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How Copying Content Works Against Your Business

Updated: Mar 8

This blog is designed to improve the number of positive reactions from your consumers by understanding why they ignore "safe" or conventional content and why so much of that content is created.

They say imitation is a form of flattery, but in the world of consumer relationships, we need additional context.

  • What if someone interprets the "imitation" as a rip-off of something?

  • What if someone interprets the "imitation" as a lazy excuse for not being original?

  • What if someone reacts to the "imitation" with exhaustion because it's been copied so many times?

If there was ever a place where consumers typically don't view imitation as a form of flattery, it's content and marketing. After all, we're not trying to flatter the people we're imitating. We want to engage and inspire an audience. But why does so much content look and sound the same, and why do people create so much overlap? Let's examine some examples.

The Podcast Example

At last year's Podcast Movement, I attended a session featuring new research on what listeners loved and hated about podcasts. A couple of items on the hates/drives them crazy list was coupled an openness to make an exception if podcasts would do more to differentiate themselves. Specifically, they said:

  1. They hated the fact that there are so many podcasts - but quality and consistency are king.

  2. They hated that there was so much overlap in content - but felt there were opportunities to cover new areas or provide deeper insights on popular topics.

Like many blogs today, you'll find a lot of overlap in topics, but the consumer will value something of high quality. A lot of podcasts are still doing the bare minimum when it comes to production quality, and listeners make quick judgments on that. So, deciding to put more effort into production quality can be a differentiator that listeners appreciate. Meanwhile, if your selected podcast topic is in a space filled with similar-themed podcasts, listeners might give you a try if you do things differently - like provide unique insights or go deeper than the typical talk.

Creativity and Value My first podcasts were focused on movies, television and fandom. This started in 2011, and there were tons of podcasts centered around these topics. Most podcasts simply involved an opening, followed by people talking about a movie, TV show, or other pop culture topic, and then it would end. I could do that too, but why would anyone add me to their listening routine? I figured the creators listened to other people and designed their show based on what they heard. It was as if their approach was to copy that because "that's how podcasts sound" instead of thinking about how to stand out while competing for attention and engagement. I went on to make a few successful shows that were known for their quality and unique presentation, including: Geeky Meeting Show One show opened with a "Meanwhile at the Hall of Justice"-like opening narration where listeners were invited to a fortress to join the hosts for an assembly of geeks meeting. It was like a city hall meeting, only the agenda was about what was happening in geek culture. However, there was always something happening at the fortress. So, it was part story (with music and sound effects) and part talk show. A Geeky Game Show Imagine ESPN's Around the Horn only with nerd culture as the central theme. Three nerds (me and two others) competed to become The Geek Supreme (inspired by Sorcerer Supreme) by sharing opinions and competing in challenges for points. The show ended a few years ago when the scorekeeper couldn't participate anymore. Yet, I received an email from a former listener last week who told me they missed the show and wanted to know if I could recommend any other podcasts like it. ​I couldn't think of any. Think about that kind of impact:

  • It was so different - they couldn't find anything else like it.

  • When it was gone, they couldn't find anything that unique.

  • They were still thinking about it years later.

I would think content creators and marketers would want their consumers and customers to feel the same way about their content. ​Today I host a marketing/communication podcast, and I don't have to tell you there are plenty of shows in the marketing space. When I first started listening to marketing podcasts, I wasn't getting any actionable insights or enough depth on topics.

So, on Get the Message, I open each show by sharing my thoughts on some ideas or trends to get people thinking. ​When it comes to an interview, I try to shape it into a discussion with the hopes of providing listeners with takeaways.

I don't just follow a question list. Instead, I use a list as a guide, knowing that the conversation could change as the discussion progresses. Active listening in an interview can be a differentiator in a podcast interview. Not everyone does that.

The Non-Profit Example

My path to podcasting was inspired by 3.5 years of work at the North Texas (Dallas/Fort Worth/Denton) NPR affiliate. I was hired in 2007 to boost radio lagging fundraising drives by revamping all messaging, content and strategy.

I entered a world known for its copycat and repetitive messaging - not just at this radio station but practically all stations that held on-air drives. Along with coffee mug gifts, here are common themes and phrases you would hear on several stations:

  • "Support us today"

  • "If you love this program, show it by donating"

  • "If you want this station to remain on the air, donate"

These were the types of things listeners might hear every hour, and even when listeners wouldn't respond, they would continue to say these things. I also remember talking to a local talk show producer about how listeners know the station will never go away, but pledge drives still said "it might" if money isn't raised.

Now I could write an entire blog about the messaging, content and strategy changes that turned lagging drives into record-breaking drives, but we're talking about something else here. Instead, I'll share something that was a game-changer.

The Resistance to Donating

Even after effectively changing some of the on-air messaging, there was still some resistance to donating.


Because even with some of the most powerful messages, many listeners liked to prove to themselves the radio staff couldn't "get them." In other words, they knew our job was to get people to donate, and they liked the idea that donating was something they decided to do on their own. This type of psychology isn't limited to non-profit donors or public radio listeners - consumers put up similar walls to anything that sounds like a sales pitch.

So, I met with the membership team and got a list of people who donated multiple times a year. I invited them to the station and interviewed them about why they give and think others should do the same.

I edited their interviews into 3-5 minute audio pieces that could be played during pledge breaks. While there was some overlap in their answers, everyone had a unique way of answering the questions. Each one had their personal story of listening, love and support.

Now, they couldn't resist because someone was on the air who was "paid" to ask for donations. Now people heard one of their own making the case. We were still working on a fundraising drive, but listeners were hearing something different - something they hadn't heard in any other drive.

