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8 ways brands are screwing up content aggregation

8 ways brands are screwing up content aggregation Rebecca Lieb

What's the biggest problem marketers say they face when it comes to content marketing? Producing original content is No. 1, followed closely by the challenge of finding the time to actually 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.

8 ways brands are screwing up content aggregation

Content curation and aggregation can take many forms, including feeds or channels such as on 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's around 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.

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


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. Shoot over 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 though 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.


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 at the same time, 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 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 bee-keeping 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 ever-more 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 non-profit 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.

On Twitter? Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.

"Big Explosion" image via Shutterstock.

Rebecca Lieb has published more research on content marketing than anyone else in the field.  As a strategic adviser, her clients range from start-up to non-profits to Fortune 100 brands and regulated industries. She's worked with brands...

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to leave comments.

Commenter: Chris Chasty

2013, March 20

I method I have been following is treating my tactics towards content creation as a journalist would. I constantly follow the beat of trending news and allow it to influence my content choices and article topics.

Specifically with social media, the sharing of content that jumps on a trend is valuable, but it is important to maintain a balance between trending for the sake of trending and creating a story that is topical and connected to the overall big picture resonating from trending news.

Commenter: Jack Gazdik

2013, March 18

I agree with everything written in this post. Aside from being ethical and moral by citing and linking back to sources, link backs also help build relationships in the social space. Content marketing should promote two-way communication and, if possible, mutually benefit the brand and the content creator to build and foster future relationships.

Commenter: Carl Hartman

2013, March 18

Seems to be a habit on this site that people only talk about the "7 Mistakes" or things like that. Regardless of your ending, the reality is that most people don't know how to do it right. Right now, most content is a conglomeration (you call it aggregation, which assumes some kind of grand order) and that conglomeration is a mess. You also site storytelling, which is also a mess. Rarely is it done correctly. (Almost never, but there are a few bright spots out there.)

More than 10 years ago, when I was an executive at PBS the Corporation for Public Broadcasting had a public competition for "Television of Tomorrow" and out of 80+ submissions on the future of interactive storytelling, my design was the winner. Interactive or on-line storytelling is so much more. All the buzz about "content marketing" is only that, buzz. It's another phrase that masks the fact that very few people know how to do it right.

In my first best-selling book on branding we outline the basics for building a stellar brand. The next release will actually provide the constructs and theory behind proper formatting of content and give solid answers so people can do more than pile a bunch of links, text and linear content onto pages. Just the way Eisenstein described film theory 100 years ago, we've put together a guide that explains proper story structure applied to online content, marketing, human-computer interaction, social storytelling, neural patterns, etc.

Before people worry about linking and attribution, they need to take a few advanced classes in screenwriting from the masters and learn that structure. Comments about "storytelling" and telling good stories are really useless until people understand how to structure a great story. Pick up a copy of Eisenstein's "Film Form" and learn how the juxtaposition of images and story elements really do work. How pacing of content impacts a viewer. Pick up a copy of Lajos Egri's book and learn how to create great, memorable characters or Lew Hunter's book on screenwriting for structure. After that, we can worry about attribution or other mechanics.

The real mistakes people are making: not really knowing how to tell amazing stories and simply throwing the word storytelling around as the latest buzzword.

Commenter: Nick Stamoulis

2013, March 18

You never want to give anyone, either the search engines or the original author, cause to believe that you were stealing content. Link back and cite the original author by name at least!