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The evolution of email marketing [infographic]

Author's avatar By Expert commentator 24 May, 2013
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The Email Marketing timeline

It’s been 42 years since Ray Tomlinson sent the first ever email. The history of email itself is one thing, but the evolution of email marketing is quite another. Over the past 42 years, email (the ability to send messages through a network) has evolved into one of the most cost effective forms of direct marketing. Not only is the method fast and cheap, but it has opened the door to how marketers can monitor and react to consumer behaviour in a way that was never previously possible.

This blog post provides the history to email marketing along with an Infographic below. How far back do you remember?

Timeline for email marketing

Billed as the 'Father of Spam' Gary Thuerk, a Marketing Manager at Digital Equipment Corp started the ball rolling for commercial email by sending the first mass emailing. (Ok, it was only a few hundred but in those days that was mass mailing!).

In 1978, Thuerk sent an email promoting DEC machines to 400 users via Arpanet. What would have then been a complete novelty for recipients (receiving a sales/marketing message direct to their computer’s inbox) resulted in $13 million worth of sales for DEC machines (and a few complaints!). From the start, email launched itself as an effective channel for direct marketing.

In 1991, the introduction of the Internet completely revolutionised how everyone would live, work and play. For marketers across the world it opened the door to a new way of mass communication. When Hotmail (then known as HoTMaiL) launched as the first free web based email service it gave marketers a whole new way to reach customers. Previously email was only available to students or employees. The introduction of personal email addresses (that were free and available to all) transformed direct marketing.

Up until the 1990s, B2C direct marketing was mostly done by post or the telephone, and both methods were very expensive. With email, marketers were now given a cost effective, quick way to reach consumers. It was seen as a blast all mass marketing solution; the days or spray and pray email marketing began.

Back in the 1990s, email was still seen as somewhat of a novelty for consumers; but as more and more marketers started to jump on the bandwagon, inboxes soon become cluttered with unsolicited mailings and rules began to be put in place to protect consumers from 'spam'.

In 1998 the Data Protection Act was updated to ensure all email marketing included an opt-out; in 2003 the Can Spam Law was introduced in the US setting the first regulations for commercial emails; in the same year in Europe, the Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations were introduced defining rules for marketing permission; and in 2004 Sender Policy Framework (SPF) was introduced providing an email validation system to help prevent email spam by verifying a sender IP address.

During this period the volume of marketing emails being delivered started to rise considerably, as did the volume of virus laden or pharmaceutical spam, turning the email environment into a virtual battleground between the senders and the receivers of email.

Email marketers became caught up in the new filtering rules ISP’s were using to combat spam, and the lines were drawn, with both sides blaming each other for deliverability problems.

By 2004, AOL had started to hand back recipient feedback to some email service providers, with Hotmail and Yahoo introducing recipient feedback schemes shortly after. All of a sudden, marketers could see what their recipients thought of their emails, and could use spam complaints as a metric.

This was the start of the recipient focused anti-spam strategy that has followed on to the present day.

By the late noughties ISPs had introduced a range of methods to protect customers from “unwanted” email. Windows Live Sender Reputation Data (2008) allows recipients to vote for whether an email is spam or not; Hotmail Sweep and Google’s Priority Inbox (both 2010), were created to help recipients de-clutter their inboxes. Introductions such as these have caused email marketers to be more strategic if they want to get their messages noticed. Around the same time reports released by several marketing organisations helped force marketers to focus on their strategies if they wanted to be successful.

In 2009 Return Path reported nearly 30% of commercial emails sent to users did not reach the inbox; in the same year Merkle reported a lack of relevance was the biggest reason users decided to opt-out of emails. With recipients able to dictate what email they chose to receive and given the power to block those they didn’t want, email started to evolve as a pull rather than a push strategy.

During this time, it was fast becoming acknowledged that it was no longer good enough to send an email and hope it would reach the inbox and be opened. If marketers wanted their emails delivered, opened and read, they needed to be more strategic with what they were sending.

Marketers began to realise they needed to look after their email reputation or otherwise they could end up on the recipients blacklist or in the junk folder. In order to look after their email reputation marketers needed to ensure they were engaging recipients.

The answer was to make emails both timely and relevant through the implementation of triggered email reacting to online user behaviour. The first ever behavioural email was sent in 2001. By 2010 it was reported 48% of online marketers were using triggered emails.

In addition to the changes forced upon email marketers by industry rules and regulations, the change in social culture also played an integral part in how email marketing has evolved.

In 1992, the first smart phone was launched enabling email access through a mobile and in 2007 Apple released the first iPhone. In 2011 Apple announced it had sold over 100 million iPhones and the same year it was reported email was used by 75% of British iPhone owners, making it the most popular internet activity on the phone.

By 2012, it was reported over 40% of marketing emails were opened on a mobile device. With so much emphasis put on consumers reading emails through a mobile, marketers were forced to think about how their emails rendered on a phone.

Creative suddenly started to matter for very different reasons than it had 10 years ago.

Around this time, social media also had an impact on email marketing. Facebook launched publically (to anyone over 13 years of age) in 2006. By late 2007 the site had over 100,000 business pages, allowing companies to attract potential customers. Consumers could now interact with a brand through multiple channels; online, instore, Twitter, Facebook, email.

With the explosion of digital through both social media and mobile, consumers started to expect more. All of a sudden the importance of data collection and data management became essential.

In the past 3 years the importance of data (and in particular a segmented approach) has dramatically changed how most marketers position the email channel.

The rise in automated and behavioural led programmes have seen a reduction to the traditional newsletter approach as email strategies have evolved to focus on the specific needs and wants of each individual user. What started off as a purely mass marketing strategy has evolved into a strategy for customer and brand development.

Last year the DMA reported, 72% of marketers feel email is great for developing loyal and active customers; and activity and lifecycle-based triggers produce 22% of total email marketing revenue.

Today marketing automation systems enabling advanced segmentation allow companies to send highly targeted email communication. Practices such as dynamic content have been introduced to create a near 1-2-1 experience between the user and the brand; and with more emphasis on relevance and engagement in order to achieve a good email reputation, quality is replacing quantity as a strategic approach to email marketing.

Our Infographic provides an overview of the history of email marketing and how it had evolved.


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