Creative Thinking

Why Content Curation Is Lazy at Best and Unethical at Worst

By Taylor Holland on February 23, 2018

Before we talk about content curation, let me tell you a story about the time I almost got carjacked. It was several years ago, but I still remember the experience clearly. My car was parked on the street in front of my house. The weather stripping on one of my car windows had come loose, and it leaked during storms, so a friend and I were trying to fix it.

We weren't in the best part of town, but it was the middle of the day, and I felt safe. I didn't pay much attention to the two guys walking up the street towards us until they got pretty close. That's when one of them pulled out a gun. He demanded my keys and told us to get away from the car. We did what he said.

They got into the car and attempted to crank it, but apparently the would-be driver didn't know how to drive a stick shift. He tried for a couple minutes, screeching gears and cursing loudly. At the time, I was scared, both for the sake of my personal safety and my car's transmission. In retrospect, it was actually kind of funny, like something from America's Dumbest Criminals. To make matters worse, my car was a very eye-catching shade of purple-a custom paint job, thus not a discreet getaway vehicle.

Finally, they gave up, got out of the car, and threw my keys into the backyard. Then they took off on foot. While my friend called the police, I gave chase. Yes, I know it's insane to go after someone with a gun, but the adrenaline and anger overloaded my rational brain, and I wanted to keep them in sight until the cops arrived. They quickly got away from me, but they were both arrested later. The situation even ended up on the local news.

Purple car

Image attribution: Xavier Buaillon

Crazy story, right? It's suspenseful, a little bit funny, and has a happy ending. And it's all true-except that it didn't happen to me. It happened to a friend. I wasn't even there. He told me about it the next day.

Now, am I a liar or a content curator?

What if I had told you in advance that it wasn't my story and given proper attribution to the original storyteller? I'm definitely not a liar, but I haven't given you any insights into me.

Imagine I then told you about the house my grandmother swore was haunted (I won't lie, I still kind of believe her), and how my mother-in-law ended up on stage at a David Copperfield show, and how my cousin was just cast in an R&B music video.

By now, you'd probably have some insights into me: My life is pretty boring, but I know interesting people. Clearly, I don't have any good stories of my own to share or I wouldn't feel the need to keep telling you stories about other people.

That's the problem with content curation. If you're not telling unique stories or sharing unique perspectives, you're not saying anything interesting about your brand. You're not making an emotional connection with your audience. Even if you're sharing valuable content, you don't get the credit for it. You're the middleman, and the middleman is usually forgettable.

Curation versus Creation: Which Is Better?

This debate has been raging ever since "content is king" first became a marketing mantra. And as all the marketing experts chanted this refrain, most brand leaders nodded enthusiastically while thinking, "Oh crap, we don't have nearly enough of that."

After more than a decade, marketers have generally gotten the hang of content marketing. Some have even advanced to the next level: masterful brand storytelling. But content curation is still a big part of the mix for many brands, in large part because it's an easy solution to common content marketing challenges.

A recent Skyword survey asked nearly 1,000 content marketers to identify the greatest barriers that stand in the way of achieving their content vision. The top three responses were bandwidth (52 percent), budget (50 percent), and growing in-house creative talent (47 percent). Original content creation-or better yet, brand storytelling-requires more time, money, and talent than curation.

Curated content can also help brands build new relationships with influencers and drive new traffic, and there's plenty of data to help marketers justify this strategy. For example, Curata has found that the highest-performing content marketers curate about 25 percent of their content, create 65 percent (via in-house staff, freelancers, or crowdsourcing), and syndicate ten percent.

But just how valuable is curated content for your brand, and when can it actually hurt? That depends on what you mean by "curating" and where you're putting that content.

Curated Content: The Good, The Bad, and the Indifferent

Let's start with the bad. If it's not completely clear to your audience that someone else created the content, you're not curating it. You're stealing it. That's not just bad marketing ethics: It's often illegal.

