Early Internet days perilous

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y DEBRA AHO WILLIAMSON

It was fall 1993, and Advertising Age was about to launch Interactive Media & Marketing as a regular feature. In promotional materials, we boldly called the section "a prime source of information for the latest developments in two-way communication through TVs, telephones and computers."

Internally, however, we had been struggling since Interactive Marketing was unveiled as a Special Report in February 1992. It was difficult to get reporters, trained to unearth news about new TV campaigns, to focus on these "new" media. Of course, it didn't help that we were using computers with no hard drives, modems or software to go online.Yes, back in the days of the Time Warner Full Service Network, we put our stake in the ground. If we as Americans were someday going to use our TV remote controls to buy the sweater off Susan Lucci's back while watching an episode of "All My Children," then we as Advertising Age were going to be there to cover the first sale.

The names of failed interactive TV experiments litter the pages of the early days of the IMM section like so many outdated set-top boxes. Zing. Sega Channel. Interactive Network. Interactive Systems. Your Choice TV. ICTV. ACTV. Tele-TV. (Yes, it's true. Entertainment industry studs Howard Stringer and Michael Ovitz ran that last one.) We also devoted a fair amount of space every week to the CD-ROM business and to online services (anyone remember Delphi or ImagiNation Network?). We even covered infomercials, kiosks and virtual reality.

But for all the misses of those early days, there were some hits, too. "Marketing on the Internet a daunting prospect," reads one headline. It could have been written in 2003, but it actually appeared in the section in 1993. "Ads coming soon to AOL," reads the headline on a 1994 article, in which Steve Case, then the company's president-CEO, seemed downright skittish about bringing marketers into his lair. "You need to ... try to create services that subscribers find value in and don't necessarily see as advertising," he told us.

Funny, AOL doesn't seem too wary of advertising these days.

We scored one of the first interviews with two Stanford grad students, Jerry Yang and David Filo, who had invented a way to search the Internet and called it Yet Another Hierarchical Officious Oracle. "Yahoo will have to become a money-making enterprise," Mr. Filo told us in 1995. And indeed it has.

We were there in 1994 when HotWired, an offshoot of the magazine Wired, showcased some of the first Web banner ads.

That same year, we got validation of the important role our section was playing when Upside magazineput Ad Age on a list of "primary resources" to learn more about interactivity. Guess we were a primary resource with staying power: Upside, which covered technology from Silicon Valley, shut its doors in 2002.

The Web, of course, was where it was at, and in May 1995, nearly 10 years ago, AdAge.com was born. Soon we were filing daily news updates and breaking news online. There was always the push-pull, though, of whether to save a scoop for the print edition (where it would be seen by more readers) or to get it online first (to beat the competition).

Back outside our office, Internet mania was just catching on. In August 1995, Netscape kicked off the Web IPO frenzy, netting a cool market cap of $2.2 billion. This, for a "company built on a lot of talk and promise," we wrote, adding, "the day may come for Netscape and its investors as well." Yes, it did, and for many other companies, too.

It's funny now to look back on the debates that swirled around Internet advertising. In 1995, a few publishers proposed the outlandish idea of charging for ads based on the number of people who viewed an ad banner, instead of charging a flat sponsorship fee. Horrors, to think that new media should be bought and sold like old media, yet CPMs still are the currency of choice among some Web publishers.

P&G ads

One of our biggest stories of 1996 involved Procter & Gamble Co., which was a Web pioneer. "P&G fights to recast Web CPMs," the April 1996 article proclaimed. The momentous decision P&G made? To "buy Web advertising based on how many times an ad is clicked," instead of paying based on how many people had viewed the banner. Web publishers cried foul, saying, as one did to me, "We are not going to offer them a cost per click because we can't figure out a way to make it make sense to us."

We all know now who won that debate.

In 1996 we also interviewed a humble bookseller in Seattle who was building a custom automated database to e-mail book recommendations to customers. His "Earth's Biggest Bookstore" had just 40 employees at the time. Its revenue last year was $6.3 billion.

Yes, we've come a long way from the Full Service Network.

Debra Aho Williamson worked with the Interactive Media & Marketing section from its launch in 1993 until 1997. She is now a senior analyst with eMarketer and principal of her own editorial and research services firm, Milestone II.

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