By Joe Chernov published June 28, 2011

Planned Obsolescence: The Key to Content Marketing

Last September, MarketingProfs and Junta42 teamed up to produce a report on the state of content marketing. Their research concluded that marketers’ top three content-related challenges were:

  • Producing engaging content (36%)
  • Producing enough content (21%)
  • Having sufficient budget to create content (20%).

There is a simple way to address all three challenges at once: Planned obsolescence.

The concept of planned obsolescence – purposefully designing a product with end-of-life in mind – permeates product engineering across all sectors. Simply put, ensuring a product eventually fails or goes out of style is a sure-fire way to induce people to buy more products.

My question to marketers is this: Do you build obsolescence into your content? If not, you should. We did, and here’s how it worked.

Last June, Eloqua and JESS3 collaborated to produce the industry’s first content marketing infographic, called The Content Grid, which was billed as “a model for content marketing.”

We knew the graphic was interesting visually, and we also knew it could be used by marketers. But deep down we felt that something was “off,” but we couldn’t quite put our finger on what was wrong. We could have sat in the drawing room until it was “perfect” (translation: indefinitely), but we didn’t. Instead we published the content as-is and deliberately planned to revisit it one year later.

During that time, we solicited feedback (in blog comments, on Twitter, from colleagues, even from the audience at speaking engagements) and preserved all comments in a spreadsheet. By provoking widespread feedback (positive and negative), we were deliberately rendering obsolete the infographic we had worked so hard to develop.

As we prepared to design The Content Grid v2, we began by reviewing all of the feedback we received, paying particular attention to criticism. While most observers found the visual compelling and useful, some called it confusing and even “scary.” Others felt certain types of content were under-represented.  A couple of folks wanted metrics. One very sage observer asked why the buyer’s perspective missing. Bingo!

This input guided our vision for v2. The JESS3 strategists and I hammered out the vision and framework, and then their superstar designers executed it. (For more information on the making of the Content Grid v2, check out the Forbes blog post by JESS3 co-founder and CEO Jesse Thomas.)

As of this writing, the new infographic has been live for 24 hours. In that short time, dozens of bloggers have written about the new Grid; hundreds, perhaps thousands, of tweets have been posted; but most important of all, nearly all of the critics of the original version have applauded v2.

How did this technique help us overcome the top three challenges vexing content marketers?

  1. By planning obsolescence from the start, we were able to create much more engaging content for Eloqua. We were able to engage our audience when we published v1, and then re-engage them in a meaningful way when the follow-up hit the Web.
  2. We created more content by turning a single concept into two popular infographics.
  3. We reduced our budget because we didn’t have to invest as much time or resources in coming up with a new idea for an infographic. We simply reimagined the original. And, in many cases, the ability to derive maximum value from a single concept is what content marketing success ultimately comes down to.

Takeaway: Don’t wait to publish content until you think it’s perfect. Rather, put your best foot forward, solicit feedback and update your content based on what you have learned. By taking this approach, you’re engaging your audience, continually producing content and saving budget as you’re not doing everything from scratch.

Want to learn more about Eloqua’s content marketing strategy? You can read about how they created their killer content marketing program in only a few months with this detailed case study.

Author: Joe Chernov

Joe Chernov is the CMO of InsightSquared, a revenue intelligence company. He has been a VP of marketing during two successful IPOs, Eloqua and HubSpot. The Content Marketing Institute named him “Content Marketer of the Year” and AdWeek named him to their Creative100 list. You can follow Joe on Twitter @jchernov.

Other posts by Joe Chernov

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  • Rachel Agheyisi

    As a writer who struggles daily with creating a balance between spontaneity and perfection, I find this post a timely and helpful reminder.  Thanks, Joe!

    • Joe Chernov

      Hi Rachel,

      Yes that is quite the dug-o’-war, isn’t it. I think “good enough” used to be code for “lazy.” But today given the volume of content required to fill the public’s appetite, I think “good enough” is code for “gets it.”  (I think “perfect” is code for “scared to try,” but that’s a post for another time!)


      • Rachel Agheyisi

        You’re so right about the unspoken aspects of  things that hold us back from busting loose and sharing good knowledge! I think you should write a post about “perfection” — you seem to know it well!! Perhaps use an infographic — paint us a picture???  Seriously, you do get it Joe.  Share more.

