A brief history of everything (that’s digital marketing)

We might assume many of the words, phrases and acronyms we take for granted as digital marketers have always been “a thing”. But there was a time when the likes of online advertising, PPC and email didn’t even exist.

So where did all these digital disciplines that we work with everyday come from?

We asked our resident eCommerce expert, Dan Coleman, to delve deep into his memory, take us back to school and give us a quick history lesson on where all those terms that we know and love came from.

Pay attention class, there might be a test at the end…



Purists will say it’s a lot older but Search Engine Optimisation as we think of it dates back to the late 90s / early 00’s dotcom boom.

It’s been falsely declared “dead” as a technique several times. But all that means is that it just got harder for you to get people to find your content when it’s irrelevant to them and their searches. So if anything it’s got more accurate.

SEO as a discipline absolutely changed the game as it was the first time you could put your product or service in front of people at the exact moment they were looking for it. Done right it’s still an incredibly powerful tool.


Growth hacking

Although it sounds a bit like a wart removal technique it’s a fairly recent term that appeared in the last five years or so. It means using all the available tools and datasets to optimise business growth.

Those of us who have been around a bit longer tend to just call this “marketing”.


Social Ads

The first Facebook ads were launched in 2005 but it was a slow burn for Facebook as an advertising platform until 2013 when they introduced lookalike audiences and conversion pixels that could track actions on the advertiser’s website.

The rest of the social networks have followed suit by introducing paid ads, but Facebook is as essential to digital marketing as Google Ads nowadays.


Pay per click

PPC began in 2000 with Overture and Google AdWords on a purely auction based model. It was overhauled in the mid-2000s to determine which ads should appear based on various data-driven optimisation factors. These ensure that the ads which generated the most revenue for Google would appear most often even if their auction bid was not the highest.

This was a game changer as it gave you predictable, SEO-like activity for a fee. New ad formats and audience techniques have been introduced over time and you need to master all of them in addition to SEO if you want to get the best from Google.


Online Advertising

Banner ads first appeared in 1994 on a flat fee basis. They live on through affiliate networks which have a cost-per-action model, and site takeovers which tend to have reverted to flat fee. Everything old becomes new again.

Although they’re seen as a pest now, these ads were hugely important because they helped keep the web free to use and allowed it to become a viable business platform.


Influencer marketing

Influencer marketing pre-dates the internet by a long way – think Ronald Reagan featuring in cigarette ads in the 50’s or Michael Jackson advertising Pepsi in the 80s.

Its modern form evolved from paying celebrities to broadcast your campaign on their social media, often with questionable results. Remember the Snickers 2012 campaign which paid Katie Price to tweet high-brow observations about politics?

Nowadays, it’s more about collaborations with people who have found fame exclusively online through YouTube, Instagram etc. Due diligence is needed though as you have limited editorial control. A recent high-profile example was one of Disney’s paid influencers using racist language in a live stream.


Targeted advertising (pay per click but with targeting)

Most advertising is targeted, but not all of it well. More data and better tools mean audiences can be well defined, especially on Facebook.

Combine that with a lack of regulatory oversight when compared to the traditional ad mediums and you end up with Trump and Brexit. Fortunately, most of us just use these techniques to sell mobile phones and dresses.



Email came of age as a marketing channel during the first dotcom boom through the use of rudimentary personalisation. It’s another medium that has been declared dead several times but in a well optimised marketing mix, it will still deliver some of the best ROI. Largely because it’s a way to communicate with people who have already engaged with you in some way.


Voice Search

There’s two parts to this:

The creepy passive stuff which Facebook has been denying since 2016 where you have a conversation in the real world about wanting to get fit and they suddenly start showing ads for bicycles and trainers on your mobile.

Then there’s active voice search like Alexa and Google Home which is currently getting a softly-softly approach to advertising. It’s going to be a powerful channel for the future but too much too soon will limit the uptake of these devices.


Audio Ads

Radio ads have been around for decades, but they lack any real ability to target specific groups or types of people.

Spotify launched its ad studio in 2017 allowing advertisers to target listeners with audio ads based on their preferred genre and location. Got a shop selling bullet belts and black cowboy hats? You probably want to tell local Motörhead fans about that. Got a new streetwear brand you want to launch? Make sure those Drake fans are in the know.


After some more digital marketing insights? Check out Dan’s recent vlog on how you can “Reclaim your Monday” with data studio dashboards or just drop him a line at Dan.Coleman@redhotpenny.com


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