By Joe Gillespie

In 2018, after about a quarter-century of easily accessible internet, the question must be asked: Is there anything truly original on the web?

Think about it. Wikipedia became the go-to source to learn about almost everything, but it requires (well, strongly recommends) citations to back up the information. More officially, news organizations and bloggers write articles, which are linked to, expanded upon by others, analyzed, and debated. Content inspires other content, but finding a topic’s starting point can be challenge.

Original ideas are out there, and even in originality’s absence, marketers can get creative in putting a new spin on something. Yet, in 2018, marketers writing content—really, anybody writing anything—need to beware of an unfortunate side effect of the internet age: borrowing content too frequently.

Properly attributing sources for your inbound content not only is good marketing strategy, but also is ethical and builds your brand’s reputation. The practice seems simple enough, but many people erroneously believe that just because something is online, it’s fair game to use in any way they want. Here’s a guide for producing inbound blogs, e-books, and other content that correctly cites sources, properly credits the work of others, and doesn’t plagiarize.

 

Don’t Believe Everything on the Internet

Facts and figures on the web are used, reused, cited, and casually tossed around so much that determining the original source can be difficult—if those statistics are even accurate in the first place.

A classic example of this is the talking point that 90 percent of new restaurants fail in the first year. This stat has been around for years and regularly pops up in internet articles … but it has been thoroughly debunked, including in this smackdown from Forbes. Yet, writers still see the figure online and assume that, because it’s online and perhaps even linked, it must be true.

If you do see a fact or statistic that speaks to the subject of your content, strive to find its original source. Often, you’ll find something cited that is linked to another website, which linked it from somewhere else, which linked it from somewhere else … and so on. Or the link takes you to a website that cited the fact without any attribution, and you hit a dead end.

Although you have some leeway when linking news sources that cite facts, always strive to find the original source and link to that. If you’re lucky, you are only one or two clicks away from a concrete source. (Note: News releases are great finds in this regard because they are official announcements of your source that the organization wants you to use).

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Cite Others’ Work Properly

You have found facts or opinions that perfectly support the message of your content. That’s great, but you must be sure to correctly attribute the source of what you want to use. Some best practices in this effort:

  • If you’re taking text directly from another source, without any paraphrasing or rewording, place in quotes, name the source, and link to its website.
  • If you’re rewording—and sometimes you do this to achieve brevity and clarity out of context of the original source—name the source and link.
  • If you’re highlighting something small or simply want readers to visit the external website to learn more, at least link to that source (but preferably, you want to include the name of the source).
  • Unless you’re writing highly technical/scientific content with dozens of sources, you don’t have to get too deep into naming the source for your blog posts (i.e., cite the publication but not necessarily the author unless there is a compelling reason to do so).

Here are a couple examples of good sourcing, from the same source:

  1. You’re citing a statistic but not exactly quoting it: “According to HubSpot in its State of Inbound 2018 Global Report, 54 percent of respondents say blog content creation is a top priority for inbound marketing.” The report is 72 slides long (and great reading for inbound marketers!), but you don’t necessarily need to point out precisely where the stat is at—this isn’t formal footnoting, but rather, just a link that attributes and acknowledges the info you are using.
  2. You are quoting another source: “According to HubSpot in its State of Inbound 2018 Global Report, Marketers today are investing more in video channels, social networks such as Instagram, and messaging applications such as Facebook Messenger, in a bid the reach customers and prospects where they prefer to be online.’ ” Here, you are using someone’s words verbatim, and the quotation marks and leave no room for doubt that this is another’s creativing that you’re citing.

Another consideration: When is something truly someone else’s work and when it is so common that you don’t have to cite a source? Use your best judgment. To say “The sky is blue” is obvious, is factually scientific, and won’t need to be attributed. Saying “The sky is blue, and, according to one scientist, is getting bluer every day,” needs a link to the what the scientist is saying. When in doubt (and consider your industry and your thought leadership when making a decision), err on the side of attribution.

The P Word

Professional writers take plagiarism seriously—their reputations depend on creating original content and respecting the work of other writers. Marketers should pursue the same diligence with inbound content. However, many marketers don’t know where the line is drawn on plagiarism. Copying and pasting large sections of copy and passing them off as your own is obviously bad, but taking existing content and simply rewriting it—without bringing anything original to the table—also meanders into unethical.

And then, some plagiarism is accidental, such as forgetting to attribute a source or pulling in text just as a reference that somehow gets into the finished copy (which is why copying and pasting from another document just to have on your screen is usually never a good idea, even without malicious intent). The Visual Communication Guy put together an impressive “Did I Plagiarize?” flow chart to help writers determine if they’ve run afoul of plagiarism best practices. Although the chart is more geared toward professional and academic writing, it still gives marketers a good frame of reference when developing inbound content.

The Benefits of Originality

Besides maintaining your—and your organization’s—reputation, guaranteeing inbound content is original and correctly attributes sources offers many advantages, including:

  • Thought leadership: For many businesses, the inbound content you create will highlight and promote your organization’s thought leadership. When that thought leadership is unique—no matter how common in your industry—the content impresses prospects even more. (And if you can’t find stats or data to support your thought leadership, develop and conduct your own research! In this way, you become the source others turn to for insight and guidance.)
  • Google prefers originality: Search engines can penalize websites that contain content that is similar to other pages. Staying original gives Google’s algorithms reason to rank your content higher—and your inbound efforts can do the rest.
  • Not plagiarizing yourself: The idea that you can plagiarize yourself might seem absurd on the surface, but reusing content verbatim, although perhaps not unethical from a marketing standpoint, does throw the same copy at prospects without bringing anything new to the table (plus, again, Google doesn’t like it). Some of your marketing messaging will (and should) remain consistent, but resist the urge to copy and paste everything when repurposing or reimagining content.
  • Expanding on others’ content: If you are properly attributing sources, you can expand on those ideas with fresh content of your own. This HubSpot blog post explores ways to innovate others’ content into new, non-plagiarized offerings. For example, another company’s “5 Things to Avoid in Widget Production” can be reimagined into “5 Ways to Maximize Widget Production.” Creativity is at the heart of being original, so if you see content you wish you could have written first, don’t copy it—improve upon it.
Photo by Brett Sayles from Pexels
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Joe Gillespie

About the author

Joe Gillespie is a Senior Brand Journalist for SmartBug Media. He graduated from Marquette University with a B.A. in journalism and is a two-decade veteran of the newspaper industry. As a Senior Brand Journalist, Joe writes and edits inbound marketing content for SmartBug's clients. Read more articles by Joe Gillespie.

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