The Art of Ethical Content Stealing

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If you’ve been reading along with us here on the Single Grain blog, you know that we’re all about creating high value content that engages readers and drives traffic as a method of website promotion.  So it might surprise you to know that we’re also highly in favor of stealing content – as long as it’s done ethically.

No, we’re not saying that you should go out and claim the work of others as your own.  That’s plagiarism, and it should be avoided like the plague.

Instead, what you have to recognize is that there are very few truly original ideas out there.  According to a telling quote from Mark Twain – as cited in “Mark Twain: A Biography” by Albert Bigelow Pain:

“There is no such thing as a new idea. It is impossible. We simply take a lot of old ideas and put them into a sort of mental kaleidoscope. We give them a turn and they make new and curious combinations. We keep on turning and making new combinations indefinitely; but they are the same old pieces of colored glass that have been in use through all the ages.”

Artists, writers and other creative types have been adapting each other’s work and ideas for centuries – building on what’s been proven to work and discarding elements that don’t.  You can do the same with your digital content pieces!

The following are a few different ways that you can steal content ideas without violating any ethical guidelines.  Taken together, these techniques can make it much easier to develop winning content pieces and to avoid the type of burnout that plagues those who feel they must do everything from scratch.

Things to Steal #1 – Headlines

The first thing that you should absolutely “steal” is headline structures.  Scientific advertisers have been formulating and testing these headlines for decades, giving marketers today a pretty good idea of what works when it comes to these important content cues.  So why on earth would you try to reinvent the wheel or think that your “brilliant” headline will perform better than those that have stood up to the test of time?

Here’s how to do it…

First, find a well-trafficked blog in your industry that lists its most popular blog posts somewhere on the site (typically found in the sidebar widget or on a special “Start Here” page).  Then, take a look at the titles of the most popular articles on the site.

As an example, let’s look at “4 Hour Work Week” author Tim Ferriss’s popular lifestyle blog.  In this case, the most popular article of all time on the site is one titled, “How to Lose 20 lbs. of Fat in 30 Days… Without Doing Any Exercise.”

Now, you don’t need to operate in the health and fitness industry to steal this headline for your own use.  Instead, break it down so that you understand the root of what makes this article title so powerful:

  • “How to” – Readers love instructional topics and tend to gravitate towards headlines that promise much-needed, easy-to-digest information.
  • “Lose 20 lbs. of Fat in 30 Days” – This part of the headline touches on a hotly-emotional issue that many internet readers face.
  • “Without Doing Any Exercise” – The clincher here is that the article headline delivers its benefits without requiring extra effort on the part of readers.  This is huge for driving reader engagement.

Once you know how the different emotional appeals behind the headline are operating, you can modify this headline structure to suit your own content pieces and industry.  All of the following headline examples follow this same format – effectively stealing what makes the original headline so effective without directly plagiarizing the author’s original work:

  • How to Pay Off $5,000 in Credit Card Debt… Without Giving Up Your Daily Latte
  • How to Pick Up Girls at Bars… Without Making a Fool of Yourself
  • How to Easily Potty Train Your Child… Without All the Accidents

Things to Steal #2 – Content Structures

But beyond headlines, there are plenty of other content elements that you can steal for your own purposes.  For instance, how about the entire structure of your articles?

Writing your articles is another place where you don’t need to reinvent the wheel every time you put pen to paper (or, keys to keyboard as the case may be).  Plenty of successful bloggers and website owners have gone before you and determined which post structures audiences respond best to.  Don’t be afraid to steal their insight and use it to cultivate your own internet presence!

The following are a few different post structures that have been proven to work across different industries.  Give them a try today and see how well your audience responds!

  • “How to” article – Instructional articles that provide specific information, as in the case of Tim’s most popular article referenced above.
  • “Top 10” article – Also known as “list posts,” these articles – which can include as many as 100 items, draw in audiences who crave the most up-to-date information possible.
  • “Myth busting” articles – Articles that dissect commonly-held industry beliefs can be great for generating attention and engagement.
  • “Step-by-Step” articles – Make your content pieces easy for your audience to follow, and they’ll reward you with higher readership numbers.
  • “Failure to success” case studies – We all love a good success story, so capitalize on this content structure by relating changes you or your clients have made to your audience through powerful content pieces.

Again, none of these ideas are new.  Go to any popular blog online and you’ll see examples of these content structures at work.  As long as you’re putting your own spin on the subject and bringing value to your audience, it doesn’t matter that you’re essentially stealing these widely-used formulas!

Things to Steal #3 – Content Topics

Finally, if you’re facing the inevitable burnout that threatens to derail all website owners, consider stealing topic ideas for your next set of blog posts or content marketing pieces from other popular sites in your industry.

To see how to do this, let’s head over to the popular “Art of Manliness” blog.  A quick glance at the “Popular Articles” widget displayed on the site’s sidebar reveals the following list of articles:

  • “100 Must Read Books: the Man’s Essential Library”
  • “How to Shave Like Your Grandpa”
  • “100 Must See Movies: The Essential Men’s Movie Library”
  • “How to Tie a Tie”
  • “How to Carve a Turkey”

If you were targeting a similar audience, the list above could provide plenty of inspiration when it comes to possible post topics.  For example, Art of Manliness readers have demonstrated an interest in the topic of old-fashioned shaving.  Couldn’t you take that idea and write up your own article using a different content structure (perhaps something like, “The Step-by-Step Guide to Old-Fashioned Shaving,” using one of the sample formats discussed above)?

As long as you write the article itself using your own language and expertise, you aren’t truly stealing anything.  Instead, you’re leveraging the market research knowledge made available by others in your industry in order to provide new value to your own audience.  It’s a powerful technique, and it’s one that’ll keep you brimming with the content topics needed to keep your site fresh for the long haul.

So what do you think?  Do these techniques constitute “stealing” and would you use them on your own site?  Share your thoughts on the subject in the comments area below!

Image: elhombredenegro

 

3 Responses

  1. Jeff Machado

    Nope, not stealing at all! It’s smart content creation. I really liked the way you dissected the headline technique – this is something I used to do a lot more but haven’t done in a while.

    I’m looking forward to finding some awesome titles now and brainstorming.

    Thanks AJ!

  2. Nina Savelle-Rocklin

    Great suggestions (as usual). Very helpful!

    I don’t consider this “stealing” at all; more like “emulating” and following a good example!

  3. Saidul Hassan

    In this relative universe nothing is absolute, neither is content. We can’t say for sure from who I’m stealing hasn’t stolen from somewhere else. So my takeaway is it’s not stealing, rather I’m being creative ;)Thank AJ for some bulls eye observations.