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The sound of the dial-up modem (and other relics from the web's first 30 years)

by Justin Deaville

August 4, 2021

This is the sound of the dial-up modem:

Back in the 1990s a dial-up modem was how you accessed the internet. A very early version is pictured above. You’d plug it into your desktop computer and ‘phone’ the internet. It took about 30 seconds to get connected – if you were lucky.

It was 1997 before we had access to a modem at work. We had one phone line, which meant only one person could have internet access at any given time. There were 20 of us.

At the time, downloading a simple web page could take several minutes. Yet frustration at the effort involved didn’t erode the excitement of getting online.

It was the start of the dot-com boom. Businesses were repositioning themselves as ‘dot-com’, in an attempt to boost their valuations. Often with more success than was justified. On the day it listed on the stock market, was valued at £781 million. Yet not only was the firm loss-making, but it had only generated £0.3 million of income over the previous 10 months. Which is quite a bubble.

At the same time, skills were scarce. In 1998, I was a young marketing manager, and wanted to build a new website. Three or four simple pages. No functionality, just text and images. A local developer quoted £20,000. And I seriously considered the offer. The guy was making so much money, he only needed to work afternoons. He spent the mornings getting stoned.

Some things have changed, others haven’t

Today, digital marketing is the norm. Good web connections are ubiquitous. And online commercial realities mirror the offline world. At Receptional, our clients want to be sure they’re getting value from every penny of their marketing budget.

The fundamentals of marketing weren’t changed by the internet. Chances are, the right message delivered to the right audience at the right time will deliver success.

It was a lesson I learnt in my first job. In 1995, as a recent graduate, my job was to sell market research reports via direct mail. I was responsible for researching new audiences, then designing promotional leaflets and mailing them out.

Design has never been my forte. And we didn’t have access to easy-to-use templates, everything was created from scratch. As a result, the leaflets couldn’t have looked worse if they’d been printed on toilet roll. Yet, despite their obvious shortcomings, when the targeting and messaging were right, the response rates were fantastic. Our customers would fax us their orders from around the world.

I remember one order that arrived from Paris, which was worth more than my annual salary at the time. Which, admittedly, wasn’t much.

Still, I was pleased to have delivered such a good return.

Right message, right audience, right time

There’s a lovely example of successful creative in the WEB@30 exhibition, which we’re supporting this summer, to mark the 30th birthday or the very first website.

In August 1998, two sisters and a friend had a contest to see whose website could get the most hits. Deidre LaCarte, the younger sister, created the Hampster Dance page, in homage to her pet hamster, Hampton. The site consisted of a single page of four animated GIFs. Combined with a speeded-up sample of Roger Miller's "Whistle Stop", it created an internet sensation.

Within a short space of time it had clocked up more than two million visits. It wasn’t sophisticated. But it didn’t need to be, the audience only had dial-up modems.

If you’d like to see Hampster Dance in action on a computer of its day, pop along to WEB@30 at the Grand Arcade, Cambridge, from now until 3rd September. You’ll be able to get hands-on with the first browser, web cam and affordable modem, as well as other examples of early digital art, comics, games, memes and zines. Full details are here.

Modem photography by Rama - Own work, CC BY-SA 2.0 fr,


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