The 494th Anniversary of the Birth of Social Media Marketing

Recently, my business partner and I had the good fortune to speak at the National Council for Marketing and Public Relations conference in Baltimore. And between sessions, one of the attendees approached us and asked when we thought social media marketing began. The obvious answers, of course, were (1) social media marketing has been around since the beginning of society, only in different forms than the current digital form; and (2) its current iteration can be traced to 1987, when Rick Adams launched UUNET, the first commercial internet service provider, offering Usenet feeds, email services and public digital bulletin boards. But both of those answers seemed to fall somewhere between disingenuous and hollow.

So we began searching for the first historical account of social media marketing, which we defined (for the purpose of this search) to be: a public dissemination or posting of social or interpersonal consequence, intended to elicit a specific response from a specific market, and having observable and significant impact.” And we settled on the following account:

In the year 1517, on October 31 (a date which would, later in that same century, first be called “All-Hallows’-Even”, or “Halloween”), a 33-year-old priest named Martin Luther approached All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg, Germany, with a document entitled “Disputation of Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences.” Frustrated with the Roman Catholic Church, which had begun selling “indulgences” for the forgiveness of sin (a sort of pay-now-sin-later plan for absolution) to raise money to rebuild Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome, Luther allegedly nailed his “95 Theses” to the door of the church. Luther’s post challenged (among other teachings) the right of the church to grant forgiveness for sin, and more specifically to sell forgiveness in the form of indulgences. He later translated the post into German, and with the help of a new technology that would revolutionize learning and give the common man a means to communicate broadly for the first time in history, he printed and distributed the document throughout Germany. The ideas which Luther posted on the wall at Wittenberg, went viral, sparking a revolution we now know as the Protestant Reformation. And thus, we submit, social media marketing was born.

So, thank you, Mr. Luther. This idea of yours seems to finally be catching on.