This article was originally published in the MarketingSherpa email newsletter.
The rise of digital publishing has provided a voice to anyone with a digital device and an internet connection, anywhere in the world. For brands and businesses — both massive and solopreneurs — it means the ability to publish content marketing and get the word out about your products and services directly to the customer.
That’s a good thing. A powerful way to grow your company.
But as publishing has become democratized, now all of us are newspaper editors and book publishers — with no training.
And because of that, properly quoting your sources is a significant professional courtesy that is seriously lacking.
Quit biting my style
In any creative or artistic endeavor, there lies the temptation to copy successful inspiration. Music. Writing. Comedy. “You have a better chance of stopping a serial killer than a serial thief in comedy,” comedian David Brenner said. “If we could protect our jokes, I’d be a retired billionaire in Europe somewhere — and what I just said is original.”
Having an actual new idea is extremely difficult. As Barenaked Ladies has sung, “It’s all been done before.”
And occasionally, we’re not even aware we didn’t come up with an original idea, as this quick clip from Seinfeld so beautifully illustrates:
But do you see what I did in each of those instances? I gave credit where it is due. As we publish content through MarketingSherpa, MarketingExperiments or MECLABS Institute, I’m also surprised how often people think it’s okay to simply use our content with no permission or attribution.
And I’m not talking about content scraping. That is straight-up malicious.
But there are plenty of seemingly well-meaning content marketers who don’t credit sources just for lack of knowledge. While there are brand journalists who have actually gone to journalism college, most people publishing content marketing today have done so with little to no training. It’s just not their expertise.
So they overlook properly crediting sources. And when you don’t credit your sources, you are essentially taking credit for someone else’s idea and saying it is your own. You are copying.
I’ll give you an example. I was a guest speaker on a webinar. We did a run-through on the slides before the webinar. And I was impressed with some of the content this speaker and this company had. So after the run-through, I started asking him about it.
He was quite forthright. Didn’t realize he was doing anything wrong. “Oh, that’s just some stuff I found by Googling around.” But for anyone watching the webinar, attendees would have thought it was his content and data (unless they knew the original, in which case he would have looked like a fraud). The story has a happy ending. He was more than happy to properly source, once our team showed him how — which I’ll show in just a minute, but first, what’s in it for you?
When you source, you might get some attention thrown back your way
As a writer and content creator, of course, I do this job so I can get a paycheck. That’s a huge part of it.
There are a lot of ways to get a paycheck. I also do this job because I absolutely love writing and creating content of all types. So I enjoy getting feedback on my writing. Of course, I’m always a sucker for positive reactions, but even honest, intelligent negative feedback is appreciated because it’s helpful.
One way I get that feedback is when something I’ve done is quoted or referenced by someone in an article, blog post, or another type of content.
Because of that, when I’m aware of it, I almost always share it if it is a quality piece of helpful content.
And many brands and publications are the same way (we certainly love sharing with our MarketingSherpa, MarketingExperiments and MECLABS Institute audiences).
As Dale Carnegie has famously said, “A person’s name is to that person, the sweetest, most important sound in any language.”
So even if you want to be the world’s biggest and most selfish schmuck and take credit for other people’s ideas — this is why you shouldn’t. It’s not in your self-interest.
If you give credit where it’s due, you might (just might) get some of that light shined right back at you.
Be a part of the creative community
If you’re just in content marketing to get the traffic and leads and don’t care about anything else, you don’t need to read the rest of this blog post. You already see what’s in it for you. Now go forward and source properly.
But there is, of course, also an altruistic reason of sorts. If you’re a creative (a writer, designer, musician, etc.), you are part of a bigger creative community. A guild of sorts. And if we had an official credo or ethos, this would be part of it. Don’t copy.
Why be in a creative profession at all if you’re just going to copy and take credit for it? Put your own ideas out into the world. There are other ways to make money than being a creative. In fact, some of them are built on copying. Manufacturing is successful when the process is followed as strictly as possible to make high-quality products. In other words, copying. So, you can do that to make a living.
Especially, now, in these times I’ve seen everything become even a little more communal. When Flint McGlaughlin emailed me the title for one of his MarketingExperiments live streaming sessions, I think it perfectly encapsulated this mood — Marketers Stand Together.
