Content Marketing and the King of Hype

6 Vital Lessons We Can Learn From P.T. Barnum About Marketing

PT Barnum is known as the greatest showman on earth.  He is responsible for bringing the modern day circus to the American public and making entertainment a focus for the population.  But what you may not realize is that Barnum was also one of the most prolific and successful marketers of all time.  One of his most used (and most fruitful) tactics was content marketing.  So what can we learn from Barnum about content marketing?


Here are the top 6 lessons you can steal from the King of Hype himself.

  1. Know Your Audience. Barnum knew that the key to his success lay in providing his audience with an entertainment experience that exceeded their expectations. The first rule in doing this was knowing who he was targeting and their anticipations.  Barnum knew his audience expected to be awed and amazed by his shows and exhibits or they would spend their limited entertainment dollars with someone else.  How did he know this?  He asked.  The lesson for modern marketers is simple, learn all you can about your audience.  Surveying your current students is a great place to start, but don’t discount surveying those who inquired but did not enroll or those who just visited your site.  This can be done through a variety of methods including emails, calling, on-site polls, etc.  Understanding your audience is the key to providing engaging and informative content that will address their needs and help to overcome any objections.
  2. Provide Engaging Content. Barnum instinctually understood that his audience didn’t want to read a dry account of the acts he provided.  Instead he filled his articles and advertisements with tantalizing details regarding what customers could expect to see.  He once said the key to his acts success was learning to “excite the interest or awaken the curiosity of the public”.  You may not have bearded women and “skeleton” men to entice your audience with, but don’t be afraid to cater to the interests of your audience.  For example, if you have a hospitality or culinary program instead of publishing content about the program itself why not do it with a twist.  “Making the Most of the Pumpkin Spice Trend: 5 Ways to Incorporate the Fall’s It Spice in Your Cooking” is much more enticing than “More About Our Award Winning Program”.  Pepper the more enticing content with quotes from your faculty, information about upcoming events or real life examples from students or graduates.  This way you are still promoting your overall goal of increasing enrollments in your program while providing your audience something they really want to read.
  3. Always Optimize and Test. Barnum was not afraid to make critical shifts or changes to his strategy when audience numbers or engagement started to falter.  His early career was packed with side show acts such as “General Tom Thumb” (real name Charles Stratton a young boy affected by dwarfism), “Joice Heth” (a supposed 161 year old former nursemaid to George Washington.  FYI…she was actually a slave from Kentucky who was more likely in her 70s or 80s but that didn’t stop thousands of visitors from paying to hear her talk about her time with George) and “Josephine Clofullia: The Bearded Lady” (real name Josephine Boisdechene a Swiss woman suffering from hypertrichosis).  When attendance and overall excitement over these types of acts began to wane, Barnum made a huge pivot and promoted a series of concerts with Jenny Lind, a famous Swedish opera singer.  The lesson to be learned here is simple:  when results start to falter from your current marketing tactics, don’t be afraid to pivot your strategy.  Just remember to keep in mind your audience and their needs.  Use your personas to guide your strategy and continue to collect data, measure and let results dictate your next move.
  4. Don’t be Afraid of Self Promotion. “Without promotion something terrible happens…nothing”.  This may be one of the most famous quotes attributed to P.T. Barnum and he lived this message all of his professional life.  Barnum harnessed the power of the press to promote his many endeavors.  From articles to ads to placards, Barnum was consistently letting the public know what was next and creating buzz around his events.  Great content is not going to be effective if no one reads it.  Therefore, don’t be afraid to promote that content through effective, targeted paid marketing efforts.  From Facebook to Google to LinkedIn, you’ll find many mediums that offer channels to promote your content and drive traffic to your site in an effective and scalable manner.  Don’t shy away from paying for a little self-promotion!
  5. Know and Use Your Influencers. As mentioned earlier in this post, one of Barnum’s most successful ventures was a series of concerts with opera sensation Jenny Lind.  From the start, Barnum saw a strong fascination for the songstress with American audiences.  Not one to let opportunities for new ventures pass his way, Barnum successfully leveraged Lind’s fame to market many “Jenny Lind” products including dolls, bonnets, cosmetics and even baby cribs (which interestingly are still available today over 150 years later).  The lesson to know here is to recognize the key influencers within your market and partner with them in meaningful ways to promote your school and this certainly doesn’t have to mean a celebrity.  For example, if you offer a teaching program, you may want to look at local nominees for state teaching awards.  Did any of them graduate from your institution or have similar degree types to what you offer?  Contact them about providing content for your blog or newsletter, do features involving interviews that showcase their success or ask them to come talk at your next open house.  The possibilities are endless and typically very cost effective.  If you are not sure who the influencers in your area are, there are tools that can help you pinpoint candidates including social media monitoring applications, advanced LinkedIn searches and search engine research.
  6. Don’t be Afraid to Follow Your Instincts.  Barnum’s foundation for success was lay in his willingness to take risks and follow his gut.  Whether debuting a “mermaid” or investing thousands of dollars in bringing European talent to America, Barnum was constantly looking for what was next.  But these risks were all researched and calculated.  Barnum understood his audience and his business and trusted his instincts when it came to both.  The lesson for modern marketers is simple: understand your audience and their motivations, understand your business and its differentiators and use the knowledge of both to inform your course.

Barnum’s circus operated for almost 150 years.   His innovative uses of marketing and promotions are often credited as the key to the success of his many entertainment ventures.  And many of those tactics and lessons are as applicable today as they were in 1850.   As marketers, inspiration can be found all around us.   In the words of Barnum himself, “Whatever you do, do it with all your might.  Work at it, early and late, in season and out of season, not leaving a stone unturned, and never deferring for a single hour that which can be done just as well now”.


Rebecca Streeter, VP of Integrated Marketing