PCBoard taught me online marketing

From 1995-98, I would spend long nights working on an abandoned PC with a noisy modem hooked to a single phone line, running a pirated copy of the famous PCBoard BBS (Bulletin Board System) software and open for users dialing in over the night.

I used to upload shareware games and latest anti-virus software updates to a small number of BBS users in my home city, Alexandria, Egypt. During those days, internet connection was bloody expensive, enjoyed by the rich, and well-established businesses.

I was working for one.

I used to stay late after work to download the best software there is, and make it available on that local, single phone line BBS service. I was a proud SysOp, an anonymous one, with many users wanting to meet me to thank me for providing them with some fine software.

Live by the numbers, die by the numbers

Back in the day, the aim was to get only the best, most worthy software.

At that time, numbers of downloads were the criteria everything was judged by.

As hard drives were expensive with limited storage capacity, the rule was, if it does not generate many downloads, it had to go.

As I kept adding new shareware video games and utilities (truth be told, few pirated ones as well, and may copyright-owners forgive me), publicity of the BBS kept growing.

When I added new apps / games / updates, the single line would stay busy from dusk till dawn.

Short, not long visits

Unlike today, I worked hard to optimize each dial-in attempt, making it as short as possible. I made sure to advertise the latest additions in short, plain sentences.

On the other hand, if a zip file was inactive, not being downloaded enough, it had to go.

That made users download more files, as they would vanish in near future.

Then, we had to limit each phone call to 60 minutes only. If your download was not done by then, tough luck. If you were not busy downloading, the modem would hang-up the call.

Calling back in was not a guaranteed option, as others would leave their modems on auto-redial till they get in.

During the weekends and public holidays, that BBS used to be brutally abused by downloaders.

The machine would run non-stop till we came back to work and used the phone line for calling customers.

Of stats and figures

It was crazy, intense fun.

I used to arrive very early to work to check on things.

Many times, the PC would hang and I’d need to reboot it. After all, those were the DOS days.

My main concern was to see which files generated the highest number of downloads.

I was very curious to see what users want.

After some time, I became an excpert at this.

Later on in my career, I came to know that it was called the new online marketing.

In fact, we started receiving phone calls asking to keep the BBS running 24/7.

Others offered to come to our office to directly get the files they were after.

Some were turned into customers as well.

The new online marketing

Little did I know that this is the new online marketing, albeit a little different from today.

There were no ads to bombard visitors with.

Calls were required to be as short as possible.

As there was no need for click-bait articles, hence published information had to be short, precise, clear and in your face (without the need to see more ads or to click needless buttons).

Old-skool marketing

I used to zip / pack everything in one file. In that compressed file, I would add a small intro executable file (ACS-BBS.exe), listing the name of the BBS, phone number, running hours, with requirements to connect and download.

As callers downloaded our files, they would share them with their friends, who would run that intro file and start calling us, to get those files before anyone else.

I started to notice what clicks and what doesn’t with users.

Those callers wanted no fluff and no frills; just the real deal; useful software.

I tuned in to their demands, and boy was I meeting that demand!

I owe it to this BBS machine for teaching me online marketing first-hand.

Alas, like many other good things in life, as internet access became cheaper, phone calls to this BBS dwindled.

I had to move on to another, better paying job, bidding farewell to that PC burning the midnight oil.

For many moons after I left, that BBS machine kept on running, offering the last batch of files I added.

For many years after my departure, I used to find people talking about that BBS, and wondering who is that SysOp who kept feeding it with new, interesting files.

Oh, and they also remembered the unique ways I used to announce the new additions to the file list!

Little did they know it was me, Mario! (err, I mean Raouf)

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