How Each Evolution of the Internet Changed Digital Marketing

The history of marketing is extensive, and it has evolved over the centuries, from stalls in the markets of ancient Rome to the AI-driven viral campaigns we see today.

The 1900s was arguably the most crucial, as the gap between the rich and the poor began to shrink, disposable income increased, and technology grew exponentially. The result was an increase in market size for almost every industry. By the mid-1900s, consumers were spoilt for choice with the cars they drove, the food they ate, and the cigarettes they smoked. This meant that companies could no longer rely on monopolies to make a profit. Instead, they had to find other ways to persuade customers to buy their product over someone else’s. This realisation led to the type of marketing that we see today. 

From the 1950s to the mid-1980s, radio, TV and newspapers were the only marketing mediums. Each one presented a challenge as it relied on luck for advertisements to be seen by the right audience. The ability to conduct market research and promote products during this period required a vast amount of financial backing and time. 

This began to change in the 1990s as the popularity of the internet started to increase, and with it, so did the realisation that technology could be the next big step in how we market our products and services. Unlike the previous mediums, the internet was online 24/7 and used by people worldwide. Suddenly it became possible to sell to somebody anywhere in the world at all hours of the day and night. 

Web 1.0 and the Birth of Digital Marketing

Web 1.0 refers to the first evolution of the world wide web in the 1990s. This era became characterised by static web pages that mainly featured text structured by HTML tables. Despite advertisements being banned during the internet’s initial popularity, the first clickable banner went live in 1993. Soon after, HotWired (the first online magazine) purchased the first series of banner ads promoting their website. 

Around this time, the term digital marketing began to gain traction. It also marked the transitional era from offline marketing to online marketing. After Yahoo managed to attract over one million visitors to its website in 1994, sites all over the internet began to optimise their web pages to rank higher in search results. At the time, SEO as a term didn’t exist. 

Search engine rankings dominated the internet for the remainder of web 1.0 and were the primary way of getting users to your website. When the bubble burst in the late 1990s, the internet began slowly evolving into its next phase. 

Web 2.0 and $2.9 Billion

Web 2.0 was all about interaction and communication between its users and eventually led to the internet being dubbed the Super Information Highway. Much of this increased communication came from early social networks, IRCs and video games that began cropping up around the internet. 

With the birth of sites like MySpace and Facebook, marketing companies soon realised that most internet users were frequently visiting the same web pages. This presented a great opportunity as it was much more efficient and cost-effective to advertise on one website with a vast user base, and the result was $2.9 billion in advertising revenue in the US alone in 2004. 

Cookies were invented during this time to log visitor sessions, browsing patterns and other webpage-related data across the internet. Terrabytes of consumer data could be accessed for relatively low prices compared to the mid-1900s, and the ability of smaller marketing companies with less financial backing to dominate online marketing space quickly became apparent. 

Behavioural Advertising and Web 3.0

Even the most passive internet users can likely sense the shifting focus of the internet over the past decade. This has mainly been caused by the arrival of cryptocurrencies and the popularity of decentralised applications (dApps) and finance (Defi). 

Web 3.0 will be a highly personalised and individual-focused web experience. The growing power of artificial intelligence (AI) and personalised advertisements will play a central role in how marketers sell products over the next two decades. Like digital marketing in the 1990s, behavioural advertising allows marketers to display highly personalised ads and messages based on a user’s in-depth web browsing behaviour. This means that each website will display a different ad based on the person accessing the website. 

The ability to categorise consumer information and use that data to develop hyper-personal ads has come from AI and semi-conductor technology improvements. These improvements allow marketers to run campaigns almost on autopilot due to automated decision-making, natural language processing and even content generation. 

Where Are We Heading? 

Despite the growing intelligence of AI and machine learning, the focus is currently on virtual reality, mainly due to Facebook’s rebranding to Meta Platforms in 2021. Soon after, they announced the Metaverse, an online version of Facebook that allows users to interact as if they were there in person by using a VR headset and a controller in each hand. 

The Metaverse, however, isn’t the first time that we’ve seen a VR world where users can interact with one another. VRChat, an online-only game launched in 2017, has many of the same features proposed in the Metaverse. What’s interesting about VRChat is how advertisements are presented in games. Billboards, TV ads and even newspapers feature promotions in this digital world. 

If we compare this to Web 3.0s hyper-personalised advertising, it begs the question as to whether two people can look at the same digital billboard in a game and see entirely different advertisements depending on their browsing history and personal preferences.

Looking at how far we have come and where we appear to be heading, the future of advertising will be very interesting indeed.


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