How to produce creative content in an AI world
When content marketing first became a desirable career, we saw first-hand that it was possible to build attention in new and exciting ways.
Then, we created rules and frameworks. And while frameworks provide the constraint needed to scale, they risk sucking the creativity and joy out of the practice that got us all excited to be content marketers in the first place.
Furthermore, generative text and AI tools threaten to fill the internet with more garbage (especially when placed in the wrong hands).
You can’t avoid appeasing algorithms to generate results. But we need to stand out in order to build trust with our audiences.
In this article, you’ll uncover a compelling argument for taking more creative risks, the importance of expanding your frame of reference, and learn specific methods to build a competitive moat around your content and brand.
Why creativity is more important than ever in an AI-generated world
The late futurist Jacques Fresco once said:
"Creativity takes known elements and puts them together in different ways.”
Jacques’ work was famous for its creativity. He consistently challenged the status quo in city design, resource management, and social engineering. This reimagination of how to use modern technology was born out of frustration at the lack of industrial innovation.
Today, your audience feels that same frustration due to how common bad content has become.
Blog articles have rapidly lost their zest and originality. As marketers compete for the same keywords, they rely on identical frameworks as their competitors.
But buyers can see that most SEO-driven articles are unreliable and copy each other, which undermines their trust in Google as a source of information.
What’s worse, tools built on top of OpenAI and ChatGPT are exacerbating the problem. While this will ultimately make our jobs as marketers and creators easier, in the present reality they’re being misused to create terrible experiences.
Consumers are already calling out media brands who churn out low-quality content. Just take this comment from a recent Unilad post:
How do we alleviate doubt and delight readers? How do we offer an experience that surprises them and builds trust?
Injecting creativity and doing what robots can’t is the only way.
Use creativity and benevolence to build a content moat
Creativity elevates your content and builds trust with skeptical readers.
As Jacques Fresco said, this requires putting “known elements” together in unique ways.
But we still need to generate business results. Content that generates the lion’s share of attention does so for a reason: it fulfills search intent.
The problem is, everyone ends up copying each other. Trust is eroded as your customers bounce from one article to another.
Creative applications to SEO-driven content helps your content stand out. It keeps the reader on the page, sending engagement signals to Google. The longer a user sticks around, the more likely they are to take action.
Let’s say you’re writing an article on relationship selling. Typical advice for this topic includes “giving value” and “solving objections.”
However, based on your experience, you know it’s important to build intimacy by counter-intuitively challenging prospects and introduce them to their peers.
This perspective offers a unique approach to relationship selling into your article. It builds trust with your readers and creates a stack of value.
Why go through so much trouble for a single piece of content? Because it’s the only way you’ll break through your audience’s “B.S. shield” created by copycat and low-effort AI content.
In their “How People Read Online” report, Nielsen Norman Group found that there are two components to building trust in content:
- Credibility: The user believes you have the ability to provide the information they’re looking for.
- Benevolence: The user believes you have good intentions for providing that information.
One participant of the study shared their experience reading an article from Cleveland Clinic about the health benefits of kombucha. However, despite reading the entire thing, they decided to find a second opinion:
“[The Cleveland Clinic article] was very pro-kombucha. Which is why I was like, I’m going to look somewhere else.”
They ended up reading a Healthline article that shared both the positive and negative effects of kombucha. Healthline offered a complete and impartial perspective. In turn, the reader learned to trust Healthline on the topic over Cleveland Clinic.
Benevolence is an often overlooked element of establishing trust, which is impossible to do if you’re only emulating other articles in Google or relying solely on what AI tools give you.
Broaden your inputs to uncover new creative ideas
Creativity isn’t an ephemeral characteristic. Remember, creativity is simply the act of “putting known elements together in different ways.”
New creative endeavors, therefore, require us to do two things:
- Collect new inputs (such as content, conversations, and data from new places)
- Expand your frame of reference (by investing in new experiences or experimenting)
As a B2B content marketer, a practical way to broaden your inputs might involve researching what other industries are doing to promote their products.
