If I say content marketing is a big freaking deal for business, most people would either say something along the lines of “Duh, Chelsea” or “That’s an understatement.”
But the thing is, content marketing has been a big freaking deal for a very, very long time.
Well over 100 years, in fact.
And you thought it was too difficult to explain what you do to your grandma…..
For shame, little Jimmy. You ought to know dear old grannie is smarter than that and that email literacy is no measure of actual intelligence.
But the interesting part about old-style content marketing is not that it simply existed 100+ years ago, but that it actually boomed businesses and made many brand names into what they are today.
How? Let’s take a look:
1895: The Furrow—Farming Magazine by John Deere
120 years ago. Which means the oldest man I’ve ever met in my life (who’s now 107) wasn’t even born yet when this thing started making waves.
The magazine itself wasn’t a catalog in any way in that it didn’t focus on featuring tractors for sale or pushing product descriptions. Instead, it focused on teaching farmers the things they needed to know to turn their farms into thriving businesses.
And because it helped their target audience so much, it grew to a circulation over over 4 million readers in just 17 years. (Considering that’s the pre-internet era when everything was done by snail mail, that’s pretty impressive.)
A 1937 issue of The Furrow. (Source)
It’s still a popular publication today with 1.5 million paying subscribers spread across 12 languages and 40 countries. And its fans are so dedicated that many of them get into bidding wars over old issues on eBay.
Exact metrics on how much this publication boosted John Deere’s business aren’t readily available, but admit it, every time you think of “farming” you think of guys riding around in big green tractors with yellow letters, don’t you?
1900: The Michelin Guides—FAQ Content Produced by Michelin
The original Michelin Guide was a whopping 400 page book of content that showed people everything they needed to know for DIY car maintenance and gave them recommendations for reputable places to stay while they were road tripping around France.
400 pages. Think about that for a second.
Now that’s a piece of skyscraper content, if you know what I mean.
1912 version of a Michelin Guide printed for France ( Source)
Michelin distributed 35,000 copies of the book for free before they started selling them for a profit. (They’re still available, too. Except now they’ve built out guides for more places than France, and you can either buy a copy for $20 or just search the information online.)
The content was so good, people were willing to pay for it, and they did. And here’s the lesson we can learn from it: the information your customers are searching for is help in doing the things they know they want to do anyway. They don’t give a shit about what your product’s features are or how your tire’s treads are different from the competitions’. At least, not yet anyway.
1904: Jello Recipe Book
Back in 1903, not that many people used Jello, which is arguably nothing more than a disgusting gelatin product. (Do you know what gelatin is?!? <- Click that link with caution.)
In fact, Frank Woodward, the guy who bought the rights to the Jello-O name for $450 was ready and willing to sell them off for a measly $35.
Fortunately, he didn’t do it and decided to run a content marketing experiment first instead.
The experiment involved giving out a free cookbook full of Jell-O recipes with illustrations of cute children.
Here’s a cover from 1915. Apparently it only took 11 years for it to become the most famous dessert. ( Source)
It turned out to be a little more than a cute book. Just two years later, in 1906, that free illustrated cookbook contributed over to $1 million in sales in 1906…. on a $0.10 product.
Let that sink in for a minute.
That one piece of content marketing, distributed well, sold 10 million pieces of product that wouldn’t have been sold otherwise.
1913: BenchMark—A Magazine by Engineering Firm Burns & McDonnell
This is a little less exciting at first since it’s not a wildly popular consumer brand that we all know and love, but for those of us in B2B, it is pretty darn cool.
In the same year that the Ford Motor Company came out with this nifty little concept called the assembly line, an engineering firm in Kansas city proved themselves to be way ahead of their timely coming out with a quarterly publication with articles surrounding the work they did to create a general-interest booklet on engineering.
Benchmark is still published today. Here’s an issue cover from 2015. (Source)
They covered interesting topics, trends, and different types of engineering… essentially creating a blog before a blog was even a thing.
Again, the numerical implications this piece had on their business aren’t published anywhere, but I can only imagine this publication really helped build out the consulting side of their business, since it would have clearly established them as thought leaders above and beyond all the other engineering firms in Kansas City at the time.
In any case, the production of it obviously isn’t hurting their business, and it’s made enough financial gain through them over the years for them to keep it around.
In fact, it’s still a free magazine and you can check out the current PDF versions online.
1922: World’s Largest Radio Program—Sears
Here’s an example of native content space being purchased by a publisher to reach their desired audience. You know, rather than just producing & hosting their content for themselves.
(It’s like today when you want to get more of your content in front of new people so they’ll click back to your site, so you write a guest post or buy out an ad space for sponsored content.)
During the deflation crisis, Sears really wanted to reach farmers with information on how to manage via the Roebuck Agricultural Foundation, and given the habits of their target audience, figured radio was the best way to do that.
In the early days, they bought out advertising time on radio stations to deliver their information, but it because so successful that they eventually formed their own radio station called WLS Radio. (WLS = World’s Largest Store)
A WLS employee newsletter. (Source)
This is one example of a short-lived content experiment, as it only lasted four years. Once it had served its purpose for Sears, they sold it to Prairie Farmer Magazine, who later sold it to ABC in 1960.
What These Examples Can Teach Content Marketers Today
Beyond showing us that content marketing is no kind of new phenomenon and deflating our sense of self-importance that comes from being on the “cutting edge” (wherever the hell that came from, but it is rampant among those annoying marketer types, isn’t it?), these examples do have a few lessons to teach
You don’t need the internet to reach millions of people in a seemingly “small” niche. (But since we do have the internet, no excuses for small numbers.)
When you create something that’s helpful for your target audience it’ll greatly increase brand loyalty and make your product more popular. Even if that particular piece doesn’t include a CTA to a hard sale.
If content marketing has the power to turn a disgusting meat by-product into America’s most famous dessert, imagine what it can do for your product, which I’m guessing is nowhere near as disgusting.
It does not matter if you’re in a boring industry. If you take the time to produce good content (especially if you’re in a boring industry), people will eat it up.
Sometimes content marketing initiatives are only meant to last for a little while, and it’s totally okay to stop them when they’ve achieved your objectives for the moment.
Can you think of any other lessons we can extract from these examples? Or have any other awesome examples of super old content marketing you’d like to share so the rest of us can geek out on them?
Be sure to share your insight in the comments below.