The History and Evolution of Content Marketing
Updated: Mar 23
Content marketing is as old as the United States itself, providing marketers with centuries of growth and brand building power.
Those of us who are steeped in content marketing thrive on discovering fresh new ways to do things. New tactics help us keep the inventive wheel rolling ever-forward; however, it’s not a bad idea to look back into history to learn what did and didn’t work in early marketing and learn what has succeeded and is still around to inspire us like guiding lights to success.
Content marketing strategies have transformed some of the country’s most beloved brands into modern household essentials. So, let's look at a few of the bright “guiding lights” to see how some re-invented the wheel of content marketing.
Benjamin Franklin and Poor Richard’s Almanack
We’re going way back here to 1732, when good ole’ Ben published his first annual Poor Richard’s Almanack, probably the first example of content marketing in the United States (if you know anything earlier, let me know).
Ben was not only America’s first renaissance man — founding father, diplomat, scientist, inventor, author, printer, political philosopher, musician, author, printer, meteorologist and infamous kite flier — he also seemed to have been America’s first content creator.
His goal was simple: To generate interest in his printing business.
But more than just promoting his printing business, the Almanack was also one of the early example of personal brand building, as it was as much a collection of his interests, poems, aphorisms, astrological and astronomical information, as it was marketing content.
Does Ben's almanac fit all the requirement of effective marketing content? Let's see it lived up to the expectations of "good content."
Provides value to the audience? Ben delivered and then some, great job!
Positioned his brand as a thought leader and advocate? Yes!
Strengthened the trust between a customers and a brands? Yes!
Attracted new customers into his brand (or print shop)? Successful indeed. By selling over 10,000 copies a year, the Almanack was a best-seller in its own right.
The Furrow – B2B Content Marketing, 1895 Style (to Now!)
Let’s move along our timeline to 1895 and the debut issue of John Deere’s, The Furrow.
Most marketers see this publication as the first, true instance of content marketing. Here was a magazine designed to be a resource for farmers, teaching them about how to become more successful in the agricultural industry. What better example is there of content marketing’s goal than to educate its target audience!
At 126 years old, and still going strong, the Furrow has become something of a legend in content and brand marketing circles. Popular with audiences almost immediately upon release, circulation of The Furrow reached 4 million consumers at its peak in 1912, before even the postal system was systematized in the way that it is now. It was originally delivered on the USPS's Rural Free Delivery system.
What's the secret to their success? According to an interview conducted by Contently, the secret sauce has been a focus on the end-user's needs and pain points, not the equipment they're trying to sell.
According to David Jones, the 14th leader of The Furrow,
"Even the most technical subject has to have a human story behind it.... We’ve always been able to convince the management that the content shouldn’t be about John Deere equipment. We’ve stuck to that over time.”
Music to our ears, and a recipe for content marketing success. Today, the magazine is published in 4 languages across 115 countries and has expanded onto the web and social network sites.
How many other marketing strategies do you know that are still going strong at 123 years old?
The Michelin Guide – 100 Years of Great Content
Some years later in the early 1900’s, this time in France, another super successful example of content marketing emerged, this time to create an entirely new level of demand. It was, The Michelin Guide.
Well, here the Michelin brothers were faced with a problem, a rather big one: they did not have enough of a demand for their high-quality tires. The reason appeared simple enough: not enough people were driving cars in France during that time, only 3,000 vehicles were in the entire country!
Remember when wise man once said: “necessity is the mother of invention”?
Instead of spending money on traditional marketing techniques, the Michelin brothers used an alternative approach: focus on travel rather than tires and wa-LA!
The Michelin Guide was born to assist the French population enjoy discovering new people, places, and experiences. By 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, when you Google “Best food in Manhattan,” Michelin is still likely to show up in your results, and you will be just one more click away from viewing tires and comparing prices. And you get the cute little Michelin man to boot!
Content Marketing Evolves in the Internet Age
During the long period of mass media dominance in mid-century America, TV and radio advertisement consumed most marketing budgets. During this time, content marketing quietly sat on the sidelines (for the most part), quietly waiting to make its roaring comeback in the 90s and early 2000s.
What precipitated the comeback? Like most things that happened in this time, it was the Internet.
No media had allowed people to connect with such ease and efficiency before, and forward-thinking businesses discovered fast that the Internet was just as useful for engaging prospects as it was for sharing files and chatting.
These early days of digital marketing saw the birth of some important concepts, like multi-channel strategy, search engine optimization (SEO), and the use of social media.
