The Evolution of Email Marketing

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From Gary Thuerk’s first marketing email to 123 messages a day, how did we get here?


On a given day, an average business email user will receive 123 messages and send 33, according to a Radicati Group report. Simply put, email consumes people’s working hours. And that imbalance between sent mail and received mail highlights the influence of email marketing.

Even if an average email user stopped sending any messages, they’d still get inbound messages from their healthcare providers, retailers, entertainment companies, and any other business they are a customer of or expressed an interest in. How did we get here and where is the industry going?

It all starts with Gary Thuerk. He was a marketing manager at Digital Equipment Corp. tasked with promoting the company’s new T-series of VAX systems in 1978. With hundreds of interested customers, Thuerk had to devise a way to communicate to all of them at the same time.

The birth of spam

In 1976, the same year Apple Computer was founded, DEC decided to extend the PDP-11 architecture to 32 bits with an addition of a complete virtual memory system. The result was the VAX architecture, or Virtual Address eXtension. The first computer to use this computation architecture was VAX-11/780, referred to by DEC as a “superminicomputer.” The company’s newest model of this superminicomputer would be the T-series.

Thuerk needed to figure out a method to alert the company’s customers, a technology that would allow him to garner the attention of east coast and west coast consumers at the same time. Rather than write messages to each customer, the marketing manager had his assistant, Carl Gartley, type up a single email in all capital letters for an informational event about the T-series and pressed “Send” to 400 customers.

The result, according to Thuerk in an interview with Computer World in 2007, was the sales of $ 13 million or $ 14 million worth of DEC machines through the email campaign. Thuerk admitted, “complaints started coming in almost immediately,” but paled in comparison to the positivity.

The term “spam” would come later. (The origins of how the word spam became linked with email marketing are as muddled as the origin of email itself. Some believe the term was derived from a 1970 Monty Python skit, others are under the impression it comes from the first real time multi-person shared environment, MUDs [multi-user-dungeons]). Thuerk’s decision revolutionized the functionality of email immediately and marketing strategies forever. Companies were now capable of blasting unsolicited emails and/or malware to an unqualified list of recipients.

How did Hormel Foods, creator of the original SPAM food product take this? At first, not well, but have accepted the reality as long as spam is kept lowercase.

The Internet Opens, Marketers Enter

In 1989, British scientist Tim Berners-Lee started to create html, http and the world’s very first web pages at CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research). The organization would go on to published a paper two years later called “The New World Wide Web Project,” which is considered many to be the “birth” of the internet.

For the first time in human history, a global service existed at the fingertips of the people. Anyone was able to participate. Everyone was capable of contribution. With the advent of the first free email service, Hotmail!, in 1996, the world could communicate. And brands wanted to talk. Corporations blasted ads through emails about quicker loans, faster cars, easier diets, cheaper pills and everything in between.

Best of all? It was free for a brand to send as many emails as they could. On the surface, this seems like a bug rather than a feature. Electronic mail was taking the place of physical postal mail, which required a stamp to get to the intended destination.

Free email, however, is the quintessential “genie back in the bottle” problem. Though often discussed as a thought experiment, no serious proposal for an email toll has gotten close to implementation.

Perhaps the most famous email marketing campaigns in 1996 was by the software product company Xoom. In December of that year, six million internet users were sent an advertisement about the “Email Robot.” The new package of software, also known as the spam to kill all spam, was designed to block all spam emails from a user’s account. The result, unfortunately for Xoom, was more recognition for the actual stunt than the product itself.

Two years later, the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland developed the Data Protection Act which defines the processing of data on identifiable living people. The legislation governed the protection of personal data in the UK by stating an express or opt-in consent would be required for any direct marketing communications, such data relating to ethnicity, politics or medical conditions.

In the months prior to 2000, computers users and the public alike was introduced to the term Y2K. The Millennium bug, as it was also known, was an assumed computation issue associated with the last two digits in the year, whereby a variety of issues would arise from incorrect display of dates to inaccurate ordering of automated dated records.

Spam emailing marketing took full advantage of the public’s fear. Most notably, EarthWeb launched an email marketing campaign called the Be Prepared Sweepstakes. To celebrate the launch of Y2KInfo, a news and discussion site, the company announced it would give away a grand prize of $ 10,000 in gold coins.

New Millennium, New Laws, New Tools

The CAN-SPAM ACT was signed by U.S. President George W. Bush in 2003, in an effort to establish the country’s first national standards for the sending of commercial email. It required the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to enforce the three basic types of compliance defined in the CAN-SPAM act: unsubscribe, content and sending behavior compliance. However, no restrictions were placed toward companies emailing their existing customers.

Companies realigned their emailing marketing strategies by avoiding spam triggers. Automatic email spam filtering occurs when the email includes trigger words, text in all caps, exclamation points, attachments, a disproportionate email image to text ratio, different colored fonts or a low open rate. In addition, consumers can select an email as spam.

AOL created a program to deliver feedback to some email service providers in 2004. For the first time, marketers were able to see what their consumers thought of their email. The same year, Hotmail and Yahoo developed similar programs, thereby broadening the scope for marketers and their metrics.

In response, a variety of internet service providers introduced a range of methods to protect customers from “unwanted” email. Windows Live Sender Reputation Data gave recipients the opportunity to decide whether an email is spam or not. Hotmail Sweep and Google’s Priority Inbox, both launched in 2010, were designed to help email users de-clutter their inboxes.

These programs forced companies to become more strategic in their email marketing campaigns if they wanted to get noticed. For instance, in 2015, Tory Burch began to add animation to their ads, JetBlue timed the release of ads with specific anniversaries and Amazon provided personalized deals.

The result continued to make email marketing a viable tool to reach consumers. Email marketing, according to Custora E-Commerce Pulse in 2015, drove 25.1 percent of orders on Black Friday.

The Future

Email marketing has never been more alive. As a result, the trend appears to be email marketing campaigns geared toward hyper-personalized ads through marketing automation vendors.

Hurdles remain for marketers, especially considering the clash between global commerce and national and regional data protection laws.

On the horizon, the European Commission will introduce the General Data Protection Regulation in May 2018, which is intended to strengthen and unify data protection for individuals within the European Union.

As history has shown, email marketing will evolve.

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