Wow-Worthy Moments from Digital Marketing’s First 20 Years

By Martin Kihn | August 11, 2014 | 0 Comments

These are moments that stir the soul: the perfect confluence of history and a product, image or idea that double-clicks our synapses, reboots our pan-fried imaginations and makes us bolt up and salute. The only word we have in such moments is: “Wow!”

What are yours? As I think back on digital marketing’s first twenty years, there are a handful of moments that were real wowsers for me. Being old enough to remember dial-up and diskettes, I’m also old enough to have seen platforms and promises that appeared to be invincible disappear when the sun hit them wrong. Remember Friendster and MySpace, Juno and EarthLink, pop-up ads and those banners that let you play little putt-putt golf games right inside the ad!

Gone, girl. But not these wowsers from my own personal Top 10. Some are no-brainers, and many are not “marketing” ideas in the obvious sense. But all have had immense and lasting implications for the marketing professional as she scrambles first to make sense of them and then to apply them to her work of acquiring, retaining and winning back people to her brands and experiences.

What makes something “wow-worthy” is not a set of rational criteria but rather a sense, a feeling that is half understood: the awareness that something has changed, our world has been bumped, and we are better for it. That’s a “wow.”

Here are my candidates for the Top 1o under 20 years old:

  1. “You’ve got mail!” — In the early years of dial-up, AOL dominated our mailboxes and managed to acquire Time Warner through a business built on monthly magazine-like subscriptions. Dial-up didn’t last, but that little mailbox indicating “you’ve-got-mail” has trained us ever since to watch for messages every waking moment.
  2. Netscape — Hard to believe, the original “internet” was a text-based service. There were listservs and online communities (remember the Well?) and even massive online games (MOOGs) based on text. Netscape made it point-and-click and we never clicked back.
  3. Google’s algorithm — There were search engines before Google, kids. But suddenly, two guys from the Bay decided to rank sites based on how many other sites linked to them. No human interpretation or categorization needed. Wow.
  4. BlackBerry — At first, the idea of being able to “check your email outside the office” struck many as irritating and of trivial importance. It is still irritating and usually of trivial importance, but it got digital marketing off the desktop.
  5. “Hot or Not” — Digital experiences can be voyeuristic and narcissistic in the extreme, but looked at the right way, they’re pretty funny. “Hot or Not” inspired Facebook (if you believe The Social Network) and made mainstream the idea of harsh online judgmentalism that is alive and well at Yelp and Amazon.
  6. Match.com — Enterprises have been built on the internet’s ability to remove friction from human processes by increasing information transparency. The idea of matching profiles based on deeper understanding of the parties involved is not unlike ad networks or Uber.
  7. Dynamic creative – Admit it, the first time you saw a banner ad somewhere that displayed the exact item you were just looking at on Overstock or Barnes & Noble, you were scared/impressed. By now, it’s almost more irritating to see a display ad with an item you haven’t been researching somewhere.
  8. “United Breaks Guitars” — This viral video headache for the airline, in which a creative guy launched a highly visible complaint, put brands on notice in a major way. Suddenly, the C-suite realized that this user-generated content sharing thing was a dragon they had better start learning how to ride.
  9. “Gangnam Style” — This very silly music video has been consumed more than any other content in history, including the Bible. What it told marketers and brands is that human beings are absolutely unpredictable.
  10. Siri — We’d seen Watson on Jeopardy and Al Pacino in Simone, but Siri was the first practical application of a human-like, artificial intelligence-like thing in the world. If you were not put on notice, you weren’t noticing. She’s a glimpse of the machine-mediated future. That’s what I call a wow.

All this week, we will be sharing our wow-worthy digital moments through our Gartner for Marketing Leaders client portal. We’d love to hear yours. Share them in the comments section below and/or tweet out with the hashtag #wowworthydigital

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