A Scenic Tour of the Online World

Content Marketing Lessons From the 1800s

Tuesday, January 22nd, 2013

Nonprofit University BlogThink you could wrangle up 1,000,000 likes on your Facebook page? Think you could do it in a few hours?

Sounds impossible, but it can be done. It just was. To be fair, it was done by some very cute youngsters begging the world for a puppy.

In The Atlantic this weekend, Rebecca J. Rosen related the story of siblings who, when promised a puppy by their father if they could get one million Facebook likes, went out and did it.

On the face of things, there wouldn’t appear to be any real lesson here for most content marketers. As a group, we tend not to be as cute as your average grade-schooler. And our agenda is rarely as heartwarming as a cuddly puppy. 

What is interesting is the man who made the promise. He’s not just another clueless dad caught unawares by the technology in his children’s lives – and their mastery of it. No, he’s a professor at Northeastern University in Boston, specializing in digital media and the early 1800s.

That’s not a typo. The early 1800s. Ryan Cordell has been studying the “Gangnam Style” and “#$%! Drunk Girls Say” and similar memes of 200 years ago. (The Library of Congress has a collection of newspapers from that ear. Cordell and a fellow researcher have written code to create an index of 45,000 instances of viral content which they are parsing to determine which were most widely reproduced and whether they shared any common qualities.)

What similarities do the researchers find? Cute sells. We knew that. But there was no real “cute” 200 years ago – most of the materials reproduced where text-only. Still, the most reproduced content was rarely “complex philosophical treatises” and more commonly things like a “short little pithy story that taught you a lesson.”

So even if you can’t rely on cute, you can rely on snappy, short-form content that provides value while it entertains. Chances are you won’t get to 1,000,000 likes in a few hours – or ever – but you may just build an audience that understand the value you provide. And that’s every content marketer’s goal. 

[image credit: Nonprofit University Blog.]


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