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The incredible history of email marketing

In the beginning, there was mail…

Image credit: Warner Bros Animation


Slow, expensive, inconvenient mail.

Pieces of paper, painstakingly folded and stuffed into carefully addressed envelopes, carried manually across the globe by an army of people in uniforms. If you were patient enough, you could reach anyone, anywhere. It was amazing. The world was connected in a way which few had ever imagined.

Then someone had an idea…

Image credit: Sony Pictures Television


What if a person or company who wished to market a product or service were to send mail out to random strangers en masse telling them all about said product or service and offering them the opportunity to buy that product or service without ever leaving their home? Could such a person make money in this way?

It turned out they could!

Direct mail marketing was born.

And some people were really good at it.

Direct mail marketing turned out to be so profitable, in fact, that before long everyone wanted a piece. Major corporations, local supermarkets, restaurants, and even dry cleaners soon joined the fray.

*** Note *** today, it is estimated that at least 48 percent of mail is comprised of commercial advertising.

With the advent of electronic mail in the 1970s, and its quickly growing user base throughout the 1980s, it was only a matter of time before direct mail marketing found its way onto this new platform.

And so it did…

The incredible history of email marketing

In 1978, when Gary Thuerk, a marketing manager at Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) sent out an email to 400 ARPANET users promoting some of DEC’s latest machines, he was hopeful about how his efforts would perform. When those emails resulted in $13,000,000 worth of equipment sales, however, presumably even he was taken at least a little by surprise.

*** It is worth noting that Thuerk did receive several complaints from ARPANET users who were none too impressed with his having used their precious network in this way. ***

Throughout the 1970s and 80s, the potential for email marketing remained largely untapped, as widely available email platforms were not yet in existence. This all changed, however, in 1991 with the birth of the internet.

For the vast majority of early-1990s fledgling internet users, email was the most useful and practical tool that the internet had to offer, and functioned as an easy to use gateway into the wonders of the world wide web.

As global email use quickly grew, the appeal of a medium on which to reach large numbers of consumers for almost no cost quickly became apparent. Direct B2C (business to consumer) marketers, who had previously been required to focus their efforts on traditional mail and the telephone (both of which were quite expensive in terms of materials, physical space, and man-hours), jumped in with both feet.

And so began the age of spam.

Image credit: Fox ADHD


Pop-up advertising and unsolicited commercial emails became the order of the day. As vast sums of money began to pour in, the ensuing maelstrom of annoying commercial “correspondence” had started to negatively impact the functionality of the internet’s most basic tools to such an extent that the situation was becoming untenable.

The government decided to step in.

1998’s “Data Protection Act” included provisions giving internet users more control over what correspondence they were barraged with on a daily basis. This included a requirement that all commercial entities that were marketing via email include an “Opt Out” option, which would prevent a sender from ever emailing a user again if they did not wish them to.

Major web browsers all developed “pop-up blockers” which rendered pop-up advertising all but obsolete overnight.

Email Service Providers (ESPs) introduced “spam folders” which filtered the emails in an inbox into different categories, allowing the user to completely ignore irrelevant and unsolicited commercial emails.

This marked the end of the “spray and pray” era of internet marketing, In which the one and only goal was to reach as many consumers as possible regardless of whether they represented a business’s target audience or not. The quality and value offered by such marketing was of little or no concern to the sender whatsoever.

The game had changed and neither the email marketers nor the governing bodies developing the new rules for email correspondence and the internet were on the ball enough to sort out the chaos yet.

Besides, they had bigger fish to fry, as hysteria over the impending Y2K conundrum had begun to reach fever pitch.

Image credit: Cartoon Network


As the nineties turned to the noughties and the feared Y2K bug failed to materialise, the battle over the world’s inboxes continued.

Global email use continued to grow, and with it global corporate efforts to exploit that fact. A ceaseless game of catch-up between marketers who wished to reach global email audiences on a large scale, governments which wished to assert control over internet correspondence, frustrated users who strove to live spam-free lives, and the internet startups who wanted to provide those spam-free lives (for a small fee). Each entity would develop technology or legislation and briefly gain the upper hand, only to have another entity quickly develop a workaround.

And so it went…

Simultaneously, a seismic shift in internet use occurred, spurred on by the coming of age of mobile smartphone technology, as mobile internet use began to overtake the personal computer as the internet viewing platform of choice.

Email marketers scrambled to catch up. The race toward “responsive design”, that allowed emails to display properly regardless of which device on which they were opened, was on.

Enter Social Media

As the email marketing stalemate dragged on, a new horse entered the race: Social media

Platforms like MySpace, Facebook and Twitter began to chew up internet market share and drive unheard-of traffic to their sites. Classic email began to look like a dinosaur next to these shiny, intriguing new toys.

Email, and those who utilised it for marketing, had done little to better the platform in well over a decade. The medium had grown stale, creating a market gap that social media sites had masterfully rushed in to fill. Internet pundits began to call for email’s head, and the “#emailisdead” narrative was born.


Social media marketing became everybody’s number 1 priority. As marketing budgets followed public perception, social media sites began to rake in cash (well, most of them did…) and email marketing was relegated to the “niche” category, a circumstance in which it began to flourish once more.

As email became a tool for reaching niche audiences and moved deftly away from the old “spray and pray” approach, those who remained to keep email marketing’s flame alight took a look inward, to evaluate what they were doing and how they could do it better.

As the data trickled in, it was becoming clear that the promises of social media marketing were unlikely to be realised. The ROI of marketing email budgets outperformed that of social media by a wide margin and on a consistent basis.

The pendulum began to swing back.

So began email marketing’s renaissance


Relevance, audience segmentation, automation, data analytics, machine learning and design technology all converged to create new and exciting approaches to email marketing strategies. Marketing emails targeted at, and customised for, segmented, niche audiences of subscribers began to pay big dividends.

Companies aware of this trend moved quickly to maximise the potential of such markets, developing the effective and user friendly services and products which would allow modern businesses to experience the benefits of recommitting to email marketing as an essential part of any B2C or B2B marketing strategy.

Which brings us to today.

As the data continues to come in, email’s resurgence picks up steam by the day, helped along by the spamification of social media. An exasperated social media user base is beginning to move back toward communicating via email, a platform on which the user has much more control.

Advanced data analytics and on going optimisation based on those analytics has given us email marketing reborn: A relevant, easy to use and cheap way to reach audiences on a large scale and on a regular basis.

And isn’t that really every marketer’s dream?

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