History of Marketing Channels, 1839 to Today

I. Setting the Stage

Marketing has been around as long as humans have been selling things. Newspapers required newsies, apps require app stores, and Kylie lip kits require Insta. It’s never been sufficient to have a great product. If people don’t know about it, they’ll never be able to purchase it. Even Coca-Cola almost never happened if it wasn’t for the marketing genius who bought the formulation from the struggling inventor.

It takes two sides of the same coin: build the product, sell the product. (Of course, you can replace product with service, if that’s the model you’re in as well). But even media companies who have a metric ton of distribution, don’t make money from selling to that channel. They need another channel of advertisers and brands willing to spend money to reach that audience.

So no matter what business you’re in, finding new and creative ways to “open the door to awareness” is priority 1.

Take Beats by Dre for instance. One of the biggest guerilla marketing coups of all time happened during the 2012 Olympic games. Beats created country-branded headphones that delivered on short notice and made their way onto the international stage courtesy of the worldwide television cameras. Their sales immediately spiked by +42% without having to spend the millions in sponsorship required by the Olympic Committee.

The channel was TV and athletes by giving these influencers products they were passionate about. National Pride + Personal Music + Physical Wearable. Not too shabby.

II. History of Marketing Channels

The fine folks over at Avalaunch Media have produced the infographic below a few different times over the years. It shows, from 1839 to present day, the various marketing channels that people have used. If you want to get technical not all of them are really marketing channels (i.e., Harvard Business School Opens: that’s not a marketing channel, that’s an enabler of knowledge from operators who were exposed to new forms of marketing).

Have a look at the chart and then let’s go through each one.

1839: Posters on private property banned in London. So the first marketing channel was printing words on a physical object and putting that object in high-traffic areas so people would see it. Unexpectedly, there was backlash.

1864: Earliest recorded use of the telegraph for mass unsolicited spam. Well look at that. We find it funny they used the word spam, but that’s what it was. An advertisement going out to people’s hardware without them requesting it. I can’t say I’ve seen a telegram message that contained an ad, but that’s pretty cool. Like a text message 150 years before the millennials made them famous.

1867: Earliest recorded billboard rentals. It seems as though printing posters and hanging them on walls didn’t quite meet the requirement of meeting the most eyeballs possible (you’ll see this goal never changes) and so what did the business owners do? They made it bigger!

1880s: Early examples of trademarks as branding. So this is interesting. A legal structure meant to protect a name that referred to a specific business so consumers of the product or service wouldn’t be confused. Imagine if this didn’t exist. I could make a crap phone, slap an Apple name on it, and sell them. But, buyer beware. It’s a trust mechanism. And trust is truly all that a brand is. You lose enough trust with a customer and eventually they leave. Money in the bank is only a numeric representation of the amount of trust one company has over another.

1905: The University of Pennsylvania offers a course in “The Marketing of Products”. We seem to have found that exact same story all over Medium, so seems like the perfect name for something people will always want information on.

1908: Harvard Business School Opens. This seems like an odd thing to put in the infographic as it has very little to do with marketing other than it’s likely they had marketing courses at the university.

1922: Radio advertising commences. Turn on the Wurlitzer, Martha! We love thinking back to those old photos of a family gathered around a radio at night listening to that evening’s programming. With that much attention, it’s no wonder enterprising entrepreneurs and big business owners alike wanted to shove their wares in between the shows.

1940s: Electronic computers developed. Again, not so much a marketing channel back then, but they would definitely become one.

1941: First recorded use of television advertising. Tele + Vision. If you break the word down, you realize that it combined telephone with eyeballs, which means you had both sight and sound. Kind of ingenious, right? But where radio dominated for decades, an auditory only experience will always be worse than a multi-sensory one, so of course TV became the powerhouse that continues to dominate advertising. Mad Men, start your engines.

1950s: Systematization of telemarketing. The bane of our existence. Please no more unsolicited telephone calls from crazy phone numbers we don’t recognize. It’s gotten so bad that we don’t even answer the phone from a number we don’t recognize. If you want to reach people today, just don’t cold call them. It’s the opposite of trust. No permission, no sale.

1970s: eCommerce invented. So someone came up with the concept of buying goods online without there even being an online yet. We’re going to have to wait a couple decades before this channel even exists.

1980s: Development of database marketing, emergence of relationship marketing, emergence of computer-oriented spam. A lot going on in this one. Got a contact list of people? You can send them a message individually or, what is now more efficient, send it to a bulk of people all at once, whether you know them or not. But as we’ve seen over and over again, this spam is going to have a very low conversion rate. Relationships matter.

1984: Introduction of guerilla marketing. We don’t necessarily agree with this one. People have been using unique and novel tactics for marketing since mankind started bartering.

1985: Desktop publishing democratizes the production of print advertising. This we do agree with. Using a computer, moving things around on a piece of digital paper, complete with words was like the moveable type machine of yesterday, only much more modern. It accelerated the ability for not just pros, but everyday people to make horrible birthday party fliers for their kids. But as a marketing medium, it worked because it lets anyone create their own poster to hang on the wall (much like the 1800s). Tech will always change, but humans never will ;)

1990s: CRM and IMC gain dominance in promotions and marketing planning. CRM truly was an innovation. It held a whole raft of people’s contact information allowing marketers to efficiently slice and dice their customers based on certain attributes (DMPs would come about two decades later).

