Out of Content Ideas? Try Borrowing One or Two

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Many marketers spend their lives trying to differentiate their products through content. 

Everyone wants their products to sound like no one else’s. Every marketer wants to establish such distinctiveness that their product is considered the outlier in the market (in the best way).

Content marketers want to own the answer to a particular customer’s need or a disproportionate share of conversations about the specific problem their products or services solve.

But that level of differentiation is nearly impossible. Mark Twain said, “There’s 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.”

There are no new #Content ideas. Run existing ideas through your mental kaleidoscope, says @Robert_Rose (borrowing from Mark Twain) via @CMIContent. Click To Tweet

In the current AI-driven copycat culture, differentiation feels like a no-win scenario. Marketers trying to create that unique story or positioning avoid generative AI for fear that their contributions will introduce their secret recipe into the machine’s learning model. On the other side, many marketers feel generative AI’s content is “close enough for rock and roll” (to borrow a phrase from Nazareth).     

Even if you could come up with something unique, it feels like your creation would quickly be copied (or learned) until it becomes just another drop in a roiling ocean of noise.

Is finding that uniqueness still a prerequisite to success?

No. And it never was.

Uniqueness isn’t a requirement for #ContentMarketing success. And it never was, says @Robert_Rose via @CMIContent. Click To Tweet

Parallel play in content marketing

In 2016, two researchers studied how companies in emerging markets develop successful business models and differentiation. They found the more successful companies in a new industry didn’t worry much about being different. Instead, they focused on borrowing the best ideas from others in their space.

The researchers called this a form of “parallel play,” after a term psychologists use to describe how young children play together. They sit near each other but often play by themselves. Even though they’re not playing together, children pay attention to what others are doing and borrow ideas to help them accomplish something.

The researchers found that businesses targeting new markets echoed this kind of play. These entrepreneurs didn’t consider developments from new competitors in their space something to avoid or differentiate against. They watched and borrowed some of their competitor’s best ideas. 

Content marketers – especially those working for challengers to big brands – can learn and benefit from this parallel play concept.

Yes, everyone wants to create original stories and express them in different narratives. But you can look at others in the proverbial sandbox and learn from their success.

I don’t mean you should copy ideas or look at other marketers’ playbooks as templates. Some of the more valuable examples I’ve seen come from companies borrowing an idea that didn’t work out for others and reconfiguring it into their own core messaging.

Borrow ideas from other #Content marketers playing in your proverbial sandbox – even ones that didn’t work for other brands, says @Robert_Rose via @CMIContent. Click To Tweet

Turn someone’s mediocre idea into your great one

Here’s an example from a large professional services firm I recently worked with that specializes in helping big companies implement big technology projects. The company planned to move into marketing tech implementation (think digital asset management, marketing automation, personalization, etc.).

Their marketing team faced the challenge of creating a story for their brand that differentiated the company in the space. They wanted to develop a content pillar around the idea that business leaders need better insight into changing customer needs and the ability to pivot their marketing approaches quickly.

The company’s leadership worried that that storyline didn’t differentiate because it sounded similar to content their competitors had tried.

However, the marketing team believed they could make that idea resonate. The company had made a name for itself in a specific niche: helping sales leaders optimize their operations through a sophisticated approach to analytics.

The team planned to use that reputation as a foundation for making the classic “need for insight and agility” message into fundamentally differentiating positioning for senior marketing leaders.

It worked.

They built on their reputation for sophisticated analytics to develop a complete content pillar around this idea, including thought leadership, a brand campaign, and sales enablement messaging.  

The key was borrowing an old idea and making it theirs.

Borrowing ideas > copying ideas

Borrowing great ideas goes beyond duplicating. It involves taking a mix of ideas from other places and transforming them into something that becomes yours. That’s what Mark Twain described as a “mental kaleidoscope.” Successful borrowers twist and turn ideas into different combinations.

The pictures are new but built from the same old pieces of colored glass used for ages.

George Lucas has said he borrowed the idea for Star Wars from Akira Kurosawa’s samurai classic The Hidden Fortress, which came out in 1958. Ridley Scott’s 1979 hit Alien borrows heavily from another 1958, It! The Terror From Beyond Space.

And for a fascinating example of the same idea brought to life in different ways, try watching Thor (2011), Cars (2006), and Doc Hollywood (1991) on the same day. You’ll be amazed at how many similar scenes and plot points these movies share. (The lead character gets stranded in a tiny town with unfamiliar ways.)

So, the next time you feel stumped when looking for that next great content pillar for your brand, take a look around. You might see some colored glass lying next to you. Watching the kid playing nearby can inspire you to do something similar in your unique way. 

So don’t be afraid to borrow elements from others once in a while.

It’s still your story. Make sure you tell it well.

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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute



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