Before Google, Netscape, and Internet Explorer, there was Web Marketing Today. Dr. Ralph F. Wilson founded it back in 1995 as a vehicle to supplement his then-fledgling web development practice.
An ordained minister, Dr. Wilson was also launching a new church at that time. “The church wasn’t going all that well, actually,” he says. “I was stuck at 50 years old without a job.”
AOL offered him 40 free hours of Internet access. He proceeded to teach himself HTML and web development. “I got a job that summer making a website for some guy that was selling t-shirts that had aliens on the front,” he said. “I started looking for other people to do websites for.”
He eventually phased out his web development practice and focused on online publishing. Fast forward to 2012, and Dr. Wilson estimates he’s written 1,500 articles for Web Marketing Today. He wrote an Internet marketing book for Wiley & Sons in 2001. He’s been mentioned in BusinessWeek, The New York Times, and Business 2.0.
He’s an Internet pioneer, in other words. When he sold Web Marketing Today to our company, Confluence Distribution, in May, I asked him for an interview, reversing the role for which he was accustomed. He agreed. What follows is that interview — in both audio and a text transcription.
Kerry Murdock: We’ve worked together for several years. My company just acquired Web Marketing Today, in May. Having worked with you, I’ve come to greatly respect your abilities and how you live your life. So my first question for you, sir, is, why did you launch Web Marketing Today, and when?
Wilson: Well that was right in the beginning of the commercial Internet, which sort of started in 1994, but really hadn’t taken off powerfully yet. I was in the process then of starting a new church in Rocklin, California. And the church wasn’t going all that well, actually. My background was as a pastor — I’ve been a pastor now for about 45 years. But things weren’t going too well and within a couple of weeks, it became obvious that the church couldn’t pay me regularly and neither could the part-time writing job I had because that periodical had folded. So I was stuck at 50 years old without a job.
But earlier that year in January 1995, AOL was giving out 40 free hours of Internet access. So I was excited about that. I’d been on CompuServe and some of those networks for a decade previous to that. I knew something about this online stuff. But I was excited to explore and when I did, I was really blown away by the communication capability of the Internet.
I could see how this could be huge — and this was really before web browsers. Back in January of 1995, web browsers started to come in about the middle of that year. I was just amazed. And so by May of 1995, I’d put some of my Christian writings up on a website. I wouldn’t want anyone to see that crude, ugly website now. But back then that’s what was my first attempt and the graphics were horrible.
At any rate, I got a job that summer making a website for some guy that was selling t-shirts that had aliens on the front. I kept track of my time carefully to see how long it took me to do these different steps. And then I started looking for other people to do websites for.
I ran across a company that was selling two-way radio antennas, the kind of dome-shaped antennas that send information across the freeways. And it was really a good international kind of a product for the Internet. And so here my family is completely broke and I go into this guy’s office because he’d indicated an interest. I’d just about half an hour before finished a spreadsheet on how much I should charge. So I go in there and we look at it and I figured he needs about 43 pages on his website and so I quoted him a price of like $3,500, which to me was a lot of money. And he looked at me and he said, “Yeah, let’s do that.” And I’m kind of like “Yes!”
And that was the beginning of the Internet for me. I started building websites and kind of got “discovered” by a three or four line mention in a national publication in November of that year. I got all the business I could handle from that time, and I thank God for it because it was a real provision for my family.
Murdock: What was that national publication?
Wilson: It was some AT&T publication.
Murdock: Did you have children at home at the time?
Wilson: I had a daughter at home who was in high school. So in November of 1995 I realized I need some way to nurture these potential clients, before they’re ready to actually purchase a website from me — the gestation period on something like that is, six weeks or something at least.
So I started Web Marketing Today. I didn’t want to tell them how to make a website. I wanted to sell them that, but I decided I’d tell them how to market a website. Well, you know, I looked all over the Internet and found about 20 articles, which was the sum total of wisdom in the world about Internet marketing that was online. And I put links to them all on one page on my website. Then I wrote, every week or two, a newsletter called Web Marketing Today. That’s what I named it at the beginning, designed mainly for these clients. It started out with maybe 250 email subscribers and then grew rapidly to several thousand.
At that point, there wasn’t really that much information about Internet marketing out there. I think the only other publication that survives today was Web Digest for Marketers that Larry Chase publishes. His was really a different approach. Mine was a kind of a how-to-do-it approach.
So who knew how to market on the Internet? But I would scour everything I could read and then just figure out how to help my clients. How do I help them market? And then I would write about it and so it was kind of a learning process all the way along. I had a degree in biology and two degrees in theology, but nothing in marketing. Although as a pastor I had done marketing for all of my career. Not Internet marketing, obviously.
