The Evolution of Marketing Technology – Part 2: Signage & Written Word Period

This is the 2nd part in our ongoing series, The Evolution of Marketing Technology. You can find the first part here:

Part 1 – Word of Mouth Marketing

As mentioned in Part 1 of this series, examining the evolution of marketing technology is helpful in understanding today’s current marketing tactics – and more importantly, how the concepts behind today’s tactics have remained largely unchanged over time.

Last time, we looked at the advent of word-of-mouth advertising in ancient civilizations, and how social media marketing today amplifies the same fundamental concept to an exponentially wider audience through mediums like Facebook and Twitter. Today, we’ll look at how signage and written words developed as marketing communication tools.

Even before the invention of the written word, wall or rock paintings could very well have been a manifestation of ancient marketing, although no conclusive evidence has survived to support this idea. However, after the invention of the written word, there are numerous examples of early writing used to market goods and services. As early as ancient Egypt, papyrus was used to transcribe sales messages and for promotional posters. Political campaign messaging was discovered preserved on walls in the ruins of Pompeii. Later in Europe, illustrated signage was used to communicate with a largely illiterate population: blacksmiths were identifiable by an image of an anvil and hammer, cobblers with an image of a boot, and millers with bags of flour. Levels of detail and the ornateness of the designs likely helped merchants stand out from the competition.

The first printed advertising was discovered and dated back to the Chinese Song dynasty (960-1276 AD). A copper printing plate was used to print posters with the following message: “Jinan Liu’s Fine Needle Shop: We buy high quality steel rods and make fine quality needles, to be ready for use at home in no time.” There was even a trademark of a rabbit holding a needle to help potential customers remember the brand.


Fast forward 800 years: in 1839 marketing posters were so widely used in London that they were outright banned from private property. The response was the development of the “human billboard” – unable to post images on buildings, merchants took to advertising with people wearing or holding signage. This is a tactic that still exists today, just with more spinning.


On the left, human billboards from 19th century London; on the right, a modern sign spinner

However, for thousands of years signage was only used ad-hoc. The first commercial billboards were rented in the late 19th century. This change was largely due to the creation of new printing techniques that could withstand the elements, but also motivated by the concentration of population into dense urban cities.

Today, we still carry on the tradition of using signage and written word in our marketing. One can argue that digital display advertising is a direct descendant of ancient rock paintings – although the click rates were probably just as bad.

Writing as marketing is currently experiencing a renaissance in certain industries as well. Long-form writing, commentary, and thought leadership packaged as blogs are a great way for brands to define their value and position their company against the competition. What’s more, blogs and other forms of written word are the most valuable resources for inbound marketing, bringing your customers to you organically as people search for information they need.

Providing consumers with compelling, educational information goes a long way in building trust in a product or brand. And thanks to the archival capacity of the World Wide Web, a great blog or infographic can be preserved in its original form without the risk of fading like a rock or wall paintings.

In Part 3 of this series, we’ll take a look at mass media marketing and its evolution. In the mean time check out how modern day email marketing, powered by data, helps you beat your competition. Download the guide by clicking on the image below.