Was Ben Franklin a content marketer?

Jan 26, 2018

Benjamin Franklin was a lot of things. He was an author and an activist, a printer and a postmaster, an inventor and an entrepreneur, a freemason and a Founding Father, and on and on.

Lately, however, people have been trying to give Franklin yet another title: content marketer.

It’s a retroactive label, of course. Content marketing is a new term, only popularized in the past decade or so, even though it describes the very old approach of creating interesting media in order to attract audiences to a business.

There’s no doubt that Franklin was a remarkable content producer. He had his own print shop in Philadelphia on Market Street, between 3rd and 4th streets, in what’s now called Old City. There, he printed the Pennsylvania Gazette, which became the most popular newspaper in the colonies.

Back then, any successful printer who wanted to make a name for himself also had an almanac. Almanacs were yearly publications that contained weather forecasts, tide tables, celestial figures and other general bits of information for farmers.

So, in 1732, Franklin published Poor Richard’s Almanack. It instantly catapulted his career not only as a distinguished publisher and printer, but also as an influential writer and thinker, largely because it was just better content than everyone else was producing.

While Franklin published his almanac under the pseudonym Richard Saunders, the front of the publication read “Printed and sold by B. Franklin.” This has led numerous modern marketers to dub the Almanack “the oldest example of content marketing known to exist,” on the basis that he essentially used the publication to promote his print shop.

While we would certainly love to beat our chest and proclaim that content marketing was founded right here in Philadelphia, we also worry about people misconstruing the meaning of the term. Depending on what you read and who you ask, you can find people labeling practically anything as content marketing, which makes the term useless in describing a distinct marketing approach.

So, we dug into the history, and interviewed some of the foremost Franklin experts, to determine if this is a genuine example of content marketing. What we found helps clarify exactly what content marketing truly is, by highlighting what it isn’t.

All About The Benjamins

When Franklin was 22, he wrote his own epitaph, and while it wouldn’t eventually make it onto his tombstone, it’s telling how he describes himself:

The Body of B. Franklin, Printer;

Like the Cover of an old Book,

Its Contents torn out,

And Stript of its Lettering and Gilding,

Lies here, Food for Worms. …

More than anything, Ben Franklin considered himself a printer. He first worked as an apprentice in his brother’s print shop in Boston, and then left for Philadelphia to open his own enterprise. There, he aggressively beat out his competitors, succeeding through both better business savvy and writing abilities.

“In the Pennsylvania Gazette, he made it different from other newspapers by the quality of his writing,” said Dr. James Green, librarian at the Library Company of Philadelphia and co-author of the book, “Benjamin Franklin, Writer and Printer.” “And he made Poor Richard’s superior because of the quality of his writing and the wit in it.”

The Almanack sold more than 10,000 copies annually, which was an impressive number then. Even though it only came out once a year, it made up 10 percent of Franklin’s total profit.

Because of his success, Franklin was also appointed postmaster general, a post he used to identify towns and communities that lacked established and credited printers, and then set up printing franchises. Naturally, these printers printed Poor Richard’s Almanack, because they knew it would sell.

“It was a big thing for these franchisees to have sort of exclusive rights to reprint and sell Poor Richard’s Almanack,” said Dr. Michael Hattem from the Eugene Lang College for Liberal Arts at The New School. “That’s a big part of why they became popular all over the colonies.”

Franklin’s franchised print shops became so successful because they suddenly created printing markets across the nation where there were none.

“He used Poor Richard’s Almanack not so much to build up the brand of his print shop, but to build up printing itself,” Hattem said. “It wasn’t so much to build up his own personal brand, but to build up the industry, that he was basically at the top of.”

In other words, Poor Richard’s made Franklin rich. And that’s an important point in determining whether all this makes him a content marketer.

Content Marketing Is Key

Content marketing only exists as a term to organize a type of promotional technique. It’s valuable because it helps define the approach of using content to attract interest and demonstrate expertise, as differentiated from other approaches like advertising and media relations.

We don’t call The Philadelphia Inquirer and Penguin Books content marketers. They’re called publishers, because that’s the primary source of their revenue. For the same reason, it’s difficult to argue Franklin was a content marketer, because the goal of publishing the Almanack was to generate revenue, not simply promote his printing business.

Content marketing refers to marketing. It’s as simple as that.

Nobody is disputing that Franklin was a damn good content creator and businessman. But conflating all content creation with content marketing simply makes the definition confusing, and therefore undermines the craft. We’re fully behind expanding awareness of the approach, but taking it too far works against that purpose.

That’s why, at least in the context of Poor Richard’s Almanack, we have to conclude that Benjamin Franklin was not actually content marketer. From our research, saying otherwise is a half truth, and, as Franklin printed in the Almanack, “Half a truth is often a great lie.”

This article is part of our Inside Story series, an occasional, in-depth look at the hidden marketing insights behind historical and current events. It was written by our apprentice storyteller, Dylan Schaum.

Well shared is better than well said.

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