Evergreen vs. Classic Content: Why Marketers Should Know the Difference

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Last week, I had a lively discussion with a colleague about “evergreen” content.

I argued evergreen does not automatically mean the content will stand the test of time. Nor is content that stands the test of time necessarily evergreen.

The debate arose from a discussion on the state of AI-generated content — whether AI could originate a classic piece of content. You know, something that would be seen as foundational and iconic for a topic it covered.

I’ll return to that discussion, but first, let me explain the distinction between classic and evergreen content.

Evergreen vs. classic content

In B2B marketing especially, many marketing and content teams devote at least some time to creating “evergreen content.” Inherent in the name, the content isn’t relevant only in the moment but for a length of time (perhaps forever). So, the creator avoids including anything in the content directly or indirectly that indicates its publishing time.

A team might create a research paper entitled, The Strategic Approach To X, where “X” is an industry, business approach, or elemental best practice. The creator’s objective is that the content will always be valuable to the reader.

But I argue that “timeless” content doesn’t always mean it will stand the test of time. Also, just because someone uses a present-moment context in their content doesn’t mean it won’t become a classic. In fact, being conscious of the present moment might be a core ingredient of classic content.

In other words, there is a difference between “evergreen” and “classic” content, and you should focus on the latter.

Classic content requires more and a different kind of effort. It requires you to create something of lasting worth or of the first or highest quality and in context with its relationship to the moment.

But OK, isn’t that all semantics? Why should you care?

Classic content should be a goal

What is the distinction of “classic content?”

Well, I love how author Italo Calvino described a “classic” work in his essay, Why Read The Classics? He characterizes a classic as something “which, even when we read it for the first time, gives the sense of rereading something we have read before.” But he also says a classic is when “rereading offers as much of a sense of discovery as the first reading.”   

I love the seeming contradiction. But these definitions really don’t conflict. When you experience a classic piece of content for the first time, you get a sense of familiarity but a new discovery. When you experience a classic subsequently, you get a sense of discovery in the familiarity.

From a content marketing perspective, The Lego Movie is a perfect example. Its deeply creative storytelling offers a distinct point of view and trendy, topical characters. Despite that, families can still enjoy watching The Lego Movie over and over again. The movie never exhausts all it has to say to its audience. The Barbie movie will almost certainly be seen as another great classic in a few years.

Why does classic content matter to B2B marketers?

In my earlier referenced discussion with my colleague, I asked (without irony, mind you) if they could envision generative AI creating a thought leadership article that was not only timeless (i.e., evergreen) but something that would give so much value people would go back and read it again and again.

They laughed because they thought I was joking. They weren’t sure humans could do that, much less AI. They asked, “You mean can AI write a “classic” thought leadership book or article? Would it be possible to produce a “classic” video series on SEO that has the same kind of replay value as an episode of Friends does?”

(Side note: Friends, the now 30-year-old sitcom (oof, that hurt to type), has maintained and even increased in popularity among both young and old audiences.)  

“Yes,” I replied. “Classic content not only provides new audiences with value but also goes one step further. It provides existing audiences with ongoing value. They return to it time and time again. B2B content has this ability.”

For example, I continually return to Theodore Levitt’s paper on marketing myopia to refresh my business strategy chops despite its analysis of 1960s-dated industries. The business book Crossing the Chasm, written over 30 years ago about the adoption of new technology, remains a popular business book on go-to-market strategy. And Crossing the Chasm was based on the classic 1962 book Diffusion of Innovations by Everett Rogers, which continues to sell 30,000 copies with the release of each new edition.

And there may be no better example of classic content marketing than John Deere’s The Furrow. The brand has published the magazine for 129 years, and readers routinely save issues as collector’s items. These same readers revisit articles written years ago. The Furrow’s content is both classic and timeless.

Classic formula for classic content

Of course, you can’t know if a piece of content is a classic until it — well, you know — becomes a classic. Its core requirement is that it must stand the test of time.

But as content creators, can you increase the chance that your content’s value will last, that it will provide that discovery upon each rereading? I think you can.

At the very least, I believe you can avoid the trap that you can’t reference current events or modern contexts in creating classic content.

In dissecting my own content creation, I’ve found that classic content pieces tend to share these traits:

  1. Memorable, diverse characters or points of view. Every classic story — even marketing or B2B thought leadership — has a distinct, original point of view about the world.

For example, Basic Marketing – A Managerial Approach is a classic marketing book you probably never read. But you no doubt revisited its concept of the four Ps (product, place, price, and promotion) as a foundational idea of marketing.

What’s the thing people will remember from your content? 

  1. A fully realized setting. Think about world-building and your audience, whether you’re in B2B or B2C. Rich details allow the audience’s mind to connect to other stories they’ve heard and experiences they’ve had. That’s a mark of a classic. The world feels both familiar and new on every rereading.
  2. Distinctive style. Develop a style for words and imagery and stick to it. Be consistent.
  3. Larger truths. I speak about this trait in all my storytelling workshops. Every great story should attempt to illuminate a universal truth that will change the reader somehow.
  4. Nods (and connections) to tradition. Embrace the tradition or the work of the giants who have come before you. Don’t be afraid to create a new classic based on an older classic (e.g., Crossing The Chasm) or purposely rebel against it.
  5. Classics follow — or at least understand — structure. When a classic strays away from the traditional structure of a story, a class, a business book, etc., it’s been purposely designed that way.
  1. Ambiguitythe student mindset. Classic content almost always comes from the mindset of observation and learning with the reader, not from an omniscient leader. Most classic context acknowledges the present context and its difference from the past to set ambiguity about the future. Too many brands approach thought leadership with an overabundance of certainty and no admission of blind spots or areas to explore further.

Classic content almost always leaves room for audiences to find their way in the context of when, where, and how they experience it. It enables them, upon rereading, to come to different conclusions and interpret how it suits them in the present. For example, my interpretation and insight from Theodore Levitt’s marketing myopia content has changed over the last decade. It’s not dissimilar to experiencing satisfying new and still familiar discoveries while watching a classic film you saw as a kid.  

The bottom line? If you want to have a greater chance at creating classic content — content that people will want to revisit again and again — focus on great storytelling that leverages the context of the now, explores topics deeply, and creates original and distinct points of view.

And that brings me back to the discussion I was having with my colleague.

Classic content is the human advantage

If you consider the common traits of classics, you can immediately see how generative AI is hampered in creating content that has a high chance of becoming a classic.

At the heart of classic content is not just an original idea or an innovation on a previous idea. Classic content synthesizes those ideas with the present context, with that original idea, and brings experience, knowledge, and judgment to express an idea that will stand the test of time. Generative AI struggles with any and all of those capabilities.

Generative AI can only express what has been in a new way. It cannot look at what is now and find the deeper meaning of what will be. So, yes, generative AI can create evergreen content. But can or will it create classic content? So far, that answer is no.

Will I be proven wrong down the road? Will generative AI create a piece of content that is classic? 

Only time will tell.

It’s your story. Tell it well.

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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute

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