It was 20 years ago today, before banner ads were here to stay. They’ve been going in and out of style, but they’re guaranteed to stay a while…

Okay, it wasn’t exactly today, but October 27, 1994 marked the first time digital advertisements appeared on the internet. Among the first batch appearing on the early website for Wired Magazine was this shockingly prophetic ad from AT&T:

Beyond the accurately presumptuous tone, what’s most remarkable about this ad is the user experience post click. While it might not be pretty, it perfectly reflects the standards of content marketing that companies today are still slow to adopt. Rather than link directly to a sales page to lock you into the new high speed 56k internet service plans, AT&T helps the user discover the new forms of content that the internet makes possible.

Prior to search engines, discovering new content was a central issue to the online experience, and AT&T chose to address that head-on.

Since the ad appeared on an arts and culture page, they linked to a custom art map to show work from galleries around the world. Only after that does AT&T tee up links for information about their latest services and technology. Miraculously, without any script or playbook for digital interaction, the execution is completely on point.

As proof of their uncertainty in the new terrain, they incorporate another element that is absolutely essential today, feedback! Knowing full well the only people seeing this ad would be heavily active in the tech space, why not take advantage and benefit from that perspective? Well before blogs, commenting, and the social context of the web, they decide to open the door to user engagement with a simple mandate:

“You want a valuable Internet experience, we’d like to deliver one. Please use the following space to tell us what you’d like to see AT&T do on the Internet.”

By including both survey questions and free response fields, they use this interaction as an opportunity for their customers to educate them over simply educating their customer about the company. This attitude ultimately helped create a more valuable experience for everyone involved. So, if the first banner ad had it down right out of the gate, why then, after having 20 years to further perfect our methods, have banner ads been relegated to the obnoxious bargain bin of tactics they occupy today? The simple answer is demand.

web banner ad

In the peak of the dot com boom, so much content had to be subsidized with advertising that demand for ads completely outstripped the supply.

At the same time, with so many ads making their way online, the pressure to capture attention only increased. Enter the era of the explosive, flashing, animated pop ups, pop unders, page takeovers, and pretty much every other version of the digital ad we’ve all come to loathe. Given this hysterical pressure to capture eyeballs, the notions of customer value and user experience were laughably ignored. All this coupled with the efforts of the hardworking folks in the malware industry have earned today’s banner ads an average .08% click through rate.

Thankfully, this scorched earth forced everyone to move on from these schlocky tactics. It may have taken the better part of two decades, but marketers have finally come back to the basics. Everything that made that first ad effective still lives on in the value first approach of content marketing.

Using your brand’s content as a demonstration of your ability and intent is the surest way to articulate your position, and build customer relationships. In the case of AT&T, their ability was in predicting how we would come to interact with technology, and their intent was to be a central part of it. So to take a page out of their book: if you haven’t thought about the value your content provides your customers…
You Will.

Check out some of the TV spots from the campaign featuring the dulcet tones of Tom Selleck to see everything else they got right. For the full story behind the campaign, there’s a great write up via Fast Company.

Tyler is Cazarin's master copywriter, but beyond the limericks and powerful headlines lies a marketing strategist to be reckoned with. His passions include branding, the impending doom of old-school SEO, and fine leather shoes.