Tag Archives: HotWired

Happy 20th to HotWired, the Banner Ad, and the Other “First Digital Ad”

[20 Years Ago, Part 6. Other options: prior post or start at the beginning.]

20 years ago today, the new medium of the web got a serious dose of “new media” with the launch of Wired magazine’s online sibling, HotWired, and its then-innovative monetization mechanism, the banner ad. Of course, much has been written about the birth of the banner ad, due to the remarkable impact and longevity of the format. (For example, here’s an AdAge piece on the 15th anniversary and AdWeek on the 20th.) Below are two of the original 12 banner ads:

First Banner Ad

Early Volvo Ad

The cheeky “Have you ever clicked your mouse right here?” one at top is from AT&T. Other big brands in on this online “first” included Sprint, IBM, Club Med, and the then new (and not yet totally reviled) wine cooler alternative, Zima. You can see the full list of banner first-adopters in Andrew Anker’s answer in this Quora thread. (Andrew was HotWired’s CEO and co-founder.)

An interesting challenge faced by the pioneers of digital advertising was that few (if any) of HotWired’s first 12 clients actually had a website ready to direct consumer traffic to! So what happened if people clicked on one of these puppies? And click they did! Reports vary, but on the first days of the site going live, the click-through rate on the banners was as high as 78%, (though within weeks or months they would drop to 2%1). The answer: they went to a branded microsite, hosted on HotWired.com. That way, HotWired could assure a smooth user experience. Those microsites were built by Organic Online, the very first digital ad agency, which was in the same building in South Park as the HotWired team.

But enough about banner ads. (In more ways than one; I can hardly believe they still exist!) Instead, I’d like to take this historic anniversary day to pay homage to a different “first digital ad” that also debuted 20 years ago on HotWired: the web’s first “site sponsorship”…

While the first banners adorned the various secondary pages of the site, the home page actually was banner-free:


But it wasn’t ad-free. Though not captured by this old screen-grab (credit: web UX pioneer Jakob Nielsen), there was a very prominent ad unit at bottom of the page, right in the center, which made it clear that this site was running on the sexiest computer hardware around — Silicon Graphics (SGI).

I’d like to claim credit for coming up with the deal behind this other first digital ad. After all, I was leading the charge to explore the web as a possible new market for the company. And I had first heard the term “web server” nine months earlier from none other than Jonathan Steuer, the information architect for what would become HotWired. (He was intent on using Indys for the web server from the very beginning of the project2.)

No, the credit for negotiating the web’s first site sponsorship deal goes to Sanford Russell (also on the Indy marketing team at SGI) and Andrew Anker. The details are a bit murky in our collective memory, but the best I’ve pieced together is that we traded five beefed up configurations of Indy in exchange for a six-month exclusive sponsorship. The retail value of those machines was probably $40,000 to $50,000 (and the cost to us, given our high margins at the time, was probably about half that.)

My fondest and most vivid memory is what happened between when the ink on the deal dried and when HotWired launched, a period in which we needed to figure out what we wanted the sponsorship ad unit to look like or say. I called a brainstorm session with Sanford, Pat Tickle, and a few other Indy marketing colleagues. A bunch of ideas went up on the white board, but I came up with the winner. Actually, in truth, I stole the winning idea from a different domain of SGI marketing.

A few months earlier, I had attended my first SIGGRAPH, down in Orlando, Florida. In that era, SGI was so dominant that our relationship to SIGGRAPH was almost like Apple’s relationship with MacWorld. Our “booth” was freakin’ enormous, so big, in fact, that it bore the name “Silicon City” on signage towering over its four huge entrances. Below that, it said “Powered by Silicon Graphics”. And that was the magic phrase I was searching for! Once that bubbled up in my mind, I was sure we had the winner. The brainstorm ended as soon as I spoke it aloud.

I’ve searched and searched and not found a screenshot of the full home page of HotWired at its launch. But I have found one from a few months later, where the “Powered by Silicon Graphics” ad unit is highly prominent (and clearly clickable):

Powered By Silicon Graphics

So, there you have it — the previously untold story of the web’s other first ad unit. The “Powered by Silicon Graphics” campaign with HotWired was a big hit, giving us instant cachet and credibility in the nascent web server market (even before we had agreed upon a strategy). In the months that followed, we would do similar deals (although for considerably less hardware) with several other high profile websites, including the Internet Underground Music Archive, Organic Online, and Rolling Stone, creating the impression that we were the web server market leader even before we launched our web server product line. Within months, sites even started putting “Powered by Silicon Graphics” on their home page without us giving them anything at all! Eventually, the term “powered by” became the de facto standard for site sponsorship deals. But how all of that would come to be is a story best saved for a future post.

[Update: The folks at Wired now have a nice telling of the creation of HotWired up.]

