Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” — George Santayana

We can learn a ton about marketing just by reading a bit of history.

In fact, I’ll bet you’re making some glaring mistakes that were solved over a century ago—simply because you don’t know the stories I’m about to tell you.

Grab your time machine.

Let’s see what history has to teach us about making money online today…

Where Modern Marketing Came From

The early 1900s were a time of transition. Dramatic changes were happening in business.

Over just four years—from 1898 to 1902—a flood of mergers pulled together 2,653 independent firms into just 269 corporations.

These corporations were known as “trusts,” and they were massive.

Many controlled entire industries (tobacco, sugar, steel, oil, copper, iron, coal, railroads, and many more). Most were extremely profitable.

The Advertising Explosion

Big companies spent big money on advertising.

This was a new thing in the world. The smaller firms that dominated business before 1898 didn’t spend nearly as much on advertising.

From 1900 to 1920, the total annual advertising spend in the U.S. surged five-fold—from $540 million to just under $3 billion.

As you can imagine, it was a good time to be a marketer. “Ad men” (as they came to be known) were well paid and highly valued.

Marketers learned a lot during this time too. Many of the marketing techniques and concepts we use today date back to this time—including the idea of a “funnel” itself.

100-Year-Old Marketing Techniques You Should Be Using Today

Just like today, there were dozens of high-profile marketers making the rounds in the early 1900s.

The books and articles they left behind have much to teach us about the art and science of marketing. Here are five you should know about, along with a lesson they have to teach us about digital marketing today.


1. Robert Collier and the Conversation Taking Place in the Customer’s Mind

“Always enter the conversation already taking place in the customer’s mind.” — Robert Collier

Robert Collier was a renowned self-help author who wrote in the early 20th century. He was also a skilled copywriter and salesperson.

Among modern copywriters, his 1931 book, The Robert Collier Letter Book, is considered one of the all-time greats (And for good reason. If you haven’t read it, you should).

One of Collier’s primary principles was that in all marketing, the marketer has to “enter the conversation already taking place in your prospect’s head.”

Too many marketers are in love with their product. They know each feature and every benefit.

They go around saying things like, “You have to try our product. We’ll give you a free trial. When you see what it can do, we know you’ll LOVE it!”

Here’s what Collier wrote about that approach:

“Put yourself in his place. If you were deep in discussion with a friend over some matter that meant a great deal to both of you, and a stranger came up, slapped you on the back and said: ‘See here, Mister, I have a fine coat I want to sell you!’ What would you do? Examine the coat with interest and thank him for the privilege, or kick him and the coat down the nearest stairs, and blister both with a few choice adjectives in the process?” — Robert Collier

We could call this idea “alignment.”

When you write marketing materials, the words you use should align or resonate with an underlying emotion or desire that already exists in the minds of your readers.

Do this well and your message will sort your prospects from those who aren’t a good fit for your product or service.

Your message will catch the eye of people who feel the pain you solve with your product. Everyone else will skip right over it, which is okay since people who don’t feel the pain you solve aren’t good prospects in the first place.

Collier’s Lesson for Modern Marketers: Write Great Headlines

“Decide the effect you want to produce in your reader.” — Robert Collier


If alignment is the path, then the headline is the tool.

When we write ads, content, sales pages, or any other type of marketing content, the headline is by far the most important element.

These words should call out some pain or desire that already exists within the mind of our target audience.

As Collier urges, start where the customer is. Once you have them hooked, then you can bring them naturally to where you want them to go.

As another brilliant marketer wrote several decades after Collier:

“On the average, five times as many people read the headline as read the body copy. When you have written your headline, you have spent eighty cents out of your dollar.” —David Ogilvy

2. Claude Hopkins and Clarity

“The competent advertising man must understand psychology. The more he knows about it, the better.” — Claude Hopkins

Claude Hopkins’ 1923 book Scientific Advertising is another volume revered by copywriters.

Hopkins implored marketers to use simple, clear language in their ads.

Fuzzy, abstract benefits are rampant in modern marketing—just like they were when Hopkins was writing ads for his clients.

We are all guilty. We’ve all written phrases like:

  • “Simply the best!”
  • “Industry-leading!”
  • “Satisfaction guaranteed!”

If your messaging is full of empty promises and hyped-up superlatives, don’t be surprised when people skim over it—and fail to convert into paying customers.

Marketers are also guilty of using complex, difficult-to-read content. Often this happens when the people who created the product write the marketing for it.

They’ve sometimes spent years working on the product. Their experience gives them amazing product knowledge, but can also make it impossible for them to describe what they sell in terms a non-expert could understand.

Hopkins’ Lesson for Modern Marketers: Use Everyday Language

“People are hurried. The average person worth cultivating has too much to read. They skip three-fourths of the reading matter which they pay to get.” — Claude Hopkins

For years I’ve been arguing with people about the reading level of their writing.

The higher the grade level, the more difficult the writing is to understand. That means as a marketer, you need to lower the grade level of your writing.

Using simple language does not mean dumbing down your message. It means writing the same message using language that’s much easier for your reader’s brain to comprehend.

Target the sixth-grade reading level or below for all your content.

It’s more difficult than it looks. You’re probably writing at a much higher level than you think. You’ll need to score your writing first to find out.

You can do this by pasting your writing into Hemingway, a free web app I personally use to draft every piece of content I write.

This article, for example, scores at the sixth-grade level.

To lower your score, use shorter words, shorter sentences, and shorter paragraphs. Or just paste your writing into Hemingway, then make all the red and yellow go away.


3. E. St. Elmo Lewis and the AIDA Funnel

“If we cannot gain the reader’s attention it is manifestly impossible for us to interest or convince him.” — E. St. Elmo Lewis

E. St. Elmo Lewis first described the idea of “the sales funnel.”

As we covered in detail previously, Lewis did an extensive study of sales data from the U.S. life insurance industry.

He showed that the most successful salespeople tended to walk their sales prospects through four distinct emotional stages when selling life insurance. Those four stages were:

  • Attention
  • Interest
  • Desire
  • Action

Successful salespeople “moved” prospects through each of the four stages—smoothly and sequentially—until they “converted” into a paying customer.

Sound familiar?

It should. This is exactly what modern digital marketers do with their sales funnels today on the web.

Lewis’ Lesson for Modern Marketers: The Funnel Should Flow

“If I can’t catch my reader’s attention with my caption, and then write the rest so as to hold it, I’ll stop.” — E. St. Elmo Lewis

If you’re reading this, I’m assuming you have something to sell—and you’d like to sell more.

Take a step back from your sales process and spend a few minutes looking at your sales funnel.

Ask yourself: does it flow?

Do the steps feel like a natural sequence of events that flow together in the mind of your prospect? Do you have tools to gain people’s attention, create interest and desire, and then compel people to take action?

Lewis teaches us that we need to optimize every step in the funnel. If you’re not doing as well as you’d like, a funnel that doesn’t flow naturally might be the cause.


The great thing about being a digital marketer is we have tools Collier, Hopkins, and Lewis could never have dreamed of.

They had to pay a fortune to A/B test headlines in print publications. We can do it instantly—and virtually for free.

Spend a few minutes today to look over your sales funnel.

Robert Collier asks: “Have you aligned your messaging with the thoughts, ideas, and desires already present in the minds of your target audience?”

Claude Hopkins asks: “Are you writing with clear, concrete language?”

E. St. Elmo Lewis asks: “Does each step in your funnel flow naturally from one step into the next?”

If you’re failing at any of those areas, now’s the time to make changes.

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