John Deere, the ‘OG content marketer,’ on how its 123-year-old magazine endures

An image from last month's issue of The Furrow

Long before the phrase “content marketing” took the industry by storm, John Deere was unknowingly paving the way for it via The Furrow, an agriculture magazine started by the company in 1895 that’s still in circulation today.

While The Furrow’s pages surely fall into the content marketing bucket today, back then the magazine was simply seen as a helpful resource for farmers. Started under the direction of Charles Deere, the second son of founder John Deere, the branded magazine was ahead of its time in the sense that it provided readers with value.

“Charles recognized that there was potential promotional value in providing an accurate, unbiased source of information to farmers at the time,” said David Jones, publications manager at John Deere, while speaking at C2 Montreal this week.

During his talk, Jones said that The Furrow - which he joked has helped earn John Deere the title of the “OG content marketer” - is far from a “legacy tactic hanging on by its fingernails.”

According to Jones, The Furrow currently has more than 550,000 readers in North America, the majority of which are existing John Deere customers. Jones said that readership surveys conducted by the company have found that 40% of readers read every single word - including ads - in every single issue, a number that equates to roughly 25 million impressions each year.

While Jones said there’s been no “secret” to The Furrow’s success throughout its 123-year-old history, he said there are a few reasons why he believes the magazine has stood the test of time, one being that many of John Deere’s employees are the sons and daughters of farmers — and therefore know the agricultural industry well.

He said many of the company’s employees are people who graduated with degrees in things like agricultural economics and agricultural engineering, and therefore serve as an “indispensable resource” for both John Deere and The Furrow.

Additionally, Jones attributes much of The Furrow’s success to its six-person content team that he described as the “Led Zeppelin of agricultural journalism.”

“I would put them up against any business-to-business editorial team in the country,” he said. Made up of both full-time farmers and agricultural journalists, Jones said the team's writers are completely in tune with what the magazine’s readers are interested in and want to know more about.

“I do not make content decisions at our magazine. I let them make decisions,” he explained. “If they tell me that there’s a story that needs to be told, then they tell the story. They chase the topic down. I listen to them; they surely don’t listen to me. How foolish would it be for me to tell this crew what to write about?”

But perhaps the primary driving factor behind The Furrow’s success to date is what Jones calls a fierce “editorial independence from John Deere corporate messaging.” According to Jones, anyone who flips through an issue of the magazine from the past 50 years would be hard-pressed to find the words “John Deere” in the editorial space more than half a dozen times.

“We do not talk about ourselves in the editorial space of the magazine,” Jones stated. “We take believability very seriously. We know that a reputation that has taken 175 years to build up would only take a fraction of that time to tear down.”

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