The 12 stages of email marketing’s evolution: Past and future
Columnist Chad White takes a close look at how email has changed since the 1990s and the trends that will shape email marketing in 2017.
The email inbox is ripe for innovation because inbox providers “haven’t come up with anything new” since 1975. That’s what Drew Houston, the founder of CEO of Dropbox, said at Dreamforce in 2013. As a huge fan of email, I remember being kind of offended on behalf of email and thinking, “Anyone who says email hasn’t changed much in the past few decades is simply demonstrating that they don’t know much about email.”
Email soon had its revenge, as Dropbox shut down their Mailbox email app a couple of years later because it couldn’t keep pace with the innovations in the industry.
It’s a dangerous mistake for brands to underestimate the changes that email has undergone over the past couple of decades, as it sets them up to not be agile enough to cope with the coming changes — some of which are tectonic.
Before talking about the trends that are currently brewing, let’s quickly look back over how email — which was developed by Ray Tomlinson in the early 1970s — has evolved since just the 1990s. By my count, there have been seven major stages of email’s evolution already:
Email 1.0: Closed platform
Before the mid-1990s, many email platforms, including most famously America Online (AOL), were closed so that you could only send your text-based emails to people who were on the same platform as you.
(Interestingly, this is where all social media platforms are currently — all walled off from one another. Seems like a system that’s ripe for disruption.)
Email 2.0: Open platform
Now, of course, email is defined by being an open platform, where you can send and receive email on many different apps and devices. Other closed email-like platforms are called messaging apps.
Email 3.0: Spam-complaint filtering
With email becoming an open platform where you could reach an incredibly large audience at a low cost, spam became a serious problem. Enter: the “Junk” button. This negative feedback loop, which helped eradicate nearly all malicious spam, eventually redefined spam in the eyes of consumers, according to the findings of our Adapting to Consumers’ New Definition of Spam research (email registration required).
Email 4.0: HTML emails
HoTMaiL brought HTML emails to the masses, which meant that images could be integrated into messaging. Marketing messages benefitted tremendously from the ability to show products, lifestyle images and more.
Email 5.0: Mobile emails
Research In Motion’s BlackBerry put your email inbox in your pocket, addicting a whole generation of professionals to email. Email became more of a real-time messaging channel, and the physical context of subscribers became an issue because marketers could no longer assume subscribers were at home in front of a computer.
Email 6.0: Mobile HTML emails
The debut of the Apple iPhone in 2007 brought HTML email support to mobile devices — and BlackBerry’s decline into oblivion started. The iPhone also kicked off marketers’ long struggle with mobile-friendly email design, and with responsive email design in particular. Most emails are now read on mobile devices.
Email 7.0: Engagement-based filtering
Because senders were gaming negative feedback loops by bloating their lists with inactive subscribers to drive down their spam complaint rates, inbox providers added engagement-based metrics to their filtering. Now, email subscribers need to engage with senders’ emails, not just tolerate them, which has sparked a greater emphasis on email targeting and the management of inactive subscribers.
And those are just the stages that are in our rear-view mirror.
There are nearly as many channel-redefining changes brewing now than we’ve already experienced. Here are some of the trends that will be shaping email marketing in 2017 and in the years beyond:
Email 8.0: Big data personalization & machine learning
Thanks to data science and automation, personalization is growing up in a big way. Subscribers respond better to emails when the content caters to their personal interests and needs.
Marketers know this, and most expect that machine learning will drive most of the content in the emails they send at some point, according to polling done for our Email Marketing in 2020 e-book (email registration required).
Email 9.0: Interactivity & rich content
Soon, making your subscribers click through to your landing page to watch a video, browse products, or even buy things will seem so 2010. Better coding support in email clients is allowing brands to let their subscribers do more within an email — from hamburger menus and email carousels to watching videos and (eventually) making purchases.
With Apple reinstating its support for HTML5 video with the release of iOS 10, embedded video in email is particularly primed to have a big year, but interactivity in general is high on marketers’ list of new trends.
Email 10.0: Wearables
It started with the introduction of Google Glass in 2013, but it really took off with the launch of the Apple Watch in 2015, which gave the wearables category a foundation from which to grow. With their small screens and stripped-down support, wearables have the potential to be pretty disruptive to how marketers design messages.
New tools, such as the watch-html part of a multi-part MIME email, can help marketers serve these users better, but we’re in uncharted territory.
That’s partly because the Apple Watch and other devices don’t support images or have web-browsing capabilities. Because of those limitations, brands can’t measure opens or traffic, which makes measuring the impact of wearables largely guesswork at this point. In the age of data-driven decisions, this lack of visibility will surely slow the embrace of wearables as a channel by marketers.
Email 11.0: Internet of Things
The Internet of Things (IoT) has two ramifications for email marketers: 1) it gives them new data sources for powering personalization and targeted emails, and 2) it gives them a new relationship to manage — the one between the subscriber and the IoT device.
Fitbit and others have already demonstrated the value of IoT-powered email personalization — with much more to come. IoT devices will also be regular emailers, sending their owners and other approved recipients emails when they need charging or servicing, reach milestones, detect a certain kind of stimulus and other events.
Email 12.0: Voice interfaces
If you think scaling messages down to the tiny screens of wearables is disruptive, then you won’t like the coming wave of voice-only interfaces. The key players have already positioned themselves: Amazon with Alexa, Apple with Siri, Google with Assistant and Microsoft with Cortana.
In November, AT&T announced that its customers could use Amazon Echo to compose and send text messages with only their voice. Surely sending emails this way isn’t far behind.
For marketers, this will likely put renewed emphasis on the plain text part of multi-part MIME emails — or perhaps we’ll get a new voice-html part so brands can create messaging that’s designed to be read aloud.
While email is a well-established technology, it isn’t a static one. Email content, email clients and how marketers create emails will all change in the years ahead. Stay nimble, email marketers!
Opinions expressed in this article are those of the guest author and not necessarily MarTech. Staff authors are listed here.