Developments in technology and the evolution of marketing are inextricably intertwined. Technology has underpinned major milestones in the history of marketing since its inception. The process tends to go something like this:

  • New technology emerges and is initially the preserve of technologists and early adopters.
  • The technology gains a firmer foothold in the market and starts to become more popular, putting it on the marketing radar.
  • Innovative marketers jump in to explore ways they can harness the power of this emerging technology to connect with their target audience.
  • The technology migrates to the mainstream and is adopted into standard marketing practice.

The printing press, radio, television and now the internet are all examples of major breakthroughs in technology that ultimately altered the relationships between marketers and consumers forever, and did so on a global scale.

But, of course, marketing isn’t about technology; it’s about people: technology is only interesting, from a marketing perspective, when it connects people with other people more effectively. There are plenty of examples of technology through the ages having a significant impact on various markets – technology that may seem obscure, even irrelevant today. The mainstream adoption of digital technology – the internet, the software applications that run on it, and the devices that allow people to connect both to the network and to each other whenever, wherever and however they want to – promises to dwarf all that has come before it.

The first global communications network: ‘the highway of thought

To understand the explosive growth of the internet we need to look back at how early communications technology evolved into the global network of interconnected computers that today we call the internet. The story of electronic communication begins with the wired telegraph – a network that grew explosively to cover the globe, connected people across vast distances in a way that seemed almost magical, and changed the world forever.

Early Networks:

The internet story really starts in 1957, with the USSR’s launch of the Sputnik satellite. It signaled that the United States was falling behind the Soviet Union in the technology stakes, prompting the US government to invest heavily in science and technology. In 1958, the US Department of Defense set up the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), a specialist agency established with a specific remit: to make sure the United States stayed ahead of its Cold War nemesis in the accelerating technology race.

You’ve got mail E-mail, which is still often described as the internet’s ‘killer application’, began life in the early 1960s as a facility that allowed users of mainframe computers to send simple text-based messages to another user’s mailbox on the same computer. But it wasn’t until the advent of ARPANET that anyone considered sending electronic mail from one user to another across a network.

In 1971 Ray Tomlinson, an engineer working on ARPANET, wrote the first program capable of sending mail from a user on one host computer to another user’s mailbox on another host computer. As an identifier to distinguish network mail from local mail Tomlinson decided to append the host name of the user’s computer to the user login name. To separate the two names he chose the @ symbol.

E-mail, one of the Internet’s most widely used applications, and one of the most critical for internet marketers, began life as a programmer’s afterthought. The ARPANET was a solution looking for a problem.

From ARPANET to Internet :

The term ‘internet’ was first used in 1974 by US computer scientist Vinton Cerf (commonly referred to as the ‘father of the internet’, and now a senior executive and internet evangelist with Google). Cerf was working with Robert Khan at DARPA on a way to standardize the way different host computers communicated both across the growing ARPANET and between the ARPANET and other emerging computer networks. The Transmission Control Program (TCP) network protocol they defined evolved to become the Transmission Control Program/Internet Protocol (TCP/IP) protocol suite that’s still used to pass packets of information backwards and forwards across the internet to this day.

In 1983 the ARPANET started using the TCP/IP protocol – a move that many consider to signal the true ‘birth’ of the internet as we know it. That year, too, the system of domain names (.com, .net, etc) was invented. By 1984 the number of ‘nodes’ on the still fledgling network passed 1,000 and began climbing rapidly. By 1989 there were more than 100,000 hosts connected to the internet, and the growth continued.

Making Connections – ‘birth of the Web’

It was in 1989 that Tim Berners-Lee, a British developer working at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Geneva, proposed a system of information cross-referencing, access and retrieval across the rapidly growing internet based on ‘hypertext’ links. The concept of a hypertext information architecture was nothing new, and was already being used in individual programs running on individual computers around the world. The idea of linking documents stored on different computers across the rapidly growing internet, though, was nothing short of revolutionary. The building blocks for the world wide web were already in place.

– but it was Tim Berners-Lee’s vision that brought them together.

The first web page on the internet was built at CERN, and went online on 6 August 1991. It contained information about the new world wide web, how to get a web browser and how to set up a web server. Over time it also became the first ever web directory, as Berners-Lee maintained a list of links to other websites on the page as they appeared.

The World Wide Web – A New Frontier

Up to this point, the internet had been the realm of technologists and scientists at research institutions. But the advent of the web changed the landscape, making online information accessible to a much broader audience. What happened next was explosive. Between 1991 and 1997 the web grew at an astonishing 850 percent per annum, eclipsing all expectations. With more websites and more people joining the online party every day, it was only a matter of time before innovative tech-savvy marketers started to notice the web’s potential as an avenue for the marketing message.

In August 1995 there were 18,957 websites online; by August 1996 there were 342,081 (‘Fifteen Years of the Web’, Internet timeline, It was an era that saw the birth of some of today’s most well-known online brands: sites like Amazon, Yahoo!, eBay and, in September 1998, Google Inc.

Boom, Boom. . . Bang!

