For a site as revolutionary and groundbreaking as eBay is, it began with very humble beginnings. The very first item listed – then called AuctionWeb – was a broken laser pointer. Sold by the site’s founder Pierre Omidyar, who set the sales tool up as an “experiment”, it fetched a cool $14.83; a handsome price for a pointlessly gimmicky tool rendered even more useless (apart from driving cats wild) by it being broken. Today, a search for a laser pointer brings up more than 6,000 results in the UK alone. The cheapest costs less than a quid.

eBay has evolved in a number of ways. From a programmer’s experiment in the internet’s ability to create an open and accessible marketplace, it has evolved into a bonafide behemoth of online retailing; not only for peer-to-peer selling, but from companies big and small (Macy’s and Toys ‘R’ Us are recent big names to enter into partnership). It remains an excellent source of laser pointers, too.

All this, and it’s younger than Harry Styles (doesn’t have his perfect hair though, does it?).

The perfect digital enabler

You could argue that eBay was always going to succeed, it being the perfect digital enabler for society’s inherent compulsion to buy and sell worthless crap to each other in industrial quantities (first world problems, eh?). But no good ideas are good forever. For a company to succeed, especially an online company, you need to evolve. Both in a direction that you want to grow, and that your customers will need. That’s two directions, not one.

Today, competition for a slice of the online retail cake is intense. Amazon continues to squeeze down anyone who even tries to come close to toppling its monopoly by simply spending a bit more of its vast cash reserves on peddling its cut-price wares.

eBay knows it has a mighty fight on their hands, but it is up for the battle. The e-tail giant has gone after big brands in the name of becoming a genuine marketplace; it is capitalising on mobile shopping through the introduction of an innovative new wallet system, making it easier to shop on the go; and crucially it has added content to its marketing.

eBay on tumblr

The Inside Source is a tumblr “presented by eBay” that covers emerging trends in fashion, lifestyle, art and design. At first glance it looks like just another well-designed fashion tumblr, which is exactly why it works (eBay isn’t trying to surreptitiously market itself, either – the logo is prominently on display on the front page). Its content is curated and created by a team with pedigree. Jaurestsi, chief curator, comes from a background writing and filmmaking for a number of leading cultural barometers, while managing editor Jenny Bahn previously worked for Stella McCartney, Givenchy and Marc Jacobs.

The content itself covers some of the more interesting and unique items for sale on eBay, interviews with fashion designers, product designers and artists, as well as everything from interior design suggestions to where you can pick up official NASA branded gear – all with expertly taken photos that would go down a storm on Pinterest.

It works because it’s not only a tool to promote eBay, but because it is a resource that people will want to read day after day. It’s a classic case of developing thought leadership – if the links back to the product pages on eBay drum up a lot of business, then great. If people come back day after day to read about where to buy leather shorts and beads for their corn rows then even better, because it means people aren’t thinking of eBay as that website where you can buy ceramics and old hair, it’s a brand that knows what it is selling. The marketing team at eBay might know that a whole bunch of it is utter rubbish, but they also know – and want to show you – that there’s some good stuff there, too.

Of course, not all companies have the girth to be able to pull in such a high calibre team of curators, but developing a content strategy that addresses what you want to say and how to say it isn’t reinventing the wheel. Our content marketing whitepaper – downloadable below – covers some of the basics you will need as a marketing manager.

eBay might have grown out of an experiment in selling broken laser pens, but at least it knows where it’s going and content is the vehicle to take it there.