A Brief History of Digital Marketing


What event marks the beginning of the long, rich history of digital marketing? Some might say the invention of the internet. Others might say the invention of email and search engines. But what if we told you digital marketing originated at the tail-end of WWII? Let's take a look at where digital marketing started and how it's evolved.

A timeline of digital marketing history

1945: Dr. Vannevar Bush predicts smartphones, search engines, Wikipedia, and more in his paper, "As We May Think".

1960: Gerard Salton leads the development of the SMART Information Retrieval System. Harvard student Ted Nelson formulates the idea for Project Xanadu.

1969: ARPANet invented.

1971: Email as we know it today invented.

1973: First cell phone invented. First cell phone call placed.

1983: Motorola reveals the Motorola DynaTAC 8000X, the world's first cell phone available to the public.

1989: Tim Berners-Lee invents the World Wide Web and the first web browser.

1990: Alan Emtage creates the world's first search engine, Archie. The term "digital marketing" is coined.

1991: The World Wide Web is released to the public. The first website goes live.

1992: IBM invents the Simon Personal Communicator, the predecessor to the smartphone.

1993: Aliweb invented. First crawler robot created and deployed. The first clickable banner ad published.

1994: First blog post published. The first ecommerce transaction completed.

1996: Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin develop BackRub, the search engine that would later become Google.

2000: Google creates Adwords.

2001: Universal Music launches the first mobile marketing campaign.

2002: LinkedIn invented.

2003: MySpace invented.

2004: Facebook invented.

2006: Twitter invented.

2007: Steve Jobs unveils the iPhone.

2010: Instagram launched.

The (early) history of digital marketing

Years before George Orwell's Big Brother rocked the post-war world, another famous scientist made grand predictions about the future of technology and its role in society. Just after the atomic bombings of 1945, Dr. Vannevar Bush published a revolutionary paper, "As We May Think". In it, he predicted smartphones, search engines, and even Wikipedia:

"Consider a future device for individual use, which is a sort of mechanized private file and library [...] in which an individual stores all his books, records, and communications, and which is mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility. It is an enlarged intimate supplement to his memory."

— "As We May Think", Dr. Vannevar Bush

Fast forward to 1960, when two major breakthroughs set the stage for digital marketing as we know it today. The first was the SMART Information Retrieval System. Aptly nicknamed the "father of information retrieval", Gerard Salton worked as a computer science professor at Cornell University and led the SMART development team. Information retrieval is a somewhat complex concept, but it essentially involves retrieving information from text. The "find in text" function is one example of many.

The other major development was the conceptualization of Project Xanadu. Then-Harvard student Ted Nelson wanted to create a program that stored and displayed documents and also allowed for editing. Sound familiar? That's because Nelson's idea was similar to word processors like Microsoft Word — but it wasn't exactly the same.

One of the key features was the ability to compare different versions of documents side-by-side. While researchers liked Nelson's ideas, they noted that he "lacked the technical knowledge" needed to articulate them properly.

Nine years later, computers at Stanford Research Institute and UCLA were the first to connect to the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET). A branch of the U.S. Department of Defense began developing ARPANET in 1966 to transmit information between computers from anywhere in the world. The goal was to develop a communication method that could survive a potential nuclear attack — a major concern throughout the Cold War. ARPANET is considered the precursor to today's internet.

Email was also around throughout the 1960s, but only users of the same computer could exchange messages. In 1971, Ray Tomlinson invented email as we know it today, which sent messages through ARPANET.

Just two years afterward, Motorola invented the first cell phone and placed the first ever mobile phone call. Cell phones wouldn't be made available to the public for another decade, when Motorola released the DynaTAC 8000X. The phone cost nearly $4,000, took 10 hours to charge, and only allowed for 30 minutes' worth of phone calls!

the history of digital marketing first cell phone

Motorola DynaTAC 8000X

(Image credit: Redrum0486, Wikimedia Commons [license])

The rise of the World Wide Web, search engines, and blogs

In 1989, Tim Berners-Lee forever changed the world by inventing the World Wide Web. Not to be confused with the internet itself, the World Wide Web is an information storage system. Web browsers connected to the internet allow users to access resources stored in the World Wide Web via Uniform Resource Locators, or URLs. The World Wide Web was initially exclusive to CERN, where Berners-Lee worked at the time, and select research institutions before being released to the public in 1991.

In 1990, university student Alan Emtage invented Archie, the world's first search engine, and set the stage for modern search engine marketing. Archie was rudimentary compared to Google. It was only capable of indexing files, and users could only find documents if they knew the title. Despite, or perhaps because of, its simplicity, Archie paved the way for modern search engines like Google. The same year, the term "digital marketing" was used for the first time.

