Picture the scene – you’ve got ‘write a blog post’ on your to-do list, and you’re staring at a blank page with a deadline looming. Everyone who has written a blog will know the feeling of dread this brings.
In this article, I’ll share some places to find inspiration for posts, if you’re struggling to come up with topics. We’ll examine different formats which can help keep your blog fresh. And once you’ve got lots of ideas, we’ll look at ways to decide what you should (and shouldn’t) be writing about.
As with the previous blog in this series, this article features insights from the people responsible for the blogs at three of the UK’s best-known medical research charities. They are:
- Beckie Port, Research Communications Manager at Parkinson’s UK, who runs the Parkinson’s Research Blog;
- Katie Roberts, Senior News and Content Manager at Cancer Research UK, who runs their Science Blog; and
- Lauren Tedaldi, who has managed the British Heart Foundation’s research blog as Senior Research Communications Officer.
How to find ideas for a blog
There’s plenty of places to get ideas for your charity’s blog. (A lot of these sources can also be good ideas for ‘information pages’ on your website too.)
The important thing is to keep an open mind and keep checking back. You might feel like you’ve covered a topic before, but maybe you could tackle it from a fresh angle. Even if you’ve worked at your organisation for a long time, you may still be surprised by what’s out there.
1. Ask Google
What people search for on Google and other search engines can be a great source of ideas. Use a tool like Answer The Public or Keywords Everywhere to figure out what people want to know about the disease or condition your charity is involved in.
Then have a look at the top results for that search term in google – do they answer the question? Could you do a better job? Or is there another angle that you could provide?
This is an approach that Beckie and her team at Parkinson’s UK sometimes take, but they’re careful not to duplicate efforts too often.
“If we can write something that’s unique and useful, then that can lead to a lot of clicks and a lot more traffic to our website”, she says. “But for us, there are not many topics that haven’t already been covered somewhere else online – there’s a lot of competition. We don’t want to be reproducing something that, for example, an organisation in the US have already written a brilliant post about – our audience read internationally”.
Does your charity have a helpline or an online forum? Do people ask questions through your social media accounts, or via email? What questions keep coming up?
These questions can be good ideas for ‘information pages’ on your website. They can also inspire new blog posts, perhaps approaching the question from a different angle.
3. The people you’re connected to
There are so many different people linked to your charity – which could include patients, carers, healthcare professionals, scientists, policymakers, staff, volunteers, and supporters. They each have a story to tell, which will be uniquely theirs, but relatable to your audience.
“Use the unique access you have as charity”, advises Katie from Cancer Research UK. “For example, if you work a lot with nurses, their voices could be really prominent in your blog posts. Use the people you have and the voices you have, to really tell important stories.”
Has there been a big news story recently that is relevant to your charity’s beneficiaries? Was there something missing in the reporting? You could write an ‘explainer’ post to go into a bit more depth about what means for people. (Or maybe a ‘myth buster’ article, if it got blown out of proportion).
Is there a new TV programme, film, or storyline in a soap that is relevant to your charity? Give your opinion, offer people with support, or provide more information for people who are interested. Borrow some of the ideas from my blog post about how charities live-tweet TV shows.
6. Ask your audience directly
Depending on who your audience is, could you ask them for ideas? Beckie and her team at Parkinson’s UK sometimes ask the charity’s Research Support Network to get involved with co-creating the articles for their blog:
“If people haven’t read a good article on a topic, that must mean that a good article doesn’t exist – that’s perfect, that’s where we can step in and provide people with the information they’re looking for.”
Cancer Research UK have a popular ‘Science Surgery‘ series, which answers questions people send in.
If your charity funds research, a blog post could be a good way to share information about it. This could be a brand-new project, or findings from an old one, or something you’ve picked up from scouring their annual report. You could ‘package it up’ in themes, or do a Q&A with a researcher with a particularly interesting project or unique perspective.
Lauren and the team at British Heart Foundation sometimes use their blogs to cover research which isn’t quite right for releasing to the press: “maybe we didn’t have the time or the capacity, or it wasn’t quite right for us an organisation. But it could be a fascinating topic for a blog, which can do really well with our audience”.
Scientific meetings, conferences, and symposia are great places to find new ideas and topics for research stories. I’ve written before about how to gather ideas from conferences. Remember that the talks and posters aren’t the only places to source good stories; other attendees can provide a perspective on a topic that you might not have considered.
9. Charity announcements
When your charity has something to announce, such as a new campaign, appeal, or service, your blog could help. But don’t assume that your audience will be interested just because you’re involved. How can you make it interesting and relevant to them?
10. Awareness days
Upcoming ‘awareness days’ can sometimes provide a focal point for new content to share on social media. Be careful not to be too tokenistic with this – ask yourself whether people will really be interested in this, even if it wasn’t connected to the awareness day. Make sure you can still use the blog post at some point during the other 364 days of the year.
