Jargon Jamboree: 20 Years of Digital Marketing Buzzwords

Jargon Jamboree: 20 Years of Digital Marketing Buzzwords
Photo by Christopher Carson / Unsplash

Marketers love buzzwords: we slap them on everything like sprinkles on a cone of soft serve. In the world of ad technology, buzzwords often sound more like lipstick on a pig, but they work. When tossed around with the right frequency and emphasis, buzzwords can trigger FOMO and shiny object syndrome (SOS) in executives everywhere.

My life and career took a turn towards ad technology and digital marketing unexpectedly in 2004. As we approach my 20-year anniversary, I've started to scribble a list of all the buzzwords I've either been fooled by or taken advantage of since taking my first steps in the industry. Many of these buzzwords stuck and are still legitimate – even foundational – digital marketing practices: others barely really made it past sales enablement collateral and investor decks.

2004: Pay-per-click

Pay-per-click (PPC) advertising has its roots in the early days of online marketing. The concept of PPC can be traced back to the mid-1990s. One of the earliest examples of PPC was introduced by a company called Overture (later acquired by Yahoo!). Overture launched its search advertising model in 1998, but it wasn't until Google launched its own version of the service, AdWords (now Google Ads), that PPC boomed. AdWords' use of a sealed bid, second-price auction (rather than Overture's open, first-price model) propelled PPC to become the gold standard of digital marketing.

2005: Search Engine Optimization (SEO)

Why pay for a click if you can get one for free by positioning your site to rank higher in organic search results? SEO in the early 2000's was... a jungle: websites still tried to trick the system with keyword stuffing, cloaking, and invisible keywords. We've come a long way since then, and SEO is now one of the most crucial components of a modern marketing strategy.

2006: Cost Per Action (CPA)

The appeal of a Cost Per Action (CPA) metric and pricing model in digital advertising, where advertisers pay for a specific action or conversion directly tied to their campaign goals, took executives by storm. CPA makes it easy for CEOs to set (unattainable) goals for their teams, and it's a great pricing model to shifts advertising risk to external vendors.

2007: Affiliate and Performance Marketing

A corollary of CPA, the concept of affiliate marketing can be traced back to the mid-1990s, with pioneers like Amazon launching one of the earliest affiliate programs in 1996. In the mid-2000s affiliate networks emerged to facilitate the relationship between merchants and affiliates. At the same time, performance marketing started to emerge as a data-driven way of setting objectives and measuring outcomes. As a digital "performance marketer" in those years, I was still looked down on by those in the marketing world who got the big budgets and made the big bucks: brand marketers. Two decades later, brand marketers still get large budgets (and rightly so), but at least pay scales and analytics don't allow them to brag so much anymore.

2008: User-generated Content (UGC), buzzword edition.

The rise of Web 2.0 (there's another buzzword, by the way) and the increasing popularity of social media platforms played a significant role in the growth of UGC as a powerful marketing tool. Brands began to recognize the potential of user-generated content in building authenticity, engagement, and community around their products or services. Companies encouraged users to share their experiences, reviews, and creative content related to the brand. But skepticism was still prevalent, as many old school marketers feared losing control over messaging and the challenges of content moderation.

2009: Behavioral Targeting

Once upon a time, third-party cookies were cool. This was the year when targeting users based on their browsing history was what every advertiser in town wanted. It sounded sexier and more powerful than "contextual", and it promised to expand on an advertiser's ability to determine user intent. The deprecation of third-party cookies makes behavioral targeting marginally harder, but you needn't worry: Google, Meta and Amazon know everything about you and don't need cookies to sell your attention to advertisers.

2010: Social Media Optimization (SMO)

As Facebook boomed and mobile phones got smarter, marketing changed. Optimizing hashtags and creating shareable content became a crucial way to increase a brand's visibility and reach (before Meta made it almost impossible to reach anyone without paying). Social Media Optimization is still a central part of any brand's marketing efforts: as for 2010, we had lots of fun with flash mobs and fortunately forgot FarmVille ever existed.

2011: Gamification

Marketers began incorporating game elements into non-game contexts to enhance user engagement and interaction with brands and products. Arguably the most engaged-with dating app of all time (Tinder) was developed this year and launched in 2012: to prove just how effective gamification can be, it's worth noting that most people still don't find a real match on Tinder (like on many other dating apps), but at least the app made failing fun. Elsewhere, the proliferation of dark patterns is something I'd love to swipe left on.

