20 years of Digital Marketing: A personal view


A few weeks ago I attended the latest Social Media Landscape Report Briefing by Arthur Goldstuck – a great way to inform (and rationalise) our digital marketing strategies for 2019.

I had missed it for a few years and it reminded me of how excited I was, years ago, to find out that someone was finally confirming the South African “numbers” – i.e. how many South Africans were using the internet, Google, Search marketing and then Social channels when they were becoming a thing and so on, we were really only guessing based on US numbers before then.

We love to marvel at how fast digital media has changed our lives – I think it makes us feel really clever – and I thought I would take some time to explore how life changing it was to my career in advertising specifically.

(Disclaimer: These milestones are as I experienced them so don’t argue with me about when what was launched when and before or after what else)

I first turned on a computer in 1992. I remember it well because I didn’t know where to turn it on and I was too embarrassed to ask.

By 1993 I was fully proficient in Wordperfect and Lotus 1-2-3 having accepted that this was the way forward. They were very manual, hard to learn and operate and you had to remember a lot of complicated things, so it was difficult to be optimistic about any career that involved computing or word processing.

I am glad I had a taste of the hell that was DOS though because by 1995 Word and Excel arrived in my part of the world and I couldn’t have been more grateful.

Around 2000 – What is this thing you call The World Wide Web?


By 1999 I was working at Artifact Graphic Design, websites were a big thing and the most loved statistic of the time was how many sites were being developed every minute. Our Clients were crying for branded screensavers and hell bent on developing really complicated, expensive intranets to communicate newsletters with everyone in their organisations.

We proudly developed the first Wimpy website and intranet and a series of amazing campaign screensavers – we were particularly excited about Squishie’s (the Wimpy toy at the time) and the innovative animated screensaver our clever Brent Simpson developed around it.

Getting people to view your website was not really important yet, and we had no idea how to do that anyway. In an agency, as long as you could build one you were doing great, and if you could animate something – well hello The Future!


2000-2005 – Ahhh we think we see where this could go but we don’t know how to sell it


From a marketing point of view we struggled to sell any of these new media concepts to clients.
The first opportunity we identified was search marketing (while still debating whether more people were using Yahoo or Google to find stuff). We spent a lot of our time trying to tell a brand they had to have a website and then they had to spend monthly to send people to visit that website otherwise it was all a waste of money.

For a while we only had US and UK “numbers” to try and back up our ‘Digital Evangelism’ (yes it was called that). We would quote these global figures with authority and end with the ‘fact’ that we were always only 5 years behind the latest US digital marketing trend and 2 years behind the UK so you had better catch up now before your brand got completely left behind. (That’s why when Arthur Goldstuck starting giving us some local insights it was a pretty big deal.)

I remember a sense of urgency bordering on panic to get client to build their websites due to older domains being so much more successful and domain names being bought up and held for ransom by black-hatted internet hacker types.

The first cell phone was sold in SA in 1994 and I knew one person with a cell phone in that year – I remember because I didn’t know how to turn it on – and neither did anyone else.

Browsing the internet on your mobile became the next big thing – and we all started panicking about missing that boat – I think we might still be panicking about that.


2006 – Ok I didn’t see that coming


By 2005 there were 2.4million of us on Facebook according to Arthur, and around that time I was flabbergasted to learn – at Godfrey Parkin’s digital courses (our digital Nostradamus at Britefire) which we ‘crash-coursed’ because we were already so far behind the future back then – that Myspace was on its way out, and there was a thing called You Tube that was going to change everything.

I had never even really “got” Myspace so I was not convinced.

There was just no way people were going to go to the trouble of recording videos of random stuff and if they did, then the barrier of uploading or downloading it (which were foreign, interchangeable technical terms to me) seemed insurmountable – I mean how would you even do this?

And that’s also when the conversation-ending ‘BUT’ that became the mantra of the digitally sceptical South African began in earnest – BUT we will never, ever have the same kind of computer/internet/ phone/ smart phone penetration/ speed/ bandwidth/broadband (or whatever) as the rest of the world.

Well, maybe we never will but with over 30 million internets users I think we have done pretty well under the circumstances!

My sapce Artifact

2007 – Now. Change is the only constant.


For the last 11 years my experience of digital marketing can be lumped together as it all pretty much goes like this:

Websites – our agency had early developers so we rated ourselves as experts quite early on. As experts we made the mistake of hiring very technical, and expensive heavy developers at exactly the same time easy, modular or template driven website development option became popular – but you learn.

Blogging – We got excited quite early on that Blogging could be lucrative but it always seemed like far too much effort.

E- commerce – We kind of knew that mainstream e-commerce and all that eventually enabled it would be the money maker and then mobile internet took this to a whole new level. And here we are.

Search Media – we eventually worked out we were going to be Googling into the future and that we could actually do the media planning, booking and paying ourselves.

Once we convinced clients that PPC, CPC, Adwords, Search Advertising and Google advertising all actually meant the same thing, and that YOU ONLY PAY WHEN THEY CLICK clients wanted it.

Search is now accepted as an essential channel for all businesses but there is still a perception that the management of search campaigns is too expensive.

Social Media – (Starting with Facebook and pretty much ditto for every social media channel that came after)

You couldn’t advertise on {insert social channel) at first, then you could only advertise through {insert exclusive media partner here} but the minimum media spend was way too expensive for something so unknown. Then then you realised you could do it all yourself with R50 and you did it.

Traditional agencies tried to sell it Social Channels without understanding the medium until finally specialist Digital Media Agencies opened up. Again, advertising on social media is pretty much mainstream now but there is also a perception that having to pay someone to manage this is expensive.


Community Management


Around 2010 I recall struggling to find a term for what became commonly known as Community Management. There were no community managers to manage the channels we were “selling” and when we placed ads for them we only got journalists applying.

And now?


Just 8 years on and we have a ton of social media professionals (none of whom could have done their 10 000 hours yet so are not technically experts), and an entire industry of Content Creators, Analysts, Reputation managers, Micro and Macro Influencers, all servicing the many, many marketable social channels we seem to have almost got a handle on.

Going forward there is AR, VR, AI, some new Snap Chatty Chatbots and Instant Messaging channels we don’t quite know how to sell, but we are terrified someone else is going to become an expert on them before us – so don’t worry we will figure it out.

This is what we have learnt about Digital Marketing after 20 years:

There will never be an actual expert in Digital Marketing or Social Media. Not me, not you, so for the next 20 years, just try not to be the one who gets left behind.

Some real facts:

  • The first South African internet connection was turned on in 1991 and in 2000 I was one of 2.4 million South Africans surfing the net.
  • By 2015 SA reached over 28 million internet users, and internet world stats had us on 30.8 million as of December 2017, with 16 million of us on Facebook. https://www.internetworldstats.com/africa.htm#za
  • For a real look at some of the internet milestones – An internet museum is now hosted on the very first web address ever – symbolics.com. http://symbolics.com/museum/wings#concept-of-the-web

Lindy Taoushiani is the Strategy Director at Artifact Advertising – view her bio & Connect with her on LinkedIn!