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Content Marketing? Ben There, Done That

Our main man, Benjamin Franklin, was a (…deep breath…) printer, author, political theorist, politician, freemason, postmaster, scientist, inventor, humorist, civic activist, statesman, diplomat, colorful raconteur, and, if his contemporaries are to be believed, a great hang – truly one of the OG Renaissance men. But among these titles, one may be missing—The Father of Content Marketing.

Content Marketing Has Been Around Longer Than You May Think

You, misinformed: “But content marketing is a new concept. We just adopted it within the last decade or so and we’re on the cutting edge.” 

Me, only slightly less misinformed: “Slow your roll, my friend! I was once like you and thought content marketing came to be with the invention of the internet. We were both sorely mistaken. Now, let us pour a glass of wine, like our friend Ben would (in temperance, of course), and get to the bottom of this.”

The Oxford Dictionary Lied to You

Ok, that’s a bit hyperbolic, but you’ll shortly get my drift. The Oxford Dictionary definition of content marketing is a type of marketing that involves the creation and sharing of online material that does not explicitly promote a brand but is intended to stimulate interest in its products or services. The truth though is that content marketing has existed long before the Internet. How, you ask? It’s simple: content marketing is about educating customers using the tools you have available. It’s about becoming a source for information, education, and entertainment. Will content marketing help you sell more products? Sure. However, a big reason that content marketing works is that it helps people without drawing attention to the product. The goal of content marketing is to help your audience, improve their quality of life, and establish yourself as a thought leader — someone they can trust to guide them through the challenges they’re facing as it relates to your area of expertise.

So What’s Your Definition of Content Marketing, Hotshot?

I’m glad you asked, sassy. I’m not here to belittle the good people at the Oxford Dictionary for missing the mark in regards to defining content marketing. I would most certainly lose a war of words with them anyways. I would, however, point you to the definition provided by the Content Marketing Institute, an organization we on Milk Street feel is a bit more qualified to define the term:

“Content marketing is a strategic marketing approach focused on creating and distributing valuable, relevant, and consistent content to attract and retain a clearly-defined audience — and, ultimately, to drive profitable customer action.”

If you take a good look back on the history of content marketing, it predates even the great pre-internet examples of Weight Watchers Magazine (1968), the Jell-O Cookbook (1904), and The Michelin Guide (1900). In fact, it precedes the founding of America. It goes back to the times when our man Ben was a publisher in Milk Street’s home, sweet hometown, Philadelphia (Go Birds!)

Poor Richard’s Almanack

One of Benjamin Franklin’s most well-known occupations was his role as a newspaperman, publisher, and inventor. During the 1730s, Franklin, then the publisher of the Pennsylvania Gazette, also owned a print house and paper mills.

Under the pseudonym Richard Saunders, Franklin began publishing Poor Richard’s Almanack. Published annually for a quarter-century, Poor Richard’s Almanack provided its readers with everything from annual forecasts to aphorisms, poems, calendars, and observations. An immediate success, the almanack sold over 10,000 copies a year. At the time, 10,000 copies was a massive number and this brought Franklin a fortune (hence, it’s all about the Benjamins).

But Poor Richard’s Almanack was more than just a good way for people to learn whether they could expect snow in the coming year or what the outlook for the crops would be. It was a massive boon for Franklin’s print shop and paper mill and was the first example of content marketing. If you owned the supply of paper and a printing press, your goal is to sell more paper and find more clients for your printing business. As someone who could always see the big picture, Franklin pivoted the launch of Poor Richard’s Almanack to be not only a money-making endeavor but as an opportunity to fuel his paper business and put his printing business over.

In terms of content marketing, Poor Richard’s Almanack checked all of the boxes.

  • Strategic Marketing Approach: Give business to your print shop, which in turn gives business to your paper mill? Demonstrate your handiwork without drawing attention to the brand but rather showing how your brand can solve someone’s problem?
  • Valuable, Relevant, and Consistent Content: Poor Richard’s Almanack wouldn’t have been in print for a quarter-century if it didn’t have something worthwhile to read. People wanted advice, they wanted to know whether the summer was going to be hot, the winter wet, or the spring late. They also wanted to know how they could live their best life. Poor Richard’s Almanack checked both boxes.
  • A Clearly Defined Audience: Poor Richard’s Almanack had many audiences, most importantly the people who relied on the writing itself and the people who need printing services. Franklin targeted and reached both of these audiences.