        • Joe Chernov

          Thanks for being so kind! I am going to write a monthly column for CMI so stay tuned for more! (Will have to think about a “perfect” post … if I write it, I’ll be sure to leave in spelling errors to prove my point 😉

  • research papers

    nice conversationa fter the post) thanks!

  • Craig Badings

    Joe, a great guide for thought leaders in terms of arranging and planning their content. 

    • Joe Chernov

      Thank you Craig!

  • Jia Lu

    As a lay-person with no marketing background, I found the term “planned obsolescence” which you used in a positive sense quite alarming.  Could you have used “public engagement” or “iterative versions” of the graphic instead?    

    • Joe Chernov

      Hello Jia,

      The macro-economic merits of planned obsolescence are better discussed by historians or financial analysts. There are, of course, a myriad of arguments for and against.

      The metaphor I was attempting to draw is simply that many marketers find themselves in endless revision loops in attempt to create a perfect piece of timeless content. My view is that marketers need to be willing to knowingly publish information that is sure to be rendered obsolete. Public engagement and iteration are tactics to refine the content, but the knowingly publishing something that is sure not to last requires a shift in mindset.

      Hope this helps,

  • Craig Badings

    Joe, Jia’s comment had me reading your post again and I think she has a valid point.  Maybe the term ‘planned obselescence’ is misleading.  It’s tough enough planing your content and in particular thought leadership content without having to worry about the obselescent bit.  I say maybe it’s misleading because what I have taken out of your post is don’t spend too long getting your content absolutely 100% right rather get it out there and engage.

    I’m not sure this is planned obselescence rather it is becoming a generator of content that is constantly updated and upgraded because of new ideas or inputs from your audiences.  I would argue that it is a slightly different mindset to ‘planned obselescence’. 

    Most marketers or communicators would baulk at the thought of willingly publishing information that will become obsolete but most would love to engage with their audiences around a piece of content that they could update further. 

    • Joe Chernov

      Hi Craig,

      Thanks for weighing in again.  Good input, and love the dialogue.  Couple of things.

      First, “planned obsolescence” in the case of content marketing is, of course, a metaphor. It’s not actually a product that is manufactured to fail. It’s neither pulling us out of the Great Depression (as supporters of the practice cheer) nor clogging up landfills with discarded products (as detractors lament). It’s just a concept applied from one industry to another.

      Planned or built-in obsolescence is the notion of deliberately creating a product that will last only a finite amount of time. That is very much what I am talking about with regards to content marketing. I am talking about much more than tweaking something based on feedback.  Every marketer should do that already.

      When we released the Social Media Playbook a year ago, I purposefully left in stats that would quickly become obsolete. I knew they would. We could have easily avoided hard numbers and instead described the size of social networks relative to one another. That would have allowed for a more “evergreen” resource. But I wanted, we wanted, an asset that would become outdated. Why? We wanted an excuse to release and “sell” a new version a year later. We loved the idea of the original — a massive, high design playbook for social marketers — so publishing content that would knowingly become obsolete effectively saved us from having to come up with an entirely new idea … as we would have had to do if the original version lasted indefinitely.

      This summer we followed up our Social Media Playbook with the Social Media ProBook, a reimagined version of the original. The notion of an expiration date is taking root. I have already had several people ask what the next iteration will look like.

      I know this isn’t truly planned obsolescence in the way that manufacturers use the term, but my suggestion for marketers is surely closer to planned obsolescence than it is to simply iterating  based on feedback.


  • Craig Badings

    Joe thanks for illuminating further.  We’re on the same page and you’ve clearly got it right given the response you’ve had to your Social Media Playbook. 

    One could argue that anything written in this space will be obsolete in the space of months anyway, given the rapidly changing nature of social media.

    Love your stuff by the way. 

    • Joe Chernov

      Thanks Craig! And you are 100% onto something when you say that everything written will become obsolete. Our view is this: if it’s gonna happen anyway, why not judo it into your advantage. It’s one thing to know it will become obsolete, and something else entirely to lean into that perceived weakness.  Thanks for the conversation, and for the kind words. -Joe

  • JohnS

    This idiotic greed is taking our economy down. Short-sighted greed ultimately fails. The free market began delivering value to customers, not addiction to live on thin ice to support irrational purchasing habits.