How Old Is “Too Old” for Research Citations in B2B Content?

outdated research

Content audits are popular with our clients. Often, they’re a starting block for a refresh strategy that extracts the most value from existing content while identifying gaps to address in a go-forward plan.

We determine some audit criteria based on client needs and goals, but we also use a set of standard criteria for reviewing age, quality, buyer stage and other basic information. We also assess each asset for where it is in its lifespan, and whether content that’s past its prime is worth being updated or should be retired.

One thing we review is research references, because these can cause content to lose its relevance and impact if the research is outdated. We have a strict standard here of flagging any research older than two years, but that’s not the whole story.

Let me explain.

Why the Two-Year Expiration Date?

You may have heard that software runs the world. This might not be true in every corner, but it’s 100% true when it comes to product and service development.

Consider this finding by intellectual capital experts Ocean Tomo: More than 80% of the components of the S&P 500’s market value are intangible (i.e., digital) assets — which is a complete shift from 45 years ago, when 80%+ of that value came from owning things like buildings, plants and equipment.

Modern commerce takes place via a digital ecosystem full of products that are updated several times a year rather than every five to 10 years. Likewise, market research about technology products tends to be released annually or bi-annually.

This pace — though relentless — has heightened expectations for research timeliness, and not just because the products change more frequently but also because business planning and execution have accelerated because of digital products.

It’s hard to believe that not too long ago, it was common for business leaders to spend months developing five- or 10-year strategic plans. This would make no sense today, because a company can be driven out of business by unexpected disruption in half that time. Research that’s more than two years old can appear misaligned with this reality, because buyers need to know what is happening now, not yesterday.

Another consideration is how the availability of fresh data has changed. Many B2B buyers have easy access to real-time operations and market data through advanced business applications. Naturally, they are going to start to measure all data by that standard, and so the further away from real time a content stat is, the less relevant it is going to appear.

We’ve set the “age out” limit at two years to reflect these changes, because we want our clients to know where these citations are, but we don’t expect them to immediately recall all the assets. There are times when the two-year window can be widened or even ignored, and we do note these instances for consideration.

Bending the Two-Year Rule

One of the most common reasons to bend this rule is when using government data. Public agencies as a group — especially at the federal level — are still putting out public data at a snail’s pace. For example, the U.S. Census happens every 10 years. If you’re working in a sector where buyers consume a lot of government-released research, there’s not much you can do to find fresher data.

The findings of the data could also still be relevant in the context of the content, even though they are more than two years old — for example, a timeline graphic that covers decades or a summary of population health that cites several studies over time.

Another gray area is case studies, but we also add a caution here to check case studies that are more than two years old to make sure (a) the company status hasn’t changed, (b) the interviewee’s status hasn’t changed, (c) whether new performance metrics are available, and (d) the company is still a customer.

Finally, at times we have customers that use a lot of academic research in their content. Research definitely has a longer shelf life in academic circles. So if your audience prefers academic research, the two-year-rule might not apply.

What Is Your Age Limit for Research?

If you aren’t sure how you feel about the age of the research you’re using, answer these questions for guidance:

  • How quickly is innovation commercialized in your sector?
  • How often are the top authorities in your market updating research?
  • What is the context in the content?
  • Is more up-to-date research available?

In all cases, opt for the freshest research possible whenever you can, and also consider auditing your content library to identify assets that are on the verge of aging out. In most cases, outdated research can be updated, extending the investment you’ve already made to tell your story with compelling content.

Research aging is one of many reasons to audit and manage your content library. Read about how we worked with JLL to take content auditing to the next level with a custom audit designed around a specific marketing campaign.


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