The Dawn of Digital Marketing: A Brief History of Email

Whether it’s a friendly greeting from an old friend, an evite to a party, or a shipment notification for an item purchased online, we take email for granted. However email, with its ease and convenience, not to mention its use as a channel for direct marketing, has come a long way.

The Early Days

The first marketing email was deployed in 1978 - seven years after the first email was sent - by a man named Gary Thuerk, also known as the ‘father of spam’.  At the time, Thuerk worked as a Marketing Director at Digital Equipment Corp, a large company which specialized in selling computer equipment. In the hopes of making an impact, Thuerk sent an email promoting DEC computers to a mass audience (400 people which, at the time, was a huge number). The result was mind-boggling. The 400 emails which were sent resulted in $13 million worth of sales for DEC machines, along with a lot of buzz regarding the new marketing channel that email had opened1

As the World Wide Web became more readily accessible to people around the world, email marketing began to grow. When Hotmail, (then known as HoTMail) opened its doors as one of the first free email services, marketers found a new way to get their foot in the door with consumers.  

History of Spam and Deliverability

However, along with well-intentioned marketing efforts, came ‘spam.’ Soon inboxes were cluttered with unsolicited, unwanted mailings and ads touting anything from powders guaranteed to make you lose weight to penis enlargement pills. Email users were getting fed up, and marketers were having a hard time getting the sort of engagement they wanted from their direct marketing efforts. So in 1998, a law was passed which mandated an opt-out option for all emails. Five years later the CAN-SPAM Act was introduced in the United States to ensure consumers were not being misled by or inundated with unsolicited emails. 

During this very important and formative period, marketers started having trouble getting their emails into consumers’ inboxes. With the rise of email and the increase of virus-containing or pharmaceutical ad spam, consumers became considerably less likely to open and engage with email. New filtering rules were put in place by internet service providers (ISPs), and in 2004 some of these ISPs, such as AOL, Hotmail and Yahoo began introducing recipient feedback schemes. Marketers could now see what consumers thought of their emails, and start tracking spam complaints as a metric. This small update on behalf of ISPs was the very beginning of what we now know as anti-spam strategy.

As social media started growing, there was more of an emphasis on customer feedback and engagement. New methods to protect customers from unwanted emails were introduced. Hotmail and Gmail started allowing customers to filter emails into different folders, based on priority. Windows Live Sender Reputation Data allowed customers to flag companies based on whether their emails were spam or not. These simple but effective techniques ‘encouraged’ brands to put more work into building relationships with their subscribers ultimately leading to better inbox placements.

How Mobile Changed Email

With the rise of the smartphone starting in 2007/2008 more and more users started checking email on their phones instead of on their computers. According to our Q3 2016 email benchmark report the proportion of mobile to desktop clicks has surpassed the 50 percent mark. It’s now essential for content development teams to craft emails that provide excellent user experience across all devices (desktop, laptop, smartphone, and tablet). 

Email and Personalization

Fast-forward to the final weeks of 2016 and email marketing has changed considerably even in the last few years, let alone the past 40. Now more than ever, it’s important to capture the attention of a customer, and engage with them in a meaningful way. No longer can marketers make general assumptions about their subscriber base. Instead, they must create highly personalized experiences based on data-driven insights about consumers’ unique preferences and lifestyles.

Today, email marketing is much more than just a marketing channel, it lies at the heart of a cross-channel strategy to connect with customers on a personal level and  grow brand awareness. Email impacts everything these days: from presidential elections to the rise and fall of retail brands. As marketers, we rely on email every day – for anything from caching up with old friends to promoting our brand – and yet we rarely stop to think about the rich and interesting history of email. Next time you set up a trigger or enable a daily promotional message, remember the 40 years of history behind the channel.

 

References

1. DEC. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Digital_Equipment_Corporation

2. Thuerk. http://www.smartinsights.com/email-marketing/email-communications-strategy/email-marketing-evolution/

3. Email Marketing. https://marketingtechblog.com/infographic-the-history-of-email/

3. Can Spam Law. https://www.ftc.gov/tips-advice/business-center/guidance/can-spam-act-compliance-guide-business

For more information on creating on personalized emails, download our personalization guide: