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Content marketing wasn’t always called “content marketing”.

Benjamin Franklin called it an “almanac”, Michelin said it was an “auto-guide” and Procter and Gamble named theirs “soap operas”.

Plain and simple: content marketing is brands telling stories.

Modern-day millennials might like to think that their podcasts, blogs, and videos are new and exciting developments in this great canon of branded content. But, if we’re truly honest, the business has changed in name only.

Our poor pre-internet brothers and sisters knew only physical stores, printed media, and phone calls. What could we possibly learn from them?

Storytelling still occurs offline

First, it’s important to note that some of us are still pre-internet. And not just in the third-world. In the US, eight out of every 100 Americans don’t have high-speed internet or any kind of internet.

Some of us still go to books, newspapers, and magazines for content. Stories from hundreds of years ago still sell. From Homer’s Odysseus to Shakespeare’s Ophelia, great writers have always known the value in “evergreen publishing”.

90 percent of all retail still occurs within brick and mortar, leaving only about 9 percent of retail online. And there’s been reports of a recent boom for offline commerce. Half of the millennial demographic prefers brick-and-mortar shopping over e-commerce and 56 percent shop in-store at least once a week.

All these stats might indicate consumers are turning away from online. But could it be that businesses are the ones changing?

There’s evidence that businesses are starting to treat all their online and offline content channels equally. Examples of this convergence are Target and Walmart using “buy-online”, “pick-up in store”, and “personal shopper” services. Meanwhile, Amazon’s Go concept encourages offline shopping but is led by online technology, such as computer vision, deep learning, and sensors.

The best businesses think innovatively and blur any boundaries of technology. There are universal qualities in good content marketing.

What can we learn from pre-internet marketing?

1. First impressions count.

Shop window displays were one of the original technology-led “disruptions”. In England around the early 1700s, glass became widely available. Shops transformed, from dark rooms where you bought things, into transparent avenues of consumer leisure.

Retailers had to spend more money on their windows to remain competitive. The visuals enchanted shoppers and drove patronage. These initiatives had a cumulative effect over the decades, built brand loyalty, and are still in place today.

Today, digital natives know that first impressions are indeed everything. We have seconds to make a strong impression online. Avatars, landing pages, and customer experience are all about individual first impressions. Surveys have shown that 46% of shoppers assess the credibility of a site based on the look of the homepage alone.

2. Look at your customers, not the content.

Hundreds of years ago stores started off as one-room operations. Through economies of scale, they grew in size until shopowners could no longer keep an eye on everything. Through necessity or invention, retailers had to think about how consumers were moving through their rooms, halls, and levels.

Fast forward a few decades and a whole industry had formed around walking paths, mall design, and retail psychology. For example, research suggests that most shoppers look left when entering a store, then move right. Retailers use this knowledge when considering the design of store entrances.

This type of thinking has carried over to the digital age. Eye-scanning studies show that when people look at web pages, they:

  • Scan their eyes towards the top left
  • Rarely get beyond the first search result
  • Read in ‘F’ patterns
  • And are drawn towards high-quality graphics.

3. Structure and format the customer experience.

Why do some stores resemble warehouses, like Costco, while others look like a maze, like IKEA? Retailers deliberately utilize layouts (aisles, displays, mazes) to create flow, align with catalogs and provide inspiration. Through a few imaginative design techniques, IKEA nudges people to spend hours, rather than minutes, in their store.

Content creators can employ similar methods. And it’s important that they do. The average American spends half their day engaging with media. Yet, we have no time for content: 43% of people admit to skimming long posts.

Making your blog easily digestible is key. Use headers, videos, and other visual tools to highlight the most important sections. Don’t overload, but gently direct using a call to action, a variety of content forms and lengths, and linking between each article.

4. Aim to provide lasting value

Mail order marketing brought the shop to your front door in the 1950s. Post-war incomes in the US soared and opportunity seemed endless. The Sears Catalog, “the Amazon.com of its day”, is now rightly remembered as the vintage content of this era. Not only would it affect people on an individual level, pouring over the pages for hours, it also changed society, empowering African-Americans against Jim Crow laws.

What does this mean for you? Think about how people will use your content today, and 50 years from now. Aim to create something that not only delights and informs but is treasured for years to come. Your content could have a wider value and serve many more purposes than mere “lead generation”.

5. Know your regulars.

It’s easier to build meaningful relationships with face-to-face communication. Anyone who’s worked in retail will tell you that lesson one is to “Greet the customer”. When shoppers are asked why they returned to a store, more than half of the time it’s because they experienced “superior customer service”.

Is online any different? The first thing your eye jumps to on Amazon’s homepage is a “Hi,..(your name)” in the top-left corner. It might not be the friendly face of your local Mom-and-Pop store, but it’s a pretty cool personal touch from a company with about 240 million regular customers.

You can do the same things you would offline as you would with your online community. Use a second person perspective. Read what your targets read. Hang out in the same places (online). Develop buyer personas. Be a friend.

6. Change your stock regularly

Shop owners have always known the value of new stock. Fresh products hold customer interest and provide an incentive to return.

Likewise, you need to regularly change your online “shelves” for return readership. Unfortunately, you only have so many hours in the day to generate high-quality content.

As a rough guideline, most professional blogs reach for 300 words as a minimum, but posts over 1500 words have been shown effective for gaining traction on social networks.

However, don’t think that more is always best: a study found that when smaller companies posted twice a day, posts gathered 50 percent fewer clicks than once a day, or once a week. In general, your content will be more effective if it is high in quality, rather than high in quantity.

The more marketing changes, the more it stays the same

Content marketing has changed in form, style, and degrees of effectiveness over hundreds of years. It used to be called a brochure or catalog. Today its email, social media, and blogs. What will be tomorrow’s content be?

As technologies change, the medium shapes the message. TV commercials, ancient almanacs, and YouTube influencers are all different in many important ways. But at their heart, they remain brands telling stories. If you’d like help telling yours, contact us here.