31 January 2024 |

What content marketing in the early 1900s can teach you

By Tracey Wallace

Pendulums swing. That’s their nature. 

Once, years ago, I was a marketer educating about the value of software as a service in comparison to on-premise technology, which was the dominant player. 

Not long after that, I was laughing with co-workers over drinks about how easy it was to sell a “best in class” software message, taking down any company that attempted to sell a “consolidated” package. 

Today, SaaS is the dominant player, and consolidation is back in vogue as companies attempt to consolidate data, and reduce tech stack costs. 

Yesterday, I ran across ONCE, the new umbrella company from 37signals. You’ve got to take a moment right now to go and read the copy on their site. It’s compelling, and given that pendulums swing, a post-SaaS world is entirely feasible. Especially if its Jason Fried ushering it in. 

It got me thinking: What in content is seen as so common now, but is really just a pendulum swing? 

And you know what I thought of? Content itself. After all, companies didn’t always do content marketing. It wasn’t even all that long ago that it didn’t exist as a marketing field. 

In fact, in many ways, the SaaS model brought cotnent marketing into the world as a career, and as a marketing channel. It was Hubspot that first coined the term “inbound marketing”, and today, they are continue to lead with cotnent, as one of the leaders in businesses being media companies. 

Before that, there were blips here and there. 

  • The Michelin Guide –– a content marketing asset from tire company Michelin, encouraging folks to get out on the road and therefore use their tires. 
  • Rudolf the Red-nosed Reindeer coloring book –– a content marketing asset from Montgomery Ward that they used to entice mother’s toting children during the shopping season into their stores. 

The Content Marketing Institute has a whole infographic dedicated to this, on which you’ll see Jell-O, Lego, Edison’s, Weight Watchers, and more. 

But there were not content marketing teams. Just copywriters and advertising teams. And so what would the world look like if content marketing today just disappeared? What value would be lost to the companies and to the prospects? 

Now, this isn’t a cry to fire your content team or find a different career. It’s exercise to figure out what value we are providing, determine where that pendulum is swinging next, assess our blind spot, and be on the bleeding edge of the next big thing. 

It’s an exercise in bravery and being bold. 

What if, for instance, cotnetn teams stopped publishing daily or weekly? What if we stopped the hamster wheel entirely, and dedicated to publish only one piece of content a year? 

What would that asset be? How would you design it? How would you pull it together? How would you reuse it throughout the year? 

I think we are at a moment in which the value of content has been commoditized––with AI being able to create tons of decent content (just try the prompt: “Tell me the 20% of information I need to know about [topic] in order to understand 80% of it”) and consumer desire shifting, not just to video, not just to short or long-form, but to a search for meaning

I think there there is a case to be made for doing things wildly differently, absurdly differently. And there’s no better place to look than history for what might be on the horizon. 

A note of this advice:

You do you! 

One content marketer’s best practices aren’t always right for another one, though I do try to distill out the main concepts and core practices I believe everyone can benefit from. That said, you must use good judgment when deciding whether to take advice given from folks on the internet. I am an expert, and this advice comes from my direct experience, but I am not smarter than you, and I have nothing to gain or lose because of what you do.