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Get Out Ahead of the Digital Marketing Curve

Digital marketing was the firstborn child spawned from the invention of the Internet. It quickly became the major focus of businesses interactions -- and transactions -- both online and in person. Digital marketing now is fundamental to the success of your business.

Why is digital marketing so important? Simply put, it is the last remaining channel for "authority-driven content," which is a fancy term for content that consumers can trust.

Because digital marketing came into being as a result of the Internet, it brought a new era of marketing to corporations and small businesses alike. The Internet provided open access to information, which brought forth heightened scrutiny of traditional marketing methods. Free access to information meant that people were less likely to trust the promises made by ads on television, and more likely to consult other sources on their personal computers.

This resulted in some positive cultural trends -- and a few negative ones. For example, we now know far more about the health information in our foods than when we trusted advertising to tell us how to feed our kids. However, today it is much harder for a business to advertise effectively, at least without knowing how to produce quality digital marketing in our current landscape.

It's helpful to revisit the past to understand the evolution of digital marketing from its creation to the present. Following is a snapshot of digital marketing's rise to prominence.

Personal Computers Brought Ads Into Homes

When IBM released its first computer in 1981, digital marketing didn't exist. Businesses could market through word of mouth in their local communities, create physical mailers using a printing press, or produce audio and video recordings to run ads on TV and radio. There wasn't much marketing at all, to say the least.

This is an important point to consider, given that Americans now are exposed to between 4,000 and 10,000 ads every single day.

Then Came the Internet

The U.S. military already had invented the Internet a decade prior to the release of the personal computer -- it was known as "ARPANET" back in 1969 -- and in that same year the military created and sent its first email.

After a decade of American families adopting home computers, the Internet finally became available to the public in 1991.

By the end of that year, the Internet was crawling with search engines. From Ask Jeeves to AOL, every website seemed to have its own native search function.

The early search engines functioned like digital libraries, with tons of manpower needed to sort and label each new website as it was created, meaning that subscriptions to the search engines were quite costly to consumers.

The Rise of the One True Search Engine and Its Creation of SEO

Then, in the fall of '97, came the Google search engine -- a free platform that used algorithms instead of human labor. Googling meant everything online was accessible instantly and at no charge. Google's competitors were toast.

The emergence of Google was an important milestone for digital marketing because its algorithm is where the term "search engine optimization," or SEO originated. Instead of indexing content like a library as other search engines did -- by word, title and author -- Google used its own algorithms for indexing, which is what brought SEO into prominence. Google created an automated ranking system related to popularity, authority and relevancy online, which meant that not all websites were created equally.

Google's crawlers have evolved, but they still favor relevant keywords in highly trafficked sites that don't look like spam. For instance, marketers used to employ cheat codes until the late 2000s by creating fake websites packed with keywords to rank a company highly for certain terms. Today, websites require authority in order to rank at all, which is why earned media is more important than ever.

Whether you're a small business or a corporation, you're aiming not only for links, but also for the targeted "right kind," as determined by Google's algorithm. Search engine optimization is the art of landing your business into domains that Google deems authoritative.

Along Came the Inbox

Much like the invention of the Internet, there is a certain amount of mystery around the creation of publicly available email, with many egoists attempting to stake a claim as the first.

However, by 1995, AOL, Prodigy and CompuServe all had released the service. Email completely transformed the Internet from a digital repository to a portal of instant human connection, without the bother of a telephone. It was no longer just a place for information -- it was a place to socialize and communicate.

Businesses were the first to adapt to the speedy information exchange medium. Soon thereafter, savvy marketers realized that email marketing was merely the cost of collecting personal information, versus the production and shipping costs of traditional mailers, taking mail marketing costs down essentially to zero. The email marketing trend was born.

The trend of cheaper options via digital channels has continued throughout digital marketing's evolution.

And Then There Were Blogs

By 1999, a company called "Blogger" had invented the personal website, aka the "blog." It was the next game changer for digital marketing, because it marked the moment when content became king (or queen). Blogging turned the Internet tables. Instead of being a collection of websites owned by businesses, the Internet became a place where any individual could build a platform and have a voice.

The blogosphere quickly boomed, from zero to 50 million blogs by 2006. Why should companies care? Companies online at the time could not even attempt to keep pace with individuals voicing their opinions, and they still can't today. Understanding blogging is like understanding the ocean versus land. Individuals always will be dominant across the Internet; businesses are the digital minority.

Most importantly, though, is that blogging was the precursor to social media. The blogosphere became a place where people could post content and comments, and connect with one another over common interests.

Social Media's Rise to Infamy

In 2000, a site called "Myspace" quietly launched, spreading like wildfire across the United States. Its predecessor, Friendster, had gained a small following, but its popularity was nothing like the national frenzy over Myspace.

