Content marketing has skyrocketed in popularity over the last decade. It is often considered a flashy new gimmick in a marketer's toolbox, but the principles of content marketing have been around for centuries. Lessons and strategies are hidden in the evolution of any practice, and by understanding the history of content marketing, companies may well prepare for the future. So here is a brief overview of how content marketing evolved, the historical trends that remain relevant today, and the lessons a business can draw for their own content marketing strategy.
Where it all began
Before Gutenberg invented the printing press in 1440, marketing was limited to word of mouth. However, the ability to print content on pamphlets allowed people to spread knowledge about their business faster than ever before.
To advertise his fledgling printing business, Benjamin Franklin published “Poor Richard’s Almanack” in 1732. The fact that he did not develop content directly relevant to his business is astounding; instead, he published an almanack — a book of useful resources.
The content was written to serve the best interests of his customers and prospects, and he sold as many as 10,000 copies a year. This was a huge number in those days and brought Franklin fortune and recognition, which only boosted his business.
This early example of content marketing shows that creating useful, valuable and entertaining content for the audience will always be recognised and respected for the value it offers.
In 1895, Deere & Company released the first issue of their printed magazine, The Furrow. John Deere’s magazine presents a great example of a marketing publication that garnered trust and built relationships. The goal of The Furrow was not to sell products to its readers like other print media at the time. Instead, its sole purpose was to educate farmers so that they could be more successful. The magazine quickly became a hit by forging deeper connections with its audience. By 1912, the magazine had 4 million subscribers. The magazine is still in circulation and boasts 1.5 million subscribers in 40 countries. They also have a website and a tablet edition of the magazine where farmers can read articles, see photos and watch related videos. Since the magazine provided its readers with long-term value, they were more likely to buy from John Deere in the future. This magazine made its place in the content marketing books for being groundbreaking when it comes to consumer engagement in general.
The French tyre brand Michelin soon followed John Deere’s example and published the Michelin Guide in 1900. The 400-page guide provided its readers with pro travel tips and valuable information such as where to find auto repair shops, restaurants and hotels. Although there were only about 2,200 cars on the road in France at the time, the entrepreneurial André and Edouard Michelin believed that publications like theirs would encourage more people to buy automobiles and travel by car. The forward-thinking Michelin brothers were so confident that their efforts would pay off that they distributed 35,000 copies of the first edition for free. Their gamble paid off. Though the guide did not directly sell tyres, the idea behind it was that it would encourage people to travel to places near and far. But, of course, all that travelling would wear out tyres sooner, and when that happened, they would hopefully turn to the tyre company that provided them with the handy guidebook.
The 1900s also saw the rise of various niche consumer publications, like Architecture Magazine, Advertising World, and Popular Mechanics. These publications targeted niche audiences, which gave brands the opportunity to share content with their target audience.
One of the first examples of purposeful audience targeting was Jell-O. In order to reach their target audience of housewives, they started sharing recipes for desserts using Jell-O in The Ladies’ Home Journal. This strategy to promote brand content on a different platform paid off, and their sales skyrocketed, as they were able to appeal to their target audience with relevant information. By 1909, Jell-O’s sales had reached $1 million, and by 1913, they were over $2 million, proving once again the powers of effective content marketing.
Not only do these early content marketing days highlight the importance of creating content that is useful for the audience, but they also serve as an example of successful targeting. This practice is still the cornerstone of most successful content marketing strategies and looks much like today’s guest blogging.
The remarkable evolution of content marketing
The emergence of the radio as a popular communication channel served as a way for companies to push content directly into consumers’ homes.
Sears, Roebuck and Co. offer one of the first examples of a company using content marketing to establish thought leadership. They started a radio broadcast called the “World’s Largest Store” that provided farmers with information designed to help them through the Great Depression. The show featured music, comedy, civic programming and more. Through it, they not only provided advice but also advertised products. People genuinely enjoyed the content that was broadcast, and the popularity of the show encouraged more people to buy radios, which they ended up buying from Sears. Even though the show’s content was not related to the company, the quality of their content boosted their sales and increased profitability.
In 1933, when radio advertising was at its peak, Procter & Gamble chose to sponsor a daytime radio drama rather than pay for a commercial. Their new product, Oxydol soap powder, was the sponsor of the radio show “Oxydol’s Own Ma Perkins,” which aired during the day and targeted its primary demographic — housewives. Thanks to Procter & Gamble, the term “soap opera” was coined as the brand would advertise its soap during commercial breaks.