Different types of blog posts
For any topic, there are lots of different ways that you can write it into a blog post. Again, even if you’ve tackled a subject before, it doesn’t mean that you can’t do it again with a fresh format. It’s always worth thinking about what format might work best for your audience. We’ll talk a bit later about testing.
Told in the first person, you can let someone tell their own story, however they like. Or you could ask them to share their opinion on certain topics, such as what they think of a new development, how they were diagnosed, or what they think the government should be doing.
Having a variety of ‘voices’ in a blog will make it appeal to a broader audience. Sharing personal stories like this might be a way to handle a controversial or taboo topic which your organisation hasn’t found a way to talk about yet.
A question-and-answer format might be a way to explore a topic, by literally answering the questions that people have (taking inspiration from Answer The Public and others, as mentioned earlier). Or it could be a nice way to interview a scientist about their work, guiding the reader through their research (like this blog I wrote for a mental health charity, for example).
Talk in-depth about a topic close to your audience’s heart, and give them the explanation that they need. This isn’t just for your audiences’ interest but could help them deal with their situation better.
Beckie from Parkinson’s UK gives an example of blogs they’ve written in their ‘Research Explained’ series, about how treatments for the disease work. “Many people with Parkinson’s take Levodopa for their condition, but they don’t understand why they take that drug and not dopamine, the chemical that’s missing in the disease.
“We can write articles that explain this, which means they understand their treatments and can take better control of their condition, and they’re more empowered when talking with their doctors”.
Cancer Research UK’s ‘Science Surgery’ series explores science questions in a similar way.
Help keep your audience up-to-date on the latest news. For example, Cancer Research UK have a weekly digest on all the latest news relating to cancer (not just the charity’s work, and not just research).
The kind of story you might read in a newspaper supplement or a magazine, exploring a topic with different contributors. They need a strong hook and an engaging story to keep readers interested.
Tips and advice
As suggested by Reason Digital, articles which offer a way that people can make a small difference or take action can be really empowering, particularly when problems feel too big or scary. “Top tweaks you can make to combat climate change”, for example.
the kind of article popularised by Buzzfeed, that give people a clear idea of what they’re about to read and break it down into manageable chunks. Take this article “10 health hacks to help cut cancer risk” from Cancer Research UK, for instance.
Don’t be afraid to mix these ideas up a bit too. For example, you could have a listicle featuring suggestions from patients about how they manage the side-effects of their treatments.
How to prioritise blog posts
So you’ve gathered your ideas and thought about how you might cover them. But maybe you’ve got too many ideas than you have time for. How do you prioritise what should and shouldn’t be in the blog?
The first question should be is it urgent?
Clearly, time-sensitive stuff should get first dibs. Say you’re responding to a story in the news or a TV programme that broadcast last night, you need to be getting a blog post out pretty fast. Topical posts like this can do really well – particularly if you have strong opinions to convey.
But do think about whether something really must happen now, or whether you’re putting unnecessary pressure on yourself. For example, you might be writing a blog about a research paper that’s come out. Could you change it to talk more broadly about the research area instead?
This can have two benefits. Firstly, it gives yourself a bit more time to write it and do the story justice. It could also help make sure that the blog post has more longevity after the paper was published.
Know what works for your audience
Beyond time-sensitive stuff, it comes back to knowing the audience for your blog, and the types of topics and formats that work well – and those that don’t.
For example, when Beckie and the team at Parkinson’s UK have tried to talk about something the charity is up to, it sometimes gets a cold response: “our audience want to know more widely about the research going on, they don’t only care about what we’re doing”.
Lauren at British Heart Foundation explains how she uses digital analytics tools to understand which of their posts are the most popular. This can be particularly useful when needing to ‘push back’ on some suggestions which she knows aren’t going to be popular blogs.
“We can have a feeling whether a topic is going to work for our audience or not. But getting familiar with the digital analytics has given me the confidence to use the data as a ‘push back’, to show why something isn’t likely to work well.
“Equally, when we’re asking for other teams’ time, for sign-off or whatever, we can use the data to show them the difference this will make, and why it’s worth their time. It’s a really good way to leverage support.”.
This data can take time to build up, as Katie from Cancer Research UK knows: “for someone just starting out, I would just go for it, and experiment, and use any data you can get. We’ve been writing the blog at Cancer Research UK for 12 years now, and we haven’t stopped testing. Everything we do, we try and learn from it and use the data to monitor how our audience responds to it”.
This data can come from tools like Google Analytics and social media analytics, or click-rates in email newsletters. But it could also be a sense of how people responded to it online (and offline), whether the comments it received were positive or negative.
You’ve written some blog posts – now how are you going to get your audience to read them? I’ll be tackling this all-important question in the next part of the series.
Until this, check out the previous post, which explains why your charity should have a blog.
A big thankyou to Beckie Port, Katie Roberts, and Lauren Tedaldi for giving me their time and a peek behind the curtain at the blogs at their respective charities.