The Evolution of Digital Marketing: Email Marketing

Published on September 15, 2017

When Ray Tomlinson sent the first network email in 1971, how could he have known that he was later going to be celebrated as a pioneer of one of the most important communication innovations in all of human history?

After all, the message that Tomlinson sent probably consisted of little more than "something like QWERTYUIOP,” and it was received by a computer literally just feet away, in the same Cambridge, Massachusetts lab. Nevertheless, what Tomlinson achieved over the ARPANET sent shockwaves around the world – and has forever shaped our culture.

Today, email is so ubiquitous that it’s a bit like eating, breathing, or sleeping. According to one study, people send more than 200 billion emails a day – which translates to more than 2 million emails every second. And we’re not just reading these emails on our desktops; no, today, we are clicking, engaging, reading, watching, and listening to the contents of our emails on a variety of devices, from watches to smartphones.

How did we get from there to here? Let’s explore the evolution of email – and how it became not just a commonplace form of online communication, but also a key cornerstone of modern digital marketing:

The Early 1990s: The Internet Goes Mainstream

Instantaneous communication is one of the greatest aspects to the internet, but, prior to the 1990s, that capability rested in the hands of a select few researchers, scientists, and students. As the internet as we know it began to take shape and become more popular among everyday people circa 1991, we also saw the birth of email as a movement.

Again, though, access to email was, at first, somewhat limited. In the early ‘90s, students typically got access to email thanks to their university, and employees in certain fields also began to adopt email as a corporate tool. Similarly, home computer users generally got access to an email via their internet service provider, or ISP (such as AOL or Prodigy); however, access to these accounts was generally pretty restricted, and users could only log on to their email when using the computer supported by their ISP.

1996: The First Web-Based Email Service Launches

So, when did email become the free, accessible, use-anywhere service that we know and love today? Most experts point to the year 1996, when Hotmail emerged onto the scene.

Widely heralded as the first web-based email service, Hotmail (once known as HoTMaiL, as a reference to HTML), made email accessible to everyone. It was a free service, used over an internet browser – meaning that anyone could send or receive emails from any computer, as long as it was hooked up to the internet.

Hotmail led to an email explosion. Millions of users began adopting web-based email (or “webmail”), en masse, as other providers jumped into the fray, most notably Yahoo!, which launched its Yahoo! Mail service in 1997, after acquiring RocketMail.

The Late 1990s: Email Marketing Takes Hold

As more and more people adopted email accounts and addresses, brands began to see the value of email as a direct marketing tool: They could send users promotions, deals, and ads directly, without having to pay for the printed materials or telephone calls that had previously made up the bulk of direct-to-consumer marketing efforts.

Today, we call these unsolicited marketing emails “spam,” and we also have a phrase for the tactics of these early email marketers: “spray and pray.” In other words? These marketers would blast out an email to as many addresses as possible, in the hopes that some people would open the message and respond, leading to a sale.

In short order, scam artists and con-men also began sending bulk emails. In a matter of years, email inboxes went from empty to overflowing, as users began to receive spam by the barrel – since the ad blockers and email filters that we take for granted today were still far from going mainstream (it bears reminding that Gmail, one of the biggest and most sophisticated players in webmail today, didn’t launch until 2004).

The Early 2000s: Regulation Becomes the Watchword

Recognizing the prevalence of unwanted spam, some companies began to make adjustments, and spam blocking service providers were born; there was also a movement towards stricter regulations on business emails during the late ‘90s and early 2000s.

Specifically, we’re referring to CAN-SPAM, a major piece of legislation that forever changed the shape of email marketing in the United States. Signed into law in 2003 by George W. Bush, the CAN-SPAM act set strict regulations on commercial emails, creating a set of parameters for email marketing efforts and establishing strict penalties for violators.

Specifically, CAN-SPAM made it illegal to include misleading subject lines, required marketers to label their missives as ads, and provide key identifying information, such as a valid postal address. Most importantly, CAN-SPAM also made it a requirement to offer customers the ability to “opt out” of email marketing campaigns swiftly and effortlessly.

Today: Mobile Dominates the Scene

Concurrent to everything we've already discussed above was the rise of mobile devices – first smartphones, then tablets, and, finally, watches and other wearables.

Over the course of the 2000s, we saw a massive tidal shift, away from desktops and laptops and toward these mobile devices. Today, mobile devices actually account for the majority of all internet usage, and they’ve become the primary way in which people check and send their emails.

Indeed, according to one study of more than 13 billion email opens, mobile devices now comprise up to 51% of all email opens. This enormous cultural and technological shift happened fairly quickly, too; according to Forbes, mobile email opens jumped up more than 500% between 2011 and 2014.

But there is still some evidence that marketers haven’t been able to keep up with this mobile boom when it comes to email – particularly when you consider that more than 80% of email marketing subscribers report that they will delete an email if it doesn’t look good on their mobile device.

At the same time, new technologies have combined to turn the humble email into something much more flashy and advanced; today’s email marketing users aren’t just expecting well-written text, but also embedded social media posts, videos, GIFs, and stunning imagery.

Will your brand be able to keep up with the continuing rise of mobile – and whatever’s coming next?

Is your email marketing CAN-SPAM compliant? Are you curious about what it takes to get started generating high quality content or building up a contact list?

Whatever your email marketing needs, Geek Chicago is here to help! Drop us a line today with any questions or concerns!

We hope you enjoyed this little look at the past, present, and future of email and email marketing, one of the most important facets of a comprehensive digital marketing campaign. This is the last part of our multi-part series designed to spotlight the history and evolution of digital marketing as we know it; be sure to also check out our look into the history of SEO, and check out our timeline on the history of social media, here