For as long as humans have existed, people have been creating content. One could go so far as to argue that cave paintings were the first attempt at communication through content.
Maya Angelou once said, “if you don’t know where you’ve come from, you don’t know where you’re going.” This applies to many different facets of life, including content marketing.
Only by understanding the history of content marketing can we know, and prepare, for the future. And of course, if we don’t understand the history, we’re bound to repeat it.
So here’s a brief history of content marketing. As you read, consider what historical trends remain relevant today, and how they can inform your own content marketing strategy.
The History of Content Marketing: Pre-1900s
The history of written content and advertising probably goes back farther than you think.
Johannes Guttenberg invented the printing press in 1440, which led to the creation of pamphlets and brochures that marketed products. In 1732, Benjamin Franklin published the “Poor Richard’s Almanack,” a book designed to promote his burgeoning printing business. And in 1867, Hartford Steam Boiler Inspection and Insurance Company debuted “The Locomotive,” a company magazine that continues to be published under the same name to this day.
These examples are the first representations of the core idea of content marketing: That you can build an audience by distributing helpful information that will help them realize the need for your product or service.
The most successful example of this approach came in 1895, when the farming equipment company John Deere began publishing “The Furrow.” The magazine was designed to provide advice to farmers to help them improve their business.
However, the magazine’s success wasn’t just due to its wealth of information. It also contained engaging stories that were enjoyable for readers. This strategy helped The Furrow reach millions of readers by the turn of the century. The Furrow is still around today, with a readership of roughly 550,000.
The takeaway? Quality content stands the test of time. Put your reader first, and they’ll keep coming back.
The History of Content Marketing: 1900s - 1920s
Other brands soon followed John Deere’s example, including the French tire company Michelin. In 1900, they published The Michelin Guide, a large publication with advice about auto maintenance and travel (It’s now primarily known as a restaurant guide). Even though there were very few automobiles at the time, forward-thinking Michelin believed that publications like theirs would encourage more people to buy automobiles and travel by car (and wear out their tires)—a gamble that paid off.
The 1900s also saw the rise of niche consumer publications, such as Architecture Magazine, Advertising World, and Popular Mechanics. These publications catered to highly specific audiences, giving brands their first opportunity to place targeted ads.
A popular example of this is the Jell-O ads in “Ladies Home Journal.” Jell-O placed ads in the publication, which mostly catered to housewives, on how to make delicious desserts using their product. Through this campaign, Jello-O sales skyrocketed, as they were able to appeal to their target audience with information that was useful to them.
The History of Content Marketing: 1920s - 1940s
The emergence of the radio as a popular communication channel pushed content marketing into an entirely new format.
An early example is Sears-Roebuck and Company, who purchased airtime to broadcast helpful information to the farming community. The campaign was so successful that Sears went on to start their own radio station, WLS (World’s Largest Store) in 1924. The station featured far more than just farming advice. There was also music, comedy, civic programming, and more.
In 1933, Proctor & Gamble began sponsoring a radio serial drama with their new soap product called “Oxydol’s Own Ma Perkins.” The radio program aired during the day and targeted female listeners. Thanks to Proctor & Gamble, the term “soap opera” was coined to describe this type of program.
Perhaps the most famous example of radio content marketing came on Halloween night 1938, when actor Orson Welles announced to audiences across the country that an alien invasion was taking place in New Jersey.
The broadcast garnered a huge audience—some of whom believed the story was real. But the goal of the broadcast wasn’t to induce mass hysteria—it was to attract a large audience and market the radio station (CBS). And it worked! Over 12,000 articles were written about the broadcast, turning CBS Radio into a household name.
The History of Content Marketing: 1940s - 1960s
The 40s and 50s are known as a period of decline for content marketing. This was mostly due to the proliferation of advertising (not to mention World War 2 propaganda), which monopolized all formats of popular media, leaving little room for the more subtle techniques of content marketing.
One exception is the rise of kid-friendly cereals. Marketers believed the best way to reach kids was to create friendly animal mascots and colorful packaging. Hence the birth of Tony the Tiger and Trix the Rabbit.
This approach helped kids to form an emotional connection with their cereal, while making them more memorable for parents. This technique worked extremely well, evidenced by the fact that today we still have cartoon mascots today pushing sugary cereals by the bowlful.
The History of Content Marketing: 1960s - 1980s
By the 1960s most Americans had a TV in their home. This helped give rise to the multi-channel marketing campaign—a staple of content marketing to this day. With multi-channel marketing, brands would push the same messaging across a variety of different mediums.
One of the most successful examples of this was the oil & gas company Exxon. In the early 60s they launched a marketing campaign around the slogan “put a tiger in your tank”—the implication being that Exxon gasoline would give your car the strength of a tiger.
Exxon promoted their slogan across TV, radio, and print, making the phrase “put a tiger in your tank” synonymous with the brand. This in turn helped Exxon surge in popularity, so much so that they began selling tiger-themed car accessories.
Other companies—realizing that launching a multi-channel campaign was more cost effective than running separate campaigns on different channels—followed Exxon’s example.
Multi-channel content marketing is still widely used today—although the strategies are much more sophisticated (more on that later).
The History of Content Marketing: 1980s - 2000s
The 1980s introduced comic book heroes as a powerful form of content marketing. Brands like Marvel and DC created comics around action figures like Spiderman and G.I. Joe. The content helped bring the toys to life for a generation of children, and form a powerful bond that still exists to this day (as evidenced by the barrage of superhero movies).
