The Evolution of Content Marketing: Past, Present, and Future

Andrea Fryrear on Content Marketing

Many cite the 1895 launch of John Deere’s The Furrow as the first example of content marketing, making the strategy 120 years old this year.

If that origin story is accurate, you’d think that marketers in general would have a better handle on how to…um…handle content marketing. The truth, however, is that we’re still figuring it out.

There are still brands out there creating highly sales-driven content in the guise of helping consumers out.

There are still companies automatically generating genuinely terrible content based solely on keywords.

There are still agencies turning out barely legible writing and calling it content marketing.

Clearly, the 120 year journey to content marketing excellence isn’t over yet.

Here we’re going to take a trip into the past to see what we can learn from the successful content campaigns of the past, make a quick stop in the present to learn from people who are already getting right, and then peer into the future of content marketing to see where we are headed.

Historical Examples of Content Marketing

From its beginnings in 1895 as genuinely helpful magazines that just happened to be produced by a brand to the Hasbro/Marvel comic book partnership that made G.I. Joe a household name, content marketing has come a long way.

Characteristics of Old School Content Marketing

Before it was a household name, content marketing was making a difference in the marketing strategies of many notable brands. In general, it looked like this:

  • A few stand-out brands wanted to connect with their customers outside of the traditional sales process. Many of them rode these early connections for decades, creating new ties to successive generations of customers.
  • The overall adoption rate was extremely low, because the barriers to entry were fairly high.
  • It was expensive and time consuming to bring together writers, artists, publishers, and distributors to reach people at any kind of scale.
  • Technological innovations made it slightly easier to reach large audiences, but early adoption of technology remained expensive and true innovators were confined to big brands with big budgets.
  • Brands who took the early hit on cost (like John Deere, Michelin, and Procter & Gamble) have been reaping the rewards for a century or more.

1895-1930s: Content Emerges

The example I mentioned earlier, John Deere’s The Furrow, was not developed to make instant sales. Its goals were straightforward: help farmers become more prosperous so they would have more income to reinvest in their farms, hopefully including John Deere equipment.

In his book Epic Content Marketing Joe Pulizzi characterizes the first content marketing strategy like this:

Deere leveraged The Furrow, not to sell John Deere equipment directly (as a catalog would do), but to educate farmers on new technology and how they could be more successful business owners and farmers (thus, content marketing)…It was developed by thoughtful journalists, storytellers, and designers, and covered topics that farmers cared about deeply. The goal of the content was to help farmers become more prosperous and, of course, profitable.1

Over a hundred years later The Furrow is still in production, and John Deere is still a hugely successful brand. If you need an example of a long term marketing strategy that works, look no further.

In these early days of marketing, when brands were just figuring out how to connect with customers, other companies began to try simply talking to them rather than selling to them.

Many of those early initiatives live on as well, including:

  • 1900: The Michelin Guide. The massive guide helps drivers maintain their cars and find places to stay and eat while traveling. It was so successful that restaurants around the world still compete to earn Michelin stars.
  • 1904: Jell-O Recipe Collections. Parent company Kraft still offers free recipe collections featuring its product, though they’ve gone primarily digital; this first one generated over $1 million in sales in less than 2 years.
  • 1913: Burns & McDonnell Engineering’s BenchMark. An award-winning magazine that the engineering and consulting firm still produces.1

Takeaway: Although there were no doubt internal conversations about sales and more business-focused goals, what we remember about these early content creations is their helpfulness.

They were nicely designed, high-quality publications full of information that their readers actually found useful.

It doesn’t matter if we’re writing guides and making infographics instead of producing magazines. Modern content marketers could take a page out of these old playbooks and remember to be useful and helpful first and foremost.

1930s-1985: Advertising (Sort of) Kills Content

As advertising began to emerge as a driving force in affecting consumer behavior, high profile examples of historical content marketing receded into the background.

In the 1930s Procter & Gamble began creating radio serial dramas featuring their detergents (hence the name “soap operas”), but these were brand-driven content examples that were more like heralds of the coming era of advertising.

As the 1950s became the 60s and 70s, and Madison Avenue executives became increasingly adept at manipulating responses to ads, high profile examples of content marketing disappear.

By the 1980s, however, content was coming back around.

In 1982 Hasbro partnered with Marvel comics to create a G.I. Joe comic book, a joint endeavor that forever changed the way toys are marketed.

Lego launched their Brick Kicks magazine in 1987, which they still produce today under the name LEGO Club Magazine.

Then came the 90s, bringing with them software and the internet, and the modern era of content marketing shifted into high gear.

Microsoft launched the first major corporate blog in 1998, and a scant three years later the total spend on content approached $20 billion. This same year the phrase “content marketing” came out of Cleveland, Ohio, and the process of systematizing and codifying this approach to marketing began in earnest.

Some notable early adopters to the new/old content marketing method include:

  • Sherwin Williams launched STIR magazine in 2004, offering advice to commercial interior designers and architects
  • In 2005 LiveVault produced a video targeting IT managers and featuring John Cleese. In a pre-YouTube world it got over 250,000 downloads.
  • Nike and Apple joined forces in 2006 to create Nike+, a product that could track your runs and record your progress over time.
  • Procter & Gamble (the originators of the soap opera, as you may recall), created a content site for teen girls in 2008 called A Forrester study confirms it’s four times more effective than traditional advertising.2

Takeaway: Content marketing and advertising don’t play very nicely together. The decades when advertising was the dominant form of communicating with consumers were lean times for content marketing.

Modern audiences seem to be more responsive to the soft sell of content than to in-your-face advertising, so choose your channels carefully.

The Second Era of Content Marketing

In 2015 we’re smack dab in the middle of content marketing growing pains. There are more content marketers than ever, more content being produced, and more discerning consumers we need to reach.

