How Brands Should Protect Their Content Marketing From Plagiarism

In the media world, few things matter more than credibility. No social strategy, distribution budget, or marketing campaign can save a publication that’s failed to build trust with its audience. Nowhere is this more true than in the world of content marketing. Brand publishers are fighting an uphill battle to engender trust and a sense of authenticity with readers, many of whom remain skeptical of any form of content marketing. And nothing can derail months or years of careful content marketing work than a single case of plagiarism.

Unfortunately, in content marketing—as in the wider media world—not everyone wants to play by the rules.

Two costly mistakes

For brands not too concerned about the ramifications of plagiarism, it’s worth considering how it has affected two of the biggest media companies of our time.

In 2003, Jayson Blair a prolific staff reporter at The New York Times, was fired from the paper when the Times discovered that 36 of his 73 stories contained material that was either plagiarized or simply fabricated. In addition to Blair, two of his editors were abruptly fired, but 10 years later, the Times was still struggling to regain credibility, calling the plagiarism debacle “a low point in the 152-year history of the newspaper.”

More recently, in 2013, BuzzFeed hired Benny Johnson away from Glenn Beck’s site, The Blaze, in the hopes that he could reshape the publication’s reputation to a source of serious journalism. For a while, it worked. Just 18 months after taking over as viral politics editor, Johnson had authored over 500 political posts and captured substantial traffic. But, like Blair, Johnson built his empire on the work of others. In 2014, Ben Smith, BuzzFeed’s editor-in-chief, penned a public apology citing 41 instances of plagiarism by Johnson. All the work BuzzFeed had done to legitimize itself as a publisher of political coverage came crashing down.

What plagiarism means for brands

For brands, the lesson here is simple: You must take the threat of plagiarism seriously. The New York Times has a staff full of fact checkers who work to protect the publication from these issues, and it still got burned.

But plagiarism can do more than just damage a brand’s reputation. Most importantly, if caught, publishers open themselves up to copyright lawsuits that could permanently derail a content marketing program—and the bottom-line of the company as a whole.

From a performance perspective, Google has taken a hard stance against plagiarism and pirated content, and the search giant has instituted a number of sophisticated ways to catch and penalize it. Google rewards content it deems “high quality” with higher search rankings, pushing low-value content farther down. “High quality” content is, among other things, unique and original. Meanwhile, content that’s scraped from other sites — Internet-speak for “plagiarized” — takes a major hit. (See “How Google Fights Piracy” for the full list of criteria.)

To protect our clients from these significant issues, Contently has made it top priority to check every single piece of content that comes through our system for plagiarism.

How you can combat plagiarism

Contently’s clients work with thousands of writers to create content every single day. We work hard to ensure that all our contributors understand that we expect high-quality, original work. So what happens when a freelancer lets us down?

Like Google, we’re proactive. We use both sophisticated software and human readers to monitor the work. This is an issue that’s easy to overlook when you’re thinking about budgets, freelancers, design, etc., but it’s something everyone needs to think about as soon they’re ready to publish written work.

In our case, we use an integrated plagiarism detection solution to scan every piece of content we produce at every phase of the production cycle. For those who are unfamiliar with Contently’s publishing software, it serves as the arena where everyone submits and edits stories. Since all work exists on one platform, each first draft, revision, and even each finalized story is rigorously checked for originality before it gets published. (That part is key.) The plagiarism detection program is so sensitive that it identifies the tiniest similarities between our copy and any content around the web.

When it finds even a single similarity, the software fires off an email to a team of reviewers. Those emails contain five important details: the publication, the writer, a link to the content in question, the URLs of any potentially plagiarized content, and a brief explanation of why this content is suspicious.

From there, a reviewer compares the original story to the external content our software flagged. Fortunately, not every alert is actually plagiarism. In fact, because of the sensitivity of the software, the vast majority of alerts are false positives. In Q3 of 2015, we reviewed 514 cases of potential plagiarism; of those, only five stories contained a single instance of plagiarism.

When we actually discover that a piece has been plagiarized, it’s all-hands-on-deck.

We start by immediately stopping production on the story. Then we alert the publication’s editor and ask that person to either rework the content or reassign the piece to someone else so it can be completely rewritten. Meanwhile, our accounts team contacts the client, explains why the story has been stopped, what we’re doing to fix it, and when they should expect delivery on the new story. At the same time, our talent team removes the contributor from the account and our network. (That’s a nice way of saying “fired.”)

To avoid a catastrophic loss of trust and credibility—and a catastrophic loss of marketing budget—brands have to keep a keen eye on their content and ensure that it’s entirely original. It’s not always easy, but with so much at stake, you need a system in place that ensures you’ll always be safe and never have to be sorry.


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