Perhaps the most famous example of viral content marketing dates back to Halloween night of 1938. When actor Orson Welles and his associates delivered news broadcasts claiming that aliens were invading Grover's Mill, New Jersey. Though Welles added a disclaimer that the broadcast was purely a radio drama and not real news, approximately 1.7 million of the 6 million listeners that evening actually believed that an invasion was underway and the public was terrified.
The show drew a large viewership, and more than 12,000 newspaper and magazine articles were published about the aftermath. Even though some people criticise this mass hysteria, others think it gave CBS the attention it was aiming for.
This era of brand-driven content affected the behaviour of consumers and served as a herald of the rising advertising era.
The mid-20th century is known as a period of decline for content marketing. This was primarily due to World War II and the proliferation of advertising, which monopolised all popular media formats. Most businesses decided that selling products through advertising was easier and more lucrative than selling solutions through content marketing.
Though the 1940s and 1950s saw very little valuable branded content, it was during this time that the brands started focusing on the design, packaging and overall appeal of the products. This shift in thinking about design and presentation is now an integral part of content marketing.
With the rise of television in the 1960s, marketers found that they could save money and expand their reach by pushing the same messaging across a variety of different media. This rise of multichannel marketing laid the foundation for future content marketing campaigns.
The oil & gas company Exxon (then called Esso) may be credited with one of the most remarkable multichannel campaigns of the time. Emery Smith, the company’s marketing content writer, developed the catchphrase, “Put a tiger in your tank”. The implication was that Exxon gasoline would give your car the power of a tiger. The catchphrase was a hit and became synonymous with the brand. They leveraged the popularity of this successful campaign and launched a similar campaign across different platforms, including TV, radio, magazines and newspapers. This, in turn, helped Exxon surge in popularity so much that they started selling tiger-themed car accessories, and Time magazine dubbed 1964 as “The Year of the Tiger”. To leverage Exxon’s strategy, businesses may experiment with a piece of content on one platform, and if it’s successful, reshare it on other platforms to further boost its influence.
In 1964, Hasbro created G.I. Joe action figures, which became a famous American soldier toy. Later, when the sales of the action figures plateaued, they reached out to Marvel to create comic books based on the toys. It may look like a simple joint venture, but the comic book created a demand for G.I. Joe toys by providing content that people loved and resonated with. This is very similar to what online marketers now aim to achieve — making the audience aware of what a brand offers and boosting sales by creating engaging content for targeted audiences.
LEGO also entered the content game with Brick Kicks magazine. The magazine boasted comics, games, contests, modelling tips, and more to make the brand more accessible to consumers. The magazine is still produced under the name LEGO Club Magazine and has loyal readers in its niche.
This era set a precedent for multichannel and niche marketing, which is one of the most dominating practices in the content marketing world to this day
1990 - 2000
The rise of computers and the dot com bubble in the 1990s changed the content marketing world forever. Out went printed materials and direct mail flyers, and in came their digital counterparts: email newsletters, websites and blogs, which presented new and exciting opportunities for marketers. The internet made it so easy and cheap for marketers to create, publish and promote content that experts refer to this era as the “democratisation of content marketing.”
The first commercial website was launched in 1993 and was owned by O’Reilly and Associates. The launch of this site was in itself a defining moment for content in that advertising started to lose its monopoly over the media and people's power to push out branded content to larger audiences.
The first blog was created by Justin Hall, a Swarthmore College student, in 1994. The site, Links.net, was simply Hall’s online version of a journal or personal diary. As other web logs began to crop up, Peter Merholz truncated the term to the one we are familiar with today: blog. In 1998, Microsoft launched its first corporate blog, and by the end of three years, they had spent $20 billion on it. It didn’t take long for other companies to discover that they could use blogs as a means to engage their audiences. Blogging quickly became the foundation of any robust content marketing strategy, and it remains so till today.
In 1996, John F. Oppedahl documented the use of the term “content marketing” for the first time at a journalism conference. He was then working for the Arizona Republic and led a roundtable discussion at the American Society of Newspaper Editors on the topic of effectively marketing a newspaper through content. Rick Doyle, an editor for Walla Walla Union-Bulletin, published Roundtable: Content Marketing, an online write up where he laid the groundwork for modern content marketing:
"To make smart content decisions and to effectively market the newspaper, editors need to know what the readers want.
