Honestly, no one can really tell you where it began. Some would argue that the history of digital marketing began with the invention of the radio. Some would pinpoint the year 1981 when IBM released the first personal computer. Others might start even later by attributing it to the launch of the World Wide Web Project in 1991. Of course, there’s also an argument to be made that digital marketing didn’t take off till the birth of Yahoo! as a search engine in 1994.

It is probably safe to say that the history of digital marketing began in the previous century and a lot of different developments paved the way for this revolution that is still ongoing. In the 1980s, companies started realizing that customer loyalty was essential and shifted their focus to strengthening ties with customers. This led to the emergence of Digital Databases that allowed companies to keep track of customers on a scale that had never been achieved until then.

Then in the 1990s, everything changed. By 1995, 16 million people were using the internet. Two years later, AOL had regular users and the world witnessed the magic of Google. Topics like search engine optimization were being bandied around. One could even say that this changed the history of digital marketing. In this decade, Customer Relationship Management (CRM) took the front seat. The first change to occur was Sales Force Automation (SFA). The manual component of database marketing was modernized and aspects like tracking and inventory were automated.

Google home screen

The increase in access to the internet also led to the emergence of eCRM players and sellers could keep updating information on their customers. However, one glaring disadvantage came to light. They had the systems to store the information but nothing powerful enough to process it.

And then something was invented which once again led to a turn in the history of digital marketing. Software As A Service (SAAS) was invented and in 1999, Salesforce.com made its debut and brought with it what we now call ‘cloud computing’. Their system of delivering business applications became the base for much of the marketing technology that was developed later.

Then in 2000 the dot com bubble burst and a lot of big companies like Dell and Cisco were hit quite hard. Others like Oracle and Siebel took the opportunity to innovate by taking Salesforce as their role model in customer communication. But a few years into the 2000s, they were all faced with a new challenge.

Another turn in the history of digital marketing came when customers began to do research on their own. Using search engines like Google, they’d look up products before buying them. While this is something that is the norm now, it was revolutionary just about fifteen years ago. Everyone was scrambling around trying to figure out the digital patterns in customer behavior.

Groundbreaking websites like MySpace and WordPress came into being and entrepreneurs learned to market content through them. A lot happened in the mid-2000s when internet advertising was worth a few billions. Google had released AdSense and had also gone public in 2004. Mark Zuckerberg launched Facebook the same year. And in 2005, Youtube came about to change the world. Google also released Google Analytics which is hugely popular even now as it allows marketers to track customer behavior and traffic.

Scrabble tiles on a wood table spelling blog

The second half of the decade saw Amazon grow in popularity. Tumblr was launched and soon enough everybody seemed to have a blog. All these modern devices led to a massive change – people didn’t just understand technology, they had become dependent on it. Even already established companies like IBM and Oracle had to acquire smaller companies and diversify their services just to have a fighting chance in the race.

Now that we’re at the end of the 2010’s we are practically in the future of digital marketing. Smartphones have brought the world to our fingertips and all the information we need is in our pockets. Marketers have had to get up close and personal with customers as the emphasis on a continuing conversation with them has only increased. Easy access to knowledge has made people savvy when it comes to knowledge of quality and price so pulling a sheet over a customer’s eyes with just sales talk doesn’t work anymore!

Smart phone on table with beside it scrabble tiles spelling social media
Photographer: William Iven | Source: Unsplash

Social media’s popularity has also changed the history of digital marketing. Marketers now seriously consider the way their brands are presented online, all advertisements are targeted to particular audiences, and the digital market is open 24/7. Customers are no longer willing to put up with being hounded by advertisements so outreach has become sophisticated. It is now all about understanding what the customer wants and tailoring ads to suit their specific needs.

Overall, we’re living in an age where change is constant. People are looking for relatable content and personalized products. Brands need to think on their feet to keep up with evolving trends. All in all, it’s a pretty interesting time to be alive.

Mayukh Saha

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