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How Influencer Marketing Has Evolved in the Age of Digital Marketing

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Digital Marketing turned 26 this year and, as the saying goes, “What a long, strange trip it’s been.” To celebrate, Adobe published a comprehensive report that looked back on digital marketing in 2019 celebrating the industry’s first 25 years of innovation and how that first quarter century changed the advertising landscape forever. 

Digital Marketing Defined

Digital or online marketing is quite literally the practices of using online platforms from search engines and websites to mobile apps and social media behemoths to brand and hopefully sell your products.

It differs from the old-school, “offline” marketing strategies in so many ways. In non-digital marketing, the platforms were slow-moving targets like newspapers, magazines, radio, television, direct (snail) mail, billboards, heck, even skywriting, to motivate users to seek out a product. 

But those platforms were wildly expensive, difficult to ramp up and scale, and then took weeks, sometimes months to evaluate returns. 

You could spend weeks working with a production or design firm to calculate the pitch, craft the message and finally get that message live in a daily paper or on a radio station.

Today’s digital advertising is instantaneous and scalable in terms of cost. Pay-per-click (PPC) advertising is one example where you set your budget. Want to spend $400 to dip a toe in the water of buying a couple keywords, so be it. Want to go big and spend $4000 and perhaps test a larger batch of keywords with maybe two or three different ads popping to track – in real time – the impressions and click through rate, done. 

In addition, digital marketing has allowed advertisers to adapt and edit their message on the fly. 

No more waiting for radio’s buy cycle to complete before swapping out the message. Today, you can turn off and ad and pause the campaign to switch in a new one in a matter of hours.

And, of course, digital marketing allows for greater trackability with a number of performance metrics such as impressions, clicks, likes, comments, shares, and conversions. This is especially true with what influencer marketing companies try to achieve in engagement.

The Origins of Direct Marketing

The term “Digital Marketing” was first used in the early 1990s as the World Wide Web was just taking off and people were trying to figure out its usefulness. 

In 1993, the first clickable banner went live, after which HotWired purchased a few banner ads for their advertising. This marked the beginning of the transition to the digital era of marketing. Because of this gradual shift, the year 1994 saw new technologies enter the digital marketplace. The very same year, Yahoo was launched.

It really all started in 1994 with a humble banner ad on, as part of AT&T’s campaign called “You Will.” It would be the first step in a bold new direction for marketing, one which would irrevocably change the industry and our culture.

As a result, digital marketing exploded and by 2004, online advertising in the United States increased to just under $3 billion.

Soon, social networking sites appeared to take digital media to a whole other level.  MySpace was the first social networking site to arrive, soon followed by Facebook. With the advent of social media sites and apps began to birth influencer marketing strategies.

“Many companies realized all these fresh new sites that were popping up were beginning to open new doors of opportunities to market their products and brands,” explains Eric Dahan, CEO of Open Influence, a leading influencer marketing firm in Los Angeles. “It opened fresh avenues for business and signaled the beginning of a new chapter to business.”

Influencer Marketing’s Evolution in the Digital Age

As the influencer marketing industry marches steadily towards an estimated $15 billion in revenue by 2020, it’s humbling to see how decades of developments have paved the way.

Adobe’s report takes us back to digital’s earliest memories, such as the adoption of Content Marketing as a concept, Google’s rise to power – and by extension, the rise of algorithm-powered search that “marked our obsession with data and analytics,” and much more. Of course, we can’t forget about the introduction of the iPhone, which they directly link to the birth of mobile-first strategies.

Digital Marketing Today

Today there is a head-spinning array of various platforms and performance metrics to understand and harness the power of digital marketing.

We have organic Search Engine Optimization, Pay Per Click advertising, social media platforms for awareness and engagement, affiliate and e-mail marketing and, of course, influencer marketing on social media and influencer marketing in general. 

Since those nascent days of banner ads on search engines or affiliate websites, social media has become the obvious belle of the ball. 

The average American spends nearly 40 minutes every day engaged on a variety of social media platforms. In fact, just about 100% of digital marketers use Facebook to market with Twitter, Pinterest and Instagram coming in close on Facebook’s heels. And don’t sleep on TikTok influencer marketing as the app is making enormous headway into the digital marketing space. 

Perhaps the most striking aspect of the report are the fascinations reflections from industry veterans who helped shape digital’s earliest days.

“It was like being part of a club,” says Sharon Otterman, a digital media veteran and current U.S. chief marketing officer of William Hill, interviewed in the Adobe report. “We were just a small group of people creating stuff, trying stuff out, trying to figure out how to pay for it, how to contract it—it was such a blur, and yet completely exciting. We were building new ground that never existed before.”

That experience – of pioneering a new space – is almost identical to how Open Influence CEO Eric Dahan describes the beginnings of influencer marketing.

“What’s so interesting to think about is how different the industry could have gone,” Dahan states. “One of the most exciting parts back then was figuring the direction things would go. It’s always a bit of a bet, isn’t it? We took a bet on focusing on the needs of advertisers, and it paid off. With a lot of things, we take them for granted as standard practice now, but it wasn’t back then. It was a blank slate, and we drew inspiration from what worked before.”

Future of Digital Marketing

Social media shows no signs of slowing down and now influences everything from who we meet, what we buy and even who we vote for. 

The use of Artificial Intelligence (AI) continues and will continue to play a  major role in establishing behavioral patterns of users and swaying them toward products and services the AI functionality thinks they will like.

While it’s obvious that social media’s impact on influencer based marketing strategies will only increase as more Gen Z kids launch themselves into the workplace and become more focused on developing their online brand, the use of AI will continue to influence what users see and how they navigate. TikTok, for example, pushes videos with subject matter of what you’ve previously viewed, assuming you’d like to see more of the same. 

Digital marketing in the 2020s comes down to laser-focused personalization of content. Generic content just doesn’t work anymore and even what five years ago we viewed as personalization – think of the automated “Hello First Name” in email correspondence will be taken to an entirely new level.

The internet online or on mobile devices will soon become everyone’s own private channel, for better or worse.

So be careful what you search for…as that late night, slightly stoopid curiosity about pandas making love may soon become your everyday normal for ads and related content that will follow you everywhere even as you search for a new job.