Your messaging has a shelf life: How to maximize the time-value of content

by | Jun 28, 2018

If you handle or manage your organization’s content, whether you work at a for-profit or nonprofit, you may occasionally feel stuck in a box: You’ve got some social media posts to push out, an annual report to finish, a white paper from Research and a marketing landing page to produce for a new product or service.

You want all this information to be compelling and get lots of pageviews, likes and shares and so do your internal stakeholders. They all view their content as having the highest priority, and want it treated as such (put it on the home page!).  But there is only so much digital real estate, social media bandwidth and newsletter space available for effective distribution, and content needs to be served to users in smart doses without oversaturating them.

One way out, I’ve found, is to think like a news publisher and consider the “time value” of each piece of content in your inventory. Content is like food: Various kinds have a different shelf life once cooked (or published). Pasta lasts a few days, even longer if frozen, but the fish you cooked Sunday night will probably need to be tossed by Tuesday morning.

Interestingly, the value of content doesn’t always just decline over time. Sometimes it’s more like a downward, then upward curve. Think of the value curve of really important breaking news. When Walter Cronkite interrupted a soap opera on Nov. 22, 1963, his message: “President Kennedy died at 1 p.m. Central Standard Time” was at its highest value. A few hours later, everybody knew of the assassination, so that bit of information dropped in value. But then its value increased again over time as an archived piece of our collective memory, with 2.4 million YouTube viewers over the past five years alone.

The value curve of other information might be completely different. Most tweets start with a very low value and only go down from there, as they disappear into your feed. A “how to” page might have its highest value during a particular time of year.

How can you tell the value of a piece of content at a moment in time? Consider how well it meets a user’s needs at the moment of consumption. Is it critical to consume within hours or days? What is the utility of the content a month from now, or six months from now? Does it have “legs” for a year or more?  For some information immediate consumption is most critical. This is why e-newsletters do better when sent during lunch hours, and why search engine optimization is so critical (the right keywords will let a user find the content at the moment they want it). Also, it should go without saying that the more work you put into a piece of content, the more valuable it will be today, and over time.

“Bouncing off the news” and other tactics

Thinking about the time-value of your entire content portfolio will help you capture a greater return on effort – in the form of higher levels of consumption, engagement and brand awareness. Here are the three main buckets of content based on their value over time and some tactics for employing them:

  1. Evergreen content – this includes the stuff of most corporate and nonprofit websites: product landing pages, customer order flows, etc. The value of this content depends on the value of the underlying product or service, and typically is fairly steady over time. Text and images can more or less be left to do their jobs (assuming, of course, that you’ve thought about your customer journeys and you’re properly targeting the content to the right users). Still, it’s important to clean the fridge and remove or rewrite non-performing content on a regular basis.

The content itself may not be out of date, but how can you keep it relevant and at the top of people’s minds over time? This is where you can leverage more time-sensitive messaging.

  1. Time-sensitive content – including social media postings, press releases and reviving older content when the right time comes. There are two main ways to capture your audience in a moment. You can create your own sense of urgency (with a deadline or expiring offer). Or you can “bounce off the news” and join the conversations on news events currently underway online and in social media.

I won’t dwell on the first method – anyone who has seen a President’s Day ad for mattresses or cars knows how to create an arbitrary sense of urgency.

Bouncing off current events can be a more compelling way to gain mind-share. Think like a news organization: By reacting to the news of the day (or the minute), newsrooms add their “take” to the breaking news event, through their own unique reporting or analysis. Non-news organizations should feel equally empowered to contribute their own knowledge and “take” on news relevant to their area of specialty. Recent examples include Geico showing how its catastrophe team responded to hailstorms in Texas, or the American Library Association tweeting an appreciative article about an older Anthony Bourdain “Parts Unknown” episode featuring a research library on the Congo River during the week. The Bourdain example also illustrates how important it is to bounce off of certain kinds of news with sensitivity (the ALA waited a respectful 10 days after the celebrity chef’s tragic suicide).

Merriam-Webster is a master at this game. By bouncing off the news, the Merriam-Webster Twitter feed (their slogan: #WordsMatter), with 691,000 followers, conveys their brand as savvy, authoritative and relatable. It has enjoyed particular popularity for trolling the president’s frequent Twitter misspellings (such as when it explained on June 18 the difference between “border” and “boarder”). To be sure, most organizations will want to weigh the risk of alienating their audience by getting too close to any political flame. But the point is to find some news event or issue that the Internet is talking about and give your organization’s unique “take.”

Few nonprofits take full advantage of their position as authoritative experts in their field. Curating relevant headlines into a regular email can build audience, brand credibility and a sense of community.

has made a great business of this, providing more than 200 niche email newsletters in partnership with trade associations and societies. But it could also be done in-house with the right editor on staff.

  1. This category is often the most overlooked in organizations that publish trade publications, even newsletters. Too many nonprofits give away their archives or let them languish in difficult-to-use legacy databases. Making your archives easily searchable and presentable on various browser sizes can be a valuable customer or member benefit.

If your organization owns unique industry data, even better: You can become a B2B publisher with proprietary data. If you could be collecting and selling such data, but don’t, you should consider it. If, as everyone says, data is the new oil, why wouldn’t you drill for it on your own property?

Adopting a time-value perspective can energize your content portfolio. Once you’ve organized each content type by its value over time, you can incorporate that thinking into your editorial and social media calendar – and more easily determine what content should be freshly cooked, reheated and served again, or is simply past its shelf life and needs to be tossed.

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Mike Mills


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