Last week, I sat down to find a battered, browning booklet perched at the end of my desk.

Slightly confused, Sean (our content guy) explained to me what it was doing there.

“It’s an example of content marketing” he said. “I found it at a car boot at the weekend”.

Fair enough, but this doesn’t look like the type of content we all know. First off, it’s physical. I can hold it! Smell it! Feel it!

It got me thinking, what were they doing in the 1940s that we can take with us today?

1. Grab their attention

First up, the title is absolutely amazing: ROME: 3000 years in 15 minutes.


The juxtaposition of a small and large time scale is genius.

It’s concise, tells us exactly what it’s about and we immediately know that we can flick through this in 15 minutes and get back to all those Italian women*. Useful!

Titles for whatever content you create should focus on the benefits, not the features. This time, the benefit is in fact saving time (and getting a bit of knowledge on the way).

*After some research, I found that the city guide had been produced for allied servicemen in Italy at the end of WWII, as a way of repaying them for liberating their city. Women were throwing themselves at them!


Image credit: miliblog

2. Write content as though you’re publishing a book

A book or guide is written and printed in editions for thousands of people. Whereas digital content is only produced a handful of times, usually for people to see on your blog.


In other words, books are made knowing they will reach thousands. Digital content is made hoping it will reach thousands.

But why hope? We all hope our content is a success and most of the time it might not be. However, writing like something is going to be published, and therefore a success, can bring its advantages:

  • There’s no room for error. You’re going to edit and edit until there are no mistakes to be seen.
  • You’ve got to use appropriate language that isn’t going to alienate your readers.
  • You only have one chance to interest them. You can’t spam a book like you can a link on twitter.
  • Draw them in and create a narrative to keep the reader reading. 

3. Visual doesn’t just have to be an image

Even back then, they knew the importance of making something visual. The guide is filled with illustrations, jokes, maps and pictures.

Here are some examples throughout the book:

visual example 1

visual example 2

Visual example 3

Every single page has at least some imagery which stimulates the eyes to keep the reader’s interest.

4. Use your content to solve problems

As I’ve already mentioned, the guide was made for English speaking servicemen stationed in Rome at the end of WWII.

The language barrier is always a problem but back then must have been nearly impossible to get by.

content to solve problems

Someone saw the problem that no one knew the language and provided a solution to them. I imagine nearly everyone was wanting to get their hands on this book, being surrounded by the most amazing architecture and culture with no knowledge or way of getting around.

Even if you had no interest in all of this, the fact that this was something written that you could understand would have been much more interesting than deciphering Italian.

Whether it’s a niche guide or a new take on an idea, solve a problem to gain the initial interest and half the work is already done.

5. Content marketing isn’t just curating, it’s making too

As a content marketer, it’s our job to scour the web looking for and finding links between content that we can curate and put together to form something that makes sense to our audience.

You may think everything’s already out there just waiting to be found, but sometimes you’ve got to take the initiative and make something for yourself.

This guide is full of features that wouldn’t have been seen anywhere else at the time. The history and wording may have been regurgitated and translated, but nuggets of original content have been designed and made just for the audience at the time.

For example, this map:


Having a unique piece of content that you’ve made yourself will make people more inclined to share and link back to you as the original author. Use the help around you and ask for a designer to design your idea, or an expert to give you advice.

You’ll also stamp your legitimacy as someone that contributes great content.

To end with, this book was a breath of fresh air. 

If anything, it’s taught me that content has always been around us. Looking at and remembering this bountiful history can serve as inspiration for a new generation of content marketers.

What tips do you have from an era gone by? Share with us on Twitter or in the comments below.

(For more marketing lessons from the past, see Nine conversion techniques from the 1920s to try today)

Danny Ashton

Published 3 July, 2013 by Danny Ashton

Danny Ashton is Outreach Director at infographic agency Neo Mammalian Studios and a contributor to Econsultancy.  He can be found on Twitter and Google+.

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Comments (8)

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Nick Stamoulis of Brick Marketing

I think we are so concerned about pumping out more content on a daily basis that sometimes we rush to hit that publish button. I know I am guilty of that! Writing as if it were going to be printed, and therefore un-changeable, forces you to slow down a bit and figure out what you really meant to say and make sure you say it right!

about 5 years ago

Danny Ashton

Danny Ashton, Founder at Neo Mam Studios

I completely agree Nick.

I think it's an old throw back from our SEO lives when quantity was valued over quality.

I remember a time 5 years ago when I was paying $5 an article and I often didn't even read them before posting *shame.

Mindset change is key before we can hope for success with content marketing.

about 5 years ago


Di Brown

the more things change, the more the stay the same! Yet we still manage to be creative and add something novel, occasionally

about 5 years ago


Mitch Drew

In 1920 Fatty Arbuckle starred in a movie that may have had the first product placement that was paid for..and the start of Content Marketing as we know it. Red Crown Gasoline signs are placed in key areas of many scenes of this movie. There is a Firestone sign as well Everything old is new again. Here is the entire movie

about 5 years ago



This is a great example of what some already know, but what many still need to learn. Albeit belatedly, online marketers are finally beginning to see what copywriters/content editors have been advocating from day one: creating content that is interesting, considered and valuable.

Danny, you mention paying $5 for an article; although this is being phased out, there are still many, many companies investing marketing spend in such activities. If only they could see through the eyes of those creating such work! This article goes a long way to making things clearer - I'll definitely be sharing it with my contacts! Good work :)

about 5 years ago


Rob Thomas

I've been grappling with this issue with my team for quite a while - as I get the feeling that we are creating content that very few will find interesting. Creativity is the key and there's some nice ideas here. Headlines (and copy in general) are so important but great copy-writing seems to be a bit of a dying art.

about 5 years ago


Deri Jones, CEO at SciVisum Ltd

> great copy-writing seems to be a bit of a dying art.

I certainly find it hard to do well myself, and hard to find people in the team here who do it well.

That reminds, of those people that paid a 3rd party to 'raise our profile ' by writting a Twitter stream for them, or even run a blog for them.

That was the ultimate in delegating copy-writing.

Did anyone here ever try that?

about 5 years ago


Bill Baxter

I love "old marketing" - humans haven't changed much over the past few thousand years, and definitely haven't changed over the past 70 years (much).

The "old stuff" still and always will work. We're incentives-based creatures (most are) and respond accordingly. Those old-timers really knew how to push the right buttons and pull the right strings.

I love it!!!

almost 5 years ago

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