Per Wikipedia (or your history books), Benjamin Franklin was an […] author, printer, political theorist, politician, freemason, postmaster, scientist, inventor, humorist, civic activist, statesman, diplomat. But among these titles, one may be missing—The Father of Content Marketing.

Content Marketing is Older Than You Think

“But Steve,” you may think to yourself, “Content marketing is a new concept. We just adopted it within the last decade and we’re on the cutting edge.” First off, I’m happy that you know my name. Second, like you, I thought I was one of the early adopters. Third, both of us are only partially right.

Oxford Dictionaries Got it Wrong

Even if both of us were early adopters of the Oxford Dictionary definition of content marketing (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), content marketing has existed long before the Internet.

How? 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? Yes. However, a big reason that content marketing works is that it helps people without drawing attention to the product.

A Useful Definition of Content Marketing

I’m not going to berate the Oxford Dictionary for not understanding content marketing (I berated them enough when they declared the “Face with Tears of Joy” Emoji to be the Word of the Year, beating out gems like lumbersexual and on fleek). I am, however, going to use a definition from the Content Marketing Institute, an organization I 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.”

Naturally, if you look back on the history of content marketing, you’ll see that the process dates back long before Blendtec uploaded the first “Will It Blend?” video. It predates Weight Watchers Magazine (1968), the Jell-O Cookbook (1904), and The Michelin Guide (1900). In fact, it precedes the founding of America.

Poor Richard’s Almanack

Benjamin Franklin was known for many things. Among those things, 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.

Franklin began publishing Poor Richard’s Almanack under the pseudonym Richard Saunders.

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.

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, it was a massive boon for the 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.

Benjamin Franklin was someone who could see the big picture, and with the launch of Poor Richard’s Almanack, he not only made a boatload of money selling a product annually, he was able to fuel his paper business and put his printing business over.

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.”

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.

Lessons to be Learned

Benjamin Franklin was a big picture thinker. Not only did he accomplish the above-mentioned goals, he taught writers and other content marketers a few valuable lessons.

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

“Be neither silly, nor cunning, but wise.” — Benjamin Franklin

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. Quite frankly, they don’t have the bandwidth, they won’t think you’re cutting edge, and you’ll never elevate the conversation going forward. (For more ugly jargon, see who won PR Web’s #WordsMadness tournament results).

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

Build and Follow a Strategy

Content marketing without strategy is akin to nailing Jell-O to a tree. Maybe something will stick, but you’re putting in more effort for less value. In writing the Almanack, Franklin not only built a framework for the next year, he kept his readers coming back.

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 people 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.

Never Stop Testing

As an inventor and entrepreneur, Benjamin Franklin also had his failures. 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 (Content Shock).

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


“… as we enjoy great advantages from the inventions of others, we should be glad of an opportunity to serve others by any invention of ours; and this we should do freely and generously.” Benjamin Franklin

The last decade 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. Over the next few months, I’ll be sharing with you other great moments in content marketing history and the lessons they teach.

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