At that point, not having a formal education in marketing was an advantage, because all the marketers, people with marketing education, they were trying to make the Internet fit into their categories. And I had the luxury of not having to force it into something it didn’t fit in, but kind of figure it out from the ground up. Probably within three years, it would have been an advantage to have a marketing degree, but I think in those early days it was an advantage not to. I really think God put me in the right place at the right time. Those were fun days.
Murdock: Who thought of the name, Web Marketing Today?
Wilson: That was me.
Murdock: What did you publish the site on at the time? Do you remember?
Wilson: Well, it was a web hosting platform, and I used just HTML pages. Back in those days, there were the beginnings of content management systems, but they literally cost half a million dollars.
Wilson: And so I just put up web pages. You create kind of a template and stick your content in the middle. And then in 1997, I discovered something called server-side includes, where you can include files into different points in your document and then build a document from all those separate files. That saves a huge amount of time in editing. But in the old days, it was just one page at a time, and then I published it by email.
Murdock: Were you also pastoring the church that you had started in Rocklin?
Wilson: Yes, I was. I pastored that church until about 2001. But it was not, at that point, something that I could put full time into as I needed to support my family. So you do what you can, and give some time to the church and then some time to earn a living.
Murdock: In 1995, I was vaguely familiar with the Internet. You were making a living off of it and had launched Web Marketing Today. Were you always interested in technology?
Wilson: Well I’ve been interested both in writing and in computers for a long time. When I was a pastor in Southern California, I finagled our church into buying one of the first desktop computers available — CP/M was the operating system. And then that computer got stolen out of the church office and we got an IBM PC. I’m glad because everything was then built on that kind of platform as far as business software. So I’ve had an interest in technology. I’m not a trained programmer or anything like that. But I sort of tinker with stuff. I like to get my hands on it and figure out what makes it work.
Murdock: When was that, the computer with the CP/M operating system?
Wilson: It was probably in 1982 or 1983, I’m guessing. I remember writing a doctoral dissertation with it in early 1984.
Murdock: So in 1995 you were busy making a living, supporting your family. Did you reflect on what the web would ultimately become? Did you think at the time that the web was going to change the world?
Wilson: Yes, I did actually. As I mentioned, I could see some of the communication power of the Internet and one of the early things I did — one of my early interests — was online stores. In December of 1995, I built the first, my first, online store, which was a coffee store that had previously been on CompuServe only. I built an Internet site for it. So I started working with shopping carts and all that kind of thing.
I remember thinking back in those days that at some point in time, we’re probably going to see 20 percent of the consumer goods sold in this country, being sold on the Internet. I don’t know if we’re quite there yet, but I fully expect that’s going to happen. And it’s created a huge revolution. It’s interesting how technology comes in and then wipes out a whole other technology. Like print newspapers are now severely suffering, and Blockbuster is closing stores because there are new ways to deliver video. This is just one of those revolutions and I really believe it was very much a revolution that has changed the world.
Murdock: Is it a good change?
Wilson: Good and bad. I think with any technology there are good uses of it and there are exploitive uses of it. But I think it can bring good to a lot of people. One thing it’s done is it has created, for millions of small businesses, a way to earn a living without a huge investment — to set up a small business without a huge investment. And I think that’s been a great blessing to millions of families.
Murdock: Your tenure here at Web Marketing Today was the better part of 17 years. You received many rewards and recognitions during that time. What are some memorable high points and low points over those 17 years?
Wilson: I can remember the high points back in 1998, 1999, and 2000. There was a huge amount of money being poured into the Internet. There were all these startups and they didn’t have any revenue coming in. But they had all these great dreams. One of the things that amazed me at that point was I started selling advertising for Web Marketing Today because people would come to me. I never really went out and solicited the advertising. But they came to me because it was a vehicle that was available. I had a lot of email subscribers. I probably had 80,000, 100,000 subscribers by that time.
Murdock: That’s amazing.
Wilson: So I remember I was selling advertising as fast as I could and in 2000 I started another publication called Doctor Ebiz, which was a question-and-answer service for small businesses. For everything I could publish, I could fill with advertising — they were coming to me. It was one of those wonderful times.
Then in August of 2000 it all stopped. The bubble had burst. And if you remember the stock market plummeting at that point and all the money for advertising for all these startup Internet businesses just dried up suddenly. I was very fortunate — I had started in 1997, a paid publication, at that point it was called Web Commerce Today. And so my income was wonderfully supplemented by advertising in some of those years, but when the bottom fell out, I didn’t have just a single revenue source, as my business plan was diversified and I’m very thankful now that it was because if it hadn’t been, I would have been dead. So I had income from selling subscriptions to Web Commerce Today. So I guess that was a high point and kind of a shock.
