Banner - 30 Changes in 30 Years: Digital Marketing from 1990 to 2020

Marketing has changed a lot since the nineties, and we have been along the whole way, adapting to every change and learning the whole time.

More than just marketing, the whole way we do business has changed. Some of our biggest internal changes were that the average age of the at+m team is getting younger, and some of the team choose to work remotely from home, allowing us to be spread around the country rather than confined to our office. This is possible due to the technology available to us now for instantaneous online communication, which has led to less face-to-face meetings over the years and more emails and online meetings.

In 2020, in the midst of coronavirus and the associated restrictions, some of these changes became more evident than ever, and there were many new changes in a very short timespan. Working from home became the norm for many who’d never considered it, and digital channels became the go-to while customers couldn’t get out and about. It will be truly intriguing to look back on this year and see the changes which stick around to affect our businesses for the months and years to come.

In the early days, marketing used to be set and forget. Campaigns usually ran over 3 months, had large budgets, and included TV ads, radio, press, and letterbox drops. While these traditional approaches were able to get results for businesses, it was harder to determine the success of specific marketing programs due to limited measurement of attribution.

Modern marketing is nimbler, and real-time measurement of results allows us to be responsive. It is about connecting brands with consumers, with the right message, at the right time, and on the right platform – which has become predominantly digital. Tracking and analysing data is central to everything we do, both to measure and test the effects of different approaches, and finally to provide a clear path of attribution and ROI to the client.

But that’s not all that’s changed. There have been a lot of key happenings along the way, and while its not exhaustive, here is our list of 30 of some of what we thought were the biggest changes in digital marketing in the last 30 years

1. Google

Search engines have fundamentally changed the way we look for information about brands and products, and while Google is on top of the game now, they weren’t the first to the party.

Yahoo started as an online directory in 1994, introducing search in 1995. Google followed quickly, introducing their search engine to the world wide web for the first time in 1997

2. Responsive Website Design

Responsive design is a relatively new web design practice, first suggested in 2010 to respond to the growing number and variation in devices accessing websites on the internet. Prior to responsive design, many large businesses would create individual websites each for desktops and mobiles, but this was becoming impractical with the growth of new devices including tablets, different sized mobile phones, and internet browsers on TVs and game consoles.

The shift to responsive design created websites which ‘respond’ to the screen size of the device they’re displayed on – shifting images and content around for the best user experience. With Google algorithm changes encouraging the use of one domain rather than 2 separate websites for mobile and desktop, responsive designed websites quickly became an industry standard

3. User Experience (UX)

The term ‘user experience’ was first coined by Apple employee Donald Norman, a cognitive scientist who joined the company during the early 90s as their ‘User Experience Architect’. He saw the user experience as a very broad term which explained the experience of a customer with a product at any stage of use – whether it be purchase, using the product, digital, or non-digital.

Apple brought UX to the world stage when they released the iPhone in 2007 and started the smartphone craze. Apple considered the physical aspects of the product as well as the digital user experience encountered while using the device.

4. Smartphones

In 2016, Google announced that over 50 per cent of all search queries globally were from mobile devices, with some industries showing up to 72% search volume on mobile.

This made it absolutely critical for businesses and marketers to consider the mobile audience when making online content. This further pushed the requirement of responsive, or mobile-first website design, as well as further optimising on-page content with mobile users in mind.

5. Inbound Narketing vs Outbound Marketing

Mobile phones and other modern technology give consumers the ability to choose the advertisements they engage with, and those they don’t.

As a result, marketing has shifted from outbound methods, such as cold-calling and direct mail, towards inbound marketing, where there is a 2-way conversation between the brand and the customer, and the customer chooses to remain engaged. While outbound marketing methods still have their place, they aren’t the silver bullet they once were.

6. Content is King

Content marketing represents the shift from outbound marketing to inbound marketing; a world of marketing where consumers choose the advertisements they engage with. Content marketing involves creating content which provides value to customers, whether it is informational or educational.

While this approach became a standard for consumers in the market, it also benefitted from higher search visibility when Googles algorithm update in 2011 (Google Panda), tied page content directly to SEO, rewarding websites which consistently posted fresh, engaging content.

