The first banner ad appeared online on October 27, 1994 on WIRED magazine’s website "HotWired," which apparently looked a little like this page. It actually launched with almost a dozen ads on it, but one has been branded the "first:" a static image that simply asked visitors “Have you ever clicked your mouse right HERE? You will”
“You Will” was the ad campaign for AT&T at the time, prompting users to consider things that were not possible at the time, but would be someday soon thanks to AT&T. When visitors clicked on it, they were brought to the AT&T website, which itself wasn’t very useful. It provided visitors with a map of art gallery websites from around the world, links to websites for current AT&T products and future innovations, and most interestingly a survey form asking visitors what they thought of the ad, and things that AT&T was considering adding to their website or working on as more general innovations.
The variety and scope of these questions showed just how new the web was to brands at that time. Many companies “weren’t even sure that interacting online was a good idea – or that the ads were even legal” (Singel, 2010). But AT&T's motivation for buying ad space, and thought process around digital advertising, echoes today's prevailing idea of balancing outright selling and providing value to customers.
"They wanted the ad to feel like a sponsored pleasurable experience, not something people would run away from. 'Let's not sell somebody something. Let's reward them for clicking on this thing brought to you by AT&T,'" (Greenfield, 2014)
Those that were excited to be online, like AT&T, weren’t sure how to use the web. Did their customers want digital versions of their current print or telephone offerings? Did they want something entirely new? Was the web a place where people conducted business, had fun, learned, or all of the above?
The media buying process was also very different than it is today. Spaces were sold by the length of time they would be shown on the site - AT&T paid about $30,000 for three months of visibility. And they go their money's worth, with a click through rate of about 44% compared to the average 1-2% today. Wired also hired an ad agency, Messner Vetere Berger McNamee Schmetterer, to help them sell the ad space; that agency then chose clients they thought would be most receptive (as opposed to pitching some or all of their clients with the idea), and created ads for them. That, of course, also required them to create websites for some of those companies that weren't even online yet.
But these simpler times have led to the loud, messy, complicated, and sometime nefarious display ad environment we have today. Many involved in the AT&T and HotWired project have apologized of the years for their role in starting the industry, and one of the AT&T ad designers Otto Timmons even "cops to using multiple ad blockers to protect himself from the offending ads" (Greenfield, 2014).