Some of the fun of it was traveling. There just weren’t that many people out there that could speak about the Internet. I got invited to Israel in 1997 and Cologne, Germany in 1998. Then a number of invitations that I turned down, just because you can’t run a business and run around the world — even though it’s exhilarating. But it was really fun and it was amazing to me that I could run a national business, actually an international business in some ways, from my home in rural Loomis, California.
One of the interesting episodes was in roughly 1997. I got a call from a guy in San Francisco — I’m about 120 miles from San Francisco. And he said, “We’ve got 50 Japanese businessmen that are here and they want to learn about the Internet and we wondered if we could come up there and see the world headquarters of Wilson Internet Services.”
I demurred and said, “It’s really quite a ways, but thank you anyway.” Then I went into the kitchen and said to my wife, “Jean, there are 50 Japanese businessmen that want to visit the world headquarters of Wilson Internet Services.” She asked, ‘They’re coming here?” We still tell the story.
On the Internet, if you do a good job, you can appear a whole lot larger than you really are, which for a number of years leveled the playing field between huge businesses that hadn’t got it yet and small businesses that really were working hard to get it. I think that’s shifted now, but back in those days it was a kick.
Murdock: During those years you were so far in front of most of us, certainly me. People would presumably ask what do you do for a living? What would you tell them? Would they understand?
Wilson: I would tell them that I wear two hats. I’m a pastor and I run an Internet marketing businesses. And back in, I guess it was 1998, I stopped doing small business websites because I didn’t have time to take care of the customers the way I really feel customers need to be taken care of and write and develop Web Marketing Today, which was just exploding at that point.
Murdock: I believe you and I met first in 2008. Our company represented your company on advertising matters. It was a year or so later that I understood this other part of your life — when I realized what you were accomplishing. I was amazed at everything you were doing with Web Marketing Today. But that was only part of what you did. The other part was your pastoring work and your writing work. It’s really astonishing, your level of productivity. How many books related to your religious work have you written?
Wilson: Let me preface that by explaining. One of the things that got me really excited, when I started to understand what the Internet could do in 1995, was that it could be used to teach the Christian faith and as I’ve mentioned, I’ve been a pastor since 1967 at one level or another. And my strongest gift is in teaching. So I was really excited about that and in 1996 I really felt like God was calling me to one, figure out how to teach the Bible on the Internet, and two, to teach other people how to do it.
So I started out with chat rooms, trying to do a one-hour Bible study in a chat room. Everyone was typing in stuff and I was copying and pasting from something I’d previously typed. I decided no, this is not it. But I ended up with a kind of a format of sending out a lesson each week using an autoresponder system, and then following it up each day with the discussion question, and then setting up an online forum that people could use to respond to the questions. And I would have (and still have) — I do it to this day —somewhere from 3,000 to 6000 people would sign up for one of these Bible studies at a time. Then anybody could sign up after that, just with the autoresponder system.
So these Bible studies then turned into books. I would probably write three of those a year. Currently I am writing my 30th book in that field. They originally were emailed Bible studies and, also, on the web. But in the last couple of years, I’ve turned most of them into paperbacks using print-on-demand technology, as well as available on a Kindle and as PDFs.
So that’s a big part of my life, from which I derive a great deal of satisfaction. I enjoy the research and the writing and also the people that I’m in touch with all over the world as a result of that. About a third of the people that are involved in those Bible studies are from outside the U.S.”
Murdock: So that’s 30 books. How many of those are still available?
Wilson: All of them. Most of them are on Amazon.
Murdock: What about ebooks for Web Marketing Today? You’ve written many technology and Internet marketing ebooks.
Wilson: There really wasn’t that much out there back in the early days. I mentioned that I was interested in ecommerce. One of the early books that I did was called “The Shopping Cart Report.” It went through a couple of editions. The second edition I think had 800 pages, partly because I was crazy enough to try to give data on the 200 or 300 different shopping cart programs that were available at the time, get reader feedback on as many as I could, and then publish it.
So that was one of the early books. I’ve wanted to revise that at different times, but it’s just a massive job and I never really tackled it again. And I published a book called “The Email Marketing Handbook,” which I think had a section about all of the different email programs that were available. I think that went about 700 pages.
Most of the ebooks that I published in the Internet marketing field were between 25 and 150 pages. In 2001 all those were self-published. Then sold them on my website. I did write and publish one book through Wiley and Sons in 2001 called “Planning Your Internet Marketing Strategy.”
