Industry Perspectives

Happy birthday to B2B tech content marketing: 155 years old

A common misconception amongst marketers is that content marketing is new. It’s often confused with HubSpot’s ‘inbound marketing’ terminology. But, although the two things are related, inbound marketing refers to attracting website traffic and is purely digital, so could only have been around for quite a short time. Content marketing – the idea of educating, informing, and inspiring people so that you build trust in your brand, rather than giving them a direct sales pitch, is much, much older. Some ancient religious tomes could be considered a form of content marketing, but the earliest example I’ve found of B2B technical content marketing dates from November 1867, 155 years ago this month. It was dubbed The Locomotive.

The earliest example of B2B technical content marketing?

The President of the Hartford Steam Boiler Inspection and Insurance Company (HSB), Jeremiah M. Allen, believed that the firm’s commercial success could be enhanced by helping people who managed and operated steam boilers to do so more safely and effectively. So, The Locomotive was born as a printed news sheet. Mr. Allen said:

The object of this paper is to bring before the public from time to time information of a scientific and practical nature that will be both entertaining and useful, and although we shall aim in each number to furnish our readers with at least one good article in some one of the branches of natural science, our chief object will be to discuss practical questions and more particularly, steam power and its applications. We propose to keep a careful record of all Steam Boiler Explosions, together with such facts and circumstances attending each, as we are able to obtain, and the various theories of Steam Boiler Explosions, with all the obtainable information bearing upon the subject, will be placed in our columns. The range of scientific information is so wide, and the field over which it extends, so large, that there can always be found something to interest and instruct. Many valuable suggestions by practical men are entirely lost to the public from the want of some medium by which to communicate them. We hope to make this a paper that will recommend itself to every intelligent person under whose notice it may come, and if we succeed in furnishing light to any, our labors will be amply repaid.

The Locomotive was still running as a blog on HSB’s website until just a few years ago. It has since been consolidated into the company’s main blog, which still adheres to the content marketing principles of being educational and informative.

A fine example of content marketing in B2B power electronics: The Powerbook from Ericsson Power Modules

In 1984, I started providing marketing communications and PR support to Ericsson Power Modules – the DC-DC power converter part of the business, following a phone call from Paddy O’Farrell, who at that time was running the UK operations for the company. (Paddy and his wife are now happily retired and living in Spain.) I was later introduced to Lars Thorsell, based in Stockholm, who had a global marketing brief. Some 26 years ago, long before content marketing was a thing, Lars and his colleagues were doing it. The idea of DC-DC converters as ‘components’ of distributed power systems in telecom and datacom applications was new. Engineers just didn’t know how to use them. The Powerbook, developed by Lars, his work colleague Per Lindman, and technical writer Craig Smith, set the standard for educating the market about these products and power architectures. A hard-backed, printed book, it covered every aspect of how to design power systems with these products.

The PowerBook from Ericsson Power Modules – the original de-facto reference for DC-DC power conversion

Purists may argue that the book is not true content marketing because products are mentioned extensively throughout the publication. I disagree – if you are the first major player in a technology market with a new category of product, which I believe Ericsson was – you need to discuss specific products. Otherwise, you’re simply expounding general concepts and not helping the readers address their design challenges. The Powerbook was far more than a couple of white papers stitched together. It ran to 142 A4 pages and over 65,000 words. I was pleased to see that my old friend Paddy O’Farrell received an honorary mention in the references. Because it’s an educational book, many of the technical design principles described in the book are still relevant today. You can download a PDF copy of the 4th (and final) Edition from 2001 here.

SIDEBAR: Electronics design publications such as EDN and Electronic Design used to have a policy that if you wanted to contribute a technical article, it could not mention products. To do so was seen as too biased and promotional. I’ve always thought it was the dumbest idea because it often restricted the articles to telling half the story. I’m pleased to see that both publications, and others like them, have abandoned that restriction now. In my view, it hasn’t compromised their editorial integrity in any way.

Driving innovation in digital power through sharing knowledge

With the drive for ever-greater efficiency, the power electronics industry embraced digital control in its systems. The ability to digitally configure, implement, and monitor power electronics devices grew in importance, and the marketing director at Ericsson Power Modules at the time, Patrick Le Févre, decided that comprehensive content would be important in driving the firm’s market opportunity. Designers of power electronic systems were struggling to keep up with the pace of change in the industry so ten years ago, Patrick brought together a series of white papers and conference papers on digital power to create the Ericsson Digital Power Compendium as an e-book. It had the same purpose as The Powerbook, to educate and inspire, but again referenced specific products.

The Ericsson Digital Power Compendium – a great example of effective and efficient content repurposing

As I mentioned, The Ericsson Digital Power Compendium was a collection of existing papers, rather than an entirely new piece of content. That makes it a fine example of content reuse, an opportunity that B2B electronics businesses miss every day of the week. So useful was the content that one of the industry’s foremost technical writers in the analog and power sector, Steve Taranovich, published this article about the compendium when writing for EDN magazine. Still a useful reference document, the Ericsson Digital Power Compendium can be downloaded here.

Patrick wrote most of the compendium himself – about 90% – and he continues to be a prolific writer and presenter on power electronics as Chief Marketing and Communications Officer at The Powerbox Group. Here are his latest white papers.

Patrick said recently, “What we did at Ericsson Power Modules, with The Powerbook and Ericsson Digital Power Compendium has been a kind of model, which many companies have used when promoting Wide Band Gap (WBG) semiconductors.”

I know that to be true, particularly as I was able to help develop the content strategy for United Silicon Carbide (now Qorvo), starting about five years ago. I worked with the company’s head of marketing, Scott Lewis, another firm advocate of educational content marketing (and awesome cyclist!).

From Ericsson to Flex

Ericsson’s power modules division was sold to Flex in 2017. Flex Power Modules maintains an impressive ‘Resources’ section on its website here. Who knows, maybe there will be another ‘The PowerBook‘ one day.

Four takeaways

  1. Inbound marketing is a relatively recent discipline. Content marketing is not the same thing, despite Marcus Sheridan’s otherwise brilliant book on the subject, They Ask, You Answer, suggesting at one point that it is – we had a chat about that! Content marketing is ancient, even if it’s only recently been given the moniker.
  2. Discussing products in your content marketing, particularly when the industry has yet to grasp the technologies involved, is fine. But please don’t push them aggressively.
  3. You may already have everything you need to create a really outstanding piece of original content. Too often, websites are where content goes to die – don’t let it – refresh and reuse it.
  4. If it’s original and relevant enough, you may even get the media to write about your content, not just your products and technologies. Treat each piece of core content – or ‘hero’ content, as it’s sometimes called – as a product in its own right. Any inbound links to your website from credible third-party media will be beneficial to your SEO efforts too.


Bob Jones

B2B marketer, entrepreneur, and engineer

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