A Brief History of Digital Marketing – and Where it May Be Headed

September 27, 2023 / Courtney Pierce

The history of digital marketing starts with the first email was sent in 1971, thus opening the door to what it is now today and paving the way for what is to come. According to The American Marketing Associationdigital marketing “refers to any marketing methods conducted through electronic devices. This includes online marketing efforts conducted on the internet. In the process of conducting digital marketing, a business might leverage websites, search engines, blogs, social media, video, email, and similar channels to reach customers. Digital marketing really started to take off in the 1980s, and the growth has been exponential in the years since with no end in sight.

Digital Marketing Through Time


The 1980s saw an evolution in marketing tactics that focused on what products or services could do to improve life on a more targeted individual basis rather than taking a one-size-fits-all-all approach. This approach, called solution-selling, is a precursor to the more individualized and targeted ad approach that dominates today’s digital marketing. While most marketing campaigns in the 1980s stuck to traditional, direct-to-mail adverts, it was during this time that tech companies, such as Microsoft and Apple, started to take off and lay the groundwork for the digital age to come. 


As home computers became more commonplace in the 1990s, the digital world began to change and change quickly. The internet, as we know it today, was just starting out with the launch of the World Wide Web. This was worlds different than the network networks, used primarily on professional research and government/military directives that had comprised what the internet had been before. This new World Wide Web was something special and connected the world in a way that hadn’t been before. It changed everything, and businesses were taking notice. 

The first clickable banner ad debuted in 1994. This partnership between web host Hotwire and communications giant AT&T opened the proverbial floodgates. The success of the clickable banner ad (a reported 44% click-through rate at the time) had companies suddenly needing an online presence. After all, to participate in the new marketing revolution, these ads would need to lead somewhere. So as banner ads, followed by pop-up ads, began to gain traction, the number of commercial-based websites also increased. 


By the early 2000s, computer technology and the internet were firmly a part of day-to-day life. With the passing of the Y2K scare, it seemed the world was finally ready to embrace a more digital world. Company websites started to become more commonplace as a part of brand recognition and a way to increase audience reach. Loyalty programs and internet cookies combined with an explosion in the number of internet users meant that companies suddenly had more data to craft more targeted and, in turn, more effective advertising opportunities. In turn, users start to find adverts that are more tailored to their needs, crafting a more symbiotic relationship between companies and consumers.

According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary

Cookies- A delicious name for data.
Cookie: a small file or part of a file stored on a World Wide Web user’s computer, created and subsequently read by a website server, and containing personal information such as a user identification code, customized preferences, or a record of pages visited


E-mail was accessible to everyone thanks to services like America Online (AOL) and Yahoo!, making digital mail campaigns and newsletters a more prevalent form of communication. The other significant tech development from the early to mid-2000s that has gone on to shape digital marketing as it is utilized today (and so much more) is the invention of social media. You no longer had to go through giant advertising firms to reach large audiences; instead, social media offered direct access to consumers for businesses of all sizes. This was key to opening more accessible marketing opportunities for small and medium businesses that had, before, only been available for large companies with equally large budgets.

(Take a peek into the original social media, MySpace, along with the Facebook, and Twitter past, thanks to the Wayback Machine, and relive the early days of digital marketing.) 


The 2010s saw an even more remarkable rise in digital traffic thanks to the spread of smartphones, tablets, and laptop computers. Technology is no longer confined to the home but something to take with you on the go. With the rise of internet influencers and consumer-generated feedback combined with more robust machine learning, the marketing field was turned on its head. The new technology allows tactical changes and marketing message expansion on the fly.

Digital Marketing Today

Digital Marketing is more prevalent today than ever. SEO, e-mail marketing, smartphones, and internet use blend into almost every aspect of everyday life.  While physical print media marketing campaigns like mailers, print media such as magazines and newspapers, and good old-fashioned billboards still exist, they exist as tertiary means of marketing, while digital marketing has taken its place as king. Influencers are still, well, influencing via social media giants like TikTok, Instagram, Facebook, and several new platforms popping up every day. Email marketing and video are still trending. Available data today, combined with the growing tech sector, ensures that digital marketing will continue to evolve to be more precise and targeted for business and consumer needs. 

A Look to the Future

Who knows where technology will take the world of digital marketing next? While some may say that artificial intelligence is the way of the future, it lacks the human connection that marketing thrives on. What we do know is that successful digital marketing strategies require a thorough plan and expert training. Reach out to Digital Renegades today to see how you can take advantage of digital marketing strategies that are sure to grow your business. 

Additional Sources on the History of Digital Marketing

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Courtney Pierce

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Digital Renegades is a digital marketing and web solutions agency that partners with small and midsize businesses across the US. Our services include web development, branding, digital advertising, graphic design, SEO, DevOps, business automation, and more.

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