“There is nothing new under the sun.”
What do you think of that quote? Is it depressing? Dismissive?
True or not, that quote evokes a dilemma every content creator struggles with. We have a lot of content to create, and in one way or another, it’s all been created before.
Before you get on the defensive, let me explain what I mean by that.
Why we tend to create similar content
Our job is to create content that both serves our audience and meets business goals. To do that efficiently, we use proven formats (blog posts, white papers, tweets, etc). We answer common questions. We do this in ways that are familiar to our audience and easy for them to understand.
If we get too creative and too cutting-edge, we become hard to understand. As soon as our audience doesn’t understand us, they’re gone. The rest of the Internet – the easy-to-understand and endlessly diverting Internet – is only a click away.
Because we have to play it reasonably safe and stick to some conventions (aka, “best practices”), it’s possible to create content that’s very similar to other peoples’ content. Done long enough, by enough content marketers and enough companies, and we can create a lot of similar content. It can seem like everything has been done before.
Maybe the particular piece of content we’re working on hasn’t been done in our particular industry. Maybe we’ve found a new spin on it. Or maybe we’ve narrowed the audience for it down further than anyone has done before (“Top 10 Ways to Lose Weight for Male English Teachers Over 40 from Wisconsin”). But it’s probably true “there are no original ideas under the sun” in creating content.
Why similar content can still be successful
Still bristling at this? If you are, I sympathize. It took me quite a while to come around to it, too. Until I read Austin Kleon’s book, Steal Like an Artist. Here’s how he describes the situation early in that book:
If you’ve ever promoted content online, that last sentence may ring particularly true. We create new, but very similar content as our competitors. And it’s worth it, and okay, because most of our audience never saw our competitors’ content.
Most of our audience hasn’t seen all of our own content, either. That’s why we can repost and reshare content in our social media accounts. Only a very slim fraction of what we post ever gets seen by our entire audience. Less than 10% of Facebook posts reach your followers. As André Gide put it, “since no one was listening, everything must be said again”.
The idea kaleidoscope
“But what about a completely new infographic design? Or a totally new approach to video marketing? Aren’t those new under the sun?”
They are new combinations of ideas, yes. But that new infographic design probably borrowed elements from color theory that its designer learned in art school.
That new video marketing approach was probably a mashup of two weird film experiments its creator saw five years ago.
So those “new” content elements are new as a whole, but their essential parts have been around.
I am definitely not the first person to assert this. Here’s what Mark Twain had to say about the matter:
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.
– Mark Twain, a Biography
Content curation for content creators, or how to collect – or curate – or steal – without shame
So are all of us just hacks? Austin Kleon doesn’t think so.
Curators are collectors, too. I’m not sure whether most of us could be called artists based on what we gather and share in our Twitter feeds, but we are most definitely collecting. And we collect selectively… you don’t share junk, after all.
Content creators have been selectively collecting for centuries. Consider a recent example of this: the swipe file. This is an old trick from direct mail copywriters. They would sign up for every mailing list. As the mail came in, anything interesting was put into a physical file system called a “swipe file”.
Journalists use this device too. They call it a “morgue file”. Any good newspaper has a bank of file cabinets dedicated to the morgue. It is an essential research tool.
The difference between being a hoarder – someone who collects indiscriminately – and an artist, who collects selectively, lines up beautifully with the difference between content curation and content aggregation.
Content curation versus content aggregation
Jayson DeMers recently wrote a nice comparison of these two things, and so I’m going to steal… ahem, curate, from him:
“…it’s extremely important to add your own insights and commentary to add value for your audience. One definition of curation is, “To pull together, sift through, and select for presentation”. Good curation will carefully select resources based on quality and relevance; poor curation will simply grab random links from the SERP’s (search engine results pages) without thought to quality or value.”
Austin Kleon would call grabbing those random links hoarding. Writer Mark Sherbin would call it content aggregation.
Mark Sherbin, writing for The Content Marketing Institute’s blog, defined the two terms like this:
Content aggregation relies on automation, using algorithms to find content.
Content curation features handpicked content, often introduced with a snippet of copy from the curator. Performed correctly, content curation can create a big value addition.
Content curation 2.0
This idea that the best content curation includes a snippet of commentary from the curator interests me a lot. This is the mark of the best kind of content curation. It delivers the most value for the curator’s audience. But it also delivers the most value for the curator. Especially if that curator is a content creator.
A curator’s added commentary can explain what makes the content element important. The curator can note trends in what they curate. They can see similarities between elements, and identify new themes. In the hands of a good curator, the whole of the curated pieces is greater than the sum of its parts.
If you doubt this, just step into a museum.
So as content creators, “artists” that we are, content curation is perfectly okay. It’s actually good: It helps us make better content. So long as we give credit where credit is due, and add our own bit of context and explanation, we aren’t being hacks.
Or, as Austin Kleon says, it is okay for us to steal:
How to steal curate
So now that you’ve got permission to steal, where can you start? You may want to start with a stream of pure aggregated content – a whole river of information you can pick and choose from. Some people also call those listening stations. You can set up a stream of aggregated content in a bunch of ways:
– Set up a Google alert to find new content that matches certain keywords
– Add a bunch (like 50) of your favorite blogs to your Feedly account. Either read them randomly or search through them like a tiny, customized search engine.
– Search by hashtag in Twitter. Save what you find there (and from all over the web) into Evernote or Pocket for review and sorting later.
– Create a swipe file or a morgue file. Even if you only work in digital.
– Research other industries, professions and content formats. See what elements you could add to your content pieces that would give them more dimension.
– Fire up a free ScoopIt account. You can track one topic with the free version. If you want to track more, it’s $12.99 a month. Though we do admit to being biased, here are cool things content creators can do with ScoopIt:
- Add commentary. Adding context helps you and your audience.
- Sort content elements by hashtag and/or category. So you can find them again fast… or make an idea kaleidoscope.
- Gather your curation up into a blog post that automatically gets published via WordPress. So if you haven’t updated your blog in forever because you never have time, you can check that off your list.
- Zip all your curation up into an email update. Haven’t mailed your subscribers in forever? Now you can fix that – and automate it.
- Curate different content formats with no problem. With ScoopIt, you don’t need separate little content troves grouped by format all across the web.
- Take all your curated content and feed it into your social media updates. We don’t particularly recommend this be everything you share online. But it can cut out half of your social media work… so now you can go make more content.
Back to you
I hope that makes you feel better about borrowing, curating or stealing other peoples’ content. Just remember to give attributions and thank-you’s. But done honestly, content curation and creation can absolutely go hand in hand. They always have, actually.
What do you think about there being no new ideas? Do you think all this wild cross-curation is a good thing or a bad thing? Tell us about it in the comments.
And if you’d like to see how content curation can help you improve SEO, you should read this eBook!
Image by Christina Spicuzza.