The Real History Of Content Marketing

Have you ever heard of the The Furrow?

It is a customer magazine that has been published by the John Deere corporation since 1895. It is now available in more than 40 countries and in 12 different languages, and is widely considered one of the earliest examples of content marketing. The truth is, though, that that magazine was not alone when it came to content marketing.

The Furrow, John Deere Magazine, History of Content Marketing

One of the earliest examples of content marketing is The Furrow. Here is an issue from 1959.

In 1900, Michelin Tires released a 400-page guide geared at helping drivers maintain their cars. It coved basic maintenance, accommodations, and other travel tips. After 35,000 copies were distributed for free, the company began selling the books for a profit.

content marketing history by michelin

Early example of content marketing from Michelin Tires.

In 1904, the Jell-O corporation began distributing free copies of its own cookbook that suggested creative and useful ways to use its own product. Before this time, Jell-O was basically unknown and unused. After just two years of content marketing, the company saw it sales rise to over $1 million dollars per year.

The history of content marketing is rich, and brimming with stories of success. It includes companies like Nike, Sears, Lego, Sherwin Williams, Hasbro and Proctor & Gamble. It isn’t new. In fact, it is one of the oldest, and best, tricks in the marketing playbook.

What Is Content Marketing, Really? 

Content marketing is simply a form of marketing that focuses on creating and sharing content, or created media, in order to acquire customers. Basically, it is content that was created to help the customer, rather than sell a product. As it turns out, however, content marketing is actually pretty darn good at selling products.

Jell-O Content Marketing Book

An sample of the Jell-O cookbook, another early example of content marketing.

Just this morning I received a piece of direct mail from a local bank. Direct mail, also known as junk mail, is basically advertising that shows up in your physical mailbox. This piece was a magazine style advertising with multiple pages, and high quality printing. It had all the makings of a content marketing showpiece. But, it wasn’t.

It was only content marketing in disguise. It was really just another example of how to use the bank’s logo in 100 different variations. It was not content marketing.

The difference is simple. Jell-O, John Deere, and others were interested in educating me as a customer. My bank was not. They didn’t desire to improve my abilities as a customer or a personal money manager. They the just wanted to tell me about themselves. I decided that they could do that from my garbage can, because their marketing had nothing to do with me.

When John Deere released The Furrow, it did’t hope to sell more tractors, at least not directly. It desired to educate its customers on how they could use technology to make their work easier and run their businesses better. Content marketing was founded on the simple principal that says, “if your customers are successful, you will be successful.”

This type of thinking has been paying off for more than 100 years.

The Direct Mail Years

The most common distribution method for content marketing has always been by mail. Even examples like The Furrow and Jell-O guide were heavily distributed by the post office. This eventually morphed its way into the already popular mail advertising business.

old palmolive ad by claude hopkins

Content marketing ad by Claude C. Hopkins designed to educated and help the potential buyer.

In the early 1900s Claude C. Hopkins helped pioneer direct mail advertising by using samples as a way to get potential customers to try a new product. He didn’t believe in a tagline’s ability to get people to try something new. That was the product’s job. While this method wasn’t directly content storytelling, it was the right approach for the customer. Like content marketing,  Hopkins desired to educate and help the potential buyer. Cramming a sale down someone’s throat was not on his radar.

Argue anything for your own advantage, and people will resist to the limit. But seem unselfishly to consider your customers’ desires, and they will naturally flock to you. – Claude C. HopkinsClick To Tweet

David Ogilvy, hailed as “The Father of Advertising” championed direct response advertising and long form copy throughout his advertising career (1949–1973). His ideas combined the principals of content marketing and direct mail advertising. He believed in advertising that drove sales by genuinely informing and helping the customer. His disliked general advertising that hallmarked “creativity” as its main virtue.

I do not regard advertising as entertainment or an art form, but as a medium of information. - David OgilvyClick To Tweet

Content Creates Movement

Time and time again, content marketing has earned the reputation of bringing results. Nike probably wouldn’t be what it is today without content marketing. In the mid sixties, founder Bill Bowerman published a booklet on jogging that basically brought the sport to America. The booklet never once mentioned Nike shoes. It didn’t need to.

Great content brings big movement all on its own.

Bill Bowerman jogging booklet, content marketing

Bill Bowerman and Eugene cardiologist Waldo Harris, M.D. wrote this 19-page booklet called “Jogging” in 1966 to help the average American get fit through running, not sell shoes.

Content creates movement because it focuses on distributing ideas and adjusting consumer behavior. One of the hardest roles in advertising is to educate the customer on the benefits of using your product. Educating your customer is a hard thing to do when you only have a tagline and a moment of their attention.

Content marketing is different.

It is long form, takes up more of their attention, and looks to help the customer more than the company. Potential customers are much more likely to read it, and much more likely to learn. That learning then leads to a change in thinking, which then leads to movement, the kind of movement that will likely result in a sale without even asking for it.

Using content marketing to sell without asking makes everything else look like begging. Begging doesn’t create movement; it usually has the opposite effect.

Now More Than Ever

So, why has content marketing lasted for so long? It comes down to a few simple things.

  • It is good for the audience
  • It is easy to create
  • It engages the customer in a real way
  • It can be tracked to actionable results
  • It is worth saving and sharing with friends
  • It it based on customer trust rather than begging
  • It is reliant upon facts and information, not creativity and tricks

The publishing of The Furrow by John Deere was a historical milestone for the entire marketing and advertising industry. It introduced a new idea that is just as alive today as it was then. In many ways, the opportunities for content marketing are easier now than they have ever been. With our blog or social media feeds, we are all able to hit publish at a moment’s notice. The content we create is only a limitation of our ideas, or our understanding what our customers really want to know.

john deere the furrow on ipad, content marketing history

More than 100 years after it’s release, The Furrow and content marketing still works for John Deere.

Content maketing isn’t a thing for the history books. On the contrary, its best days are still ahead. Your customers will never grow tired of helpful information that helps them be better at what they do. The more you contribute to their education, the more they will contribute to your bottom line.

Content marketing is all about the momentum and movement that it naturally creates. Get behind it while you can.

How has content marketing helped your business?

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