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What Content Marketing’s History Means for Its Future

The Furrow from Deere & Company is the largest circulated magazine to farmers in the world.

The following is adapted from my new book, Epic Content Marketing: How to Tell a Different Story, Break Through the Clutter, and Win More Customers by Marketing Less

John Deere is most often credited with creating the first major example of content marketing as we know it, so the company holds a very special place in my heart.

The story of John

There once was a struggling blacksmith named John. John was young, broke, and was desperate to provide for his young family in Vermont. In 1836, John made the tough decision to leave his family, with all of $73 in his pocket, to make his way west in the hopes of finding fortune (or at least a job).

After two weeks of travel, John decided to set up camp in Grand Detour, Ill. It was there he put out his blacksmith shingle.

Day after day, John would hear the tales of farmers who came from the Northeast and were struggling to push their plows through the sticky Illinois soil. Where their iron plows used to easily slide through the New England sediment, the Midwest sod seemed quite the challenge. The farmers became frustrated at having to clean the mud off the iron plows every few yards.

John believed that if he could mold the outside of the plow in steel, that the mud and dirt would not stick. So, in 1837, John built the first polished plow using a broken saw blade.

In the days and months that passed, John worked with the farmers, listened to their problems, and  continued to refine his plow design for many years to come. John would go on to become one of the greatest inventors and businessmen of his time.

That man was John Deere.

Content marketing in the 19th Century

Even though John Deere passed away in 1886, his values of listening and teaching live on through the company he built. Deere & Company, arguably the most famous agricultural company in the world, launched, created, and distributed a printed magazine, The Furrow , in 1895. Deere leveraged The Furrow, not to sell John Deere equipment directly (like a catalog would do) but, instead, to educate farmers on new technology and how they use it to become more successful business owners and farmers. Thus, content marketing was born.

The Furrow was not filled with promotional messages and self-serving content. 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.

Now 120 years later, The Furrow is still going strong. It is the most circulated farming magazine in the world, and is currently delivered each month to over 1.5 million farmers, in 12 languages, across 40 different countries.

John Deere is often given credit for being the first to leverage content marketing as part of a long-term business process.

A glorious past

And John Deere was just the beginning:

  • 1900 – Michelin develops The Michelin Guides: This 400-page guide, now with an iconic red cover, helps drivers maintain their cars and find decent lodging. In its first edition, 35,000 copies were distributed for free.
  • 1904 – Jell-O’s recipe book pays off: Jell-O distributed free copies of a recipe book, which contributed to sales of over $1 million for the company by 1906.
  • 1913 – Burns & McDonnell Engineering launches Benchmark: This Kansas City engineering and consulting firm still produces its award-winning magazine to this day.
  • 1922 – Sears launches its “World’s Largest Store” radio program: The radio station helped keep farmers informed during the deflation crisis with content supplied by Sears’ Roebuck Agricultural Foundation.
  • 1930s – Procter & Gamble began its foray into radio soap operas with brands such as Duz & Oxydol; hence the term, “soap opera.”

If you’d like to see more examples of content marketing’s historical significance, take a look at this awesome infographic put together by CMI’s creative director, Joseph Kalinowski:

Understanding history

Yes, content marketing, as an industry, is taking off. But it’s important to realize where brand content came from to understand the direction it should be heading in. Brands have been telling stories for centuries. It started when they had just a few channels at their disposal, and continues today — at a time where they literally have hundreds of media channels to choose from for marketing.

A quality story that is told to the right person at the right time will always cut through the clutter. There will be another new channel tomorrow… and another one the next day. It’s easy to be seduced by the new. As smart content marketers, we need to keep in mind that channels come and go, but good stories (and storytelling) last forever.