Happy 20th Birthday to the Display Ad!

On Oct 27th, 1994 the very first online ad was introduced to the world, In honor of the online ad’s 20th birthday, AT&T’s banner on Hotwired.com, circa 1994. It had a 44 percent click-through rate, and marketers were ecstatic.

”There’s such a focus on click-through because it’s easy to measure and you know something has happened,” said Rex Briggs two years later to the New York Times in 1996. He was then the research director at Hotwired in San Francisco. ”A banner represents a really small chunk of computer-screen real estate, so it was hard to imagine it was going to have an impact.”

It was simple, yet effective, and was enough to launch an entire industry over the next two decades. Now, Hotwired.com has become Wired.com, and AT&T is spending billions in measured media, according to AdAge. Who would’ve thought?

Of course, banners are still around. But, Internet ads have expanded in ways marketers in the ’90s couldn’t have even dreamed, and worldwide digital ad spend will hit more than $137 billion in 2014. Videos (and video ads) can now be streamed directly to a consumer’s smart phone — they don’t have to be in front of a TV to hear a word from the sponsors. By that same token, consumers can now comparison shop and find better deals while in a mall, at a retail store, or on a car dealership lot, all thanks to a smart phone GPS system and some smart targeting. Marketers can monitor online campaigns, and make real-time adjustments, all by listening to audience conversations via social media.

However, the investment in online advertising wasn’t without a few drawbacks, at least at first. As the industry expanded and the number of screens a consumer might be looking at multiplied, marketers needed better measurement and more advanced technology to be able to reach the right audiences in the right places. Marketers that had traditionally gone to premium publishers were unsure about the influence of their ads on readers, and very few digital tools existed for them to evaluate their ROI. The growing number of platforms and creative offerings were great, but marketers were constantly having to reshape their campaigns for individual buys.

That’s where ad technology — and programmatic advertising — blossomed. Suddenly, marketers could have an algorithm determine the best placements — and solve for when and where their audience would be online. The premium cost for that audience was no longer an issue because analytics tools could guarantee marketers that they were indeed speaking to the right people. More than half a trillion dollars has been created by online consumers that are connected to their friends, content, products and brands. This means that online advertising is growing at quite a clip: Digital advertising is expected to be nearly 30 percent of marketers’ ad spend, thanks to the aid of programmatic buying, by 2016.

Clearly, advertising has a bright, technologically advanced future. Oh, and just in case you’d like a blast from the past: Here’s what the Hotwired.com website looked like in 1994.