Email marketing turned 40 this year. Now what?
Even the first email marketing message, however spammy, achieved astounding results. Contributor Kyle Henderick explains how far we've come since then and where we're headed.
Earlier this year marked the 40th anniversary of the first mass marketing email. On May 3, 1978, a marketer for Digital Equipment Corporation named Gary Thuerk sent an unsolicited email pitch to 400 business prospects. Although the email blast resulted in an avalanche of privacy complaints, it served as the foundation of email marketing as we know it today.
It’s important to remember that in the early days, marketing emails were essentially spam. Marketers routinely sent emails to massive lists of potential customers — none of whom had willingly subscribed. The original marketing emails also lacked the features that define a quality email today, like HTML, simple design concepts and value-added content.
But despite the spammy nature of his email, Thuerk’s mass email generated $13 million in sales for his company — a result every email marketer today would be proud of. The power of email as a marketing channel was clear from the start.
The biggest moments in email marketing history
Email marketing is now the most effective digital marketing channel for businesses across all industries. In fact, the channel was responsible for 20 percent of the average business’s revenue in 2017, according to a Relevancy Group study conducted with OneSpot. Meanwhile, more than a third of consumers have opened separate email accounts solely for brand communications, our own company’s research has found.
Given the amount of revenue email generates, it’s no surprise that email marketing has become a highly sophisticated practice. Today’s email marketers use strategic segmentation, personalization and content development strategies to stand out in crowded inboxes and maximize conversions.
Email has matured and evolved over the years. Here are some of the biggest moments that have shaped modern email marketing since inception:
- 1978 – Gary Thuerk, a marketer for Digital Equipment Corporation, sends the first electronic mail marketing blast, generating $13 million in sales. Early emails like this are rudimentary, text-based and lack personalization.
- 1989 – Oxford English Dictionary adds “e-mail” as an acceptable abbreviation for electronic mail, with the first documented case of the term’s use traced to 1979, the Washington Post reports.
- 1993-1996 – AOL, Hotmail and Yahoo enter the email scene, offering user-friendly email services that make it easy for the average internet user to sign up and communicate. Hotmail is the first to offer email as a free, web-based service, which allows marketers to reach even more consumers. Additionally, these platforms begin to integrate email with other services like news and chat, making email a part of consumers’ everyday lives.
- 1998 – Consumers first use the word “spam” to describe unwanted email, which originated from a 1970s Monty Python skit referencing the canned meat brand with the same name. At this time, consumers are frustrated by the number of unsolicited promotional emails they receive. As a result, major providers add “junk” folders to give subscribers control over their email experiences.
- 2003 – The U.S. government passes the CAN-SPAM Act, which is the first law regulating email marketing. The law sets rules for commercial email, establishes requirements for commercial messages, gives recipients the right to opt out of email marketing lists and spells out tough penalties for violators.
- 2004 – Google launches Gmail and effectively revolutionizes email. Gmail eventually surpasses Yahoo and AOL in popularity because of its excellent user experience. Years later, Google introduces email innovations like tabs and image caching, and invests in services like Gchat that take email to a new level. Today, Gmail users comprise 30 percent of the average marketer’s subscriber list, according to research conducted by my company, Yes Lifecycle Marketing.
- 2007 – Apple launches the iPhone, which fundamentally changes the way consumers use smartphones to read and send email. The iPhone introduces larger screens, faster devices and the ability to load images, allowing creative marketers to test new limits of design. An influx of consumers using iPhones to read email leads to responsive design and creates new personalization tactics aimed at consumers on-the-go.
- 2010s – As subscriber inboxes become more saturated, marketers begin to focus on deliverability and engagement with strategies like triggers, dynamic content, strategic segmentation and newsletters. Email design innovation also improves significantly with new coding support and capabilities. This lays the foundation for real-time, interactive emails.
- 2018 – Consumers become wary of businesses using their data in the wake of massive data breaches. Businesses across the world enact new safeguards for data protection as the EU implements the GDPR.
The future of email marketing
There’s no denying that email marketing has come a long way over the last 40 years. Even though the practice is highly effective and serves as a core strategy in almost all brand marketing campaigns, there’s still more marketers can do to improve their email communication with consumers.
While marketers embrace strategies like segmentation and personalization, and incorporate value-added content beyond offers, engagement is still an issue. Subscribers receive so many marketing emails that they need a reason to engage with a brand via email long term. That means marketers must work even harder to make their messages stand out from the rest of the content that lands in subscribers’ inboxes.
The most effective email marketers take an agile approach to differentiating themselves from competitors. That means testing every single campaign, failing fast, learning a lot and changing course accordingly. From call-to-action color tweaks to offer types to timing, every campaign can and should test something. The email marketing world is full of innovative ideas that hold the potential to fuel future program growth — all you have to do is test.
On the content and coding front, the next major change to email will likely be the growth of interactive email experiences. Interactive email really started to take shape in recent years with the introduction of AMP for Gmail, which gives email users the ability to interact with email content much like a website.
Interactive emails like these will allow marketers to cut through the stream of messages in the inbox, but marketers will need to ensure they have the necessary team and resources in place for email interactivity to truly take off.
It’s inspiring to see how the industry has evolved and improved since that first email blast, and I’m excited for whatever innovations are in store for the next 40 years of email marketing.