For a time it seemed as though the halcyon days of the late 1990s would continue forever and that the bubble was impervious to bursting. Fuelled by speculative investment and high-profile high-tech IPOs, the Nasdaq Composite stock index continued to rocket upwards. Each new success fuelled the fervor for technology stocks, blowing the bubble up a little more. On 10 March 2000 the Nasdaq index hit an intraday high of 5,132.52 before settling to an all-time closing high of 5,046 points.

Enough Technology – let’s talk about people

One of the key things to remember is this: digital marketing isn’t actually about technology at all; it’s all about people. In that sense it’s similar to traditional marketing: it’s about people (marketers) connecting with other people (consumers) to build relationships and ultimately drive sales.

Technology merely affords you, the marketer, new and exciting platforms that allow you to connect with people in increasingly diverse and relevant ways. Digital marketing is not about understanding the underlying technology, but rather about understanding people, how they’re using that technology, and how you can leverage that to engage with them more effectively. Yes, you have to learn to use the tools at your disposal – but understanding people is the real key to unlocking the potential of digital marketing.

A huge and growing market

Although internet companies suffered bruised finances and a tarnished public image in the wake of the crash, the internet itself never stopped growing, in terms both of the number of websites online and, crucially from a marketing perspective, of the number of people with internet access.

In March 2000, when the bubble burst, there were an estimated 304 million people in the world with internet access. By March 2003 that figure had doubled to 608 million, and in December 2005 the global online population passed 1 billion. As of December 2007 the figure sat at around 1.3 billion people. That’s 20 percent of the world’s population – and climbing (Internet World Stats, www.internetworldstats. com). As global and local online populations have spiraled upwards, so too have the levels of broadband penetration, which means that not only are there more people online but they’re also online more often, for much longer periods of time and can do much more with that time.

All of this means the market penetration of digital channels is growing rapidly. As the potential audience grows, so too does the allure of digital marketing. Marketers around the world are sitting up and taking notice, and big name brands are starting to take the internet and other digital marketing channels seriously: loosening the purse strings and redistributing their advertising spend.

Introducing Consumer 2.0

Web 2.0 is not a revolution in technology; it’s an evolution in the way people are using technology. It’s about harnessing the distributed collaborative potential of the internet to connect and communicate with other like-minded people wherever they are: creating communities, and sharing knowledge, thoughts, ideas and dreams. If you’ve ever shared photos on Flickr, read and commented on a blog, looked for friends on Facebook or MySpace, watched a video clip on YouTube, tried to find your house on Google Maps, video-called friends or family abroad using Skype or looked up an article on Wikipedia, then you’ve used Web 2.0 technologies.

Analysts at Jupiter Research identified seven key ways in which the increasingly widespread adoption of technology is influencing consumer behavior:


Networked digital technology is enabling consumers to connect with each other more readily, be it through e-mail, instant messaging (IM), mobile messaging, or web-based social networking platforms such as Facebook, MySpace and LinkedIn – or more likely a combination of all of these platforms. Consumers are interacting with like-minded people around the world, paying scant regard to trifling concerns like time zones or geography. Peer-to-peer interaction is reinforcing social networks and building new virtual communities.

Technology is leveling the information playing field:

With digital technology content can be created, published, accessed and consumed quickly and easily. As a result the scope of news, opinion and information available to consumers is broader and deeper than Consumers can conduct their own unbiased research, comparing and contrasting products and services before they buy. Knowledge is power, and digital technology is shifting the balance of power in favour of the consumer.

Relevance filtering is increasing:

With such a glut of information available to them, digital consumers are, through necessity, learning to filter out items relevant to them and to ignore anything they perceive as irrelevant. Increasingly digital consumers look to have their information aggregated, categorized and delivered (whether through e- mail or RSS feeds). They use personalization features to block out irrelevant content and increasingly employ software solutions to exclude unsolicited commercial messages.

Niche aggregation is growing:

The abundance and diversity of online content allow consumers to participate in and indulge their specialist interests and Aggregations of like-minded individuals congregate online; the homogeneous mass consumer population is fragmenting into ever-smaller niche groups, with increasingly individual requirements.

Micropublishing of personal content is blossoming:

Digital media’s interactive and interconnected nature allows consumers to express themselves online. Publishing your own content costs little more than a bit of time and imagination, whether through discussion forums, message boards, feedback forms, voting platforms, personal photo galleries, or Users are posting their opinions online for all to see and are consulting the opinion of their online peers before making purchasing decisions. How often do you check an online review before booking a table at an unknown restaurant or a weekend break at a hotel, or even buying a new car?

Rise of the ‘prosumer’:

Online consumers are getting increasingly involved in the creation of the products and services they purchase, shifting the balance of power from producer to consumer. They’re letting producers know what they want in no uncertain terms: the level of interaction between producer and consumer is Individuals are more involved in specifying, creating and customizing products to suit their requirements, and are able to shape and mould the experiences and communications they receive from producers. Traditional mass-production and mass- marketing concepts are rapidly becoming a thing of the past.

On demand; any time, any place, anywhere:

As digital technology becomes more ubiquitous in people’s lives, the corresponding acceleration of business processes means that consumers can satisfy their needs more quickly, more easily and with fewer In the digital economy, trifling concerns like time, geography, location and physical store space are becoming irrelevant. It’s a world of almost instant gratification, and the more consumers get of it the more they want it – now, now, now!