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Content marketing has been a staple in the marketer's toolbox for ages. Sure, new technologies have helped evolve content marketing—making it more appealing and more cost-effective than ever, and increasing its delivery options. But content itself is nothing new.
I hope that this brief retrospective of some successful uses of content marketing from the past 175 years (as well as a focus on new tools and platforms), will energize and maybe inspire you to take your content marketing efforts to the next level.
1. 1835: The Great Moon Hoax
How do you increase your newspaper circulation in a time when competition is fierce and you don't have social media to help spread the word? By creating unique content!
In 1835, The New York Sun ran a series of six articles ostensibly describing a scientific discovery of life on the moon, including fantastic animals, trees, oceans, and beaches. The discoveries were attributed to a well-known astronomer, Sir John Herschel.
The Sun reached a daily circulation of 15,000 with the first story. It then quickly became the largest newspaper in circulation, with 19,360 readers.
Even after the hoax was discovered, its circulation kept growing, reaching 30,000 by 1837.
Image credit: Wikipedia
2. 1900: The Michelin Guides
In 1900, tire-manufacturer Michelin began producing the Michelin Guide to help drivers maintain their cars, find decent lodging, and eat well while touring France. The 400-page guide, with its now-iconic red cover, included addresses of filling stations, mechanics, and tire dealers. The guide was free until 1920, and it's still in production today. (But now it will cost you about $20.)
Photo credit: Whitejacket
3. 1904: Jell-O Recipe Book
In 1904, Frank Woodward was so dismayed by the low sales volume of Jell-O that he offered to sell the Jell-O rights (for which he had originally paid $450) to his plant superintendent for $35. Before the final sale, though, Woodward sent his salesmen out to distribute free copies of a Jell-O recipe book. The move paid off: By 1906, Jell-O sales reached $1 million.
Photo credit: George Mason University Libraries Special Collections and Archives
4. 1982: GI Joe
In 1982, Hasbro resurrected the GI Joe Action Soldier (originally introduced in 1964). But how do you get youngsters excited about yet another toy at their local toy store?
First, tell a story. Though the original toy was a basic representation of the branches of the US armed forces, the new line came with a complex backstory of the heroes fighting against a terrorist unit dubbed Cobra Command. Comic books, an animated television miniseries, and even videogames brought children into the world of GI Joe, making the toys a huge success.
Photo credit: OldJoes.com
5. 1991: The Fax Machine
Custom fax messaging became a new content marketing tool in 1991. MacWarehouse, a computer hardware provider, offered "computerized fax-on-demand" numbers in its catalog. "Any business that regularly sends out documents and information as a means of servicing its current customer and prospecting for new ones should find fax-on-demand to be a very attractive medium," wrote Don Peppers and Martha Rogers in their 1993 book, The One-to-One Future.
Marketers took notice, but so did the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). In 2003, it issued rules restricting companies from sending unsolicited fax advertisements, requiring them to secure the written consent of targeted recipients and provide opt-out options.
6. 1994: The Commercial Dawn of Online
In 1993, O'Reilly & Associates launched GNN, the first commercial website, which included a section called The Online Whole Internet Catalog, based on the book of the same name (which contained 529 entries). In early 1994, Netscape Communications was born, and the Internet went mainstream. Businesses started creating what turned out to be more content in one decade than had been produced in all of the previous century.
Photo credit: Andrew Turnbull
7. Early '90s: Web Pages and Whitepapers
The number of websites mushroomed, and a new era of content was born. Whitepapers and other PDFs (previously used mainly by government) started getting traction online and became standard product-centric content marketing for technology companies.
8. 1996: Webinars and "E-learning"
In 1996, PlaceWare—a spin-off from Xerox's PARC Laboratory—started offering Web-conferencing services. Later that year, WebEx entered the market. Web conferencing, webinars, and webcasts started to make their way into the marketing mix. In 2003, PlaceWare was acquired by Microsoft and rebranded as LiveMeeting. In 2007, Cisco acquired WebEx.
9. 1997: Free Email
Hotmail launched in 1996. Later, Yahoo and Google launched free email platforms. Free webmail accounts spread; as email volume skyrocketed, so did spam. By early 2000, email was one of the main forms of marketing outreach for corporations worldwide.
The CAN-SPAM Act of 2003 did little to reduce the volume of junk email. The inbox overflow problem is still prevalent today, frustrating both marketers and customers.