It's even more interesting to consider when you think about the importance of testimonials, storytelling and social proof in marketing today. Listeners called the station to express how much they loved hearing the stories told by their fellow listeners and supporters. Some of the more successful concepts and strategies came from ideas that broke away from fundraising drive messages and content that listeners were used to hearing.

The Video Content Example

Like podcasts, it's been amazing watching YouTube become a search and content powerhouse. It used to be more of a fringe idea, but now all kinds of businesses and content creators have a presence there.

And you'll see an absurd amount of overlap in style. Some of the most prominent examples are:

  • Screaming "What's up everyone/guys!" at the viewer (Side note: It's best to act like you're talking to one person)

  • Telling people to like or subscribe BEFORE you get to the content

  • Telling people what you're going to talk about in the video (despite seeing the topic in the title)

  • Over-the-top shocked-like faces on the Thumbnail image

That last one might work against you if you're trying to be professional.

I see new people entering the TikTok space all the time and often see them doing what everyone else does. For example - If they give advice, they have to do that thing where a graphic appears with a tip written on it, and they point to it.


I see the graphic when it appears. Why does the content creator have to point at it?

Because they've seen others do it? Well, that's not a good reason, is it?

Is Content Imitation Rooted in Psychology?

Content imitation and repetition isn't just limited to videos and podcasts. It's also all too common to see companies follow into similar blog content traps. There is a ton of repetition in written content, and with every copy - the reasons to read drop dramatically (maybe below zero). Maybe people look at what others are doing and copy it because it's "safe" without realizing the drawbacks of blending in. Maybe there's a fear that doing it different might mean doing it "wrong." The irony is you risk copying things that are becoming increasingly "wrong," annoying or predictable. Ethan Beute and I discussed how this contributes to digital pollution on Get the Message.

Maybe people copy others and just don't realize it. ​Psychologist Dan Gilbert coined a term that might fit - it's called kleptomnesia. He says it's when you "generate an idea that you believe is novel, but in fact, was created by someone else. It's accidental plagiarism, and it's all too common in creative work." Wharton Organizational Psychologist Adam Grant explains it this way: Kleptomnesia happens due to a pragmatic, but peculiar feature of how human memory is wired. When we encode information, we tend to pay more attention to the content than the source. Once we accept a piece of information as true, we no longer need to worry about where we acquired it. This reminds me of the psychology that might explain an unwillingness to evolve marketing terminology. The brain accepts an acceptable view of something and then decides it doesn't need to consider anything else. This is known as habituation.

Favoring Innovation Over Imitation

Blogs, podcasts and social media posts are all in the marketing mainstream, and consumers experience a lot of overlap. So, if we really want to talk about what's "safe" and what defines a practical approach - it's better to focus on innovation over imitation. Be mindful of the repetition in content and common traits that annoy consumers.

Training for "The Norm"

Trent Greener, Moz associate and Head of Digital for iSpot.TV points out that people grow up wanting to be normal (kids who are viewed as "different" aren't always treated well). However, even if adults recognize the importance of being unique, it doesn't always translate to their business mindset.

"While as marketers we are all acutely aware of the importance of differentiation, we've been trained for the majority of our lives to seek out the norm."

The "norm" can be determined by what everyone else (even the competition) is doing. Then, when the consumer walks into a room, everyone does the same dance.

Catching the Copycat

Video Strategist Virginia Kerr says she caught herself copying content when she started and immediately changed course. She advises others to be a content creator instead of a copycat creator.

Embracing the Dynamic

In a great article explaining the engagement and customer benefits of dynamic content, Chris Mulvaney (CEO of CMDS) sums up what happens in the customer's brain when they keep seeing the same things.

"Customers develop repetition blindness, where messaging they have seen over and over again just fades into the background to the point they no longer even notice it."

Embracing Creativity Over Conformity

To be clear, I'm not suggesting you have to be 100% totally original, and you can't let someone else's idea inspire you. However, as you do this, you should know how to put your stamp on it and understand what ideas won't align with your business.

In other words, you don't have to dance because that's what you saw people do on TikTok.

Gary Vee suggests taking control of TikTok before it takes control of you. His TikTok video team focuses on finding "trends" but not "conforming" to them. Even better, get on some early trends before everyone starts doing it - like dancing or pointing at graphics.

Remembering Experiments and Accidents

Remember, experimentation is a big part of attempting to connect with your audience through content. When companies spend money on experimentation, they make that money back (and then some) when something really works!

Sometimes accidents can inspire a better way to communicate and connect. I remember reading a marketing story about a guy who accidentally posted a personal picture on his company's Facebook page. He was responsible for Facebook content and thought he was on his personal account.

The photo was an old childhood picture, and by the time he realized he posted it on the wrong account - it generated the most engagement of any post the "company" shared. Before then, they did what they saw other companies do - use Facebook as a promotional and advertising billboard.

Their engagement was non-existent.

However, this accident changed how they approached Facebook content, and it was a game-changer.

Don't forget the story about the guy who randomly decided to video himself riding a skateboard while drinking Ocean Spray and listening to Fleetwood Mac. It boosted Ocean Spray's (and Fleetwood Mac's) sales and stock.

It shouldn't necessarily move marketers to create videos of someone skateboarding with their products. Still, it should inspire them to break out of the typical, stale and repetitive content that fades into the consumer's background.

Understanding what causes us to communicate or create a certain way helps us develop better ways to connect with our audiences. If I can help you, contact me today.