Since I’ve been working in this industry, I’ve produced and overseen the production of a lot of content.

Am I proud of it all? Has it all been successful?

Heck no.

But do I regret working on content that hasn’t achieved what I wanted, or what I expected it to?




No one produces successful content every single time. I have no doubt that even the guys who consistently produce ground-breaking content – from agencies like Fractl and Distilled – have had their fair share of failures.

But do you know what?

Failures don’t matter a bit – as long as we learn from them – and something I’ve definitely learned along the way is that it pays to validate demand for content before creating it.

Find Out If Something Similar Has Performed Well Before

Are you always digging for completely new ideas? If so, stop. You’re searching for something that doesn’t exist. The whole concept of originality is false, and always has been.

In his autobiography, Mark Twain said, “There is no such thing as a new idea. It is impossible. We simply take a lot of old ideas and put them into a sort of mental kaleidoscope. We give them a turn and they make new and curious combinations. We keep on turning and making new combinations indefinitely; but they are the same old pieces of colored glass that have been in use through all the ages.”

Twain died in 1910.

If there were no new ideas then, there certainly aren’t going to be any now. Everything we create is inspired by something that has come before it.

That’s why we can validate demand for content by establishing whether or not content based around a similar topic or theme has performed well before.

Now I feel I should interject here and clarify that I’m not insinuating you should pick a piece of content that performed well and reproduce it. That’s not “validating an idea” – that’s plagiarism.

But there’s a reason why infographics are so widespread, why YouTube is one of the most important sites on the web, and why Hollywood churns out so many comic book films and cookie cutter rom-coms. It’s because when a formula achieves its goals (i.e. gaining links, getting views, or making a profit) it makes sound financial and business sense to stick with it.

The easiest way to validate an idea based on past performance is to search Google for your idea.

Try to keep the search pretty broad. The more specific your search term, the greater the chances you’ll miss what you’re looking for.

Once you find a similar piece of content, head over to a tool like Buzzsumo or ahrefs Content Explorer, and enter its URL.

Quick tip: Ensure you’ve got the URL for the original version of the content – not the URL of a site it’s been syndicated on.

You’ll now be able to view how widely that piece of content was shared on social media.


If you have a paid account with Buzzsumo, you’ll also be able to see how many backlinks the content obtained. If you don’t, just use whatever tool you use to track backlinks.

If you don’t have access to a paid link-tracking tool, Moz and Majestic will provide limited data for free.

Start Your Outreach First

If you want results from your content marketing, it goes without saying that you’ll be promoting it, and that at least part of that promotion will entail reaching out to people directly.

That’s all fine. Great, in fact.

But there’s probably a better way of executing your outreach.

What if you began your outreach before you did anything else?

What if, instead of creating your content, publishing it, and then firing off emails in the hopes that someone likes it – you contact prospects before you do anything else, and gauge their interest?

Maybe it’s just me, but I think this is a really obvious step. To be honest, I’m really surprised it’s so rarely taken.

It’s not difficult to execute. If you’ve performed outreach to promote content you’ve already created, then this process will feel pretty familiar.

The initial stages don’t change at all. You still need to create a list of publications that you think might be interested in your content, and you still need to figure out the best person at that publication to contact.

The only difference is in the email you send.

Instead of saying something like…

“Hey, I’ve created this great piece of content about XYZ that I think you’ll love. Here’s the link. It’d be great if you could help me share it out!”

You say something like…

“Hey, I’m currently working on a piece of content about XYZ that I thought might be of interest to [publication’s name’s] audience. Does that sound like something you’d be interested in taking a look at once it’s finished?”

Of course, your prospects don’t need to know that you haven’t actually started working on the content, or that if no one replies you probably never will. However, if you get positive replies from publishers wanting to view your finished content, that’s validation of demand and a sure sign that you should roll with the idea.

Better yet, that initial conversation means that when you do send over the finished content, publishers are far more likely to open your emails, take a look at your content, and seriously consider sharing it or using it on their site.

Ask Your Audience

The people you promote your content to are very important, but they’re not the only people with opinions that matter.

Your customers, potential customers, and visitors to your site and blog are pretty important too.

They’re not only potential consumers of the content you create; they’re people who may convert as a result of it.

So it makes sense to ask them what they think, right?

There are a number of ways you could do this, some more effective than others. I like Qualaroo.

Qualaroo helps you create short surveys that target visitors when certain triggers occur, the idea being that it helps you to “ask the right visitor the right question, at the right time.”

This type of software is often used to generate exit surveys – i.e. surveys designed to find out why someone is leaving your site – but it can do so much more than that. For starters, it can help you figure out if there’s a demand for your content ideas before you invest time bringing them to life.

Quick tip: If Qualaroo is out of your price range, there are a number of more affordable alternatives available. Survicate is free if you get less than 50 responses a month.

Using Qualaroo is relatively simple.

You create your survey:


You target your survey by choosing (among other metrics) the page it should appear on and the user signals you want to trigger it:


And you configure its appearance:


Once you’re happy with your survey, you’re given some code to install on your site, after which “you’ll start seeing views and responses within two hours.”

This is a really simple way to establish whether visitors to your site are actually going to give a damn about your latest content idea. You can also try using open-ended questions that ask your audience what questions they want answered or what sort of content they want to see.

Learn What Works

Okay, so this isn’t exactly a way to validate demand for content ideas, but simply learning what works best can help boost the success rate of the content you create – with or without any form of validation.

In 2014, Buzzsumo analyzed 100 million articles in order to identify common traits in the content that was most widely shared. You might have already seen the write up. If not, you can read it here. Even if you have already read it, it’s well worth reading again.

In summary, Buzzsumo found that the most successful content met one or more of the following criteria:

  • It inspired awe, laughter, or amusement in its audience.
  • It appealed to its audience’s narcissistic side (think personality quizzes).
  • It’s long-form.
  • It’s presented in list form or as an infographic.
  • It looks professional and trustworthy.
  • It contains visuals.

There is no way to ever be sure whether a content idea has legs. Sometimes content you are so certain will do well can go down like a lead balloon. Likewise, sometimes content you have no faith in will surprise you.

What you can do is boost the odds of your content generating an ROI by taking steps to establish if there’s a demand for it, before you invest time and money in creating it.

In summary, you can do that by:

  • Researching whether similar content has performed well previously.
  • Reaching out to publishers before creating content.
  • Surveying your audience.
  • Learning the basic principles of what works.

Do you know of any other ways to validate demand for content before creating it? Share in the comments below:

  1. I approach topic research as if validating or brainstorming a product idea:

    1. What is the market talking about?
    2. What challenges are they trying to overcome?

    I think customer development is a huge part of this, and it’s great to see a fresh approach to getting audience insight. Great piece, Sujan!

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