Time Flies… The Evolution of Digital Marketing (1994 – Present) Volume 1

1 07 2011

17 years ago, Tanya Harding attempted to put an end to Nancy Kerrigan’s skating career. Schindler’s List won 7 Oscars.  The Channel Tunnel opened between England and France.  The World Wide Web Consortium (W3C), the web standards organization responsible for managing the interoperability of web specifications, guidelines, software and tools, was created.

That same year two men, one with an IT background and one with extensive marketing experience, joined forces to create the original websites for real estate agencies located in Northern Palm Beach County, Florida.

At the time, it was only possible to access the internet with a Windows-based personal computer (PC).  Dial-up access was made through a 9600 baud modem and had to be done indirectly through America Online, Prodigy, or CompuServe, three companies that provided email and a small variety of services in addition to internet access.  When modems capable of transferring 14,600 bits of information per second (bps) became available that same year, internet speed became astoundingly fast.  Direct internet access also became available through small “hosting companies” that provided internet access and email boxes for their customers.  It often required downloading the content of as many as 14 floppy discs and making complicated configuration changes to the autoexec.bat files before a computer could connect to the internet.  These same “hosting companies” also provided servers where website files could be placed enabling global access.  Service was not totally reliable, and support staffs were overworked.

Just the same, the concept of sharing a combination of text and graphics with people all over the world was intriguing.  A small yet growing group of men recognized the potential and freely shared successes and failures as each one struggled to create exciting, entertaining, informative websites that would tell a story which others would like to read.

My business partner and I quickly recognized the real estate application.  After all, 900 families per day were moving to Florida from all over the world.  Interstate highways were populated with moving vans and loaded-down pickup trucks filled with family possessions.  The concept of making images and descriptions of Florida homes for sale available to people all over the world was a no-brainer.  We did it for companies like Waterfront Properties, Admirals Cove, Investment Equity Corporation, Jupiter Lighthouse Realty, and many more.  We created the first website for a chamber of commerce in the State of Florida.  The Jupiter Tequesta Juno Beach Chamber of Commerce (no longer in existence) was headed by a former marketing executive for Anheuser-Busch who immediately seized upon the concept.

Progressive real estate firms reaped the fruits of their daring dive into the digital world.  Suddenly, people were calling from thousands of miles away to get more information about properties in South Florida. The less daring brokers slowly recognized their competition’s successes and reluctantly jumped halfheartedly on the bandwagon.

The value of “getting on the Internet” was slowly lost.  There became such a profusion of real estate websites that it became necessary to differentiate one business from another.  Websites began to focus upon the ways in which one website and firm was better than its competition – resulting in more sophisticated websites.

Throughout this early evolutionary stage, websites and their message were passive marketing tools.  The information was put out there for people to see.  If they found it, and if they liked what they saw, then they could call or send an email message to obtain more information.  A website address on letterhead and business cards, a flyer or brochure, a sign or a billboard, was the extent of any effort to pull traffic (visitors) to the website.

The earliest search engines and directories were crude, unsophisticated tools with names like Lycos, WebCrawler, Excite, and HotBot to name a few.  Although a slow and tedious process, it was possible to get satisfactory placement in search engine results for virtually any website, since only a handful of experienced web developers understood the process.  Businesses continued to rely upon the interest of potential customers and the law of large numbers that basically said, “There are enough people interested in Florida real estate to assure a flow of traffic to any website.”  Still, a passive approach dominated digital marketing.

Future installments will focus upon changes in digital marketing, the evolution of SEO, Pay-Per-Click, Banner Advertising, CPM, CPA, CPC, CRM, IRED, PageRank, Alexa, Analytics, Google, Bing, the transition from passive to active digital marketing, and the impact of a declining market.