This blatant content theft isn't uncommon, but it's probably not a common practice for established, ethical brands. Smart marketers know the stakes are too high, both in terms of lawsuits and customer trust. Much more rampant are social media posts that share data and insights from other brands, without giving them the credit or the traffic. That's not exactly illegal, just bad marketing ethics and likely to damage audience trust if they come across the same content somewhere else.

But ethical curation does makes sense sometimes. In some cases, curation actually is a brand-for example, the many aggregator sites that collect content on a particular topic and post (with permission) a short summary and link back to the original content. Many individuals have also successfully positioned themselves as tastemakers or influencers by collecting content their audiences care about, putting it all in one place, and then adding their own editorial perspective.

My favorite definition of content curation comes from Heidi Cohen via the Content Marketing Institute:

To meet your audience's information needs, content curation is the assembly, selection, categorization, commentary, and presentation of the most relevant quality information. You add your human editorial perspective while integrating your 360-degree brand.

In other words, it's not just about reposting, retweeting, liking, or sharing. It's about joining the conversation and adding your own perspective. That's why it's an effective strategy for social media, which is all about conversations and community.


Image attribution: Charisse Kenion

Social marketing posts that link to third-party sites get 33 percent more clicks than posts that link to company-owned sites, according to research by Convince & Convert. However, posts that link to owned sites and content have a higher click-to-conversion rate (54 percent). Overall, brands that mix it up (linking 50 to 75 percent of their posts to third-party sites) yield ten times more conversions than those who mostly link back to their own sites.

Yes, a little curated content makes sense on social media, but what about posting previously published content on your website, blog, resource center, and other brand-owned publications? The vast majority of brands approach this sort of curated content in an ethical way: by getting permission and attributing the content to the original publication. But if readers understand that someone else created your content, then what benefit does your brand really get?

You get some traffic. Maybe you even get a few conversions. But you don't get the credit, and that's where the relationship-building opportunities really lie.

No One Wants to Be the Third Wheel

Marketing experts spend a lot of time talking about content curation versus creation from the brand's point of view. But think about it from your audience's point of view.

If you've been on the up-and-up about who created the content, your readers know it wasn't you. In this relationship, you're the middleman, the referrer. That's a valuable role in any social or professional network-the person who knows people, who connects people. But is that the role you want your brand to play?

Wouldn't you rather be the one connecting with people because you know your stuff, because you share their values, because you know how to tell stories that make emotional connections?

Your brand's stories are your competitive differentiation. If you're sharing stories your audience could-and likely have-read somewhere else, what long-term value do you provide to your them?

Just look at Netflix. Not so long ago, Netflix could get by on curation alone, because it had a platform no one else had. It had unique relationships with film production companies and television studios. It was king of content aggregation and the almighty referrer for entertainment. But not anymore. Now it has to contend with Hulu, Amazon, and a variety of other platforms. So what does Netflix do? Tell really great stories that people can't find anywhere else.

Netflix has been putting more and more money into its content creation. This year, the company plans to invest another $8 billion to make at least half of its library original content. Industry analysts believe this could boost international subscribers by 50 percent.

Of course, Netflix will continue to curate content (at least for now) because that's a pretty major part of the business model. But the lesson here is clear: Original storytelling is how you build sustainable relationships with loyal audiences. It's how you keep them coming back for more. You're not the matchmaker or the third-wheel. You're the star of the show. Your brand's stories, values, and personality are front and center. And isn't that where you want them to be?

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Featured image attribution: Laëtitia Buscaylet


Taylor Holland

Taylor Mallory Holland is a freelance writer, editor, and content marketer specializing in technology, healthcare, and business leadership. As a content strategist, Holland contributes thought leadership content for some of the world's top brands, including Samsung, IBM, BlueCross BlueShield of Tennessee, and UCLA's David Geffen School of Medicine. She has been a contributor for The Content Standard since 2014.