5 Surprising Lessons from the Past 20 Years of Digital Marketing


In 1994, I was privileged to be the 34th hire at Modem Media–launching some of the very first commercial websites for companies such as AT&T, MasterCard, CBS, and Coors Brewing Company. This was a fascinating and exciting time as the Mosaic browser and subsequent launch of Netscape forever changed the way we would communicate and connect with other people.

In the past 20 years, so much technology has revolutionized the way we do things. Think about it. In just the last two decades, we’ve witnessed the birth of the banner ad, organic and paid search, eCommerce, online promotions, affiliate marketing, email marketing, social media, mobile advertising, mobile apps, marketing automation, gamification, beacons, and the list goes on.

Yet for all of these technological advances, digital marketing has not really changed as much as you might expect. Banner ads and paid search are prolific and because they’ve been around the longest and continue to drive much of the digital marketing budgets. Big data, cloud architecture and programmatic buying may have impacted the way we buy and sell digital media, but we’re still working through the long-term implications of these technology advancements. With that, I’d like to share some surprising observations and key lessons from my 20 years of digital marketing in the hope that it will help you reach your goals.

  1. Begin with a clear and measurable objective. I know this sounds painfully obvious, but I can’t tell you how many campaigns really smart people launch without having started with marketing objectives that you can measure. And since you can’t manage what you don’t measure, digital marketing campaigns without clear and measurable objectives are doomed from the start.
  2. People buy on emotion and backfill with logic. No one cares about your product, service or brand until you give them a reason to care. Before jumping into a sales pitch highlighting all the logical reasons why your product or service is better than your competitors’, start with the emotional connection to your company’s higher purpose. Make me care about your company on an emotional level and then I’ll justify why I bought from you.
  3. “People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it.” Simon Sinek said this one during his famous TED Talk and it has resonated to my core. Companies that have a clearly defined mission and purpose (i.e. “True North”) will always attract more business than those who sell commodity products and services.
  4. Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. With every new technological advancement, there is a “jump on the bandwagon” period whereby people don’t even question why, but rather focus on the “how fast can I get this done?” question. How many companies built websites before they asked the simple question, “what do we want to accomplish with this site?” Today, it’s programmatic media buying and retargeting. How many customers are you inadvertently alienating by aggressively targeting them … just because they visited your site?
  5. “Have you identified a unique opportunity that others don’t see?” This brilliant question posed by Peter Thiel (see related article), is probably the least asked, yet most important question we should be asking. Every massively successful company discovered their own unique opportunity in the marketplace and went “all in” on growing a profitable business around that opportunity.

What’s truly surprising about this list? It’s not technical and it could just as easily have been applied to ANY of your marketing–not just your digital marketing. When you hear someone hyping the latest and greatest technology solutions, it’s important to proceed with caution (if you proceed at all). No matter how much technology changes, what makes you successful is NOT the technology.

This is especially true since your direct competitors have all the same access to this technology as you do. Great digital marketing campaigns are born out of your company’s laser sharp focus. These are the things that will make you successful no matter what new digital or technological advancements come to market. There really is no “magic bullet” (and has never been) no matter how much some sales people appear to be telling you to the contrary.



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