The problem is that readers will tell you what they think you want to hear. So the popular method of asking questions about whether they read a certain kind of news or how they will react if a certain change is made can steer editors in the wrong directions.
Rather than readership, satisfaction needs to be measured - with the goal of moving those who are dissatisfied to satisfied and those who are satisfied to very satisfied."
During this era, brands began accepting that modern audiences are more responsive to soft-sell content compared to in-your-face advertising.
2000 - The present
The last 20 years of content marketing may be defined as a marriage between multichannel marketing, social media and search engine optimisation.
Channels like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram and YouTube have become the most effective way to reach audiences. This has resulted in brands employing highly strategic approaches to content creation and distribution. They have learnt to adapt their content for different channels and become more nimble and creative in their approaches to content marketing in an effort to differentiate themselves from competitors.
A fine example of social media content marketing was BlendTec’s “Will It Blend” series on YouTube. Launched in 2006, these highly entertaining videos of BlendTec blenders destroying everyday items garnered over 235 million views and turned BlendTec into a household name.
The emergence of the iPhone in 2007 pushed the social media revolution over the top. This empowered individuals to become content creators and easily share their pictures and videos while on the go.
The other trend that has emerged over the last 20 years of content marketing is the rise of SEO.
Blogs made it possible for anyone and everyone to be a publisher, but with the rise of Google in the early 2000s, marketers began realising that they needed to make it to the top of search results if they want their audience to find their content. This spawned an entire industry of data utilisation and search engine optimisation for the sole purpose of getting content to rank. Eventually, market segmentation and customer roadmaps also led to a proliferation of content marketing formats outside of blog posts. Many brands started creating ebooks, whitepapers, infographics, testimonials, case studies and videos.
With a dizzying amount of digital tools available at their disposal, brands today have content marketing down to a science. They now know their exact customer base, the platforms to reach them on, and the right format to serve their audience in order to get them to take the desired action.
It may seem like we've come a long way from The Furrow and The Michelin Guide, but brands must stop and ask: what can we learn from the rich evolution of content marketing?
Here are a few takeaways from content marketing’s past that may help inform its future
1. History will repeat itself
A century ago, consumers benefited from long-form content by the likes of John Deere and Michelin, and now, we are back to the times where long-form content is regarded as high-value. Consumers tuned in to listen to thought leaders from their time, and they are still doing it now; the means of communication just differs. For instance, print journals have been replaced by blogs, ebooks, case studies and whitepapers. At one time, radio was all the rage; today, brands convey thought leadership through podcasts. People will always want to be served with new and interesting content, and the key is to look at what worked before and tweak the tactics to meet modern standards.
2. Quality over quantity
Now digital, Jell-O’s magazine still has a loyal reader base due to the consistent quality of their content. One high-quality piece of engaging and relevant content written by a strong writer will do more work for the brand than ten fluff pieces with no substance. Gone are the days of churning out cheap articles written solely for the purpose of ranking for keywords. Brands need to publish valuable content that resonates with their audience and is superior to their competitors, even if doing so means investing in less content.
3. Target the audience
Superhero comic books are still used to sell products because they are targeted at a specific audience that has formed a powerful connection with these forms of content. Businesses created content that would appeal to their market, and they pinpointed the best way to communicate that content. Targeting is so effective that it’s become an integral part of any modern content marketing strategy.
4. Stay ahead of the competitors
Companies like Exxon that innovated on their strategy also serve as the most successful examples of content marketing. They used multiple channels to broadcast the same message, which was an innovative way to expand the brand’s reach in a cost-effective manner. Similarly, brands must constantly be on the lookout for new content platforms, technological advances and marketing trends. By adjusting their strategy early and often, brands may stay ahead of the curve and be seen as innovators and thought leaders in their sector.
5. Don't be afraid to take chances
When Michelin published their guide, they had no idea that a country with only a few vehicles on the road would respond so well to a travelling guide. However, their risk paid off. Many marketing success stories begin with a brand conducting various experiments to ascertain what resonates with the audience. Though past trends and data help make informed decisions, businesses have to take a chance if they don’t want to miss out on unforeseen success.
Digital platforms are growing exponentially, and channels are being introduced and replaced at a high pace. By understanding the history and evolution of content marketing, brands may be able to spot trends that haven’t entered the mainstream yet and use them to optimise their own content marketing strategy. Furthermore, by taking a page out of the old playbooks, contemporary content marketers may be able not just to sustain history but also create it.