Whether you are a small business trying to maintain a steady stream of content for your blog, or the Internet marketing company tasked with doing so for your clients, it's not always easy to keep ideas flowing at your desired pace. Even the most creatively fertile minds will have the well run dry from time to time.
Speaking from the "hired gun" side of the discussion, one of the major challenges is consistently coming up with ideas for a wide range of very different industries. We come to the table with the marketing expertise, not necessarily the expertise in the industries we are servicing. So, it can be a bit of a mental juggling act familiarizing yourself with so many different subjects.
With that challenge in mind, it's important to have the tools in place to make the research process as efficient as possible. But even if you are already an expert in the subject matter, these tools can not only help spark ideas but also keep you on top of what others in your industry are talking about.
As far as sparking content ideas, Bottlenose is probably my main go-to tool right now. This free web application gives you live trending social content along with content from the people you are connected with on Twitter and Facebook. You can even connect multiple Twitter and Facebook accounts to keep up on more information in one place.
Let's say you want to know what’s going on in the herbal supplement world. Simply type "herbal supplement" in the search field, and you get recent and trending links, related trending topics, images, what people are saying on Facebook and people who are trending around the topic. You can also create streams around specific keywords that you can reference at any time.
There's also the sonar tool that maps trending associated topics. Click on the topic to get info on how often it's being mentioned. It even measures the sentiment by percentage (positive, neutral, negative). As you can see, it's much more than a content idea generating tool. It's a powerful tool for developing your overall content strategy in a very efficient real-time manner.
Generally speaking, Topsy has a similar approach to Bottlenose. Type in a topic search and you get back related trending content and social posts. You can see the number of results broken down into several time frames (1 hour, 1 day, 7 days, 30 days, all time). Click on the time frame that best suits your needs and filter it down even more to the type of result (tweets, links, photos, videos, even experts).
Currently, Topsy only retrieves results from Twitter and Google+, but it's still a great way to use existing content to spark your own ideas, not to mention another tool for evaluating what people are most interested in within a given industry.
While it's a keyword tool, like the Google Adwords Keyword Tool, it can be used to discover content ideas as well. Your results will tend to be a lot more basic, but it's still useful. I typed in a pretty broad term (“weight loss”) and it returned a list of phrases grouped by associated terms alphabetically and numerically ("weight loss + a" starts with “weight loss apps").
Content aggregating tools are nothing new. I also use Bloglines where I gradually add RSS feeds from sites I want to monitor and organize them by topic. But if you want to bypass the work yourself, Alltop does it for you. Search blogs by topics or even geographical regions to see what's in the news or what people are blogging about.
With Quora, you can ask and/or answer questions. See what questions people are asking related to your industry. It not only creates content opportunities, but gives you an idea of what makes your target audience tick. Admittedly, there are some pretty strange questions at times (this is a public forum, after all), but weeding through them is not a particularly difficult thing to do.
These tools are just the tip of the iceberg. Not only are there are a ton more you can tinker with, there is so much more to dive into with each of the ones mentioned here. Explore for yourself and see which ones fit your particular needs.