8 ways brands botch content aggregation

Here are common mistakes that marketers should avoid, along with the upside of curating material for your online audience.


What’s the biggest problem marketers face when it comes to content marketing? Producing original content is No. 1, followed closely by the challenge of finding the time to produce content, according to the findings of a 2011 survey conducted by Curata.

Content aggregation is a highly proactive and selective approach to finding, collecting, organizing, presenting, sharing, and displaying digital content around predefined sets of criteria and subject matter to appeal to a target audience. It’s become integral not only to marketing and branding, but also to journalism, reporting, and social media.

Content curation and aggregation can take many forms, including feeds or channels such as YouTube. It can appear on blogs or even be something as simple as the links you upload to social media sites such as Facebook. It can be an online newsroom, a collection of links, an assortment of RSS feeds, or a Twitter list.

Whatever form it does take, it keys on a topic, or a subject, or even a sensibility that speaks to the knowledge, expertise, taste, refinement, brand message, or persona of the person, brand, or company that has created the particular content channel.

There is, unsurprisingly, a dark side of content aggregation. In this article, we’ll look at the eight worst practices that are upsettingly common among brands.

When content aggregation goes wrong

Perhaps unsurprising, half of the worst practices in content aggregation touch on potential unethical, immoral, and even downright criminal practices—willful or otherwise—that can be associated with content aggregation. You must understand what they are before launching a content aggregation program of your own.

Ethics

Plagiarism. Stealing ideas (or passages or quotes) and passing them off as your own is not “aggregation.” It’s theft. And fraud. Understand what plagiarism is, and don’t do it. It’s that simple.

Lack of attribution. Give credit where credit is due, right? It’s important to clearly indicate your sources for a variety of reasons, ranging from transparency to credibility (both yours and theirs).

Un-fair use. Aggregating content comes with a set of obligations—ethical and moral, as well as legal. Respect copyright. Most editorial sites have published guidelines regarding reuse of their content. In most (but not all) cases, this can be summarized as allowing third parties to link to the full story or item with a headline and brief descriptive blurb or a quote of reasonable length. Most publishers are happy for the link. It increases both their traffic and their search engine visibility.

Other sites have more liberal or more restrictive policies. When in doubt, ask. Send an email explaining what you’d like to use and why. With most websites getting the bulk of their traffic these days from social media, publishers understand the value of such referrals, and linking to content legally is much easier than it was in the days when many publishers thought proprietary was the way to go.

The missing links. Aggregated content is valuable to you, just as traffic and search engine visibility is worth something to the site on which the content originally appeared. Be nice, as well as transparent. Link to the content source. Links are how the Web works, after all.

Quality

Lack of variety. Now that we’re on the straight and narrow, ethically speaking, let’s be careful not to be boring. The whole point of aggregating is to select—or to curate—a plethora (or at least a small bouquet) of sources around your topic. Don’t be that guy whose idea of personal branding is to tweet article after article—all from the Harvard Business Review. Because really, for that all you need to do is visit HBR.org.

Erasing experience. Publishers do more than push words and images at their audiences. They create experiences. It’s more than the what of the content; it’s where it resides, how it’s laid out, presented, and feels to the end user. Aggregation often strips the original content of a tremendous amount of its value.

You might not be able to match the original experience on your end, nor should you try to, but consider how aggregated content is presented, not just what it says.

Failure to apply curation to aggregation. Whether aggregation is manual or machine-driven, criteria for selecting what to share must be selective. Take time to create an aggregation strategy based on what you’ll share, from where, how frequently, and what qualifies to make the cut.

If aggregated content is automated, be very careful and specific about what’s harvested. Test it before pushing it live.

Don’t ignore mainstream media. Too often, brands believe aggregated content must strictly conform to narrow criteria or hyper-specific industries. Wrong. Overlaying mainstream news onto a narrow vertical can go far in contextualizing it. The impact of Hurricane Sandy? A stock market crash? Political upheaval? Contextualizing a niche by helping an audience find its place in mainstream content can be extraordinarily useful to your audience.

When content aggregation is done right

Let’s not end on a negative note. Yes, content aggregation can go wrong, but it can also go very right.

Why bother with content aggregations? Tons of reasons, really. It’s a very big Web out there. There are literally billions of sites, millions of blogs, and more video being uploaded per minute to YouTube and tweets tweeted than you could watch or read in a lifetime. The problem isn’t gaining access to enough content. It’s knowing what content actually merits time and attention.

Increasingly, people rely on trusted sources—friends, family, brands, and companies—to keep them informed, educated, and even amused. You probably have one go-to friend for car advice, another who can tell you what new books or films are worth seeing, and another who’s got the lowdown on the latest places to eat. Much like these go-to friends, businesses can and should collect, organize, and filter content around their own fields of expertise.

Content can be as subject-specific as beekeeping supplies or as amorphous as “what’s cool.” All can serve multiple purposes, ranging from informing to engaging to entertaining. In an era where marketing is supplanting advertising and storytelling is an increasingly essential part of the marketing message, carefully curated content—content that is well organized and presented—is an immense brand asset, be it to a humble, over-caffeinated individual blogger or a Fortune 100 company.

There are plenty of examples of brands out there that know how to aggregate content the right way. For example, Purina’s Pet Charts site aggregates pet-related content from across the Web. GE’s EcoPressed does the same thing with ecologically minded content, while Green Data Center News from Verne Global has a computer technology bent. Similarly, Adobe’s CMO.com is a collection of marketing stories and news targeted to a critical section of the company’s target customer.

Not all content aggregation efforts have to be standalone sites. 3M has a widget on its career page containing articles highlighting the company’s innovations and achievements. Aggregation has also been embraced by the nonprofit sector. The Economic Development Council of Western Massachusetts, for example, aggregates content about business and economic growth in the region.

Avoid the worst practices listed in this article, and seek to emulate the above companies. You’ll find yourself building a trustworthy and successful aggregated network of content in no time.

Rebecca Lieb is an analyst, digital advertising and media, for Altimeter Group. A version of this article ran on iMediaConnection.com.

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