But I became frustrated with the whole process of publishing a book through a major publisher because it’s slow, and Internet information at that point was just burgeoning. It takes six months or something like that from the time you turn in a manuscript to get it published. I could see that ebooks were the way to go as far as getting information out there to earn a living. I sold a lot of books. I think I counted about 19 ebooks and books that I wrote and published during that time.
Murdock: Any guess on the number of articles you wrote over the years for Web Marketing Today?
Wilson: I would guess around 1,500, but I’m not sure.
Murdock: So that’s 30 books on your pastoring work, 19 serious technology ebooks, and roughly 1,500 articles. Does it make you tired when I say that?
Wilson: I look back and think how did I ever do that? I do know that I had to lead a very disciplined life to pull that off.
Murdock: That is amazing. What’s the future for printed books, in your view?
Wilson: I’ll get out my crystal ball. It’s faded and not quite clear. What we’re seeing right now in the last two years is a strong move toward ebooks — I’ve published ebooks in a PDF format since maybe 2002 or something like that. That technology has been around for a while. Everybody with a computer can access a PDF book.
There’s been a huge change of what used to be all printed books that are now turned to Kindle editions. I think that Kindle is probably going to become the format of choice even though it may not be the best format. ePub is probably the best format, but I think Kindle is going to overtake them just because of Amazon’s marketing power.
In the area of publishing, one of the areas that I’ve really taken advantage of is that instead of having to publish a book, you can self-publish, whereas before you had to publish through a major publisher or a vanity publisher. People can now self-publish through CreateSpace, which is an Amazon-owned company, and publish their own paperback on a print-on-demand basis — an order comes in and it gets printed then, rather than having a garage full of cases of books that you never sell. So it solves part of the financial problem.
I can publish a book now in paperback format. If I do all the work by myself, my out-of-pocket expense is going to be somewhere around $150 to $160. Part of that is for the copyright — for the ISBN number — and then the rest is various kinds of setup fees. Then for $12 a year I can keep it in print indefinitely. So that is changing the whole face of print publishing. A lot of major publishers are using that to keep older books in print.
But as far as Kindle books and books that can be read on various tablets that are out there — iPads and Android and all that — I think we’re really seeing a revolution. I know Amazon announced a year ago that they were selling more Kindle books than they were paperbacks, which I thought was astounding. Most of my religious books now are published in three formats: paperback, Kindle, and PDF. I think right now Kindle is outselling both of the other formats. We’re seeing a real revolution right here as far as publishing.
Murdock: What’s the future for Dr. Wilson?
Wilson: Currently I’m the interim pastor at First Baptist Church of Nevada City, California. I expect to be there a few more months until they find a regular pastor. And I’m engaged in writing, as I mentioned. My 30th book is on the life of David. It will be 12 lessons in that study that I will put out on the Internet for people to subscribe to and take as an online course in September. After that, I don’t know. I like to stay busy. God has given me health and I thank God for that. So as long as I have health and strength, I’m going to enjoy doing things. The one thing I have enjoyed is more time to slow down and enjoy life a little bit more. So we’ll see, but I’ll keep busy.
Murdock: We will all enjoy following what you’re doing. Final thoughts, sir, on Web Marketing Today, on your planns, and anything else on your mind?
Wilson: I’m excited for Web Marketing Today. It’s been just over two months since your company acquired it. What I’ve seen is one, you’ve moved it to a new platform. You have increased the content — you have at least doubled and are moving towards tripling the amount of content that’s being published each week. And I think that’s exciting because Web Marketing Today is getting a breath of fresh air, and you’re broadening the number of people who are writing for it. I think it has a great life ahead of it. I’m excited that it’s having this kind of future. I really think the Internet marketing has become, in the last 17 years that I’ve been in this field, one of now mainstream marketing approaches. Web Marketing Today I hope will continue to move small businesses in that direction.”
Murdock: That’s certainly our intention. It’s a privilege to assume the publication that you founded and to be associated with such an honorable man. We feel very fortunate in that respect. There are three websites that we’ve alluded to that you’re involved with. Could you tell our audience the URLs of those three websites, so they can keep up with you?
Wilson: The website that has some of the history of Web Marketing Today is now called DoctorEbiz.com. I have two religious websites. One has articles and quite a bit of stuff about Easter and Christmas holidays — it’s called JoyfulHeart.com. Then all my Bible studies are on JesusWalk.com.
Murdock: Dr. Ralph Wilson, the founder of Web Marketing Today and an innovator in many aspects of web marketing, we thank you for everything you’ve done for all of us over the years. And we thank you for your time today in this interview.
Wilson: Thank you, Kerry. God bless you.