In 1992, IBM released the precursor to the smartphone, the Simon Personal Communicator prototype. This touchscreen device merged the blocky '80s-style cell phone with some of the modern technologies we still use today, including calendar apps, email, and widgets.

history of digital marketing simon communicator

The Simon Personal Communicator

1993 was a big year for digital marketing, with 3 major developments. Aliweb, which claims to be the "world's oldest search engine", went live. However, as we've already seen, Archie preceded Aliweb by 3 years, although its capabilities were limited. Aliweb is closer to the search engines we rely on today and used crawlers to index pages. In addition to the classic search bar, Aliweb's front page also contained a robust (if somewhat cluttered) database of links to popular websites. These links were sectioned into categories like entertainment, news, and money.

The same year, the world's first crawler, World Wide Web Wanderer, was deployed. Like most emerging technology, the World Wide Web Wanderer was slow and created a lot of server lag. This contributed to stigma and distrust in bots that still persists today. Finally, Global Network Navigator published the first clickable online ad in 1993.

In 1994, the first blog posts went live. It's worth noting this fact is a hot debate among historians. Some claim blogging has been around since the '80s, while others say blogging is as recent as 1997. But 1994 seems to be a seminal year for blogs, which were then called "personal home pages". Essentially, people were using the web to publish personal journal entries. The terminology shifted to "Web diarists" over the next few years, until the term "weblog" appeared in 1997.

The same year saw the first ecommerce transaction between two friends via Netmarket. What was the transaction? A Sting CD. Pizza Hut wasn't far behind when, just weeks later, it began selling pizzas online.

In 1996, Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin begin developing BackRub, the search engine that later evolved into the almighty Google. BackRub was the first to use PageRank, which remains a vital component of any successful search engine marketing and optimization strategy. When Page and Brin attempted to license Google, which they'd created in their dorm rooms, no one was interested.

The rise of smartphones and social media

Digital marketing took off at the turn of the millennium with the invention of Google AdWords. At its inception, Google AdWords offered a monthly subscription instead of campaign-based pricing. AdWords really started to evolve around 2005, when the self-service portal and JumpStart were introduced. Google Ads, as it's now known, is still the tech giant's biggest source of revenue.

In 2001, Universal Music created the first mobile marketing campaign. Interestingly, not much information is available on this campaign, apart from the fact that it promoted an Island Records single. The first mobile marketing campaign in the US followed shortly after in 2002 by Labatt Breweries.

At the tail-end of 2002, LinkedIn was founded. The site launched in May 2003 and has remained the top professional networking site ever since. MySpace shaped the landscape of social media when it also launched in 2003 and reigned as the most popular social network from 2005 and 2008. Unlike many social media sites and businesses in general, MySpace's growth was somewhat backward. It shot to stardom not long after it was released before fading into oblivion within just a few years. MySpace is still a cult classic for musicians and even digital marketers.

the history of digital marketing facebook

In 2004, Facebook revolutionized the way people connected and communicated. Advertising was a core component of TheFacebook, as it was then called. Students and small businesses could buy "flyers" to target college campuses on the network. Fast forward 16 years, and Facebook remains unrivaled as the biggest social media network with over 2.5 billion active users.

In 2006, SMS-based platform Twitter hit the social media scene. It took just one year for it to blow up, thanks to its advertising campaigns at the 2007 South by Southwest Festival. Even though Twitter's popularity continued to grow, the platform didn't launch its own app or ads until 2010.

In 2007, Steve Jobs unveiled what most would consider the world's first true smartphone: the iPhone. In his iconic keynote speech, Jobs spent little time discussing the smartphone features we use today, like web browsing and text messaging. The first iPhone was effectively marketed as "an iPod that made phone calls," according to one of the original developers, Andy Grignon.

history of digital marketing iphone

(Image source: Blake Patterson via Wikimedia Commons [license])

In 2010, Instagram became one of the latest arrivals to the social media party, but it quickly established itself as one of the most effective digital marketing platforms. Considering the popularity of Instagram influencer marketing, you might be surprised to discover that the platform only began offering advertising in 2013. Carousel ads hit the scene in 2015. The following year, Instagram released its full suite of business tools, including business profiles, Insights, and promoted content.

The history of digital marketing: wrapping up

Okay, so that "brief" history of digital marketing might not seem so brief in hindsight. But the items we've covered here truly only scratch the surface of digital marketing history. We had a ton of fun diving down the research rabbit hole to cover some of the biggest developments in digital marketing.

ZyraTalk is proud to play a part, however small, in that long and colorful history. Helping digital marketers work smarter and more efficiently through automation is our mission. These historical events paved the way for a brighter future in which conversational marketing reigns supreme. What is conversational marketing, and is your business ready for this revolutionary approach? Keep reading to find out.