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Why Your Content Strategy Desperately Needs Serendipity

By Pat Heffernan on 3/10/16 11:00 AM



It is every marketer or writer’s nightmare. After years of carefully planned and executed content strategy, your recipe for creating content is falling flat. Matching mission-driven keywords to audience social media sharing stats and website traffic reports is starting to lead to utterly predictable and b-o-r-i-n-g content.

You suddenly realize why you are feeling stale and why you suspect returning visitors are declining. In the aftermath of the humiliation, you search for the missing ingredient. Your content strategy desperately needs some serendipity.

Avoiding the Einstellung Effect

How did this happen to you and your content marketing team? In the same very human way you have a need to remove the curse of knowledge from your writing, you need to guard against tackling the challenge of coming up with new blog post topics and website content for your audiences in the same way over and over again. The Einstellung effect refers to our human tendency to repeat a known solution even if it is no longer the best option. Your challenge is escaping from old ideas and habits you’ve developed around what works best for content strategy for your mission and your audiences. You need to add something different, something stimulating.


The word means "happy accident" or "pleasant surprise," a fortunate mistake. It is generally described as the accident of finding something good or useful while not actively searching for it. We’re not talking blind luck here. This is the originality, insight or creativity that can result from stimulation, for example, switching between what brain scientists refer to as focused and diffuse modes of thinking, or switching between widely divergent disciplines or pursuits. It requires three main ingredients: pre-existing knowledge, behaviors that encourage you to see new patterns, and, most importantly, a stimulus that reframes what you've known to see something new.


Barbara Oakley uses the analogy of pinball machines to explain focused versus diffuse modes of thinking.
Focused mode (left) has a tighter bumper that keep thoughts efficiently concentrated in familiar patterns, while diffuse mode (right) has looser bumpers that aid in "big picture" perspectives when you relax and let your mind wander.

You want to encourage lots of serendipity in your content marketing. Your goal is to offer fresh and valuable insights to your audience.

A Rare Case of More is Better

Brain and behavior experts agree about what works. The more you research and ask questions, the more you explore divergent ways of thinking, and the more you write or design — the more likely you are to experience serendipity.

Barbara Oakley, Ph.D., P.E., talks about the law of serendipity this way: “Lady Luck favors the one who tries.”

Adam Grant, in his new book, Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World, builds on a theme he began in Give and Take: “Originality itself starts with creativity: generating a concept that is both novel and useful. But it doesn’t stop there.”

Grant goes on to share studies and stories that illustrate the curiosity, commitment, communication style, calculated risk-taking, generosity, and immense volume of work characteristic of successful originals and nonconformists.

The legacy of writings on nurturing creativity and innovation is broad, informative and surprisingly consistent about certain ingredients: knowledge, chance, intention, risk-taking, and persistence.

What’s new in recent years is adding into the mix the latest science about how our brains work.

Balancing Productivity and Serendipity in Your Content Marketing Strategy

To me (and perhaps you too) this all sounds like delightful fun — but there’s change to be made in the world and work to be done! 

How can you practice productive routines without getting trapped in them? How can you welcome novelty, new experiences, and people connections without getting totally distracted and sucked into the abyss of procrastination?

As with many recipes, I’ve learned to start with quality ingredients and to allow for some trial and error until I discover what will work for me. To my productive routines for writing and editing, I currently add roughly equal parts of learning, behaviors and stimulation to encourage creative thinking and fresh insights.

Basic Recipe


Balanced Recipe for Content Marketing Productivity

  • Stimulate your curiosity (Always be researching. Go beyond asking who, what, where and when to ask how and why about your subject, customers, peers, and mission.)
  • Mix focused and diffuse thinking
  • Work in a different space / place
  • Mix up blocks of time on diverse fields or subjects (This concept is also sometimes referred to as recombinations or interleaving)
  • Focus on process, not product for a specified period of time (For example, say I will write for two hours without distractions, rather than I will write a six-hundred-word blog post.)
  • Schedule breaks and quitting time
  • Be generous with what you have to offer (Engage with and help others. Remember not everything is premium content.)

Now It’s Your Turn

Go forth. Try new things. Be curious, engaged and more generous.


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photo: Enlightening Sign, changes made under Creative Commons license 2.0


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The Change Conversations blog is where changemakers find inspiration and insights on the power of mission-driven communication to create the change you want to see.


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