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From the Corn Field to the Digital Era: Content Marketing Starts with Trust

People try to speak about social media marketing in elaborate terms, using fancy new-age phrases that have to be explained to be understood by all but a chosen few. Most of this is what my Dad would call...well, I can’t write what my Dad would call it and remain PG!

To say that a lot of what goes on around social media marketing is missing the point would be obvious if you spend enough time digging into the depths of the complexity some people imagine for it. My goal is to strip all of that away and tell you that content marketing is all about one thing:


If you’re not working to build trust on your social media pages, and are instead worrying about some algorithms that was plopped on your desk, you’re spinning your wheels. Which is useful if you want to burn up gas, but useless when you want to build a community of passionate fans.

The Furrow, John Deere, and the first content marketing

I didn’t mention my Dad by mistake up above. My dad was a farmer, and I was a farm boy. We collected and read a lot of magazines and books back then on the subject of farming. A magazine that was frequently read, and featured prominently on the floor of my Dad’s tractors for slow moments, was called The Furrow.

The Furrow was a magazine put out by John Deere, a farm equipment manufacturer. The goal of The Furrow was to give farmers advice on how to run a more profitable business, grow better crops, and be better farmers. With a first cover date of 1895, this magazine is often cited as the first piece of content marketing.

What this early example of content marketing did was grow trust within the farming community - the people who buy John Deere equipment - by giving them content that was actually useful. A by-product, not the goal of this, was people buying their equipment.

Care for an example? The only tractor my Dad ever bought new was a John Deere 2550, the four wheel drive model, while all of my favorite farm toys were John Deere. And John Deere is still, long after I have moved off the farm, the only tractor I’d buy.

What bred this feeling in both my father and me was trust, the kind of trust that builds true brand loyalty.

How did The Furrow achieve success as a piece of content marketing?

The success of The Furrow shows something very clearly: you can’t buy trust, you have to earn it. They earned it with each and every interesting article that a farmer read, and with each tip that a farmer took and applied successfully to his own farm. This is exactly what we are doing today with our blogs, thinking we’re inventing the wheel when we are only part of a very old style of marketing.

Take a look at the two examples of covers for The Furrow in the main image above again. The Norman Rockwell-esque painted one is from 1960, the photograph of the strawberry is from 2013. They both feature:

  • Striking imagery that immediately catches the eye, just like every blog post you publish has a feature image

  • Have little incentives right on the cover, like your most link-baited articles

  • Clearly show the name of the publication, just like you have at the top of every webpage

Inside, you’ll find the secret to their success: useful content for their audience. My Dad would always read about the latest farming advice - I’m sure he picked up on no-till farming from The Furrow. I’d read about the newest tractor models and how much horsepower they had. John Deere was appealing to the young and old in their target market flawlessly - and have been doing so for over 100 years.

Look at those covers again. What do you notice? A complete lack of a John Deere logo. They saw a long time ago that this wasn’t an effective way to do content marketing. When The Furrow first hit shelves, it was little more than a standard advertorial: “See our goods and get our prices before buying” read the cover of an issue from 1897.

John Deere soon saw the error of their ways and turned themselves into a magazine with writers, editors, photographers, and designers - what we’d recognize as a modern magazine. Gone were the pieces of writing that read like advertisements, in were the articles that helped farmers run their farm. This is the formula that has The Furrow currently reaching two million farmers - what would you do for two million relevant views?

What you should think about the next time you want to do content marketing

My advice for your next piece of content marketing should be to take every single word you know about content marketing, throw them in the garbage, and think about these two things:

  1. Will your content build trust?

  2. That old copy of The Furrow sitting on the floor of my Dad’s John Deere: Worn, dirty, and read.

Once you have those you can start thinking about SEO, keyword density, link building, creating viral content, and whatever algorithm is the current darling of your company. But if you’re not building content with those two things in mind with your content marketing, you’re either wasting your time, or getting mixed up in what we’d call “silly city boy stuff” back home on the farm.

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