A Short History of Digital Marketing, and How We Can Use It to Get Ahead

A Short History of Digital Marketing, and How We Can Use It to Get Ahead

13/04/17 | Alex Stockton

‘Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it’. Whether or not this adage referred initially to digital marketing is irrelevant; using the past to better understand and succeed in the future is important. Someone who refuses to acknowledge their mistakes and weak points will only improve if they begin life perfect. Personally, I’m yet to find anyone that applies to! From personal relationships to work performance, learning from the past is essential if you want to improve.

Digital marketing is a new phenomenon. For a long time, the digital world and the marketing world had few, if any, crossover points. Technological and mechanical developments, with the exception of the telephone, were primarily used for labour, transport and construction. Marketing was somewhat independent of digital innovations; the Romans relied on raising their voices at their market stalls, while, more recently, billboards and advertising banners were the best way to set your products apart. During the 1980s, however, as relationship marketing – focusing on long-term relationships and promoting customer loyalty – began to emerge as a predominant industry leader, the spheres started to collide. The PC was developed in 1984 and then the laptop in 1988; such innovations opened the door for significant changes in the world of marketing, a door that allowed marketers into their customers’ homes.

Here, I’ll take a look at the developments in digital marketing from the 1980s onwards. In doing so, a number of links between decades should present themselves. As a history graduate, I am fascinated by recurring themes and patterns repeating over time. It will be interesting to see whether the same principles are applicable to the short history of digital marketing.

The 1980s

If we analyse the 1980s from a digital perspective, it is possible to pinpoint some truly age-defining moments. For example, the rise of computers and people’s increased usage can be identified towards the end of the decade. Computers were, obviously, to become a significant part of the marketing world moving forwards, and paved the way for further significant developments.

Marketing, at the start of the decade, was generally becoming more personal. The move from localised, individually-targeted marketing campaigns to worldwide ones made it necessary to find ways of connecting with people without meeting them. Relationship marketing – or building long-term relationships with consumers – best reflects this trend, and, in turn, made the computer a hugely effective marketing tool. That the two developments coincided was significant. Using the computer allowed marketers to get closer to their clients than before, as a “personal” relationship could be achieved from an office chair without standing up or picking up the phone. Customers were, in some ways, more demanding than ever before. They were further away and had larger competitors, but still demanded a personal service. Cue Personal Computers and their enormous databases. While digital marketing hadn’t been christened by this point, its origins can be traced back to the eighties.

The 1990s

Developments in the world of computing facilitated the rise of the internet. More people had access to computers, so more people had access to, and began to use, the internet. With this in mind, the nineties provided the first real example of the marketing and digital worlds crossing over; the term “digital marketing” was also first used widely. The 1990s witnessed the rise of viral marketing, which was made increasingly effective through mediums such as email. Clearly, the decade provided an example of marketing innovations reacting to digital ones.

What’s important to note here is that the developments in digital marketing in the 1990s were only possible because of what came before. In some ways, the best, most exciting bits of the 1980s were taken and developed further. CRM (Customer Relationship Management) software took relationship marketing to the next level. After Apple’s immensely popular “1984” commercial, the need to market to the individual had become paramount. People wanted to be individual and wanted their service to reflect that. CRM made that possible on a larger scale. Those who grasped the concepts of using personal computers to carry out personal marketing strategies were able to get ahead; the internet and CRM made it possible to provide a large number of customers with an individual, tailored service.

The 2000s

Just as the personal computer gave rise to the internet, the internet gave rise to social media. Facebook was launched in 2004, and Twitter in 2006. By the end of the decade, both were important parts of everyday life. Digital marketing, again, found a way to take advantage.

The decline of telemarketing coincided with a significant rise in online communication. As people began to grow tired of cold calling, they sought to move away from it. Unbeknownst to them, the style of marketing had simply moved platforms. Instead of speaking to customers on the phone, leading digital marketers were getting their points across over the internet. While social media only took off in the later part of the decade, email and internet advertising was already established. Cold calling is probably only so named because the stereotype still involves someone picking up a phone and trying to sell you something. As the noughties developed, the phrase could easily have been re-worded as ‘cold typing’ or ‘cold posting’. The only real change was the platform it operated on. Once again, the developments in the digital world of the noughties were utilised by marketers in line with what the people wanted. It turned out that no-one liked cold-calling anymore, so it was moved, and hidden away in the depths of online business.


