“Originality” is the original sin of marketing.

Blame it on the valorization of Don Draper-esque figures, but there is a widespread belief that to be successful in marketing, you have to come up with wildly original ideas.

The end result is marketers who chase originality just for the sake of being original.

I have the opposite belief: that successful marketing is seldom original.

Rather, it borrows ideas from already successful campaigns and reworks them into something new and interesting.

I’ll make a case for “unoriginality” in this post.

I’ll also share ideas and strategies for finding unoriginal ideas and using them in your campaigns.

Why Being “Unoriginal” Works

Years before I was a marketer, I was a screenwriter.

One of the core tenets of screenwriting is that there are only a handful of original plots (the “seven basic plots”).

Every story, no matter how inventive, fits into one of these established plots.

This is why screenwriters are encouraged to not be wildly original. Instead, they should borrow ideas from established plots and tropes.

I later discovered that the same holds true for marketing content as well.

It’s not important to come up with wildly original ideas. If you can do that consistently, then great. But for the vast majority of marketers, using proven ideas and content models will yield far better results.

For example, this is what I see when I search for “content marketing” on BuzzSumo:

BuzzSumo, content marketing search.

The first and the fifth result have something in common: they’re both focused on “content marketing trends”.

Another example shows this idea much better.

Journalist Esther Honig asked people from 25 different countries to Photoshop a woman’s face according to their own cultural expectations.

Journalist Esther Honig photoshop women from different cultures.

The story went viral and was picked up by a number of news outlets. Eventually, it earned Esther’s website hundreds of backlinks.


This was back in 2014.

A year later, Onlinedoctor.com created a similar story that was also picked up by major news outlets. They even acknowledged that it was inspired by Honig’s story.

Article header

As a result of this promotion, Onlinedoctor.com picked up hundreds of backlinks.

article backlinks

The template remains the same: take a successful story, then use it to come up with a new, but similar idea.

Five Reasons to be “Unoriginal”

There are five reasons why I ask my team to come up with “unoriginal” ideas:

  • Easier brainstorming: Instead of coming up with completely new ideas, you can use existing ideas as a springboard for creativity. This makes brainstorming significantly easier.
  • Easier content creation: Content creation becomes significantly easier when you have a successful model to follow. You can borrow similar formatting, writing style and presentation.
  • Easier distribution: Media outlets and influencers are more likely to share something that has worked for them in the past. If you use a successful idea as a reference piece, you’ll find that people are more willing to share it.
  • Easier planning: Original ideas are unproven by design. Planning becomes harder when you can’t predict the success of an idea.
  • Easier to scale: A completely original idea is akin to capturing lightning in a bottle; it doesn’t happen often. But you can come up with a number of “unoriginal” ideas quite easily. This makes it easier to scale and systemize your marketing.

I’m not averse to original ideas, of course. I try to come up with as many as I can. But for every original idea, I try to come up with at least 2-3 proven “unoriginal” ideas as well. This makes content creation and promotion faster. And usually, delivers better results.

How to Use Unoriginal Ideas

My process for using unoriginality in my content marketing campaigns is simple:

  • Find a proven idea
  • Use proven idea to create fresh content
  • Find distribution targets based on the proven idea

I’ll show you how to do this below.

Find Proven Ideas

My favorite resource to find proven ideas is BuzzSumo. BuzzSumo shows you the most shared content for a topic.

Enter your keywords (try both with and without quotes) into the search box. For example, this is what I see for “influencer marketing”:

influencer marketing, search results

Try to find patterns or ideas that pop-up frequently in your searches. Ask yourself: “what general rule can you draw from this pattern?”

In the above example, two of the best-performing articles are guides. The other two are profiles of people using influencer marketing.

This shows that guides and profiles are popular content types in this niche. Something similar (but better/fresher) has a good chance of working.

Instead of keywords, you can also search for a competitor’s domain to see what works for them.

For instance, “trends” focused articles tend to do well on ConvinceAndConvert.

convince and convert, search results,

This tells me that readers in the content marketing space like to read about predictions and trends. That is, these are forward-looking people who want to stay up to date on trends.

Another great resource is Reddit, especially for B2C topics.

Search for your target keyword on Reddit, then look for successful posts. Also, make note of the subreddit they appear in.

For example, this is what I see for “influencer marketing”:

influencer marketing. reddit, search results.

Three of the top five posts are “what is” style beginner-friendly posts. This tells me that Reddit’s audience has a generalist bent. It wants more beginner-focused articles.

If I was trying to appeal to this audience, I might create something similar.

Yet another resource for finding ideas is HackerNews (HN), especially for tech/startups-focused content.

Since HN’s search feature is limited, you can use Algolia’s HN search instead. Search for your keyword, then sort the content by popularity. Broader keywords work better since HN doesn’t have as much content as Reddit or Buzzsumo.

For example, here’s what I see for “marketing”:

Algolia HN search

Anything related to “startups” or “hackers/developers” tends to do well.

Besides these, you can also try finding ideas on:

  • Weekly article roundups
  • Niche-focused industry newsletters like Sidebar.io (for design)
  • Case studies (search for “[keyword] + case study”)
  • Niche-focused content curation platforms like Inbound.org

I like to make a spreadsheet with all the ideas I find. This serves as my “inspiration board” for content campaigns.

Turn Proven Ideas into Fresh Content

Next step: use your list of proven ideas to come up with new content ideas.

Three ways you can approach this:

1. Make the content better

This is the “Skyscraper” approach – take a proven idea, make it better.

In a nutshell, you can improve existing content by:

  • Making more in-depth content
  • Using better presentation/design
  • Adding interactive elements

For example, I recently created this page on growth hacking tactics.

growth hacking tactics

I took a list of growth hacking ideas and collected them on a single page. But instead of creating a simple blog post, I categorized each tactic on a standalone, interactive page.