For example, if you’re charged with growing enterprise software, you might find unique content formats in the ecommerce world.
But there’s so much more to it than this. To drive these principles home, let’s explore three specific methods for collecting new inputs to elevate your content.
1. Pay attention to how journalists tell stories
A good hook will communicate why readers should care about your message and earn their attention to continue reading.
Take this example of an introduction found in a blog post on digital transformation:
Digital transformation is a global business phenomenon, capturing the attention of enterprises in every industry and spurring major investment.
Learn why digital transformation matters now, what successful initiatives look like, and how to avoid common pitfalls.
It’s unlikely this introduction makes you feel emotionally invested to continue, even if you’re eager to learn about digital transformation.
Let’s compare this with an introduction from The Atlantic, taken from an article titled “Coffee really does make you happier:”
“I remember the night I fell in love.
“The year was 1977, and I was 12 years old. A neighbor kid’s parents had bought an espresso machine—an exotic gadget in those days, even in Seattle. There was just one Starbucks in the world back then, and as luck had it, we lived within walking distance. The neighbor kid and I bought a pound of coffee and had about eight espressos each. Feeling fully alive and inspired to get closer to the universe, I climbed onto the roof of his house. In the process, I cut a gash in my stomach on his gutter. Bleeding profusely, I marveled at how intense the stars were.”
Not only is an emotional connection made, the story is relevant. The headlike makes a promise before the click, and the introduction sets the reader up to go on a journey that’s likely to have a satisfying payoff.
Using relevant stories will hook readers in and keep them engaged throughout your entire article. When relevant, they can quickly communicate what’s possible with your advice and help your audience relate to your experiences (or those shared by third-party contributors, subject matter experts, etc.)
If you get abstract with this approach, make sure to get to the point quickly. For example, when I shared the story about Jacques Fresco, you may have wondered how it was relevant.
While it hopefully piqued your interest, I didn’t expect to keep your attention for long. So, I made the story succinct and quickly tied it back to the underlying point I wanted to make.
You can use this journalism-inspired technique to create a pattern interrupt. Done right, stories can offer a welcome respite in industries known for dry or technical language.
Here are some methods for finding a worthy subject for your journalism-inspired stories:
- Historical figures and industry legends: Share the lessons learned by those who paved a new way of doing things. Lay the foundations for your argument by blending timeless stories with current issues.
- Underdogs: Avoid leaning on unrelatable lessons from brands like Apple and Coca Cola. There are plenty of small businesses and startups that have achieved a more relatable definition of success. Few can emulate the actions of a billion-dollar brand, but most can apply the principles that helped a business generate its first $100,000.
- Behemoth backstories: If you must use a Fortune 500 brand to make a point, go back to its roots. Marketing blogs love talking about Apple’s branding, but nobody talks about Steve Jobs’ time as a video game designer and his Buddhist pilgrimage to India.
- Individual contributors: Celebrate how practitioners achieved a specific goal. For example, by breaking down the nuances of Apple’s product photography to provide relatable takeaways.
Finally, don’t neglect your own experiences. You have a tremendous amount of wisdom to share.
2. Find an investigative angle with complementary or conflicting data
Many content marketers and writers have a habit of using stats to back up ideas they’ve already committed to.
But it only works if that data is statistically significant, presented honestly, and adds value to the reader.
The best writers use data to share additional perspectives while offering the most suitable conclusion for the reader.
Take this piece on mushroom intelligence from Psyche:
The entire article is a science-backed exploration into the behavior profile of mushrooms.
Here’s how the writer talks about an experiment involving beechwood:
When researchers followed the transfer of nutrients in the lab, further remarkable discoveries were in store. In a tray of soil, hyphae were observed to make contact with a block of beechwood. [...] The fungus in these experiments showed spatial recognition, memory and intelligence. It’s a conscious organism.
They then use data taken from several studies to to interpret how different mushrooms behave:
The behavioural complexity of fungi increases when they interact with living trees and shrubs rather than dead wood. Some of these relationships are destructive while others are mutually supportive. Pathogenic fungi can be very cunning in how they feed on plants and evade their defences.
