Internet advertising has become an inescapable aspect of our daily lives. Here, we look at the innovative first steps toward what it has become today.

When the internet began, online advertising was largely forbidden. But how times have changed! These days, such is the saturation of internet advertising, companies often utilise more tactful methods of promoting their products such as Nike’s free applications for performance tracking, or Red Bull streaming the live video feed of Felix Baumgartner’s epic skydive from space. We see the brand in relation to something else, rather than just the hard sell.

But how did we get to this point? Who were the pioneers and innovators in online advertising?


The first email – the first spam?

The first widely publicised example of online advertising was conducted in May 1978 by a marketer, named Gary Thuerk, from the Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC). He sent an unsolicited email to 393 west coast users of the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET), advertising a new model of DEC computer.

the first online advertising

This might be the first example of what would eventually become known as ‘spam’. But the real meat of the issue is the effectiveness of the practice. Thuerk would later disclose that DEC had “wanted to reach as many people as possible to let them know about our new product”. Significantly, he estimates they sold around $13 million to $14 million worth of DEC machines through that one email campaign, though he admits that “complaints started coming almost immediately”.


The first display ad

The irritation of adverts clogging up our internet use is as true today as it was in the early days of narrow dial-up connections. But even back then, the flashy 468 pixels wide by 60 pixels deep banner ad was annoyingly prolific. In October 1994, the first commercial web magazine – HotWired – launched a series of banner ads from 14 companies including Volvo and Club Med. However, legend has it that the very first banner ad they use in the campaign was for AT&T, which fatefully asked “Have you ever clicked your mouse right here? You will.”

first banner ad

For all of their maddening features of banner ads, their merit can be found in how they revolutionised advertising. For the first time, marketers could quantify how many people saw any particular advert and interacted with it – the effectiveness had become measurable. Display ads have endured the various booms and bubble bursts of the internet with, according to Statista, $160 billion spent globally on online advertising in 2016 – a figure that is projected to reach $285 billion by 2020.


The first pop-up

Those pesky pop-ups, the bane of internet browsing. They started on the webpage hosting site Tripod.com in the late 1990s. A man named Ethan Zuckerman claims to have written the code to launch adverts in separate windows to counter the problem of displaced banner ads, something he has since apologised for having seen how pop-ups have evolved into an often insidious means of marketing.

first pop up image

The first search ads

To begin with, online adverts were largely charged by impressions because it was the simplest metric to calculate. Then, in 1998, GoTo.com introduced the first pay-per-click (PPC) charging system. Pricing and slot placement were determined by blind auction, with the highest bidders paying for more favourable placement of ads. This method of charging per action remains prevalent among affiliate networks such as the evergreen BidVertiser, and plucky upstart AdNow.


If you’d like to find out more about the past, present, and future of digital marketing and how to achieve your career goals, why not broaden your education with one of our online courses from The Faculty of Marketing and Communications?

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