The early days of digital marketing #Web30

This month, we are celebrating the 30th anniversary of the World Wide Web (WWW), an information management system which, essentially, collates and links to all webpages in the world. As the BBC Bitesize website helpfully reminds us, the WWW is different from the Internet, which is the actual physical network of computers.

Cerf vs BernersLee Internet vs Web
Image source

A colleague and I were reminiscing how about the early days of the Web. A conversation which, eventually, turned to the early days of digital marketing… or online marketing / internet marketing / e-marketing / web marketing, as it used to be called, then.


This spiked my curiosity about what scholars were writing about the internet and marketing, in the early days. The first academic article that I found was from the winter of 1994. It was entitled “Commerce on the Internet”, it was authored by Thomas D.C. Little, and it was published in IEEE MultiMedia.


I really wish I could find an open access version of this paper for you. As I can’t, here is a summary.


The author opens the article mentioning the incredible growth of the WWW: an estimated 2 million users at the time of writing*, mostly through the Mosaic web-browser (remember that?), and despite the constraints of the low-speed connections available at the time: 14.4 Kbps**!


With cable companies promising connection speeds of more than 1.5 Mbps, there was great potential profits for “Web marketing pioneers” (page 74). In the paper, Little explains that the web is like the digital version of retail catalogues:

“Much like the conventional mail-order model, you can ask to be on a mailing list to receive announcements. Such a list can serve to keep customer5 aware of new products and services. However, the electronic service has many advantages over conventional mailing lists, including low entry and operating costs, and the ability to accommodate bidirectional communications between the advertiser and the customer.” (page 74).


The main business advantages of the web, according to Little, are the ability to update content at any time, the relatively low entry costs (of creating a website), the low printing and distribution costs of ‘eletronic junk mail’ (page 75), the ability to use multimedia, the potential for interaction and automation, the ability of collecting customer data via forms on the website, searching, the fact that customers to choose to visit the website are already revealing an interest in your product… customer profiling:

“Once interaction is supported, data on individuals can be maintained both by direct customer involvement (for example, updating the name and mailing address) and by monitoring the documents accessed. A personal profile can capture basic demographics as well as individual information and environmental preferences. This information can be used for a number of interesting purposes, including

  1. to configure the interface presentation,
  2. to fuel Web “agents” who actively search the net or site based on the profile, and
  3. to tailor and select site-specific information to present to the customer (for example, showing children’s ads to children and adult-oriented ads to adults).”

(page 76)


The main pitfall faced by firms embracing the web? Copyright violations, “because the Web facilitates uncontrolled data replication without financial compensation” (page 77).


Thirty years later, the number of users has exploded, access speeds increased many folds, and we can now not only access but also create web content on devices that fit in the palm of our hands. Yet, customer profiling continues to be the holy grail of digital marketing; and the protection of intellectual property rights continues to be the bane of many digital publishers’ existence!


What will the next 30 years of the www bring to digital marketing?


* the current estimate is over 4 billion

** my laptop’s wifi connection speed is currently 37Mbps

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