Carefully crafted content is more important than ever.
10. 2000: E-books
In July of 2000, author and blogger Seth Godin created the e-book Unleashing the Ideavirus and made it available for free. The e-book has been downloaded over 1 million times and is considered the most downloaded e-book of all time. The e-book's success helped Seth land publishing deals in 41 countries and launched his speaking career.
More broadly, other authors promoted their own products or services via free e-books. With a user-friendly interface, e-books gave content marketers a new channel to educate potential customers and establish their companies as thought leaders.
11. 2001: Podcasting
Apple released the first iPod in 2001. In late 2004, a new channel for content marketing became increasingly popular: podcasts. On June 28, 2005, Apple added a podcast subscription feature to iTunes and a directory of podcasts at the iTunes music store. By 2008, 19% of US Internet users were downloading podcasts.
In July 2005, Fidelity Investments became one of the first major corporations to use podcasting to reach its customers. IFS, a provider of ERP software for manufacturing companies, launched a series of podcasts in 2006, generating a conversion rate of more than 10%.
12. 2004: Microsoft Launched the First Corporate Blog
In 1998, Bruce Ableson launched Open Diary, arguably the first blogging platform. LiveJournal and Blogger followed in 1999. In 2004, Microsoft launched Channel 9, its first blog (and the first blog from a major public company) to target the developer community.
In late 2004, Dell and Sun followed Microsoft. But blogging didn't become mainstream until 2005. On January 5, 2005 General Motors created its first blog, GM FastLane Blog, the first of the big three US automakers to publish a blog.
Still, as of November 2010, only 116 (23%) of the Fortune 500 companies maintained a blog, according to a UMASS Dartmouth Center for Marketing research study.
13. 2005: Video
In February 2005, LiveVault—a provider of data backup services—sent an email to 150,000 IT managers, promoting two new products and a new six-minute video featuring actor John Cleese and the "Institute of Backup Trauma."
The incredibly funny video went viral and had a 20% click-through rate, generating over 250,000 downloads in its first couple of months.
And all of this was before YouTube!
YouTube officially launched in November 2005. In November 2006, Google bought YouTube for $1.65 billion. Companies started using the new channel to promote their online videos.
On January 30, 2007, Blendtec uploaded the first of its now-famous Will It Blend content marketing videos to YouTube. (The video showed a Blendtec industrial-strength blender easily making a smoothie out of 13 spicy buffalo wings, a bowl of tortilla chips, and a can of soda, among other things.) The Blendtec videos have amassed more than 6 million views, and its YouTube channel boasts over 385,000 subscribers.
14. 2006: Social Channels
Twitter launched in July 2006 and gained popularity at music and film festival South by Southwest in 2007. On September 26, 2006, Facebook opened to anyone over the age of 13. Facebook and Twitter joined LinkedIn, a professional social networking site that launched in 2003, as the major social media platforms. Businesses began to embrace social tools as a new way to engage customers and fans, and social channels became an essential part of a marketing department's content plan.
15. 2008: QR Codes
In October 2008, Ralph Lauren launched a new campaign that included print ads with a quick response (QR) code. When scanned by a cell phone, the code would link a user directly to a new mobile site. In doing so, Ralph Lauren became the first major brand to use QR codes in the US. Thereafter, Calvin Klein posted QR codes on billboards as part of its advertising campaign for the then-new Jeans X. QR codes have now officially made it into the US market.
In September 2009, Dick's Sporting Goods kicked off its new mobile commerce site using a QR code at the new Cowboys Stadium via the world's largest HDTV video board. Marketers have begun to view QR codes as another way to engage users and drive them to online content.
16. Late 2000s: The Content Marketing Revolution
New tools and resources abound for businesses looking to use content marketing, including Ann Handley's and C.C. Chapman's Content Rules: How to Create Killer Blogs, Podcasts, Videos, Ebooks, Webinars, Kristina Halvorson's Content Strategy for the Web, and courses and guides to creating a robust content marketing program.
17. 2011: iPads, Mobile... and Beyond
In 2011, Conde Nast announced it will start selling magazine subscriptions for the iPad via the iTunes store; it was the first major magazine publisher to do so. The iPad and other tablet and mobile devices created a new wave of content that takes advantage of the inherent interactivity the devices offer.
The question is not whether mobile devices will revolutionize content marketing, but when!