7. Search Algorithm Changes

Google’s other algorithm changes over the years have created digital marketing revolutions of their own. In 2007, Google first introduced search engine indexing for non-text content, allowing videos and images to become a crucial part of search engine rankings.

Due to Google’s popularity and widespread use, any algorithm change brings with it a whole new arsenal of SEO techniques and methods for optimising websites.

8. Data Driven Marketing

The back-end of digital marketing has allowed us as marketers to develop new approaches based on past data. This data includes industry reports as well as specific data from digital campaigns, which can be monitored to determine any necessary adjustments to increase performance.

On a practical level, we implement data-driven marketing by analysing the results of past campaigns and the use of a/b split testing, allowing us to see which parts of online campaigns are generating the most results.

9. Website Loading Speed

While essential for good user experience in itself, website loading speed become vastly more important when it became another indication of website quality in search engines.

In 2006, Amazon found that just an increase of 100 milliseconds (1/10th of a second) in load time cost them up to 1% in sales¹.

10. ‘Black Hat SEO’

‘Black hat SEO’, a term given to SEO techniques which claimed to increase search engine ranking, while often worsening user experience, was rampant in the days of the original search engine algorithms.

This was due to algorithms which were simpler and easy to take advantage of, with dodgy SEO practitioners employing tactics such as keyword-stuffing, building lists of irrelevant backlinks, and ultimately hurting user experience.

Google’s RankBrain algorithm update in 2015 was introduced as a measure to increase user experience across the internet and to end black hat SEO once and for all.

11. Social Media

Social media was born, and while it started out as a way to connect with friends, family and colleagues online, it quickly became one of the world’s largest advertising channels.

The first of today’s most popular platforms to launch was the professional network LinkedIn, started in 2002, followed by MySpace in 2003. Facebook debuted in 2004, though it wasn’t until 2009 that it claimed its current title as the most popular social platform in the world. Twitter joined the ranks in 2007, and Instagram launched in 2010, eventually bought out by Facebook in 2012.

Since then, there has been a number of other new social media platforms, including WeChat and Snapchat in 2011, TikTok in 2018, and countless others in-between.

12. International Outsourcing

Technology and more accessible international travel have made international outsourcing practical for even small to medium businesses. For marketers, this has meant facing the pressures of competing in an international marketplace, but also having the ability to serve clients around the world from any location.

13. Influencers

While influencer marketing has been around for years, the advent of social media has made it possible for anyone with a valuable following to become an influencer.

These social media influencers have become the new wave of word-of-mouth consumer advocates, with individual influencers scaling from well-known celebrities with millions of followers, to micro-influencers with up to 2,000 followers.

14. Reviews

Online reputation has become critical, even for those brands who don’t have their own large presence online. Reviews across platforms such as Google My Business and Facebook reviews have become one of the primary authorities customers look to when making a purchase decision.

Research shows that 85% of consumers read online reviews for local businesses, with only 53% saying they would consider using a business with less than 4 stars².

15. Google My Business

One of the problems with early global search engines were that they were geared towards showing the biggest players on individual searches, disregarding localised search results.

Google launched their service ‘Google My Business’ to revive local business presence on their search engine. Google My Business allows local businesses to achieve better visibility in localised search results through the use of individualised profiles for businesses on the search platform itself.

16. Google Ads

In 2000, Google branched out from just providing organic search results, and gave the option for businesses to pay for their websites to get to the top of search results.

Originally called Google AdWords, the service was a fast success, generating $70 million in revenue for Google in its first year after launch. The service was later renamed to a simpler ‘Google Ads’, and earned Google a whopping $98.1 billion in revenue in 2019.

17. Remarketing

Remarketing refers to marketing which targets consumers who have already engaged with a brand or visited their website.

Google introduced display ads remarketing in 2010, but it is now an option on almost all major social media advertising channels.

18. Machine Learning

Machine Learning is a revolutionary technology which allows marketers to understand, anticipate, and act on data much faster than if a person was in charge of the data.

In order to make Google Ads more accessible, Google introduced machine learning to the platform in 2018.

Machine Learning on Google Ads was implemented to produce personalised content, provide data, and help marketers and Google with the complicated ad bidding process.

