Happy birthday, Europe’s first online newspaper

As The Telegraph's website celebrates its 25th birthday, Head of Advertising Technology Seán Dillon takes a look at how the digital display landscape has evolved. 

The Telegraph’s technology correspondent Harry de Quetteville pointed out this week that there is a famous chronology in technology. It runs: 2004 Facebook; 2005 YouTube; 2006 Twitter; 2007 the iPhone. These are the launch dates of products that have shaped the digital world. But the internet was not born then. Indeed, an entire decade before Mark Zuckerberg founded his now ubiquitous social media company, another prescient digital enterprise, first in its field, was being launched a world away from Silicon Valley – at The Telegraph’s 14th-floor offices in Canary Wharf, London. "The Electronic Telegraph, the latest title in The Telegraph plc’s portfolio, is now on-line [sic] via the Internet," read the press release on its first day, 15 November 1994. 

As we celebrate this pioneer’s 25th birthday, we look at how far the digital display landscape and The Telegraph have come. 

What was on offer to advertisers back then? For launch, the Electronic Telegraph comprised a front-page portal that didn’t extend much below a single screen. In terms of competitors and the opportunity to reach people, there were very few sites – the "World Wide Web" itself was just a roster of websites so limited that you could actually list them all. There was no other newspaper website in Europe, no – and with Google not launching for another four years, there was no easy way to search. However, even on that epic launch day it was clear that demand was there: within 13 minutes the site had crashed and it took four hours to come back online again. 

The site did not initially launch with advertising; the first paid-for campaign appeared in May 1995, six months later. The forward-thinking company who booked the slot was Barclays Bank, and that first campaign cost £25,000. It was booked for seven weeks and rotated through the website’s six sections, which included Sport, Features, What’s New and Reader Offers. The creative offered numerous methods of obtaining further information and at the time was surprisingly innovative and groundbreaking. Even in these formative years the importance of engaging directly with our readers was core to the site's success, and we attracted 85,000 registered users while delivering 80,000 page views each day.

While today we have programmatic advertising, header-bidding, rich media, adaptive streaming, responsive layout and first-party targeting, back then the state of the art was image maps. Pages were built by hand and copied on to a little webserver in the corner of the room. In 1997 the first enterprise-level ad server (NetGravity) was introduced, and once again The Telegraph was the pioneer by entering the world of ‘ad-tech’. However, it wasn’t until the year 2000 and the advent of broadband that things really started to look bright for the internet and advertisers. This was boosted in 2002 by the introduction of the universal ad package from the IAB, which helped to set standards and formalise formats. 

Today, we have moved past these tricky teenage years and into adulthood. At The Telegraph for the first time we have designed exciting new ad units to work with our new website pages – rather than new website pages constrained by ad units. We are able to offer almost cinematic display advertising for the best brand-building experiences without annoying the reader. Best of all, through our forthcoming Metrics That Matter initiative, we can help advertisers understand how their campaigns are earning attention and driving long-term brand metrics rather than just delivering short-term, direct response clicks. 

Twenty-five years on and an ever-broadening pool of new readers and subscribers are enjoying 24-hour news coverage, comment, analysis, video, audio and features. Traditional advertisers can now see how digital advertising can build their brands in the premium and effective ways they have previously sought from traditional media. 

As The Telegraph's former editor Charles Moore recalls: "We knew we had to get into this medium. But at the time didn’t conceptualise correctly how great the change would be. I don’t remember that anyone did."


By Seán Dillon, Head of Advertising Technology 14/11/19

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