2012: Responsive Design

As the use of smartphones and tablets surged, responsive web design became crucial. It aimed at creating websites that adapted seamlessly to various screen sizes and devices. It is now a must for any web designer.

2013: Content Marketing

Creating valuable, relevant, and consistent content to attract and retain a clearly defined audience, ultimately driving profitable customer action, was the trend of the early 2010s. When done right, content marketing can establish authority and credibility, foster customer education, encourage social sharing and drive conversion. Done wrong, content marketing makes your brand, company and product feel like an ambulance chaser's billboard on your least favorite interstate: you really better not call Saul for this!

2014: Programmatic Advertising

Automated, data-driven advertising buying became a significant trend. Programmatic advertising allowed for real-time bidding and placement of ads, optimizing targeting and efficiency.

2015: Native Advertising

I argue that native advertising was born on January 10, 2012, when Facebook first started displaying newsfeed ads. But it wasn't until 2014-2015 that native advertising became a buzzword. It gained popularity as marketers sought more seamless and integrated ways to present sponsored content within the user experience. Bragging moment: this is also the year when I introduced (was I the first?) the expression "Responsive Ad Design" to describe how designers need to think about ad placement across different formats to be successful in the world of native advertising.

2016: Influencer Marketing

Brands began leveraging influencers to promote products or services, capitalizing on the trust and influence these individuals held over their audiences. Outside of the cosmetics and travel industries, success was maybe still limited, but this buzzword gained traction in successive waves: Instagram, then TikTok (and YouTube somewhere in between) inundated the world with influencers, real and fake. I definitely got my timing wrong when I decided in 2017 to stop developing my YouTube channel, which had at that point been a fun hobby for about a decade.

2017: Chatbots

The use of chatbots in customer service and engagement became a notable trend, offering automated yet personalized interactions with users. Seven years later I can comfortably say that they are usually annoying clutter that prevents you from solving issues and reaching a human who might be able to. Someone please develop a browser with a native chatbot blocker.

2018: Video Marketing

Video content continued to surge in popularity as platforms like YouTube and social media encouraged brands to incorporate video into their marketing strategies. The industry still can't get enough of this in 2024, and it's nice that there are so many tools now that make creating videos easy.

2019: Voice Search Optimization

With the rise of virtual assistants like Siri and Alexa, marketers focused on optimizing content for voice search, adapting to changing user behaviors. I still refuse the idea of having a virtual assistant spy on me: I don't need a smarter home, I'm too dumb for the one I have already.

2020: User-Generated Content (UGC), finally a thing.

After about a decade of considering UCG too risky, brands finally embraced content created by their users, recognizing the authenticity and impact of user-generated content in building trust and engagement. As the line between consumer and influencer became blurry, many customers gained the influencer status that a referral code confers. After all, there is nothing more gratifying than being able to say "link in bio".

2021: Ephemeral Content

Short-lived, temporary content on platforms like Instagram Stories and Snapchat gained traction, encouraging real-time engagement and FOMO (Fear of Missing Out). This was a lousy, short-lived buzzword, but let's just blame COVID and move on.

2022: Augmented Reality (AR) Marketing

AR allegedly became a key focus for marketers, providing immersive and interactive experiences for users through mobile devices and applications. It all just felt like a recycling of chatbots, tbh, but the jury is still out on this one.

2023: GenAI (LLM edition)

Prompted by the wow effect of ChatGPT (which wrote fewer than 20% of the words and sentences in this article, by the way), Generative AI, Conversational AI and Large Language Models became the obsession of CEOs worldwide. Chatbots might finally be actually able to help.

2024: Synthetic Data Utilization

Many refer to GenAI and Conversational AI interchangeably, as if they were the same thing, but generative AI is so much more. As privacy concerns and data restrictions increase, the utilization of synthetic data in digital marketing is gaining prominence, offering privacy-compliant insights and personalization. It's why here at Fantix we use AI to create synthetic attributes for CRM enrichment and lead scoring, and synthetic panels for product and market research, and ad targeting. Interested in learning more?