Another toy brand that entered the content game was LEGO. In 1987, they launched their Brick Kicks magazine which boasted product pricing, comics, games, contests, modeling tips, and more—all of which helped make the brand more accessible to consumers (of course, LEGO’s greatest content marketing feat was 2014’s “The Lego Movie’).
The biggest change to the content marketing landscape came in the 1990s with the proliferation of home computers and internet usage. This gave rise to email and websites, which presented new and exciting opportunities for marketers. Many moved their marketing dollars from TV and radio to websites and email newsletters—which today we call digital marketing.
The term “content marketing” itself was coined by John F. Oppedahl at a journalism conference in 1996. This put a name to a practice that had been taking place for hundreds of years, and gave way to what we consider “modern” content marketing.
Brands created their own websites where they shared content designed to build awareness and foster brand affinity. They sent out email newsletters promoting their content to a targeted list of subscribers.
However, there were two more seismic changes on the horizon that brought content marketing into its current form.
The History of Content Marketing: 2000s - Present Day
The last 20 years of content marketing have been defined by a marriage between multi-channel marketing, social media, and search engine optimization SEO.
Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, YouTube, and many others have become the primary channels through which brands reach their customers. This has led to highly strategic approaches to content creation and distribution.
Brands learned to adapt their content for different channels. At the same time, they became more nimble and creative in their approaches to content marketing in an effort to differentiate themselves from competitors.
One of the most successful early examples of social media content marketing was BlendTec’s “Will It Blend” series on YouTube, which launched in 2006. The highly entertaining videos of BlendTec blenders destroying everyday items garnered over 235 million views, and helped turn BlendTec into a household name.
What pushed the social media revolution over the top was the emergence of the iPhone in 2007. This empowered everyone to become amateur photographers and videographers, and easily share their content while on the go. Today 99% of social media users access their social accounts from their mobile device.
Of course, the other major trend that’s emerged in the last 20 years is the rise of SEO. Blogs made it possible for anyone and everyone to be a publisher, including brands themselves. But with the rise of Google in the early 2000s, marketers began realizing that in order for anyone to find their blog content, they needed to make it appear at the top of Google search engine results pages. This has spawned an entire industry of people who build backlinks and perform outreach for the sole purpose of getting pieces of content to rank.
Market segmentation and customer roadmaps have also led to a proliferation of content marketing formats. Outside of blog posts, many brands also invest in the creation of ebooks, whitepapers, reports, testimonials, case studies, sell sheets, and videos.
Some brands today have content marketing down to a science—knowing exactly what types of content to serve customers in order to get them to take their desired action. They then use content intelligence software to measure the exact impact their content is having, and adjust their strategy accordingly.
In other words, we’ve come a long way from The Furrow and The Michelin Guide.
Or have we?
History has a tendency of repeating itself, and in recent years we’ve seen brands return to creating magazines designed to service their audience. Heck, Knotch just did it earlier this year with our State of Content Marketing report.
So what does this all mean? What does content marketing’s rich history tell us about the future of our industry?
Let’s find out.
What The History of Content Marketing Teaches Us
Here are five key takeaways from content marketing’s past that can help inform it’s future.
Every example of breakthrough content worked because it was unique, creative, and well-thought out. That’s what it takes to stand out in a saturated marketing landscape.
Brands creating content need to think about how they can stand apart from the crowd. You need to be able to say something different, present a better experience, or unearth information that can’t be found anywhere else. This is the true currency of valuable content.
The cream always rises to the top. For your content to be successful it needs to be better than everyone else’s. Focus on quality over quantity. One high-quality piece of content will do more work for your brand than ten pieces of poor content.
Know Your Audience
Jell-O and Proctor & Gamble’s approaches worked because they knew exactly who their customers were and what sort of content they were looking for. They then leveraged that knowledge to create unique, quality content and place it in locations their customers were looking (i.e. Ladies Home Journal, on the radio, etc.).
Connect on an Emotional Level
Superhero comic books and cereal mascots are still used today to sell products because consumers have formed a powerful connection with these forms of content. If you want your content to succeed, it needs to mean something to your audience. It has to spur an emotional reaction. That’s how you create customers that will return again and again.
Stay Ahead of the Curve
The most successful examples of content marketing were by brands that were early adopters, such as John Deere and Exxon. You need to constantly be on the lookout for new content channels, technological advances, and marketing trends. By adjusting your strategy early and often, you can differentiate yourself from your competitors and be seen as an innovator in your sector.
Of course, this takes a certain level of tolerance for risk. But as history has proven, no progress has ever been made by choosing to opt for the status quo.
History Repeats Itself
Everything comes back around. At one time radio was all the rage. Now we have podcasts. The fact of the matter is people will always want to be served with new and interesting content. And every year there are brands out in front of a hot new content marketing trend, followed by late adopters. Rinse and repeat.
What does the future hold? Visual content, including videos and infographics, are increasing in popularity. COVID-19 has pushed virtual events to the forefront. And influencers have given marketers a new way to connect with their target audience.
Of course, these trends are already well documented.
By reading our history of content marketing, we hope you now have the foresight to spot the trends that haven’t entered the mainstream yet, and use them to optimize your own content marketing strategy.
Use Knotch to Stay Ahead of the Competition
Before we go, we’ll leave you with one other development in the history of content marketing: the emergence of tech-enabled content marketing platforms.
At Knotch, we provide a Content Intelligence Platform that helps brands gather quantitative, qualitative, and demographic insights, allowing them to plan, measure, and optimize their content programs.
With so much competition in content marketing today, solutions like ours are required for brands to stay top of mind with consumers and not have their messaging overpowered by competitors.
To learn more about Knotch, visit our website.