The evolution of content marketing is often debated amongst marketers. Some say content marketing has existed since humans had the ability to write. Others describe the first instance of content marketing as early as 1732, when Benjamin Franklin first published his first annual Poor Richard’s Almanac with the goal of generating interest in his printing business.
And while Benjamin Franklin was a content creator, it’s hard to say whether his content qualifies as “content marketing.” It may have been intended to help his printing business, but the publication was more of a collection of Franklin’s interests combined into something that resembled a magazine. It included a calendar, poems, sayings, astrological and astronomical information, and stories told in serial format. The Poor Richard’s Almanac lacked a central topical focus and a clear target audience.
This points to an important question: What is content marketing… and how has it evolved over the years? Clearly, it takes on many forms, exists in many mediums, but all content marketing strategies share a few common characteristics:
- Content marketing provides value to the target audience. Valuable content can take on different forms, like education, entertainment, or a resource.
- Content marketing intends to position a brand as a thought leader/passionate advocate for a particular subject matter that aligns with the brand.
- Content marketing intends to strengthen relationships and trust between customers and a brands. It should be shareable to maximize its reach.
- Content marketer’s focus is on “pulling” new customers into a brand rather than “pushing” towards a sale, which makes it a particularly useful tool in cross-selling. This is also referred to as “inbound marketing.”
Here are several examples that demonstrate the evolution of content marketing:
1895 - John Deere’s The Furrow leverages content marketing to educate its target audience
Most people in the marketing industry have arrived at the consensus that the first, real instance of content marketing came in 1895, when John Deere released its first issue of The Furrow, a magazine designed to be a resource for farmers. It taught them about how to become more successful business owners in the agricultural industry. It’s still in circulation today!
1900 - The Michelin Guide leverages content marketing to create an entirely new level of demand
It’s the early 1900’s in France… and The Michelin brothers faced a problem: they did not have enough demand for their high-quality tires. This lack of demand was because there simply were not enough people driving cars in France during that time. Instead of spending money on traditional marketing techniques, the Michelin brothers used an alternative approach of focusing on travel rather than tires.
Hence, the brothers published The Michelin Guide, intended to assist French people in their pursuit of discovering new people, places, and experiences. Using “Michelin Stars” to convey a level of excellence and quality, they elevated their brand while helping people have better travel experiences. As a result, The Michelin Guide readers discovered the joys of the open road… and the demand for Michelin tires grew. Until this day, the Michelin star is a highly coveted award.
1930’s - Procter & Gamble “Soap Operas” introduce the first instance of “native advertising” through branded entertainment
The term “soap opera” stems from a time when soap manufacturers sponsored radio (and eventually, television) story-form dramas. Programming partnerships emerged as a means for advertisers to reach the main consumers of household goods (which, at that time, were stay-at-home wives and mothers). Instead of educating customers to drive demand, Procter & Gamble entertained its customers to generate brand loyalty.
Mid-to late 20th Century - Mad Men-style advertising throws content marketing aside
Starting in the mid-20th century, mass advertising campaigns dominated the marketing space. Television and print ads reigned during this time. This era of mass, multi-channel marketing left little room for content creators who engaged in one-to-one marketing. Marketing tactics devolved into a means to convert more sales, faster.
Present Day - Content marketing makes a comeback in the digital age
Since the dawn of the internet, content marketing has made an astonishing comeback. As consumers become more and more disenfranchised with advertising (interruption), combined with the lack of barriers that the internet marketing landscape offers the power of Google, people are consuming more content than ever. Today, content marketing comes in many forms: blog posts, eBooks, white papers, reports, infographics, podcasts, visual content, webinars, user-generated content, etc.
These new opportunities come with new strings attached. In 2016, 88% of brands cited that they engaged in some form of content marketing. The “content is king” mantra that marketers follow has led to an extremely cluttered information space. Some marketers, in their pursuit of creating content for content’s sake, have lost sight of why content marketing was so successful in the first place: it created value for the audience. Disingenuous content marketing is increasingly prevalent and sponsored content is becoming a new source of distrust among consumers.
Content Marketing Trends Moving Forward
While the content marketing landscape is cluttered, creating valuable content for a target audience is still an extremely effective campaign strategy. To break through the clutter, brands must have customer-centric content with a smart channel strategy.
- Influencer marketing continues to grow as a way to break through the digital landscape’s never-ending clutter, by aligning content with established and brand-independent thought leaders via social media.
- Search engine optimization (SEO) is a coveted skill amongst marketers, enabling branded content to rise through search rankings and thus, gain more visibility.
- Cause-related marketing helps brands build trust with their consumer base while aligning with a cause they believe in.
- Interactive Content and Virtual Reality (VR) will continue to grow, offering consumers a full-on experience that aligns with a particular brand.
The "Golden Rule" of content marketing comes down to empathy: Market to others as you would have them market to you. Provide content that YOU would value if you were in your target audience's position.