Thanks to six straight years of double-digit growth, the content marketing industry is poised to top the $300 billion mark by 2019. Fueled by content-hungry Millennial and Generation X consumers, the content gold rush shows no signs of slowing.
Plainly put, the 2010s have been a red-letter decade for content marketers. But as much as my colleagues and I might like to think otherwise, we’re hardly pioneers of the industry. In fact, the practice of using content to influence actions, sell ideas, and build movements predates the new millennium, the Internet, and even our lifetimes.
While content’s golden years might still be ahead, its genesis is far behind us. Without further ado, let’s take a look back at some of history’s hippest content marketers:
1. 1513: Machiavelli pens a treatise to ingratiate himself with his Medici exilers.
Once an influential 16th-century diplomat for the Italian city-state of Florence, Niccolò Machiavelli’s fate took a turn for the worse in 1512. The Florentian republic had allied itself closely with France, and when Pope Julius II seized it from the French that year, he quickly installed the anti-republican Medici family. Unfortunately for Machiavelli, the new prince, Lorenzo de’ Medici, was a longtime political enemy. Medici wasted no time issuing an order for Machiavelli’s execution, forcing the former diplomat to flee to nearby San Casciano.
After writing a series of unsuccessful letters to the Medicis, begging to be allowed to return to his beloved city, Machiavelli devised a plan: As a show of good faith, he’d write a political treatise about how the greenhorn prince could become a powerful ruler. Machiavelli’s masterpiece, he hoped, would eventually lead to his restoration to a government post by the ruling the Medici family.
Unfortunately for Machiavelli, the plan didn’t work. While his book, “The Prince,” became a seminal work in political science and an enduring guide to despotism, Machiavelli remained banished to his San Cascianan estate until his death in 1527.
2. 1681: Penn talks up Pennsylvania to attract settlers to his colony.
When William Penn received his colonial charter in 1681 from King Charles II, he sought to create a “holy experiment” — a society that was virtuous, godly, and a model for all of humanity. But Penn had one problem: His colony lacked settlers.
To market the new colony, Penn wrote “Some Account of the Province of Pennsylvania,” in which he described the land, recounted his journey to it, and explained the law and government it would have. Penn attempted to give prospective settlers all the information they might need to make their decision. He described its access to the nearby Delaware River, assured people that it would be a lawful, religious state with all the “rights and freedoms of England,” and offered 50 acres to each household.
Although Penn didn’t live to see the full success of his colony, his beloved Pennsylvania didn’t just attract settlers; it became a center of political thought and the birthplace of the United States of America.
3. 1787-1788: Federalist founders convince Anti-Federalists to ratify the Constitution.
After American rebels won the Revolutionary War in 1783, it was time for the fledgling nation to decide how it would be governed. Following fierce debate among the nation’s founders, two factions emerged: the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists.
Headed by Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison, the Federalists wanted a strong central government coupled with comparatively weak state governments. The Anti-Federalists, for their part, favored a confederacy of states headed by an impotent federal government and powerful state governments.
Wanting to convince Anti-Federalists such as Patrick Henry, George Mason, and Richard Henry Lee to support the U.S. Constitution, a largely Federalist document, the Federalists devised a plan: They set out to author a canon of essays, collectively known as the Federalist Papers, that would convert Anti-Federalists to their way of thinking.
Between October 1787 and August 1788, the Federalists published 77 essays in periodicals such as The Independent Journal and The New York Packet. The writings made philosophical arguments for principles like a single chief executive, our system of checks and balances, and the Bill of Rights.
Needless to say, the Federalists won out, convincing enough Anti-Federalists to support their cause that in 1790, Rhode Island became the final state to ratify the Constitution by a narrow 34-32 margin.
4. 1792: Wollstonecraft rallies generations of feminists to her cause.
After growing up the second of six children in a chaotic, unstable Irish household with a father who bullied his wife into a life of servitude, Mary Wollstonecraft set out alone at age 19 to earn a living. Then, following her mother’s death in 1780, Wollstonecraft helped her sister Eliza escape a dysfunctional marriage and a brutal husband.
Eventually becoming a governess in the family of Lord Kingsborough, Wollstonecraft managed to escape the masculine chains of oppression that her sister and mother could not. But after she was dismissed from the position in 1787, she vowed to take up a literary career, desiring to help lift other women from their subservient roles.
She published her magnum opus, “Vindication on the Rights of Woman,” in 1792 and was one of the first Western voices to advocate for true equality of the sexes. Deriding the prevailing ideas of her time, the work made Wollstonecraft famous and infamous. She called for formal education of women, believing women of the time were instead “educated in slavish dependence and enervated by luxury and sloth.”
Although the term “feminism” didn’t yet exist, Wollstonecraft, in a stroke of remarkable foresight, then realized she would inspire a movement: “I am then going to be the first of a new genus — I tremble at the attempt yet if I fail,” she wrote. Her writings were a driving philosophical force for first-wave feminists like Lucretia Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.
5. 1900: The Michelin brothers sell tires with a definitive guide to road trips.
In 1900, France had 5,600 automobiles on its roads — more than any other nation. But at the time, automobiles were little more than a novelty of the wealthy. Knowing Sunday drives didn’t wear out tires like longer trips did, French tire manufacturers André and Edouard Michelin produced “a small guide to improve mobility” and offered it to French motorists for free, hoping to increase demand for automobiles — and, of course, Michelin tires.
The brothers distributed 35,000 copies of the first edition of the Michelin Guide, which offered maps of fuel stations, listed accommodations, described restaurants, and included locations where readers could have their Peugeot or Citroën automobiles fueled or serviced.
Just four years later, the brothers published the first Belgian guide, and in 1911, they began publishing a British version. The dining portion became especially popular, so in 1920, Michelin enlisted a team of anonymous inspectors to rate restaurants according to particular classification guidelines.
Today, the Michelin Guide is a highly respected primer to the best restaurants of Europe, Asia, and the U.S.; the acquisition or loss of a “Michelin star” can make or break a restaurant. Among content marketers, the Michelin Guide is revered as an early but exemplary stroke of content marketing brilliance.
Since nearly the dawn of the written word, we’ve been creating content to win one another over to our own way of thinking.
Content marketing’s power is both ancient and incredibly modern. In an age when mailers meet trash cans at record speed, telemarketers are hung up on within seconds, and marketing emails are deleted unread, content slips past our mental guards where countless advertisements and solicitations cannot.
When you can provide your audience members with valuable, interesting, and meaningful content, they’ll reciprocate with an increasingly rare prize among marketers: open ears willing to listen to your ideas, your mission, and your brand.