19. Google Goes Mobile-First

Recognising that the majority of Google search users browse the internet with their mobile phones, Google switched to mobile first indexing in 2019. This meant that if a website still has separate mobile and desktop websites, their desktop site will struggle to reach the top of the search rankings.

This move further increased the popularity responsive designed websites, which do not require separate domains for the desktop and mobile site versions.

20. eCommerce

It wasn’t long after the world wide web was launched that people started selling products online. Amazon, one of the first eCommerce retailers, launched in 1995 as an online bookstore.

The advantages of online retail were clear-cut even then – as while physical bookstores would be limited to the number of books their premises could hold, Amazon was limited only by the number of pages on their website.

21. Amazon Advertising

In 2019, Amazon jumped on the online advertising bandwagon with their own advertising platform – Amazon DSP.

This service works in a similar way to Google Display Ads, allowing advertisers, even those without products listed on Amazon, to create static image advertisements which display on and partner sites.

22. PayPal

PayPal made secure online transactions much easier when launched in 1998. Initially, its primary use was on eBay, where both buyers and sellers used the service, as most sellers were individuals who could not accept credit card payments. It was also very popular among buyers, as it allowed them to make a payment without giving the seller their credit card details directly.

PayPal later launched ‘Merchant Services’, allowing eCommerce to truly boom as sellers could easily add functionality to their sites to allow accepting online payments.

23. MailChimp

Email marketing superseded direct mail advertising, but MailChimp made email marketing much more effective through a suite of tools allowing marketers to send tailored email campaigns to customers.

MailChimp incorporates all of the best features of digital marketing into their platform, with an intricate audience-segmentation system which allows effective marketing messages to not only be created and sent, but sent to a tailored audience of the right people.

24. Omnichannel Marketing

Multi-channel marketing, where brands advertise across multiple platforms, becomes an expectation, while Omnichannel marketing, where a brand creates the same experience online and offline, becomes the way forward.

Customers expect the same experience in store as they get on the company website, or any other touch-point where they may encounter the brand. This makes websites and digital marketing important for even those businesses which sell most of their products in store. Even if they are going to make the purchase in person, many modern customers choose to research the products online before going into the store, and expect to see the same information across both platforms.

 25. YouTube + Online Streaming

Online streaming content on YouTube and other platforms becomes extremely popular among users and creates yet another online advertising channel as traditional TV advertising dwindles.

Speaking more to the data-driven side of digital marketing, YouTube ads and other online video ads provide all the benefits traditionally provided by TV advertising, as well as more targeted placement, better return on investment, and more data to record results and optimise campaigns.

26. Account-Based-Marketing

Rather than marketing to a larger audience of less qualified prospects, many B2B brands have taken the approach on focussing on building relationships with a small number of key players in their industry.

27. Marketing Automation

The marketing automation industry emerged in the mid-2000s to automate many marketing activities, particularly in email marketing.

Automations in email marketing work to save time and increase profits for online businesses, for example, “abandoned cart emails” are a type of automated message which can be sent to potential customers who have left items in their online shopping cart without making a purchase.

28. Individual Marketing

Digital marketing isn’t all about businesses. The way we present ourselves on social media has become a sort of ‘individual marketing’, and over 70% of recruiters are checking social media profiles while screening candidates³.

29. Chatbots

If you have spent any time online recently, you’ve probably encountered a website with a chat bot. These bots help businesses have ‘discussions’ with potential customers in real-time, without having to pay someone to sit at a desk 24 hours a day answering questions.

30. AI and Content Customisation

Though AI is still in its early stages as far as practical implementation is concerned, many large brands have started to use it to tailor custom content to individual users, creating unique user experiences which are relevant and personalised to everyone.

How has your business changed?

As marketers ourselves, changes in marketing trends often affect us the most, and we’ve certainly changed our tune over the last 30 years (read a bit about our 38 year history here).

These changes are also hugely impactful on every other business in the market. If your business has struggled to keep up with changes in marketing over the past few years, or even months, we can help bring you up to speed.

As a verified Google Partner and MailChimp Partner, we are qualified to help your business take full advantage of the new age of digital marketing. You bring the problems you want to solve, and we will bring our toolbelt of digital marketing solutions.

Get in touch for a no-obligation consultation.


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