Because of the depth and design of the content, my team was able to win backlinks from simple outreach:

outreach email example
2. Use the same idea in another niche

With this approach, you take an idea proven to work in one niche and use it in another niche.

There are two ways to do this:

  • Niche substitution: Find a proven idea in one niche, then rework the same idea to focus on your niche.
  • Niche narrowing: Find an idea in a broad niche, then narrow it down to your niche.

For example, you might have seen these articles on the “habits of successful people”:

“habits of successful people” search results

“Successful people” is a very broad term. You can use the same article idea and apply it to a narrow group of people such as “entrepreneurs” or “artists”.

“Successful people” search results

You can narrow it down even further to “young entrepreneurs” (like in the third article above) or “e-commerce entrepreneurs”.

Here’s another example: this site created a “map of musical genres” modeled on a subway map:

london subway map

The subway map presents a model for showing lots of data and the process to move through them. Swami Chandrasekaran, a data scientist used this model to show the path to learning data science:

path to learning data science

This is an example of niche substitution – the data science “map” has the same core structure as the musical genres map. What has changed is the actual content.

3. Create new content based on existing themes

This is my favorite tactic for coming up with new content ideas: find something that works, then brainstorm something related to it.

Here’s my process for using this approach:

  1. Find a proven, successful piece of content.
  2. Extract the content’s key theme or emotion.
  3. Use the same theme in another content piece.

The second step is critical for this strategy to work. Essentially, your job is to analyze what core idea and emotion the content piece tackles, then use it in another article, infographic or video.

Ask yourself: what does this content make me feel? What emotion does it allude to?

For example, the main topic of this article I referenced above is beauty standards. The central emotion, however, is how beauty standards cause insecurity and poor self-image.

Article cover photo

Similarly, the main topic of this article is infrastructure. The emotion it elicits, however, is concern and alarm over failing infrastructure.

Article cover photo

If you can tie the content to an event – such as the Superbowl final, an election, a weather event (such as a hurricane), etc. – you’ll see even better results.

This emotion-led content ideation is particularly powerful. While being interesting is great, you will get more people to click and share if you can tap into their emotions.

Once you’ve identified the key theme and emotion, you can brainstorm similar ideas.

Proven ideas are not only useful for creating content. As you’ll see in the next section, they can also help with content promotion.

Find Content Distribution Opportunities

Content creation is the easy part of content marketing. The harder task is distributing this content.

Media, influencers and bloggers are obvious targets for content distribution.

These targets, however, want to share only the best content with their audience.

How can you reassure media outlets and influencers that your content will be well-received?

Easy: by using a proven idea as the inspiration for your content.

This removes all uncertainty from the content. You can point to the original idea and tell bloggers that “if X was successful, Y – which is based on X – will be successful as well”.

You’ll find that influencers and media outlets are much more willing to share content built on proven ideas.

Finding such bloggers and media outlets is easy. You can:

  • Backlink checkers: Find websites that have linked to the content. Use your favorite backlink checker (Moz, Ahrefs, Majestic, etc.)
  • Check sharers: Use BuzzSumo’s “View Sharers” tool to see journalists and bloggers who’ve shared the content.
  • Use Google Image search: For visual content pieces, do a reverse image search to see everyone who has linked to the content.

Add all these targets into a spreadsheet.

I like to segregate the list into three tiers:

  • Top-Tier: This includes high-authority websites, top journalists, bloggers and influencers. Reaching out to them requires extensive personalization and multiple touches.
  • Middle-tier: This includes moderately authoritative websites and blogs. You can send them an email from a template with a couple of personalized lines.
  • Bottom-tier: This includes low-quality websites. You can send them emails from templates with minimal personalization.

With top-tier targets, my aim is to build a relationship before pitching my content, or at least earning some visibility. Establish a communication cadence where you leave 2-3 tweets, followed by 2-3 comments on their blog posts to make yourself more visible to them.

This way, when you send your email pitch, you aren’t completely new to them; you’re a name and face they would be familiar with.

Do this in the long-term and you’ll earn some solid relationships with important journalists, bloggers and influencers.

For middle-tier targets, however, consider sending an email from a template. Instead of personalizing each line, add a couple of personalized sentences at the top of the email.

Use a template like this:

Hi {Name}

{Personalized comment about their recent blog post}

I noticed that you’d linked to an article about {proven idea}. This was a big success and had hundreds of shares.

{Link to original idea}

I recently put together an article on a similar topic exploring {Info about your new content}.

{Link to your new content}

This article has had great response so far – x,xxx shares and x,xxx pageviews.

I would love to hear your thoughts on it.

Maybe it’s worth a mention on your site as well?


One way to maximize your response rate is to get influencer “buy-in” before you even create the content. This means either getting influencers involved in the content creation, or getting them to commit to checking out the content before it goes live.

You can do this several ways:

  • Ask influencers for their feedback on your “work in progress” content draft.
  • Ask influencers for a quote, data or insight which will be used in the content.
  • Tell them that you’re going to create something similar to content they’d shared earlier. Ask if they want to be notified once it’s live. Surprisingly, many will agree.

If you do all the above, you’ll make content distribution much, much easier.

Over to You

Originality is good to have, but not a necessary ingredient for content marketing success. In fact, you can often get better results by leveraging existing successful ideas to create new content.

By building your fresh content on proven ideas, you make content creation easier. You also get a nice list of potential content distribution targets. Plus, since the idea has proven to work in the past, there is a good chance it will work for you as well.

So be original. But from time to time, throw in some unoriginal ideas into your content marketing campaigns as well.

Note: The opinions expressed in this article are the views of the author, and not necessarily the views of Caphyon, its staff, or its partners.

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