How to generate an endless supply of content ideas that will help you build your audience

I’m no Bobby Flay, but I know my way around a kitchen. My breakfast fried rice dish pairs perfectly with any pernicious hangover. After gathering my ingredients, I reach for the mandoline. You may know it as the kitchen utensil that resembles a mini-guillotine for vegetables.

Oddly satisfying

I load up some shallots and listen for the swish as paper-thin slices float down onto my cutting board. The thrill of the mandoline comes with an ever-present danger. Lose yourself in the repetitive slicing motion, and your fingertip might spout a geyser. I’ve sacrificed more than a few.

The mandoline also happens to be my go-to analogy when I talk about building online audiences. It illustrates an approach that works whether you’re building a newsletter community of thousands, or an SEO-fueled audience of millions. Content chefs use this secret to concoct tasty dishes that dazzle their audience and make them hungry for more.  

Here’s the recipe:

  1. Lay out your mise en place – your topics of expertise
  2. Load up your mental mandoline – pick a topic to unpack
  3. Start slicing – julienne your expertise into elegant ribbons, each one a new idea or subtopic to explore
  4. Serve them up – each individual slice becomes a jumping off point to a new piece of content

To explain how, and why, this works, we’ll leave the kitchen and head over to your home office, aka the dining room. Here, we explore the flavorless yet essential world of search engine mechanics.

Search – which let’s be honest, really just means Google – has been the best way to reach new audiences on the web since JNCO jeans and Tommy Hilfiger shirts were cool. And despite the constant rise of new platforms, devices, and social networks, it shows no signs of fading anytime soon.

Search engines reward specificity. If you try to rank for “best recipes,” you’re competing with everyone from Bon Appétit to AllRecipes to Hip Foodie Mom. That’s like bringing Hamburger Helper to a showdown with the Iron Chefs. My money’s on the Chefs.

Let’s slice that up a bit, shall we?

Consider, say, “pickled sliced shallots.” Suddenly, the competition for a coveted slot on the first page of Google results isn’t nearly as fierce. The volume of searchers for this phrase is tiny compared to “best recipes.” And that’s a good thing. The handful of people searching for “pickled sliced shallots” really love pickled sliced shallots. They just walked into your restaurant, and pickled sliced shallots are the house specialty.

You may be thinking that the mechanics of Google don’t apply to your audience strategy. Think again. Search engines are proxies for real-world demand. Compare the tastes of the everyday diner patron who never strays from the same old meat and potatoes with the epicurean who queues up in the rain to snag a coveted barstool at the new ramen shop. When you’re building your online presence, you want to cultivate an audience with the enthusiasm and dedication of foodies. Serve them precise bits of knowledge, bursting with flavor, and they’ll gobble them up and rave about you to all their fellow gourmands.

As a writer, I know my worst enemy well: a blank page. Even after years of preaching this strategy, my writing sessions often begin with a bruising thud: my head hitting the desk as I try to will ideas through sheer force. Before I concuss myself, I remember my trusty mandoline. Referring back to my archive of ideas, I groove the blade and get to slicing.

If you’re ready to start firing off ribbons (read: attract your ideal audience), here’s a tip: head back to Google. Type your topic into the search bar, and note the autocomplete suggestions. Write these down, and, one at a time, type them back into the search bar, and repeat. Soon enough you’ll have a pile of juicy slices, validated by Google’s algorithm, ready to prepare into delicious morsels for your audience.

Bon appétit!

Enjoy this essay? Subscribe to get my weekly newsletter on media, startups, mindset, and creative process.

Delivered every Wednesday.