According to Wikipedia or your history books, Benjamin Franklin was an author, printer, political theorist, politician, freemason, postmaster, scientist, inventor, humorist, civic activist, statesman, and diplomat.
But one title might be missing from this list: “The Father of Content Marketing.”
Content marketing is older than you might think.
You might say, “But Steve, content marketing is a new idea. We just started using it in the last ten years, so we’re ahead of the curve.” First of all, I’m glad you know what my name is. Second, I thought I was one of the first to use it, just like you. Third, neither of us is entirely correct.
Even if we were both early adopters of the Oxford Dictionary’s definition of content marketing (a type of marketing that involves creating and sharing online content that does not directly promote a brand but is intended to pique people’s interest in its products or services), content marketing has existed long before the Internet.
How? Content marketing is easy: it’s about educating customers with your tools. It’s about becoming a place where people can get information, learn, and have fun. Will marketing with content help you sell more stuff? Yes. But a big reason why content marketing works is that it allows people to draw attention to the product.
I’m not going to chastise the Oxford Dictionary for failing to comprehend content marketing (I rebuked them enough when they named the “Face with Tears of Joy” Emoji the Word of the Year, beating out beauties like lumbersexual and looking good). I will, however, adopt a definition from the Content Marketing Institute, which I believe is more suited to define the term:
“Content marketing is a strategic marketing method that focuses on creating and disseminating valuable, relevant, and consistent content to attract and keep a well-defined audience — and it is also a marketing technique, eventually, to drive profitable consumer action.”
Naturally, if you look back over the history of content marketing, you’ll notice that it predates Blendtec’s original “Will It Blend?” video. It predates Weight Watchers Magazine (1968), Jell-O Cookbook (1904), and The Michelin Guide (1905). (1900). In fact, it predates the establishment of the United States of America.
Benjamin Franklin was well-known for a variety of accomplishments. Among these are his accomplishments as a newspaperman, publisher, and inventor. Franklin, the Pennsylvania Gazette’s publisher, also operated a print shop and paper mills in the 1730s.
Franklin began publishing Poor Richard’s Almanack as Richard Saunders.
Poor Richard’s Almanack, published annually for a quarter-century, offered readers everything from annual forecasts to aphorisms, poems, calendars, and observations. The almanac was an instant hit, selling over 10,000 copies per year. Ten thousand copies were a massive quantity at the time, earning Franklin a fortune.
However, Poor Richard’s Almanack was more than simply a handy means for people to find out whether they should expect snow in the next year; it was a massive benefit for the print shop and paper mill, and it was the first example of content marketing. If you owned a paper supply and a printing press, your goal would be to sell more paper and acquire more clients for your printing company.
Benjamin Franklin was a visionary, and with the publication of Poor Richard’s Almanack, he could make a boatload of money selling a product annually and fuel his paper industry and put his printing business over.
• Strategic Marketing Approach: Give your print shop business, which in turn gives your paper mill business. Show off your skills without calling notice to your brand, instead demonstrating how your brand can solve someone’s problem.
• Valuable, Relevant, and Consistent Content: Poor Richard’s Almanack would not have lasted a quarter-century if it didn’t offer something worth reading. People wanted to know if the summer would be hot, the winter would be wet, or the spring would be late. They were also curious about how they may live their best lives. Poor Richard’s Almanack fulfilled both requirements.
• A Well-Defined Audience: Poor Richard’s Almanack had a wide range of readers, most notably those who relied on the writing and those who required printing services. Franklin sought and reached out to each of these groups.
Benjamin Franklin was a strategic thinker. Not only did he achieve the objectives mentioned above, but he also taught writers and other content marketers a few vital lessons.
Write for People, Know Your Audience, and Avoid Jargon and Pretense.
“Be intelligent, not foolish or crafty.” Franklin, Benjamin
Benjamin Franklin was a skilled writer recognized for his conversational and funny approach. While up to 85 percent of colonists were considered literate, the Almanack’s significance stemmed from its conversational and easy-to-read format, as well as the utility of the material. These are two accurate criteria on which content marketers must focus today: writing quickly, avoiding pretension and jargon, and being helpful.
Poor Richard’s Almanack was a prime example. Franklin used his informal, easy-to-understand manner to write thought-provoking content that people appreciated. The information was relevant and essential, much like his brother’s move into local news (over news from London) in the early 1700s.
Lesson: No one wants to circle back with, touch base with, interact with, or reach out to someone who utilizes phrases like an industry-leading thought leader. To be honest, they don’t have the bandwidth, they won’t believe you’re cutting edge, and you’ll never be able to raise the discourse in the future.
Actual Lesson (Translation): Write for your target audience. They’ll appreciate it.
Content marketing is equivalent to nailing Jell-O to a tree without a strategy. Perhaps something will stick, but you’ll put in more work for less benefit. Franklin’s Almanack laid the groundwork for the following year and kept his readers coming back for more.
Everything about the Almanack could be replicated. It was released each year simultaneously, had constant and repeatable content, and kept people wanting more. In addition to the essentials of any almanac, Poor Richard’s Almanack includes serialized “news tales” that kept readers returning to find out what happened next. Cliffhangers and calls to action were used in these works, leaving the viewer wanting more and demanding the next chapter.
Lesson: A content strategy will simplify your life by providing a structure for creating and distributing material on time. Serialization will keep your audience interested.
Reading material was sparse in the middle of the 18th century, and what was accessible was in the form of a newspaper, religious text, or classical work. While Franklin attempted to popularize secular literature in the Pennsylvania Gazette, Poor Richard’s Almanack provided readers with a new type of reading material.
The Almanack exposes readers to Franklin’s love of moral virtue and expertise in a fresh way, from the maxims to the poetry.
Lesson: Your audience came to your website because you supplied them with relevant and valuable material that helps them get through their day. Satisfy your desires.
As an inventor and entrepreneur, Benjamin Franklin experienced his share of setbacks. Franklin also created Die Philadelphische Zeitung (The Philadelphian Newspaper), a German version of the Pennsylvania Gazette, in 1732, the same year he debuted the Almanack. The Almanack prospered, whereas that publication folded after a year.
The German-language daily and the Almanack filled a need and offered publishers a lucrative opportunity. Even though Die Philadelphische Zeitung failed, it does not hurt to try.
Like Die Philadelphische Zeitung, you may discover that a particular type of content or distribution channel isn’t the ideal fit for your company or isn’t paying the rewards you expected. But you’ll never know unless you try. Die Philadelphische Zeitung failed because four more German-language newspapers entered the market within a year (Content Shock).
Lesson: Don’t be scared to experiment, but also know when to pull the plug.
“… since we benefit much from the innovations of others, we should be grateful for the opportunity to help others via any creation of ours; and we should do it freely and cheerfully.” Franklin, Benjamin
For content marketers, the last decade has been a bonanza.
New communication channels, an ever-changing marketplace, and new counsel may have made this the golden era of content marketing. This, however, is only one of many historical instances of content marketing, and as you have just read, there are vital lessons to be learned. I’ll discuss additional excellent content marketing history instances and the classes they offer over the following few months.
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