One way to stand together is by giving credit where it is due.
And there are other reasons as well
Sourcing helps provide credibility. It can be a positive that your ideas are more than your own, that they are well researched and backed up by others.
Plus, if you take credit for something that isn’t yours, and your audience discovers this pilfering, you will lose all trust and credibility with them.
There are also legal reasons like trademarks and copyrights. I won’t get into those because I’m not a lawyer. But they exist.
How to source
Okay, I’ll get down from my soapbox now. Because it’s really not that hard to do. Here’s what I advise:
- Credit the company where the info came from by mentioning them in your content
- Credit the individual writer, where applicable, by mentioning him or her in your content
- Link back to the original piece of content (for example, one way I find content that mentions our brands is by looking at Referral Traffic in Google Analytics). If you’re making a print piece, have the full URL written out.
- On social media, @ mention the company and/or individual. If you’re directly sharing the same words of someone else, use quotation marks and @ mention them. (Sometimes I see posts with a direct quote from an article and a link to an article. But when those words aren’t in quotations and attributed, it seems like the person posting on social media is saying it, and yet they are simply copying and pasting the article author’s words)
It’s always nice when you send an email, social media message or even a physical copy (of something in print) to the source of the information you’re quoting to thank them. Bonus: They are more likely to share your content with their audience if they know it exists.
This is for simple stuff. If you plan on using someone else’s content in a significant way, especially if that is in a paid product or non-public (like behind a firewall), you should reach out and ask permission. While I had mostly focused on negative examples, people email us for permission all the time and I am thankful for those people.
Here’s a nice example I received while writing this blog post. It is a slightly edited excerpt of a LinkedIn message from Adam Thompson, Director of Digital Marketing, ReliaSite:
Hi Daniel, I’m working on an article for one of our sites: 100+ research-based ecommerce marketing tactics. It’s basically a curation of conclusions from case studies, surveys, tests, etc. No surprise that many of the studies I’d like to reference are from you guys. 👍
Some of them are in your PDFs/swipe files … since that’s not public content, I wanted to check if you’re OK with how I’m planning to reference them. I’m planning to write my own summary, credit MECLABS, and include a link to the landing page where users can enter their email and download the swipe file themselves. In about half the cases, I’m thinking to include a screenshot. Something like attached. Any thoughts on that? I feel like it’ll be a win for you (long term, this is a new site without much traffic yet) because anyone who wants the full info will need to give you their email to download the full file, but I just want to be sure I’m respecting your content, especially since this is content you’ve gated. 😃
Creative Sample: Example image of how content will be attributed, from a permission request email
I’ll give you this — there is a gray area in creativity for sure. We’re all coming up with ideas out of the same primordial ooze, and often two well-meaning, independent people come up with similar ideas. In addition, many ideas are built on other ideas.
This happens all the time. We come up with an idea and didn’t realize it already existed. A fun example is the movie “Yesterday.” It’s a great little movie (I think I saw it on an airplane, and my bar is always so much lower for plane movies) about an incident that causes everyone in the world to forget about The Beatles, except one guy. He starts performing all The Beatles songs, and since everyone thinks they are original, he rises to worldwide acclaim because of his supposedly brilliant songwriting.
Funny thing, though. When you go to the Wikipedia page for that movie, it has a section called “Similarities,” which calls out five other creative works with similar premises or themes. So even a movie about copying someone else’s creative work isn’t entirely original.
“We all learn and copy from each other. Nothing is totally original. But the seminal idea should morph into something rather new,” MECLABS copy editor Linda Johnson told me. In fact, to give credit to where it’s due, she sparked the idea for this blog post. She had found an example of another company questionably using some of our brands and ideas.
So by all means, get inspired by others. Creativity needs a spark. Everything we create today has been inspired by everything that has come before us. As Isaac Newton said, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants.”
Just know the difference between creating something truly original inspired by other works, and straight-up copying. “It’s kind of like reading a bestseller and writing your own because you are inspired. But you use so many poorly disguised ideas from the book, people familiar with the original are put off,” Johnson told me.
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