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Monday October 3, 2016

By: James Shea

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Content marketing has a long history

“Content is King” is the mantra in marketing theses days. Firms today are creating content to improve website traffic and establish themselves as experts in a field. However, content is not a new tool for marketing. It’s been around for centuries.

An example is right here in Virginia. The first known reporter in the New World was Capt. John Smith. He wrote Newes from Virginia. He gathered information about the Jamestown Colony in Virginia and wrote about his observations. He published a newsletter, and it was used to promote resettling in the New World for British citizens.

A few years later, newspapers helped spark the American Revolution. Articles that are often attributed to Sam Adams appeared in the New York Journal from 1768 to 1769. They chronicled the British occupation of Boston. They were highly exaggerated and written with the goal of sparking interest for independence from Britain. Some have claimed that Adams was the country’s first blogger.

And of course, famed newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst used his influential media company to promote war with Cuba in 1898. He is famously quoted for, “You furnish the pictures, I’ll provide the war!” Hurst wanted to expand American influence, and his papers were used as a way to push that agenda. He wanted to create mass-market appeal for his brand of journalism and the term “yellow journalism” was born.

Here are a few of the early attempts at content marketing:

John Deere

In the late 19th century, John Deere was becoming a dominant name in the agriculture industry. The company wanted to reach the agriculture community and educate them about current research and trends in the industry. Deere died in 1886, but his son, Charles, took the company’s reigns. He settled upon the idea of starting a company magazine — the Furrow. The magazine was first published in 1895 and circulation peaked in 1912 at four million. The magazine is still published today and has a current circulation of 1.5 million. An online version is also published. It’s mainly distributed at John Deere dealerships around the country and across the world.

The magazine has kept with a similar philosophy throughout its history. It wanted to establish the John Deere brand as an expert in agriculture and farming. Many of the stories have a human element, allowing readers to connect to the magazine. Over time, the publication has succumbed to the realities of online readers, and the stories have become shorter and more visual. The goal, however, has always been to establish John Deere as a dominant voice in the agriculture community.

“People who know the Furrow, know that they can trust the information that we present,” Furrow Editor David Jones said at a recent conference. “They trust that it is presented without an agenda. One thing that sets us apart from perhaps other sponsor publications is a fiercely defended editorial independence.”

The magazine is a perfect example of the style and direction that any content writer aims toward. The articles are well researched and experts are interviewed. The writers aim to educate rather than give people the hard sell.

Michelin Guide

In the 1900s, Europe had very few cars on the road. It was the early days of the automobile. Michelin, the tire company, wanted to increase people’s interest in driving, especially for travel. The company decided upon a travel guide. They thought if they could increase the demand for traveling, then it would in turn increase the demand for tires.

And they knew their audience. It was wealthy people who could afford travel and could afford an automobile. So, the guide placed a rating system with stars, something that has become common vernacular in the travel industry. A four-star rating meant the place was luxurious and suitable for the wealthy travelers.

It also contained basic information, such as where to get gas and points of interest to visit. For the first guide, 35,000 copies were printed. Eventually, the company produced guides for Algeria, Tunisia, the mountainous regions of Europe around Northern Italy as well as Portugal and the U.K.

The guides rated places like hotels and restaurants and were an impartial look at travel in those regions. Over time, they became a relied upon resource when people traveled. Travelers could expect that a trusted person visited the establishment and gave an impartial review.

Originally, Michelin gave the guides away. Over time, they become so popular that the company charged a price. They are currently published in 24 countries and have become a mainstay in the travel and leisure industry.

Today, a Michelin star can make or break a restaurant. Chefs will break down crying if a restaurant is not rated well. However, if the Michelin guide gives a restaurant a positive rating, people will flock from miles around to eat at the establishment. Books and movies have been written about the grueling agony that a restaurant will undertake before the reviewers visit. They never identify themselves, so the restaurant staff is on edge at all times.

The guide is updated every year and has become a part of the corporate culture of Michelin. Some of the secretive rating inspectors have started to use Twitter, adding a little but more understanding to the process and increasing the guide’s exposure.

“We don’t do it to make a lot of money,” said Tony Fouladpour, director of corporate public relations. “We do it because it’s tradition and it helps the brand and its image. It’s a tool we use for the brand.”

River Pools and Spas

The last example is modern, because it shows the power that quality content writing can play in revitalizing a company. Marcus Sheridan owned a pool installation company. It had retail outlets in Virginia and Maryland. Business was good, and River Pools and Spas looked at expanding. Then, the 2008 financial crisis hit, and people who planned to have a pool installed cancelled their orders. Sheridan went from having a highly successful company into one that was fighting to survive. Within weeks, Sheridan was pulling money out of savings, so he could pay the company’s bills.

Traditionally, River Pools and Spas’ marketing efforts focused on radio, television and other forms of old media. With no money, Sheridan pulled back his advertising, but he still wanted to communicate with potential customers. Sheridan thought about the problem and decided he could still communicate with his customers on the web. He began posting blogs and videos on the company’s website. Rather than posting marketing content, Sheridan focused on educating customers about pools and the challenges that many pool owners face. Soon, his website became a must-read for anybody in the pool industry and anybody who was thinking about buying a pool.

“I just started thinking more about the way I use the Internet,” Sheridan said. “Most of the time when I type in a search, I’m looking for an answer to a specific question. The problem in my industry, and a lot of industries, is you don’t get a lot of great search results because most businesses don’t want to give answers; they want to talk about their company. So I realized that if I was willing to answer all these questions that people have about fiberglass pools, we might have a chance to pull this out.”

Soon, the company’s sales soured and it’s now one of the leading designers of fiberglass pools in the country. Sheridan said he could trace $1.7 million worth of sales directly to one particular blog post that focused on the overall cost of building and installing a concrete pool.

People didn’t search for his company’s name. They went to Google or Bing and wanted a question answered. Lots of people read the post, because it was informative and helped people move toward purchasing a fiberglass pool.

Sheridan continued: “So, our whole marketing campaign revolves around getting people to stick around and read our stuff, because the longer they stay on our site, the greater the chance they’re going to fall in love with our company.”

 

James Shea is an award-winning writer and journalist. He is the founder of C3 Media Lab, a web marketing and content writing company.