The author provides an in-depth analysis of fungi, generating over 10,000 shares on social media— a tremendous amount of engagement for a story about mushrooms.
Taking an investigative approach to data-driven content can provide unique angles for your content.
For example, our article on the backlink profile of Buffer and other SaaS brands took a very different direction to the one we originally intended.
The investigative journey that fueled this article looked liked this:
- Use seed data: We started our investigation with this Semrush study, which found that “only 22% of respondents are creating original studies and data-driven content” and “24% say they rely on external publications (digital PR) or guest blogging” for distribution.
- Check your assumptions: Many SEO studies have found that links do matter when growing search traffic. If this is true, why is nobody creating data-driven content, which has been proven to generate links?
- Ask a better question: Do how-to articles, definitive guides, and other SEO-driven content formats still generate links? From our experience, link building outreach that relies on these formats is ineffective.
- Apply your first investigative layer: To answer these questions, we identified data-driven content from 10 well-known SaaS brands and collected backlink data from Ahrefs.
- Add a second investigative layer: We found that these data-driven articles generated an average of 847 backlinks. However, this still didn’t answer whether or not they get more backlinks than editorial and SEO-driven content.
- Add a third investigative layer: We dug deeper into Buffer’s most linked-to pieces of content to find an anecdotal answer.
- Identify the conclusion: Not only does Buffer’s “State of Social” report stand out in terms of backlinks, but we found it was 293% faster to generate the first 100 links to this report than their most linked-to blog article.
Imagine if we stopped at the Semrush study. This article would have looked like every other piece on data-driven content.
Curiosity is the only thing you need to uncover engaging narratives, and access to the data that fuels them is often democratic.
Allow yourself to be proven wrong. If you find two sources that contradict each other, dig deeper into both.
Are there differences in sample size or representation of survey respondents? Use these methodologies to your advantage. Share your findings to tell a story that helps your customers solve their problems.
We talk all about how to use stats honestly and with integrity in this episode of the Demandist podcast.
3. Establish an expert committee to poke holes in the status quo
Subject matter experts (SMEs) can inject your content with credibility.
If the content on page one of Google looks similar, they’re likely exacerbating the same falsehoods.
SME insights can help you break the cycle of false information by calling out what conventional advice gets wrong.
This can build trust with your audience—especially if you debunk an unspoken yet well-known falsehood.
Going back to our article on relationship selling, we found that most blog posts oppose the idea of being likable.
However, our internal SMEs with decades of experience selling to the c-suite inherently disagree. And they can prove it.
Not only will this angle make your content stand out, it will undermine the falsehoods your competitors amplify, giving your audience more reason to trust you.
Jakub Rudnik, Head of Content at Scribe, uses this approach to make his content more original:
As a trained journalist, I look for opportunities to bring in experts wherever possible. Who is the best-case source? What other sources can offer different perspectives? This may not be completely original, but so few content marketers are willing to take these steps.
Get SMEs invested in your content by making it worth their time:
- Batch conversations into topical themes: Schedule one call a month to discuss a single theme or series of articles.
- Communicate asynchronously: Allows SMEs to share their expertise in their own time with Slack voice messages.
- Fuel their personal brand: Many SMEs aim to elevate their message to build awareness. Offer to repurpose your blog content into a LinkedIn post or Twitter thread for SMEs to share with their audience. Better yet, get it featured in a guest post.
SME insights will also help you build E-E-A-T. Featuring the voice of known experts sends a signal to Google that your content is credible, establishing you as an authority in your topic cluster of choice.
Inputs shape your outputs
Creativity is suppressed if we drink from the same altar. Outputs become homogenous and we end up creating the same thing as everyone else.
To inject your content marketing with creativity, collect new inputs and broaden your horizon with new content formats.
Build a moat by doing what nobody else is willing to build. Watch as it provokes thought, influences the conversation, and builds trust with even the most skeptical audience.