Inbound Marketing & The 3rd Generation of Websites – Part I: How did we get here?

As we all become further connected and rich content is being produced literally by the second, a huge shift has taken place in how businesses are utilizing the web for marketing. Social media, SEO, blogging, lead generation – these are all things that even the smallest business is now concerned with. Dollars are harder to earn and the need to see results from marketing efforts is more important than ever. Beyond making it look better, companies are now asking “how can I get more out of my website?”

But where did we start? Maybe, I’m feeling a little nostalgic after sitting in a Delorean last week at LITweetup (thanks @namnum). To understand where we are, and more importantly, where we are going, I thought we’d take a little trip back in time. Mind you this is in no way meant to be a detailed history, I’m glossing over huge chunks of happenings, but from the perspective of a designer and avid user of websites for the last 15 years or so, this is what I’ve seen.

I present to you… A (very) brief history of website evolution.

Though Al Gore invented the interwebs sometime earlier, I’d say the mid 90’s were when it started to really gain traction. As with any new thing, there are early adopters, the first generation. Some small and medium business jumped online and the brochure site was born; typically very thin on content and only a few pages, if that. It was a sign of the times, and it was good enough. At the time most people were connecting to the internet through AOL. Remember the signup CD’s they used to send in the mail? The Post Office must have made a killing for a few years delivering those things by the truck full. Though there were obviously some innovative things going on with design and technology, the expectation for most websites was very low.

Internet usage was increasing yearly and by December 1999 there were 248 Million people using the entire internet1. Let’s put that number in context to a stat from today. According to their SEC filing in April, there were 901 Million users on Facebook alone.2 That is simply astounding. By the time you are reading this they will likely be close to crossing the 1 Billion mark.

The late 90’s and early 2000’s saw Macromedia Flash (now owned by Adobe) taking over and there was a rush to make websites more alive and interactive. It was an exciting time as some outrageous stuff was being created. Many of the top digital creative agencies, like Firstborn and R/GA really hit their stride here, as the technology was allowing seemingly endless possibilities. Sites became immersive, and video was easier to display if you had the bandwidth to watch it. But that’s at the top end. Trust me, alot of absolute crap was produced too. The flash “intro” was born and everyone one wanted one. This of course came with a price. We had a saying at the agency I used to work for, “There’s nothing worse than an ugly website, than an ugly website that moves.” Enough said. Though, sometimes when I’m bored to tears on Facebook reading that some “friends” I barely knew from High School are changing their kids diapers, I long for the days of Mr. Wong, Peanut Butter Jelly Time and

Enter Web 2.0

Around 2004, the term Web 2.0 was coined by O’Reilly Media3, and the emergence of real-time information, collaboration, sharing and user-generated content became prevalent. This is really when social started to become a factor in sites. Companies and musicians alike were building profiles on Myspace, and Facebook was just getting rolling. Sites became cleaner in appearance, and blogs were growing in use. Flickr and YouTube emerge as channels of sharing and self expression, and anyone could achieve celebrity status with enough views. A tide was turning and many websites were re-designed around this point as they simply looked so out of date.

Trends that began then are still evolving today and much of it has become common practice. Social is no longer a buzzword, but a viable form of media for those inclined to understand how to use its power. There is not an advertiser in print or TV who isn’t asking you to like, follow or join their conversation. Brands are engaging and listening, and the smallest single customer interaction is now extremely important.

For the last few years there’s been a shift in expectation. Companies big and small are finally starting to realize that maybe there’s more that can be done with their website, more to be gained from that investment. They’re asking “what can I get out of it, what else can it do for my business?” I like to call it the “3rd generation of websites.” More and more companies are now redesigning with purpose, and that purpose is to generate leads and new business.

In Part II, we’ll dive into this next generation, and how Inbound Marketing is changing the way businesses are using the web.




About Tommy Spero

Tommy Spero ( @tommyspero ) is the Principal and Creative Director of Soul NYC ( , a branding, web design and inbound marketing agency that helps companies large and small use design and technology to grow their businesses. Tommy drives the vision of the agency, with over 14 years working in the design and interactive space. His experience working with some of the worlds biggest companies, like American Greetings, Sony Music, VH1, Showtime and Novartis, gives him unique insight on how small and medium businesses can succeed through the use of branding and technology. His design work has been featured multiple times in the LogoLounge series of books by Rockport Press, as well as appearing on television and all across the web.


  1. @TFH – Thanks for your comment! You’ll have to wait for Part II… just kidding. In reference to small and medium business websites, they will start to have more features and content that are engaging users and drawing them to the site, whether they find it via social media sharing or search. We will be diving into these techniques known as “inbound marketing” in the next article.

  2. Where do you see the next generation of sites headed?

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