The Ongoing History of Digital Marketing – Part 1: The Age of the Desktop

Stuart Elmes

Digital marketing has changed the way brands market themselves, and how they do business, forever.

As marketing on digital devices continues its relentless march to the forefront of the marketing world, we at Adimo decided to take a look back at how digital marketing got here, how it has evolved over the years, and where it’s headed in the future.


The beginning…


The world’s first banner ad was purchased by AT&T in October 1994. It appeared on Wired Magazine’s website over a three month period, cost $30,000, and obtained an astonishing click-through rate of 44%. Digital marketing is easy, right? Currently, in our age of pop-up blockers and greater consumer cynicism, the average click-through rate on banner ads is .06%. The story of digital marketing is one of incredible successes and immediate obsolescence.

The story of digital marketing begins in earnest with the launches of Yahoo! and Netscape in 1994. While search engines had previously existed, Yahoo! alone had attracted one million new users within a year. Between 1994 and 1996 the number of internet users more than quadrupled, leaping from 16 to 70 million. Major companies quickly took note, and scrambled to optimize their websites, in order to appear at the top of search results pages.


The SEO era


Thus began the era of search engine optimization (SEO) where marketers began to manipulate websites in order to appear at the very top of search results pages. Early techniques in SEO included keyword stuffing, excessive tagging and backlinks. The world of SEO has gone through various reinventions, and continues to do so. With each update to the Google algorithm, the criteria for coming out on top in searches changes, and leaves SEO marketers scrambling to keep pace. The most recent algorithm update, dubbed “Google Fred” negatively affected sites with excessive amounts of ads, deceptive ads, and thin content that covered a wide range of issues. Google’s algorithms generally prioritize content that is deemed relevant, authoritative and sharable, and tailoring content to meet these criteria can be the difference between success and failure.

One of the first marketing firms to specialize in SEO, Razorfish, was notable for two reasons. The first was their slogan, “Everything that can be digital, will be” which may sound pedestrian now, but was revolutionary in 1995 when people were using fancy new disposable cameras. Their other claim to fame came through an online art gallery they launched called “The Blue Dot.” Late one night in 1995, Razorfish founder Craig Kanarick noticed that the Netscape 1.1 update contained server-push functionality (allowing the server to transmit data through the browser which was not requested by the internet user), and designed an animated logo for “The Blue Dot”, and creating the first animated image available on the web. Server push was later incorporated into the facebook notifications you receive every day, stock and weather updates, and countless marketing campaigns.


A titan is born


The year 1998 saw the birth of Google, the company which would grow to have more influence over digital advertising than any other. Google launched a Premium Sponsorships program a few months before it introduced its AdWords system in October 2000, which began with just 350 advertisers. AdWords offered advertisers a self-serve, by-word bidding system which, according to CEO Larry Page offered “the most technologically advanced features available, enabling any advertiser to quickly design a flexible program that best fits its online marketing goals and budget.” This quickly allowed it to essentially swallow the previously existing sponsorship program, and attract over 1 million advertisers. Currently, Google AdWords generates significantly more than half of the company’s total revenue, with clicks on searches such as “San Antonio car wreck attorney” generating as much as $670.44.”

Have we been forgetting something? Something that seems pedestrian compared to revolutionary techniques and algorithms and IPOs? Of course we have. The humble email. It’s now been forty six years since Ray Tomlinson sent the first one, and emails have become so ingrained into the modern way of life that we can take them for granted. Just as Buzz Aldrin has to walk forever in the shadow of Neil Armstrong, Gary “Father of Spam” Thuerk is forever lurking behind Tomlinson. Mr. Thuerk pioneered email advertising in 1978 when he sent a message to four hundred recipients promoting the machines of his employer, Digital Equipment Corporation. His efforts led to $13 million in sales, some complaints, and the birth of an industry.

When Hotmail was launched in 1991, allowing people to create personal email addresses, marketers had a much cheaper way to gain direct access to consumers (compared to the phone or the mail). Businesses began the “pray and spray” era of mass, unsolicited mailings to consumers, which caused so much annoyance that legislation was passed in both America and Europe in order to stop the deluge of spam. As consumers began to be increasingly fed up with spam, marketers began to change strategies, and triggered behavioral emails (activated by a consumer’s recent online activity) quickly gained in popularity. By 2010 it was reported that 48% of online marketers were using triggered emails.


The digital marketing revolution begins

Digital marketing hasn’t just forced companies to implement new techniques. It has also led to refinements and innovations in old-fashioned areas. Content marketing, for instance, has been revolutionized by the internet, which has enabled companies to reach consumers without the intermediaries of broadcast networks and publishing houses. The Michelin Guide has given way to Trip Advisor, travel blogs, and youtube channels. One remarkable success in this area was BMW’s “The Hire” campaign. It was a series of action films created by David Fincher’s company Anonymous Content, and it featured the actor Clive Owen and major filmmakers such as Ang Lee. The short films promoting the company’s latest cars had Hollywood production values, but in those pre-youtube days, they were only accessible on the BMW website. While many felt that consumers wouldn’t bother visiting a website to watch a glorified ad, the campaign was a massive success, inspired the film “The Transporter” and was described as “the first big media event of the 21st century” by industry watchers. The lack of time constraints that came with a streaming video on the company’s website allowed BMW to give value back to consumers (in the form of entertainment) while promoting its product and building brand awareness.

Another hugely successful campaign was Redbull Stratos, which a company spokesperson said was “first and foremost a scientific mission… [it] was not an advertising campaign.” Nevertheless, the company sponsored event, in which a skydiver made a freefall jump from 24 miles above Earth was covered by 80 TV stations in 50 countries, and all of the news outlets used the official title of Redbull Stratos. With 52 million views, it was also the most watched livestream event in history. With events like Stratos and Flugtag, Redbull has managed to use streaming services and word of mouth to gain a great deal of name recognition while maintaining a sense of authenticity among their target market.

As the true massive potential of digital marketing dawned on the world’s brands at last, the digital marketing revolution kicked into high gear. But few could’ve imagined how far it would go in the years to come…


Stay tuned for part 2 of this feature, The Rise of the Smartphone!