Baseball Cards and the Evolution of Content Marketing

Boston-based Chuck Leddy has been crafting engaging content since 1995, as a journalist and B2B brand storyteller. He's written for B2B brands such as General Electric, ADP, Office Depot, Cintas, the National Center for the Middle Market, and many more. He's also been published in print publications such as the Boston Globe, Forbes, the Washington Post, and San Francisco Chronicle. His website and blog are at

When I was a kid growing up in Dorchester in the 1970s, I was an avid collector of baseball cards. In fact, I probably spent all of my discretionary income buying those 25 cent packs of Topps cards with the hard-as-a-rock stick of dusty chewing gum inside. I'd open each pack, tossing aside the worthless gum in breathless expectation of finding my favorite Red Sox players -- maybe a Carl Yastrzemski (Yaz), Jim Rice or Freddy Lynn card.

Baseball cards began as content marketing around the turn of the 20th century. Kids from Boston in 1910 were probably the same as I was in the 1970s, saving their pennies, buying packs of cards hoping to find a Ty Cobb or Honus Wagner card, which today are worth tens of thousands of dollars. Baseball cards were brilliant marketing vehicles to sell chewing gum and (for adults) cigarettes too. The cigarette and gum companies were looking for creative, non-traditional ways to engage customers and stimulate sales (today we’d call it content marketing), and thus the baseball card was invented, to the delight of generations of kids like me.

The radio and television soap opera is another pioneering example of content marketing -- aimed at engaging the emotions of at-home mothers, who presumably would tune in for dramatic stories about the complicated lives of rich, attractive folk for the price of being bombarded with soap powder commercials. The soap powder companies actually sponsored these daytime dramas, giving them the name they still bear. Hey, we all want our colors to be bright and clean, and we also want good stories about amnesia, serial betrayal, and revenge among the upper crust (though I'm not exactly in the daytime soap opera demographic).

The basic idea behind content marketing, which stands in stark comparison to "interruption" marketing (such as TV commercials) is that you can use content -- basically entertaining, emotionally-engaging stories and helpful advice -- to engage target audiences. By providing strong and usable content that keeps target audiences coming back, you can deepen the relationship between the content consumer and the brand that sponsors that content. This, at its most basic level, is content marketing. It drives awareness and gains customer engagement/sales by offering value in the form of stories that connect with human emotion.

Why is content marketing the present and future of customer engagement? Because people won't tolerate the "hard sell," which places the focus on the product and the brand instead of the needs of the consumer. People don't care that a company or its pushy salespeople need to sell products to meet their monthly/quarterly/annual sales targets. Today's customer wants a more personalized relationship with a brand. Brands need to become like friends we welcome into our lives; friends who care about us and have something to offer. The pushy, demanding, talkative friend who knocks on our door at the end of the month because they need our “help” meeting their sales quotas isn't really a friend for long. And it’s never been easier to shut the door in a brand’s face (thank goodness).

Content marketing works because it gives value in exchange for engagement. People will actually pay hard-earned money to avoid commercials, whether online or on TV. That tells you all you need to know about the "effectiveness" of interruption marketing. What do today's consumers want from brands? Understanding, a willingness to listen and sympathize; someone there to help them when needed -- in other words, a friend.

Engaging potential consumers through great content has the benefit of engaging hearts and minds. People don't want data or sales-y pitches (however creative they are); they want stories that connect with their needs, their emotions, their problems, their aspirations and their everyday lives. Content marketing, if done well, is always people-centric. I write B2B content, but I’m always addressing the concerns and emotions of a human being (who may happen to be a buyer).

The challenge of doing content marketing is in creating the content itself. Content marketers like me, who often call ourselves "brand storytellers," "digital content providers" or "digital storytellers" try to engage our target audiences through the heart first, then the head. It's more about engaging and connecting, and less about selling product. Do my business clients, the brands I write for, expect to use great content to convert prospects into customers? The answer is yes, but knowing this doesn't help me engage audiences around the stories I craft.

Providing great content is about understanding your target audience at a deeply human level, knowing what drives them (their hopes), what concerns them (their worries), and what, in short, offers meaning and purpose to their lives. Good content marketers know that it's a service job, which requires empathy and a deep willingness to help the audience. There’s one rule above all to gain influence: Show them you care about them first, and then the audience might care about you and your brand. Be human, and be a friend.

Offering a solution to a complicated problem helps, because it makes life easier for others. Making people think or laugh also helps, but you always need to give something to get something (attention, brand loyalty, and so on).

I'm still learning exactly what content marketing is. I had no idea at age 12 that baseball cards were my first encounter with content marketing, but I do know that great content, like baseball cards for a young Red Sox fan in 1978, engages my passions and keeps me coming back for more. And I’m not alone in this -- almost every brand knows that great content is the present and future of marketing. We’re all storytellers and “story-sellers” now, because nothing else will work.