Then and Now: The Evolution of Digital Marketing

Published: Jun 19, 2020
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Three decades ago, marketers were just starting to add the term "digital marketing" to their vocabularies and game plans. It's a practice that took off with the rise of the internet and picked up speed through the growth of social media and smartphone technology.

Today, digital marketing is a dynamic industry that has become one of the most important tools in a marketer's strategy. From email marketing to user-generated content to organic and paid SEO, businesses are continuously searching for new and better ways to reach people on the web and through their connected devices.

Let's take a look at the evolution of online marketing over the last 30 years to see how we got here.

Brief History of Digital Marketing

Digital marketing is the process of communicating product or service value through electronic channels.

Before the 1990s, businesses devoted the majority of their marketing resources to traditional media, such as print publications, TV, radio, and billboards. They had no idea that the advent of the World Wide Web, social media, and email would stretch their marketing strategy and budget to include new methods of promoting their brand and products through these new channels.

Three major factors would change the landscape of marketing forever.

The Wild Wild Web

One of the earliest examples of a digital marketing strategy can be traced back to 1994. Netscape Navigator had just come on the scene as the first commercial web browser in October of that year. Two weeks later, AT&T purchased a little rectangle of space on that would later be recognized as the first clickable banner ad online.

While the ad mentioned AT&T's "You Will" campaign, it didn't push the company's brand or even mention its name — but it did work. Nearly 44% of people who viewed the ad clicked on it.

Like most early promotional attempts with the emergence of internet marketing, the banner ad relied largely on gimmicks to get clicks. Similarly, the onset of search engine optimization in the late '90s was laden with excessive keyword stuffing, linking, and tagging to seize high-ranking pages. Before content was king, clickbait was queen.

Like everyone else, marketers were just trying to figure out the untapped potential of this vast new online space.

Social Media Sparks

The next big step in how digital marketing evolved took shape at the turn of the century with the popularization of social media. MySpace and LinkedIn were among the first giants, until game-changers Facebook and Twitter hit the scene in the mid 2000s.

Businesses soon caught on to the craze and saw the power in building a brand in spaces that millions were turning to each day. To top it off, social channels were also beginning to collect more and more data on the demographics of audiences—data that would eventually be used for highly targeted paid advertising opportunities through the platforms.

The Mobile Arena

In 2003, smartphone technology made its mark with the BlackBerry mobile device. Four years later, the iPhone was sold by Apple. The internet was now literally at people's fingertips anywhere and everywhere. Marketers began to see endless possibilities when it came to reaching people more directly and for longer periods of time.

The birth of smartphones also meant an increased interest in social media. Brands now had to make sure that their social media content:

  • Existed
  • Was updated frequently
  • Engaged followers
  • Responded to questions and feedback of all kinds

Websites were soon tasked with being responsive in design for the growing numbers of mobile users. Inbound marketing was the new name of the game, officially coined in 2005, and marketers were finding new ways of attracting customers through content creation and distribution.

7 Key Types of Digital Marketing Today

Fast-forward to 2020 and the evolution of digital marketing from the traditional to the modern era.

The digital marketing landscape has changed. Agile marketing and personalization are the norm, and consumers expect fast, easily-found, and valuable information on their favorite products in just about every online format.

How do today's professionals keep up in a constantly moving, overly crowded playing field? Here's a breakdown of seven key digital marketing methods in use today.

Email Marketing

Email marketing campaigns offer readers a number of benefits: company news, product and service promotions, coupons and discounts, useful content, and more. They also give marketers a targeted distribution channel for content and promotions.

While many email lists are opt-in generated — which means your audience is already at the "desire" phase of the marketing sales funnel — there is still a huge challenge in front of today's email marketers. Migomail reports that an average of 306.4 billion emails are sent each day. That's a lot to compete with.

A distinct and well-articulated brand voice, coupled with list segmentation at a very granular level to provide maximum personalization, helps to break through the noise for an effective email strategy.


Customers are more wary of the traditional sales pitch than ever before. With access to unlimited information online, they have the power to research and stay informed on businesses and their products.

That's why it's not enough for companies to self-promote anymore. Influencers, or individuals who use and publicly review products or services, have become popular through social media.

YouTube is one channel that many influencers use as their platform. Videos of product hauls and first impressions gain millions of views every day, and links to highly reviewed products in the video's descriptions can even lead to out-of-stock inventory.

Influencers are now the first names on promotional lists when marketing new products. Marketers should recognize and manage big name influencers who may have an interest in their products.

User-Generated Content

User-generated content (UGC) is another effective tool. This type of content can be any photo, video, post, comment, hashtag use, etc., that an individual publishes online about a company's product.

The Walt Disney World Instagram account ran a recent campaign to encourage UCG even in the wake of the park's closing during the Covid-19 pandemic. Using the hashtag #DisneyMagicMoments, followers were asked to post Disney memories being made from their own homes. The Disney account then reposted their favorites.


View this post on Instagram


Inspired by your creativity, today we’re sharing just a few of your many magical 🐭 DIYs recreating iconic attractions, parks parades and even special Disney family memories at home. Thank you 🐭 for sharing your #DisneyMagicMoments ✨ at home.

A post shared by Walt Disney World (@waltdisneyworld) on May 27, 2020 at 3:12pm PDT

The heartfelt and creative posts from fans turned the negative storyline for the park to one that thousands were able to enjoy and reminisce over.

Social Media

1.66 billion people log onto Facebook daily. That's a number that digital marketers can't ignore.

Today, businesses use social media to advertise to segmented audiences, promote their brand, and interact with followers. Being active on social platforms also allows businesses to share their voice in a way they can't on a website. Being witty, clever, or driven in your social personality can help you better connect to the followers who already love you.

Content Marketing

Along with a strong social media presence, companies need to include a plan to generate content for audiences as part of their digital marketing strategy today.

Popular content typically includes:

  • Blogs
  • Podcasts
  • Infographics
  • Videos
  • Social media posts and campaigns
  • Email newsletters

The goal of content? To educate, entertain, inform, or connect with your potential customers. To do this, content should be a priority and produced often. Your readers are expecting it.

In fact, 66% of businesses surveyed in a Traffic Generation Cafe study this year maintained a blog and saw a 67% increase in leads compared to businesses without a blog.

(Image credit: Traffic Generation Café)


SEO has come a long way in the evolution of online marketing. Keyword stuffing is no longer rewarded by Google algorithms like it was 20 years ago. Instead, quality content that provides readers with relevant and valuable information is now key.

Other major factors marketers should consider in their SEO strategies include:

  • A high-quality mobile experience
  • Well-structured content
  • An expert or authoritative viewpoint
  • Local content
  • User intent of the content

Video Marketing

A whopping 97% of consumers say that viewing a video helps them to understand products. Businesses today recognize that video marketing is not only in demand, but also essential on every platform.

Video is especially important to include on social media channels. With autoplay formats on most channel feeds, videos capture an audience's attention without a single click. Video sites like YouTube and TikTok are among the top social media platforms for a reason.

From demo videos to brand awareness features, businesses aren't ignoring the call for more of this visual content.

Looking Ahead

We've come a long way since that first banner ad, and with the continued growth of digital spheres, we are likely to still have a long way to go when it comes to digital marketing techniques.

The one fact that remains is that incorporating digital strategies into your broader marketing efforts is a must. Check out's content writing services to start shaping a more dynamic and effective online marketing strategy for your business.

This article was written by writer Andrea Tharp.

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