Following the birth of social media, it’s all been about speed and ease of access. Facebook is being replaced by Twitter as as a way of communicating or following celebrities; it’s quicker and more instant. People post their own musings on Twitter, and want to see what their favourite celebrities are thinking, too. 2014 marked the first time that mobile internet use exceeded PC internet use. Rather than take inspiration from film stars by going to the cinema, people listen to vloggers by following them on YouTube and Twitter. “Meeting” your heroes has never been easier.

Having 24 hour access to friends and news is becoming so important that it’s even created a new word. Nomophobia, or the obsession of checking your phone, has been born of an increased dependence on being connected. Mayur Gupta sums it up by declaring that people have gone from being “tech-savvy to tech-dependent”. We’ve still got three years left of the 2010s, but Gupta’s words are definitely appropriate for the seven we’ve already had.

Where to next?

Going back to the first point of this piece, that we benefit from the lessons of the past, there are running links throughout the past three or four decades. It is certainly clear, after looking at each decade’s defining aspects, that the development of digital marketing has been progressive. While the 1990s may have “moved” cold calling onto another platform, the use of social media for businesses has reflected the advancements of the digital world. As a new stage of digital technology has emerged, a new stage of marketing has developed to reflect it. That the title of this piece discusses “digital marketing” underlines how intertwined the two worlds have become. It makes sense, then, that our plans moving forward should also be similarly progressive, and should follow the stages of digital innovation.

Picking our train of thought up in 2017, the world is witnessing to a dramatic increase in instant news and fingertip communication. How, then, do we take this a step further and develop it? Do we move platforms, change strategy, or just stick with what’s working right now? To get ahead, we need to think beyond what is working now and ask, “what comes next”?

Google is currently developing a way of searching without searching. “Google Shortcuts” will make it quicker to scour the internet, and will require less thinking for users. In terms of “what comes next”, they might well have nailed it. The need to type is becoming less and less. Add voice recognition software, such as Amazon’s “Alexa”, into the equation and this direction becomes even clearer. People seem to want everything in their pockets, be it directions, advice, or a pick-me-up. In many ways, we’ve already begun to move platforms, from PCs or laptops, to mobile devices, to a place where thinking, or thinking aloud, is all we need do. To an extent, digital marketing has already responded; “Google Shortcuts” and Amazon’s “Alexa” certainly imply so.

Already, there is serious talk of brain chips and mind implants. While it’s still a little far-fetched, and a little bit too Doctor Who, it’s the idea that’s important. The mere fact that such an idea is being discussed reflects the trends and needs of modern day users. If the world’s population was clearly displaying a desire to move back to humanity’s roots, and people were starting to live in caves, the same source would be talking about deindustrialisation and the reduction of machinery. They’re not, though. They’re displaying a desire to have everything linked up, and everything mobile. Thus, the next stage of digital marketing’s history needs to reflect that desire.


To get ahead, it is essential to consider what people want. Thankfully, it seems that people’s needs and cravings are reflected in the period directly before an innovation: when people didn’t want cold callers ringing them up, they moved platforms to the internet; as the public became more comfortable online, along came social media; when that lost its novelty, the solution was to make it quicker. It is such information that we can use to inform where we should look now. By considering the most up to date trends and preferences of the public, we can ensure that we capitalise on them.

Brain implants? Perhaps not yet, but that’s where your imagination comes in.


At Active Internet Marketing, we are constantly thinking about getting ahead. Rather than just repeating the same tactics over and over again, our innovative and dynamic team ensures that your business reaps the rewards of forward-thinking marketing. If you’d like us to make a difference to your business’ performance, please get in touch on 0800 772 0650. You can also contact us using our online contact form. We look forward to hearing from you!