1991: Integrated marketing communications gains academic status. Not so much a channel, again. But it did show the theoretical capabilities of an omnichannel go-to-market strategy. As you can see, what starts as a concept often takes another few decades before it is fully deployed commercially.

1994: Amazon launches. Big things, sometimes, have small beginnings. What started as books is now, well, history. And the funny thing about that is now every major brand has a US strategy and a rest of world strategy for ecommerce. Take a wild guess what the US strategy entails? You guessed it, Amazon. Not even their own websites can hold a candle to this channel.

1995: Alta Vista search launches, Yahoo search launches, eBay launches. The dot com startups commence. Search as the ultimate channel for consumers to find what they’re looking for. eBay for used items (and PayPal for making it possible of course). Could you imagine our world today without search or the internet? Hard to even fathom going phoneless.

1996: Identification of viral marketing, ask.com founded. “The saga continues. Wu Tang. Wu Tang. Olympic torch burnin…” If you take a whole bunch of people (we believe the stat was something like 30 million total internet users back in the mid 90s) and give them a reason to share things with each other over new systems like email, well then you’ve got a k-factor greater than 2 (read: viral growth).

1998: Google launched, MSN search launched, Open Diary launches (first blog with comments), eBook readers first appear on the market. A few things going on. First, a better search engine algorithm that finds the best stuff, faster. And the beginnings of interactivity and social on the web, plus ways to read digital text at scale. You can see the planets starting to form around this new modern sun.

1999: Opinion site Epinions is established. As a marketing channel, the pros were starting to pick up on this new medium of digital interaction and began their own campaigns aimed at commenting and adding opinions about their own products.

2001: Stumbleupon is established, iTunes launches. The music pirating wars are in full effect, MP3 players are the new news and consumer-focused digital content aggregators launch. In this case, inserting an ad into a never-ending stream of website suggestions is a decent way to make money.

2002: Photo sharing site SmugMug sets the stage for sites like Flickr and Photobucket. So the photo sharing wars started a decade before the reals ones commenced on mobile. They say a picture’s worth a thousand words and the ad agencies surely know the power of a good print campaign. Before influencer ads took over our feeds, it started on the social photo sites of yesteryear.

2003: MySpace founded, Linkedin founded. Social networks begin. One for the kids, one for the adults. Put ads wherever the people spend their time and attention. It’s a business model that will never fail for as long as humans walk the Earth.

2004: Facebook launched, Digg launched. The big boy who will one day rule them all finds its way into the world. Company-branded profiles and pages. Ads, ads, ads.

2005: Vimeo launched, YouTube launched. Video begins in a big, big way. While it didn’t get a ton of brand attention in the beginning, it’s now nearly the only strategy that matters. Text overlays with the sound off. But back then it was all about consumer-created videos that went viral. Charlie bit your finger.

2006: Twitter founded. 140 characters of text seems silly. It’s a public text message. Why? Well the why is because people need an outlet for their thoughts where they don’t have to feel the pressure of writing a novel. Ads, sure, but that comes later. In the short term, it was all about brands setting up accounts and being able to have one-on-one conversations with their fans, customers, and prospects. Does it work? Maybe on the consumer side more than the enterprise.

2007: Living Social launches, iPhone unveiled. The iPhone’s massive success has overshadowed literally every single product that’s ever come before it. It’s about to create the first $1 trillion company. Daily deals don’t even register. As a channel, it’s the single best one in existence. Reach every man, woman, and child on the planet through a sheet of glass. Can you believe it’s been a decade since that tipping point.

2008: 1st Android phone, Groupon founded, iPhone app store launched, Android market launched. The fast followers show up, thereby cementing the massive shift in global consciousness where computers are now mobile and all the world’s knowledge (and connection to other people and brands) can be had at the tap of a button. Crazy to think that we’ve lived through this watershed moment in our species’s history.

2010: iPad unveiled, 1st scented billboard, Pinterest launched. Wait, a scented billboard?! What the heck was that? It emitted the scent of black pepper and charcoal to create the aroma of grilled steak? Um, okay. How close do you have to be to it to even smell the thing. And since when did charcoal + pepper = steak? You’re missing the ingredient of meat, though we’re not sure we really want to smell meat. As a channel, there’s no wonder scented billboards didn’t take off. Pinterest, though. Wedding season stand up!

2011: The Fancy secured $10M round of financing. It feels like we’re reaching here, folks. Amazon quick copied this and gave it to their hundreds of millions of customers. But, Fancy still managed to raise $124M up to a Series D round. The channel will still be Amazon though.

2012: Gentlemint launched. Never heard of it.

Lets add in our own big one:

2020: AI and self-driving cars. It’s going to be a massive distribution channel for marketers in the future. You have a captive audience just sitting there for hours, hungry for entertainment outside of their smart phone. Find a way to get content into the in-car experience through VR or whatever and you’re golden, brah.

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