Content Marketing in the 90s: What Was It Like?
August 22, 2017 | Kaleigh Moore
In the early 1990s, content marketing was, for the most part, traditional marketing.
If you wanted to get your company message in front of an audience, you had to place an ad in the newspaper, on TV, radio, billboards, etc.
In fact, almost one-fourth of the $150 billion in US advertising market spend was invested into television ads in 1990.
Data from Andy Crestodina’s book Content Chemistry echoes this as well. The company sat at the middle of the marketing model, and messages flowed outward through different channels with limited opportunities for input and/or cross-channel.
But in the mid-90s, something changed.
The internet became a tool more widely used and opportunity-packed than any marketer could ever dream of. At the close of the 90s, marketing was changing – fast – and becoming more of the marketing machine we know today.
But what was “content marketing” back then? Let’s take a look at some of the strategies that came, went, and stayed over this change-packed decade.
In the early 1990s, many businesses used print materials to spread the word about their services, products, and offerings. While these are still used today at live events, some formats aren’t exactly as ubiquitous as they used to be.
Brochures were an extremely popular format for their portability, quick distillation of information, and eye-catching quality when printed in color.
The trouble with these marketing materials, however, was that they were expensive to print, they included no actionable next step besides a phone number – and they didn’t produce any trackable metrics to indicate success or failure.
In fact, much of the time, they ended up in the trash. In a way, brochures were an indicator of legitimacy for brands – but their effectiveness was difficult to gauge at best.
But print doesn’t just refer to brochures, of course.
Marketers like Joe Cordo, current CMO of WegoWise, remembers how other forms of print media during the 90s were hugely important to the success (or failure) of marketing teams.
“Public Relations in B2B made product brands, and often drove valuations of companies. Front page print coverage and product reviews drove a product to brand leadership,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean it was all good. An overemphasis on PR created brand perception rather than healthy demand. Good products didn’t necessarily achieve the market presence they should have. The web and data-driven digital marketing in the 2000s changed all of that for the better.”
Fax machines were another a popular tool for B2B marketing in the early 1990s.
Leveraging a business directory of fax numbers, advertisements, and marketing messages could be sent on a mass-scale. The peak sales year for fax machines was 3.6 million machines sold in 1997, but as email became more widely used in the late 1990s, the tool hit a downward trajectory after this point.
Sending unsolicited faxes didn’t fly for long, either. In 2003, the FCC restricted companies from sending marketing faxes/advertisements and made it necessary for senders to provide a simple opt-out option to recipients.
Brad Farris of Anchor Advisors remembers a time during the 90s when companies tried a content marketing approach that included sponsored televisions programs.
“Some companies tried to reach new audiences by creating their own TV shows,” he said. “I remember Mutual of Omaha’s show Wild Kingdom – and there were lots of brands that tried to do something similar in the 90s.”
The thing is, these shows didn’t always work successfully. One example of this is Microsoft’s “cyber sitcom” starring a young Jennifer Aniston in a bizarre educational TV program.
“They’ll be taking you on an adventure in computing that takes place in the office of Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates,” the video narrator says. “Along the way, they meet a wacky bunch of propellerheads and are introduced to the top 25 features of Windows 95. The pace is fast and funny!”
Needless to say, this wasn’t a highly effective marketing tool for the brand. It was just weird.
While the internet had been around since the 1980s, it didn’t begin evolving into the marketing tool we know it as today until 1994, when Netscape made it mainstream.
Businesses began to build out websites, and early search tools like Infoseek and AltaVista made it easier for internet users to find and browse millions of websites published on the internet.
In 1998, Google was officially introduced as a search engine, but back then it wasn’t the go-to search tool we know it as today. Between 1999 and 2000, AOL and Yahoo would partner with Google, and from there it would slowly gain traction.
Email took off in the 1990s. Hotmail added 30 million users within the span of 1998 to 1999, and countless other email service providers entered the market hoping to capture a new audience of internet users looking for a fast, easy way to communicate.
Email also presented a new marketing opportunity… and one of the earliest forms of viral content.
Chain emails (which were forwarded emails passed from account holder to account holder, like a chain) made it easy to spread information quickly. Unfortunately, this also contributed to the spread of false information.
Today, we know this type of email content as SPAM.
The FTC instituted the CAN-SPAM regulations of 2003, which dramatically cut down on chain email forwarding and helped reform the email inbox back into a usable, reliable space for business messaging.
The 1990s was also an important time for the beginnings of strategic email marketing. Companies like Zima, the malt beverage-maker, were early to collecting email addresses through online efforts, which they referred to as “tribe-building.”
In an example from the book Breaking Up America, you can see how Zima encouraged email opt-ins with the help of an early landing page, loyalty rewards, and exclusive access for subscribers. This practice would later become one of the foundations of what we know as content marketing today.
White Papers and PDFs
With new web pages being built every day, marketers entered the game with their earliest forms of content – whitepapers and PDFs.
These quickly became standard formats for product-oriented marketing messages within the tech and software community because they displayed correctly across a variety of different operating systems (without distortion.)
The trouble with the PDF format was that the content on these static pages were:
- Not crawlable by search engines, thus limiting SEO opportunities, and
- Not linked to other pages on the brand website.
Because of these factors, marketers would later look to tools that transformed these important assets into more interactive, SEO-friendly content.
Around 1996, the internet also opened the door to new educational opportunities – like e-learning (AKA online courses and webinars.) Xerox’s PlaceWare allowed companies to leverage web conferencing, and WebEx was close behind with a similar offering.
While e-learning was a valuable training tool for internal purposes, marketers also started using it to educate prospects.
These efforts helped improve lead generation and qualification, and were some of the first instances where online education was integrated into marketing strategy.
Today, webinars are still a powerful tactic in the content marketing realm used by countless teams and businesses.
Blogging and the Birth of Content Marketing
The first blog was created by Swathmore College student Justin Hall in 1994, but it wasn’t until 1997 that ‘weblog’ was shortened to the term we know today as ‘blog.’
The first blog was a blank page with some text and hyperlinks – a long way from the polished, mobile-optimized blogs we know today.
As marketers began to realize the full potential of this medium, the idea of ‘content marketing’ we use today started to take shape in people’s minds.
The term was first coined by John F. Oppedahl in 1996 at a roundtable discussion of the American Society of Newspaper Editors. It would still be many years before ‘content marketing’ gained a foothold as a mass-adopted strategy and tool, though.
Google Trends data shows that it wasn’t even until around 2012 that interest really started building around content marketing.
Looking Back, Looking Ahead
The 90s was a decade of rapid change and growth with the introduction of the internet as a tool for individuals – and it was the first time marketers had to learn about how they could harness this resource to revolutionize their approaches.
Looking at this era makes you realize just how far we’ve come with modern content marketing, and it makes you wonder what we still have to discover and learn, too.
We’re still in the very beginning of our history with content marketing, but we’ve certainly made leaps and bounds growth from the print brochures to robust interactive experiences we know today.