So, What Lessons Can I Take Away from All of This

Another great question by you! Our man, BF (we can call him that) was a big picture kinda guy. Not only did he accomplish the above-mentioned goals, but he also taught writers and other content marketers a few valuable lessons.

Cut the Fat: Write for Humans, Know Your Audience, Cut the Jargon and Pretense

Benjamin Franklin was a gifted writer, known for his witty and conversational style. While up to 85% of the colonists were considered literate, the value of the Almanack came from this conversational and easy-to-read style and the usefulness of the content. These are two true marks on which content marketers today need to focus—write comfortably, cut out pretense and jargon, and be useful.

Poor Richard’s Almanack was a shining example of this. Franklin wrote thought-provoking content using his casual, easy-to-understand style and people loved it. Much like his brother’s foray into local news (over news from London) in the early 1700s, the content was relatable and valuable.

Lesson: At the end of the day, no one wants to circle back with, touch base, engage, or reach out to someone who uses terms like ‘industry-leading thought leader’. Frankly, they don’t have the bandwidth, they won’t think you’re cutting edge, and you’ll never elevate the conversation going forward. 

Actual Lesson (Translation): Write for your people. They’ll thank you for it.

Build and Follow a Strategy

As Ben once said, “Content marketing without a strategy is like paddling a canoe with a teaspoon; it’s just silly” (editors note: Benjamin Franklin never said this). In writing the Almanack, Franklin not only built a framework for the next year, but he also kept his readers coming back for more.

Everything about the Almanack was repeatable. It came out around the same time each year, it had consistent and repeatable content, and kept people wanting more. In addition to the basics of any almanac, Poor Richard’s Almanack included serialized “news stories” that kept people coming back to find out the end of the story. These stories included cliffhangers and calls to action, both of which left the audience wanting more and demanding the next chapter in the story.

Lesson: A content strategy is going to make your life easier by giving you a framework for drafting and distributing content in a timely manner. Serialization will keep your audience coming back.

Satisfy Your Audience’s Demands for Knowledge

During the middle of the 18th Century, reading material was scarce, and the content available was in the form of newspaper, religious text, or classical writing. While Franklin did attempt to popularize secular literature in the Pennsylvania Gazette, Poor Richard’s Almanack gave a new form of reading material to those who wanted to read it.

From the maxims to the poems, the Almanack introduced readers to Franklin’s love of moral virtue and expertise in a new way.

Lesson: Your audience came to your page because you provided them relevant and useful content that makes their day easier. Satisfy these cravings, feed the beast!

Never Stop Testing

As an inventor and entrepreneur, Benjamin Franklin had his share of failures too. In 1732, the same year Franklin launched the Almanack, he also launched Die Philadelphische Zeitung (The Philadelphian Newspaper), a German translation of the Pennsylvania Gazette. While that newspaper failed within a year, the Almanack thrived.

Both the German-language newspaper and the Almanack fit a niche and both provided a lucrative opportunity for publishers. Even if Die Philadelphische Zeitung ultimately failed, it didn’t hurt to try.

Much like Die Philadelphische Zeitung, you may find that a specific form of content or distribution platform isn’t best for your business or isn’t bringing back the dividends you had hoped. But you won’t know unless you try. Die Philadelphische Zeitung failed because within a year, four other German-language newspapers jumped into the market.

Lesson: Don’t be afraid to test something out, but know when to pull the plug.

Ok, Let’s Put a Pin on This

Alright, alright, I’ll wrap it up. As our man Ben once wrote, “I have already made this paper too long, for which I must crave pardon, not having now time to make it shorter.” 

The last decade or so has been a boon for content marketers. New avenues of communication, a constantly evolving marketplace, and new advice may have made this the golden age of content marketing. However, this is just one of the many historical examples of content marketing and as you just read, there are valuable lessons to be learned. 

Wanna talk more about how our team can help your business with highly-strategic, creative, and useful content marketing? Contact us today to learn more.

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