Tentative but targeted – advertising enters the digital decade

When Bill Gates announced back in 2001, that “we’re still only at the start of the digital decade” he was spot on.

Digital technology was suddenly becoming central to how we worked and connected and was offering brands more and more ways of getting their messages across. And with the decade seeing a steady growth in the number of businesses, standing out from an increasingly crowded market was now the name of the game.

And the choice was vast. Social media, mobile advertising, online advertising – these digital options were added to an ever-growing arsenal of advertising opportunities. The only problem – learning how to get the best out of them.

Mobile advertising is born

The first text message was actually sent back in December 1994, but it wasn’t until the 2000s that advertisers realised its potential. It started with a Finnish news provider offering people the chance to receive free news headlines by text message; free headlines that just happened to be sponsored by advertising.  It opened the floodgates. Advertisers embraced the potential offered by this unobtrusive way of reaching and capturing the attention of their key target market. Not only could they send promotions, news and exclusive offers to people they actually wanted to target,  but the messages could be time-sensitive and even location-based – a marketers’ dream.

Such was the success, the Mobile Marketing Association was founded in 2000, with their first ever conference held that same year.

And as brands started to get more creative with their mobile ads, so mobile technology advanced. And while we would like to think this was primarily about creating a better user-experience, it was more about helping advertisers capture the attention of even more mobile users.

And then in 2007 the mobile and advertising industry was turned on its head by the release of the first ever iPhone.

Easy to use, and seamlessly allowing users to combine their personal and professional lives all into one handset, it might not have been the first Smartphone but it revolutionised the market. It also changed mobile advertising. The first ads were a disaster, as they weren’t optimised for the new phones and simply succeeded in  annoyed users, so agencies started to create ‘mobile first’ content,  and the responsive techniques we still use today were born.

In 2008 the App store was launched with many apps free to use and supported by mobile advertising. Not only did it change how people both worked and played, but also gave brands another way of raising brand awareness and attracting more customers.

Online advertising gets targeted

With search engines becoming more widely used, advertisers started to look at different ways to stand out from the competition and turned to paid search results.   GoTo.com, later acquired by Yahoo, was the first search engine to introduce pay-per-click. But with companies simply bidding to be the top search result, users wouldn’t get to see the most relevant results, just those from companies with deeper pockets. With users and advertisers getting more frustrated,  Google stepped in to fix the issue.

Introduced in 2000, by 2002 AdWords had started to rank ads based both on how relevant the ad was to the search as well as what the advertiser was paying. This ‘Quality Score’ helped consumers trust the ads shown and meant advertisers preferred Google AdWords over their rivals. Then in 2005, site targeted ads, and conversion tracking were introduced, allowing advertisers to understand what keywords, ads and campaigns were the most successful.

Google has never said how many companies used AdWords in the 2000s, but at its peak 3,000 new accounts were opened in the UK every day and, more tellingly, nearly 97% of Google’s 2009 revenues came from advertising, most of that from AdWords.

Social media starts to make its mark

It’s hard to believe there was once life without social media, especially since it only came onto the scene in the 2000s. LinkedIn was first in 2003, followed by Facebook (2004), YouTube (2005) and Twitter (2006).

Initially, marketers were unsure whether these networks could be good marketing tools, but then realised they offered new opportunities to reach customers, especially the younger demographic. And while Facebook was initially against allowing ads on their site, it didn’t last for long when they realised they had to increase their own profitability. They started with small display ads and banners in 2006 and then moved to ads targeting a user’s demographics and interests, ultimately changing the way companies reach their target audiences online.

Social media also enabled companies to promote their products and services without any big investments while also offering a higher degree of customer involvement. YouTube enabled people to like, share and rate information and while they did have ads on video clips, you could click on them to make them disappear – a great way of making money without annoying the users.

It also saw advertisers start to explore video as a marketing tool and create internet only campaigns. BMW got together with some of the world’s best directors to produce a short series of films only shown on YouTube, and the ‘Will it Blend’ series promoted a blender in a truly bizarre way.

And then there was Dove’s Evolution. Launched online, in 2006, it exposed the truth behind all the images we see in the media. Viewed over 40,000 times in the first day and 1.7 million times within a month of its upload, it was a jaw-dropping example of the true power of social media.


More opportunities; more rules

But with more advertising opportunities came more regulations and bodies to protect consumers.

The ASA launched a voluntary kitemark scheme in 2000 to build public trust in the content of online ads, because, as they put it “The advertising industry is concerned with making the internet a credible ad medium, which right now it isn’t.”. In fact, in 2007 the internet was the second most complained about medium.

Ofcom was set up in 2003 and by 2006 had published restrictions to limit children’s exposure to food and drink advertising.  They also delegated the regulation of broadcasting to the ASA who became a one-stop shop for all advertising complaints.

And there were complaints!

In 2004, Tango had the dubious honour of being the first TV ad to be banned after concerns were raised that kids would copy it;

the Yves St Laurent Opium Perfume ad became the most complained about in 5 years as it was ‘likely to cause widespread offence’;

YSL advert

and people called for Halfords to be boycotted for using tracksuit-clad chimpanzees riding bicycles.

But these more stringent restrictions didn’t stop the 2000s producing some amazing ads. Just look at Gorilla from Cadbury Dairy Milk, John Lewis’s first proper Christmas ad, and Cog from Honda.

The noughties was very much the digital decade that saw technology and brands getting to grips with what digital marketing really meant and how to get the best out of it. But it was only the start. As Bill Gates put it in 2008,  “During the next Digital Decade, technology will make our lives richer, more connected, more productive and more fulfilling in profound and exciting ways.”

Next time, we’ll see if that was really the case.