It was the first open platform for connecting everyone from musicians to moviestars, and everyone in between. In 2003, LinkedIn was created as the business version of Myspace, and in 2004, Facebook Harvard was created exclusively for Harvard students. In 2005 came Youtube, then in 2006 came Twitter and Reddit, and by the end of 2006, Facebook opened to everyone. Exciting times, to say the least.

However, these platforms were all free, and their creators eventually would need a means to generate revenue. This became the unofficial slogan of Silicon Valley: "If you're not paying, you're the product." Free social media platforms were exchanged for privacy.

User information then was packaged and sold to advertisers, because the only value social media platforms had were their data insights and large user bases. The eventual monetization of social media meant that companies could hyper-target their ads and speak directly to people they never could reach before.

Whereas television commercials would speak to anyone in front of them (whether they might be potential customers or not), those who ran ads on computer screens would pay only for reaching their highly customized target audiences.

That was the beauty of Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, Twitter and Reddit ads, and it is why these platforms are so popular for businesses that want to target potential customers today. Once monetization through ads took place, marketers instantly began running digital advertisements. The rest is history, bringing us to our present state of digital marketing.

Digital Marketing Automation

With new digital marketing channels appearing in such abundance, and so quickly, marketing automation software began appearing as well. By 2005 and 2006, Hubspot, Marketo, Pardot and many other platforms designed to make the world of digital marketing easy and user-friendly appeared on the scene.

Digital marketing automation offered businesses a way to segment prospects across multiple channels, and create and track multiple campaigns with large bundles of highly customized content, which is still done today.

Things went a step further in 2008, when Hootsuite and other social media-specific software turned management of social media content and data analytics into a breeze.

All of these management tools are still available today, and all are used by digital media agencies, large and small. There is no clear winner in any category, but they all solve the one clear problem of digital marketing: In a world where content is king, creating more of it creates more value, but managing it can be a real mess.

Digital Marketing Now

Today, email marketing, social media marketing, SEO and blogging are still every bit as relevant, if not more so. Realizing that traditional marketing no longer works, large legacy organizations slowly have been adapting to the cheap, content-heavy world of digital media marketing.

In addition to these channels, there are a few important additions we see on the rise.

Voice Is the New Everything

It all began with audiobooks and podcasts, and then voice took hold as the next major digital marketing trend. People quickly realized that a piece of audio was far more consumable than any other format because the user's hands were completely free, opening the door to multitasking while consuming digital marketing. Reading a book, or even an ad, requires full attention, but a piece of audio can be listened to while running, or running errands.

Soon, major networks jumped on the trend in a play for continued relevance, releasing major news outlets into 10-minute consumable podcasts. Thought leaders in marketing began releasing thousands of podcasts with sponsorship from major brands, and small businesses were able to target niche audiences with the right small podcast sponsorship. As of 2019, 90 million Americans have listened to a podcast in the last month, and the numbers are growing.

Then came audio search. With technologies like Alexa and Siri, consumers are using tech like their personal digital assistants to help them find everything from the next great restaurant to their next purchase of laundry detergent.

By 2020, it's predicted that half of all searches will be voice searches. The businesses that utilize search algorithm rankings will be early entrants in the latest contest for digital attention.

Geo-Marketing Up Next?

What comes next? Driverless cars, smart everything, and AI that can predict your every move -- and much of it will be marketed with geographic tagging and geographic optimization.

Imagine hopping into your driverless car and directing it to "the best restaurant within five miles," or having your smart refrigerator tell the nearest high-end grocer that you're low on cheese selection.

The future is unknown to everyone except the technologists, but as we move forward, what is clear is that all of our devices will get smarter, thanks to artificial intelligence and machine learning, which means that digital optimization is still the greatest challenge to be won.

From print to audio to geo, smart businesses will cover all of their bases. How do you do it? Well, the good news is this: Most of the same optimization metrics today apply to all of the forms of digital marketing covered, meaning that if you work toward optimizing on all of these platforms now, you'll be positioned not only for an increase in revenue, but also for what the digital marketing future may hold.

Point-of-Sale Payments

The final point of any transaction today may be processing a payment -- but that won't be true for long. Both product and service businesses that wish to have a competitive edge in the near future not only will have to market more effectively, but also will need to build the process of a transaction directly into their consumer interactions. The purchase shouldn't feel like the end, but merely a point along the way in a business-to-customer relationship.

Whether customers are buying directly from an image on a social media site or seamlessly transacting with your company online as easily as in person, payment processing is an essential element to digital marketing that is often overlooked.

Simply put, the average consumer wastes no time. If a checkout becomes complicated, the customer will abandon the entire cart. Take Amazon, for example, whose smooth checkout and recurring purchase options grew the company tremendously.

As more businesses implement innovative payment processes, revenue opportunities will grow correspondingly.

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