google’s related searches and ‘people also ask’ box - understanding search behaviour.
This is less of a tool than two components of Google’s search results page. We’ve included them as they provide more coherent, reality-based questions people are asking about your chosen topic.
The suggested questions and related searches for coffee reveal an interesting variety of topics.
These recommendations are based on analysis of millions of searches, and represent related themes that Google deems most relevant. Understanding how people phrase questions allows you to bake specific phrases into your content, too. While this is less necessary than in the past thanks to Google’s increasingly sophisticated sentiment analysis, it doesn’t hurt.
- Cost: free
YouGov Profiles - demographic analysis.
Writing content for demographics not represented by your content team requires an understanding of their interests and personalities.
This tool gives insights into your desired demographic, including where they sit on political spectrums, phrases they may identify with, other brands and ideas they’re likely to affiliate with and more. For the most relevant results, explore brands and concepts similar to the ones you are planning to write about.
This is a representation of he average customer of Costa Coffee, apparently.
- Cost: freemium, with severe restrictions on functionality and insights for the free version. Price varies based on size and scope of business / project requirements.
Reddit - a finger on the pulse of your target audience.
As a platform of communities who share content and vote it up or down based on whether they like it, Reddit is a fantastic way to see what works in your niche and what doesn’t.
As well as a site-wide search for terms, you can navigate to the subreddit(s) that reflect the communities you're attempting to target. You can sort content by popularity, giving you deep insight into the nature and format of popular (and unpopular!) topics. The comment threads often reveal new discussion points that your content could explore, or questions it could answer.
The top posts of all time for the keyword ‘coffee’ .
In short, Reddit is a good way to test the relevance of ideas in the context of the audience you’re writing for, and to highlight topics the community finds interesting.
- Cost: free
Google Drive research tool - suggestions based on data.
By this stage, you’ll most likely have a big list of ideas for your content. If you plug these into a Google Doc and write a few paragraphs summarising them, the ‘Explore’ button in the bottom right can give you one more chunk of inspiration.
Click it, and wonderful things happen.
Google’s documentation for this tool explains that “you might see files, images, or information you can use to help finish your work”, based on analysis of themes you’ve written about.
- Cost: free
Research into metrics and performance
The tools in this section help you to assess the likelihood of your content ideas performing by comparing them with content published elsewhere. The plan is to ensure you don’t waste time and effort creating content that will tank.
Buzzsumo - social and influence checker.
This tool shows you how similar content has performed in the wild with regards to traffic and shares across the main social networks. You can sort results by performance on individual social networks, or by combined performance. ‘Evergreen score’ can also be seen, which indicates the freshness of older content.
The Onion proves that #fakenews needn’t be evil.
Buzzsumo offers a bunch of other tools, some of which are very helpful for outreach efforts later on in the content process. The Influencers tab shows some of the biggest voices writing about the topic you’re interested in.
- Cost: 7-day free trial, or a selection of packages upward of $79/month.
Open Site Explorer (OSE) - explore tangible performance metrics.
This tool provides further metrics, supplementing social share information with backlink information and the relative strength of pages on a website.
Browsing the top pages of a competitor website allows you to see which content pieces have worked well for them, especially if this analysis is confined to their blog pages. Understanding the properties of content that performs well allows you to replicate these aspects (but never to plagiarise).
- Cost: 30-day free trial, or packages upward of $79/month
Ahrefs - further tangible performance metrics.
This tool provides more advanced insights than OSE and Buzzsumo, but personal preference will dictate which tool you will spend most time with. Ahrefs is my favourite.
By combining the insights from these tools, you will be able to paint a more detailed picture of competitors’ content.
- Cost: $7 for 7-day trial, or upward of $99/month
Google Analytics - understand performance of previous content.
When creating a content strategy, it’s worth taking a look at how the site's existing content has performed.
After following the steps outlined in this guide, you can use Google Analytics to compare the performance of new and old content. This can be achieved by benchmarking metrics of older content to see whether the decisions you made in the creation of this new strategy were good ones: you can then pat yourself on the back if the numbers go up, or make further amendments to the content strategy if not.
- Cost: free
Google Keyword Planner - understand search terms.
Once your ideas are established and you’re confident in them, Google’s Keyword Planner can help you to marry up the planned structure of your content piece(s) with relevant search terms.
Optimising headings can increase the likelihood of your content being used for featured snippets, for example, although the first priority should always be the reader.
It’s worth noting that you can look at keywords on Ahrefs and other tools too, and that the suggestions will vary. It’s possible to get quite far down the rabbit hole so be careful: remember that compelling, well-researched content is ultimately more important than content that hits every keyword!
- Cost: free
You’ve taken a concept and derived a wealth of ideas from it; well done, you. You should now have enough to begin creating with a good degree of confidence that your content will be well-received.
Trello - collaboration & project management.
It’s like sticking post-its all over your wall, but digitally.
Trello allows you to ensure things get done correctly and in the right order, by breaking down the creation of the content in the strategy into sub-tasks and allocating those out amongst your team. You can set responsibilities and deadlines, and you have a neat overview of everything that’s in progress or completed.
As with most freemium tools, the free version is quite basic. Paying allows for integrations with other tools like Mailchimp, Evernote, Slack, Google Drive and more, as well as increasing attachment size, more customisation options, and better support.
Other tools include Asana for project management and Toggl for time management (you can find a thorough review of Toggl here) - again, personal preference and internal project management styles will dictate which tool(s) you use.
- Cost: Trello is free, or $9.99 per user per month.
We’re confident these tools will treat you well. To recap, you’ve learned to develop an initial content idea, to understand your audience and demographic, how to tailor content to their tastes, and how to assess and replicate other successful content in your niche.
Now go forth, create!