Here’s what content marketing looks like in its second era:

  • Content is primarily written (blogs, articles, white papers, ebooks). Adoption of visually-driven content lags.
  • The adoption rate is staggeringly high, and increases as software improves and goes down in price.
  • Barriers to entry lower as well, as many journalists shift away from “traditional” media outlets, design tools become more commonly available, and digital publishing becomes widespread.
  • The quality scale swings dramatically from outstanding to utterly awful.
  • Business-wide buy-in lags, particularly in the B2B sector. Concern about documentable ROI is a common problem.
  • Writers are learning what it means to be content marketers…but it’s hard to only talk about our audience’s needs.

Challenges of Modern Content Marketing

Twenty first century content marketers have a dizzying array of digital tools at our disposal to create content at an unprecedented scale, but we face two significant challenges:

  1. A massive influx of content from brands, companies, and individuals in practically every niche.
  2. Being forced to cut through the noise created by these new adopters, much of which is low quality but still very “noisy.”

The Crowded Content Field

Firstly, the field is exponentially more crowded. Our old friends at 1895 John Deere and 1904 Michelin had the advantage of getting to try something new; they were disrupting the way consumers thought about products and brands.

No company had ever created content just to help folks out in the hope that those folks might one day buy something.

In 2015, however, everybody is on the content bandwagon. Back in 2010 (the same year the Content Marketing Institute was founded), 88% of all brands were using content marketing.

Research from 2014 indicates that there’s even more competition in the content field:

  • 9 out of 10 organizations market with content2
  • 79% of marketers report their organizations are shifting to branded content3
  • 91% of B2B marketers use content marketing4
  • Companies with 10,000 or more employees use 18 different content marketing tactics4

Clearly we’ve learned from the efforts of previous content creators, at least to the point of trying to replicate their successes.

The problem, however, comes from the second distinguishing feature of this new era of content marketing: scalability.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly Content

New developments like instant blogs and universal adoption of social media have made it possible for more and more and more brands — and even individuals — to produce content marketing materials that meets business goals.

Email marketing software and marketing automation software, coupled with social scheduling tools, have made it possible for all those people to share that content ALL THE TIME.

The combination of these two channels of technological advancement (which are both marching forward at a steady pace) has created a hurricane of content swirling all around our audience.

Some of that swirling content is good; much of it is not. But we have to compete with all of it, all the time.

The Future of Content Marketing: Widening Gaps

As content marketing continues its maturation process, there’s constant speculation about where this approach is (and should be) going.

Many, like Joe Pulizzi of the Content Marketing Institute, call for brands to become publishers, own their content production and distribution channels, and jump in to the content deep end with both feet.

Others see content marketing declining, as its limitations become more apparent and it’s revealed not to be the magic bullet some once heralded it as.

Here are my predictions for the future of content marketing, along with some words from content luminaries:

  • The definition of “content” will continue to expand, with video, Slideshare, podcasts, webinars, live streams, and who knows what else joining the ranks of written content.

“By the end of the year [2015] there will be over half a billion people with the Podcasts app on their iOS device. This number will grow to be close to one billion people by the end of 2015. Podcasting is now entering into its true golden age of mass adoption.” – Naresh Vissa, Founder & CEO of Krish Media & Marketing

  • Expectations from consumers will drive overall content quality higher. Poor content will suffer in search rankings, and brands that produce it will suffer in the marketplace.

“Quality. Quality. Quality. It doesn’t matter what the content is for, the quality better be good. That will, in turn, improve the user experience. The days of creating content just to create content hopefully will end.” – Ian St. Clair, SEO Specialist for Clicks and Clients

  • Gaps between excellent content marketing examples and terrible ones will continue to expand, as companies who invested early get better and better at using the strategy while late adopters struggle to catch up.

“There will be a separation of the content ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots.’ Those companies that have a dedicated team of content creators and a content marketing strategy will separate from the pack of those who don’t in terms of search, social media visibility and ultimately, revenues.” – Tom Treanor, Director of Content Marketing at Wrike

  • Content will expand from the marketing department into all facets of the business as it becomes easier to tie it to business goals and prove ROI.
  • Interactivity and personalization will become more automated and more expected. Irrelevant advertising/content will become the ultimate marketing faux pas.

“Marketing technology will become more integrated than ever, allowing marketer to create seamless, consumer-focused experiences across all digital channels and devices.” – Liz O’Neill Dennison, Content Marketing Manager at Kapost

“The future of content marketing is personalization. Marketers need to be focusing their efforts on creating content that is highly personalized, relevant, entertaining and informative based on where the customer is during their purchase journey.” – Jason Abrahams, VP of Marketing at Root3 Growth Marketing

  • Formal training for content marketers will expand, further legitimizing the approach and enhancing the professional profile of those who produce content for a living.

“we are emerging from the state where everyone thinks they can do it. They are now realizing that just because the tools exist to generate content that doesn’t mean that they can write content that people want to read. So in 2015 content development will move further back into the hands of the professional writers.” – Kathy Heasley, Founder & President of Heasley & Partners5

Where is Your Content Marketing Journey Headed?

Are you pulling ahead of your competitors by creating outstanding content that your customers will enjoy consuming, or have you let the content caravan pass you by?

Learn from the history books. Create a culture of content, and your brand can reap the rewards for a century to come.

1. Joe Pulizzi: Epic Content Marketing: How to Tell a Different Story, Break Through the Clutter, and Win More Customers by Marketing Less.
2. CMI’s History of Content Marketing
3. B2B Content Marketing Research
4. How to Build Your Brand With Branded Content
5. Future of Content Marketing: 35 Experts Share 2015 Predictions