With all the buzz about content marketing these days, you’d think it was an exciting new strategy for promoting your business. But the idea of attracting (and retaining) customers by providing awesome and engaging content has been around for a long, long time.

How long? Good question. Here are a few milestones in the history and evolution of content marketing.

Poor_Richard_Almanack_17391732: Poor Richard’s Almanack

Benjamin Franklin, best known for flying kites in rainstorms and being on the hundred dollar bill, was looking for a way to promote his printing business in Philadelphia. Being in possession of his own printing press, the obvious solution would have been to crank out some posters, fliers, and handbills advertising the print house. Instead, Franklin hit on the idea of publishing Poor Richard’s Almanack, a yearly pamphlet that provided readers with calendars, weather, poems, bon mots, pedantic aphorisms, and witty observations. Poor Richard’s Almanack was insanely popular, selling as many as 10,000 copies a year (making it an 18th century bestseller) and bringing Franklin considerable success as a printer. In fact, even years after he became known as a statesman and scientist, he continued to sign his letters as “B. Franklin, Printer.”

1895: The Furrow

This magazine, launched by agricultural machinery manufacturer John Deere in 1895, targeted farmers and provided them with information on how to make their farms more profitable. The Furrow is still in circulation today, reaching 1.5 million readers in 40 different countries (and in 12 different languages).

michelin-guide1900: Michelin Guide

At the turn of the 20th century, when the automobile was still something of a novelty, French tire manufacturers Andre and Edouard Michelin published the first edition of their travel guide for motorists. Even though there were fewer than 3,000 cars in France at the time, they printed 35,000 copies and gave them away for free in the hopes of increasing the demand for cars (and car tires).

1904: Jell-O Recipe Book

In 1889, the Genessee Pure Food Company was struggling to sell their powdered Jell-O product. In 1904, the company sent out salesmen en masse to give away free Jell-O recipe books door to door. Within two years, Jell-O sales shot up to over $1 million, and Jell-O became known as “America’s Most Famous Dessert.”

1924: Sears-Roebuck WLS Radio

In the 1920s, Sears-Roebuck was looking for a way to target and address the lucrative farming market. They began by buying time on radio stations, but eventually realized they’d be better off with their own broadcast outlet. And so they constructed their own radio station and began broadcasting music, comedy, and agricultural news. The station underwent a number of name changes, from WBBX to WJR to WES. In the end, Sears settled on WLS (which stood for “World’s Largest Store”). WLS is still broadcasting out of Chicago.

1933: Oxydol’s Own Ma Perkins

The first daytime radio serial, Painted Dreams, proved exceptionally popular with housewives when it debuted in 1930. Seeing an opportunity to reach their target audience, Procter & Gamble decided to sponsor their own serial so they could promote their Oxydol laundry detergent. And so, at 3:00 PM on December 4, 1933, the first episode of Oxydol’s Own Ma Perkins debuted on NBC’s Red Network. The idea was so successful that it was immediately aped by P&G’s competitors Colgate-Palmolive and Lever Brothers, giving rise to the term “soap opera.”

GI_Joe_Comic_Book1982: G.I. Joe: A Real American Hero!

Hoping to cash in on the popularity of the Star Wars toyline, Hasbro relaunched it’s G.I. Joe line as a series of 3.75″ action figures. The rebranded “Joes” were now an elite paramilitary team waging a war against the sinister COBRA Command. As a part of their promotion, Hasbro teamed up with Marvel Comics to produce the G.I. Joe comic book series. The comic book was so popular that it took on a life of its own, giving rise to a television series (1985) and a movie franchise (2009). Now you know. And knowing is half the battle…

1990s: White Papers

White papers actually have their origin in government; in fact, it’s generally believed that the name originated from the Churchill White Paper of 1922. However, once the Portable Document Format (PDF) became an industry standard in 1993, a number of businesses began offering downloadable white papers free of charge. The idea behind these documents wasn’t to blatantly advertise, but rather to provide readers with information on various technologies, products, services, or methods.

1996: Webinars and Webcasts

In 1996, PlaceWare (which began as a spin-off from Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center) and WebEx began offering web conferencing services. Marketers began using this new channel to offer “e-learning” through webinars and webcasts.

unleashing-ideavirus2000: Unleashing the Ideavirus

In his e-book Unleashing the Ideavirus, Seth Godin claimed that marketing through interruption (commercials, unsolicited email, etc.) was inefficient and ultimately self-defeating. Instead, he said, marketers should strive to “spread ideas” that will move from person to person, infecting all that they touch. This philosophy was considered revolutionary at the time, but what makes this e-book particularly notable is that Godin released it for free, granting readers permission to print it, post it, and pass it around at will. Unleashing the Ideavirus has since become the most downloaded e-book of all time (with over a million downloads), and has been translated into 10 languages. With Godin’s success, a lot of businesses have begun publishing and distributing their own e-books in the hopes of establishing themselves as industry thought leaders.

2004: Microsoft’s Channel 9

Blogging was still something of a novelty in March 2004, when Microsoft launched their blog and community site, Channel 9. Rather than using it for overt marketing, Microsoft instead focused on building a place for conversation between the company and its customers. In fact, the Channel 9 Doctrine stated emphatically, “Channel 9 is not a marketing tool, not a PR tool, not a lead generation tool.”

will-it-blend2006: Will It Blend?

How do you make blenders cool? Blendtec managed to do just that in 2006 with its Will It Blend? marketing campaign. In a series of short videos, which were made available for free on YouTube, Blendtec founder Tom Dickson demonstrated the power of his blenders by attempting to blend a bunch of odd items—matches, golf balls, cell phones, Silly Putty, and even a Rubik’s Cube. The video campaign went viral, attracting more than 700,000 subscribers.

2014: Sponsored Skits on Jimmy Kimmel Live

old_navy_kimmelAdvertising spots on talk shows are certainly nothing new. However, Old Navy broke new ground in July 2014 by collaborating with ABC’s Jimmy Kimmel Live to produce a skit featuring their flip-flops. The sponsored skit was a success, earning the company 12 million social impressions (posts, tweets, shares, likes, +1s, etc.) and widespread media coverage in Forbes, Ad Age, Us Weekly, InStyle and Good Day L.A. Aflac followed suit in February 2015 with a paid skit about their “One Day Pay” initiative, and Western Union aired a Mother’s Day skit in May 2015.

Content Marketing Today

Content marketing is, in effect, the kinder and gentler side of marketing. It’s not driven by sales but, rather, by a desire to build a rapport with customers. Content marketing is an opportunity to humanize your brand, to tell your story, and to demonstrate just what it is that your business brings to the table.

It isn’t a new idea, but it’s certainly one that continues to resonate with companies and customers alike.


From time to time we update and republish some of our popular blog posts that are still relevant. A version of this blog post originally appeared on November 20, 2014 under the title, “What Do Ben Franklin and G.I. Joe Have in Common?”