To be continued


1 Almost all of the facts in this paragraph I learned from a recent interview with Andrew Anker on the Internet History Podcast


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20 Years Ago (Part 1): A Very Good Month

[1994 was an historic year, both for Silicon Valley and for me. So, this will serve to kick off a series of “20 Years Ago” posts to try to capture some of the missing history from the year when the web began its transition from something just for science and academia to an exponentially-growing interactive medium for everybody. This first post focuses on the first month of the year. And to put it in perspective, January 1994 was the month in which Jerry Yang and David Filo launched “David and Jerry’s Guide to the World Wide Web,” which they would later be rename “Yahoo!”.]

20 years ago this month, I got my “golden ticket” into Silicon Valley.

I had graduated from Stanford Business School seven months earlier, but between an economy still slowly emerging from recession and having an undergraduate degree that was neither engineering nor computer science1, I struggled to find a full-time job at a tech company. But by December of 1993, I had managed to land a very promising contractor position at Silicon Graphics in the “low-end” division that had recently launched the company’s newest product, the Indy workstation. And that proved to be quite fortuitous in a number of ways.

First off, Silicon Graphics was going to have its first-ever presence at MacWorld Expo a few weeks later, and, strangely, everyone seemed keen to let “the new guy” take the marketing lead, not just for the low-end division, but for the whole company. (This, despite the fact that I didn’t know any of our products in depth, hadn’t been to a MacWorld, and had never organized a major trade show presence.) There was a lot to do, with great urgency, and there would be a big spotlight on my effort. So, whether I succeeded or failed, the results would be spectacularly visible.

Second, the guy who hired me as a contractor, the Indy product manager, was already eyeing his next role, a chance to participate in the birth of a new division within the company, something called Silicon Studio, that was setting out to create high-end authoring software for interactive multimedia content. But for his transfer to be gladly accepted, he had an obligation to find a back-fill for his current role. And so, when I managed to not screw up our debut at MacWorld2, I essentially got hired and promoted at the same time, stepping into the shoes of the guy who had signed me to a try-before-you-buy contract just weeks before!


Soon, I would enthusiastically tell anyone who would listen that I was thrilled to have “the best job in Silicon Valley.” Why? Because I was the freakin’ product manager for the newest, sexiest, highest-volume product for what was clearly the hottest company in Silicon Valley. Yes, now but a dim memory, in 1994, Silicon Graphics was so hot that it was featured in a BusinessWeek cover story, breathlessly entitled “The Gee-Whiz Company”.

In that feature, Rob Hof would describe us as “the most magical computer maker on the planet” and then go on to report:

In an industry marked by huge hype, Silicon Graphics is the genuine article: a truly innovative company with clearly unique products. “They’re the new Apple,” says Morgan Stanley & Co. analyst Steven M. Milunovich. Then, mulling Apple’s recent struggles, he corrects himself: “The Microsoft of computer graphics.”

So, there I was, no longer searching, having landed at the best possible place, with the best possible job. That alone was enough to make January 1994 a very memorable month, but there was one more door about to open for me. And it was to a far bigger opportunity – but one that would take me more than a few months to fully grasp.

It started with an invitation in the mail to a party celebrating Wired magazine’s first anniversary.


[Photo credit: The Original Wired Magazine, 1993 on Facebook.]

I was a Wired fanboy. I’d read every issue cover-to-cover, and even tried landing a job there a few months earlier. So I was thrilled to get an invite (likely only as a result of spending a lot of Silicon Graphics marketing dollars at MacWorld). The event was in San Francisco, in a huge brick warehouse on Third, near Wired’s headquarters in South Park. Back then there weren’t very many startups in San Francisco; that was yet to come, with Wired to serve as “ground zero” for the City’s emergent “dot-com” scene.

At a time when most people thought of technology as boring or nerdy, Wired managed to make computers, software, and networking seem as edgy as a new designer drug and as wild as a rave (at a time when those were a thing). So, dressed all in black, I put on my new Doc Martin boots, and headed out from my Lower Haight apartment, ready to rock.

Looking back now, I can hardly distinguish that particular party from many others in the ‘90’s – dark setting, loud music, drinks, packed crowd. What I do vividly remember, though, is meeting Jonathan Steuer, who worked at Wired and had the tantalizing title of “Online Tsar”. I suspect he is the very first person I handed a business card with “Indy Product Manager” on it. Once he heard where I worked and what I worked on, Jonathan got very excited.

“I want to use Indys as the web servers for a project I’m working on,” he said.

“Awesome,” I replied, without missing a beat. “Just one question – what’s a web server?”

To be continued


1 Although my first major at M.I.T. was Physics, mid-way through my sophomore year I did the unthinkable and shifted over to the Humanties department, majoring in Creative Writing

2 MacWorld ended up being a great event for Silicon Graphics. Here’s a great quote from a piece in the San Jose Mercury News by David Plotnikoff, entitled The house party at the end of the Interactive Highway:

Raster Masters, a team of performance artists from Silicon Graphics, put on the best demo of the week, in the McBean Theater. The live interactive graphics show was downright seamless. The performance, which featured algorithm technology developed recently at NASA, was an M.C. Escher-meets- Brian Eno-on-acid kinda thing. They should have required seat belts in the theater.

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