Here are some of the important highlights from those early days:
In 1996 John F. Oppendahl invents the term "content marketing"
1999, the term "blog" is coined, based on the term "weblog"
LinkedIn launches in 2002, Facebook launches in 2004
Inbound marketing leader Hubspot releases its first product in 2006
In 2007, Joe Pulizzi forms the Content Marketing Institute
In June of 2007, Apple releases the first generation iPhone
Think of this time as the Wild West of digital marketing. With little competition and many shady marketing techniques still unchecked, marketers could publish (or buy) blog posts and get to the top of a SERP with little effort.
This created great enthusiasm for content marketing, and laid the foundation for the much more sophisticated artform of content that we know today.
The Modern Era: Strategic and Data-Driven Content Marketing
Content marketing continues to evolve, growing more sophisticated and targeted with each passing year.
Google Gets Serious About Quality Content
There are several important factors shaping that evolution, the first of which is Google. With each new algorithm update, Google refines its definition of quality, forcing marketers to adjust their SEO and content strategies in order to achieve maximum SEO value out of their efforts.
Here are some of the updates that were most impactful from a content marketing perspective:
Panda Google starts to penalize sites that had repetitive content or poor user metrics. The updates was in response to the growing use of "content farms," which produced low-quality SEO content with no business value. This is the beginning of Google starting to focus on user experience as a ranking factor, using human content testers for the first time. Here are the 23 questions that Google starts to use to gauge page strength.
Hummingbird Google completely overhauls its algorithm to focus on the meaning behind the actual search query. This new focus on "user intent." is designed to help users connect with the information they need quickly, through the use of rich snippets and the knowledge graph, which provide concise information outside the standard search engine results page.
The 2020 Updates A series of updates in 2020 further tweak Google's focus on quality content, especially the Expertise, Authoritativeness, and Trustworthiness (E-A-T) formula. Good content should possess all three of these qualities, and continues to be a very important factor (though not necessarily a quantified ranking factor) in building effective content.
Analytics and Data-Driven Marketing
In addition to Google, another important feature of content marketing in the 21st century is the available of high-quality marketing analytics.
Unlike the early days, detailed analytics now exist on every marketing channel. Email tracking technology, social media analytics, social listening tools, inbound marketing platforms like Hubspot and SharpSpring, and A/B testing tools have all given marketers unprecedented visibility into how their buyer's are responding to company content.
Want to see just how popular marketing technology has become? These super-infographics from chiefmartec.com are always fun to read. Look at all those companies!
The birth of modern marketing analytics ties back to a familiar friend: Google.
Google Analytics started the modern marketing analytics craze and is still the most used web analytics platform on the entire web. Over its long history, the platform has evolved into a sophisticated (and free) tool for analyzing visitor acquisition, behavior, and more.
What are the benefits of all this data? There are several.
First, data-driven marketing has allowed content marketers to demonstrate with cold hard numbers the effectiveness of their efforts. This enables them to build a stronger business case for their budget allocations and build more .
Second, is greater personalization. People respond better to marketing messages that are tailored to their specific goals and problems. In the lengthy, complicated B2B sales process, which can extend for months, personalization driven by well-researched buyer personas is a an important way of keeping prospects engaged as they travel along their buying journey.
Content Strategy Becomes Critical to Success
The third that content marketing has changed in the last few years is that it's harder. Here's what I mean.
There are millions of blog posts published every day, according to Internet Live Stats
SEMRush's annual Content Marketing Statistics report found that 87% of companies have a content strategy, but only 11% consider those efforts excellent
Does that mean content marketing is losing its effect? Absolutely not. It does mean that in order to succeed at content marketing, you must have a data-driven, documented strategy for success. A successful strategy will include the following elements:
SEO and Keyword Research Before you put pen to paper, you must perform due diligence to understand your SEO strengths, weaknesses, and opportunities. This includes determining which keywords are most important at each step of your funnel, strategic topic clusters to target, and any website optimizations you'll need to make to support your content efforts.
Buyer Persona Research Do you know exactly how companies buy from you? Many companies have a basic sketch of their buyer persona, like a job title and some basic goals and aversions, but few take the time to develop robust, comprehensive buyer personas built on proven qualitative research methods.
Content Calendar You should ensure that ever piece of content you publish fits in with your strategy. The calendar not only helps you achieve that alignment, but it also helps you communicate and unify your strategy across each marketing stakeholder. By unifying header tags, primary and secondary keywords, publication date, and writer information in a single place, you ensure your efforts stay on track.
B2B Copywriting or Content Marketing Question? Just Ask!
Thanks for coming with us on that little journey through the history of content marketing. This just a brief overview of how its changed and what goes into building an impactful content strategy.
if you want to learn more we recommend just reaching out and chatting with us in person!