Chelsey Church

In recent years, social media has helped foster communication between people all over the world, but email has been doing it for decades.

In fact, a 2021 forecasting report by The Radicati Group found the number of email users around the world will reach almost 4.4 billion by the end of 2023. And, by 2025, this number is expected to reach nearly 4.6 billion.

So, if you’re a marketer and you’re not using email for business purposes yet, what exactly are you waiting for?

The Evolution of Email Marketing

Before email, marketers relied on traditional print mail for distributing advertisements in the form of flyers, catalogs and promotional letters. Thankfully, today you don’t have to head to your local FedEx and print out hundreds upon thousands of ads anymore. 

Email marketing has transformed the way businesses reach their customers, turning what used to be a distribution headache into a swift click of a button. It’s one of the most convenient and low-cost ways to advertise valuable content to potentially hundreds of thousands of current and potential customers. In fact, it drives the most return on investment (ROI) of any marketing channel (more on that later), making it one of your most critical marketing avenues.

But, to really appreciate everything it has to offer and to understand how far we’ve come (as well as where we’re headed), we need to dive deep into the history of email marketing and how it transformed into what it is today. 

Let’s take a trip down digital messaging memory lane.

History of email marketing Infographic

The Dawn of Email (1971-1990)

Many of you reading this may not even have been alive during email’s formative 2 decades! If that’s the case, all the more reason to learn about the early years. And, if you were around then, it’s time to get nostalgic.

1971 – The First Email Is Sent

Ray Tomlinson, a computer programmer for MIT’s Arpanet (which was essentially the foundation of what we know today as the internet) holds the title of being the first person to send an email. What did it say? Something along the lines of “Test 123” or perhaps the top row of letter keys, QWERTYUIOP. He thinks (but can’t remember for sure).

1972 – The First Email Management System Is Developed

Not long after, Larry Roberts created an email management database. This system allowed people to list, select, forward and respond to messages.

1978 – The First Email Blast Is Sent

Only a few years down the line, Gary Thuerk, a marketing manager at Digital Equipment Corporation, sent an email to nearly 400 users on Arpanet. We do know this email’s content: It advertised DEC machines (a contraption used to exercise your pectoral muscles, i.e. your chest). The result?

About $13 million in sales. Talk about a win.

This first email blast foreshadowed a bright future for the world of marketing, developing what’s known today as one of internet marketing’s most efficient and important segments.

1982 – The Term “Electronic Mail Message” Is Shortened to “Email”

Referring to digital postage as an “electronic mail message” didn’t exactly roll off the tongue. Life became easier when users began utilizing the term “email” instead. This was the same year the smiley  “:-)” was used, forever changing how internet users spoke online.

1988 – Spam Becomes a Thing

We’re not talking about spiced ham, so why do they have the same name? The email version actually got its name from a Monty Python sketch, but I digress. It was this year that the word “spam” was added to the Oxford English Dictionary and defined as junk mail.

1989 – Lotus Notes Is Launched

Lotus Notes 1.0, one of the first widely used email software services, was created and launched by Ray Ozzie and Mitch Kapor.

1989 – AOL Records the Iconic “You’ve Got Mail!” Track

When I think about the first few emails I ever received, 3 words come to mind: “You’ve got mail!” – in that nostalgic voice, too. Where’d such an iconic phrase and sound come from, anyway?

Former AOL CEO Steve Case shared the story behind the sound in his book “The Third Wave: An Entrepreneur’s Vision of the Future,” and you’d be surprised to learn that it was just a customer-service rep’s husband, a voice-over actor, who recorded it the night of Case’s request.

Email Marketing Takes Shape (1990-2000)

The introduction of the internet to the general public really changed everything about everyone’s daily lives, but it opened up so many new doors for marketers. Gone were the days of relying on snail mail to send catalogues to promote products and services. With email, marketers could experience a whole new – and simplistic – way to directly reach a potential customer.

1998 – Microsoft and Hotmail Launch Their Own Email Services

Microsoft developed and released its Internet Mail, which would go on to be renamed Outlook. The same year, Hotmail launched free email services for the general public. Now, all people with access to the internet could also create their own personal email addresses (which consisted of about 20 million American adults).

Late 1990s – We’re Introduced to HTML Emails Taking Over Plain Text Emails

Plain text emails were the only option up until the late 1990s when HTML emails came about. Using custom fonts, colors, graphics and formatting changed the way messages were perceived. With HTML, opening messages became more of a surprise. Not only has HTML allowed marketers to help develop company brand awareness, but it also enabled them to make calls to action more prominent and engaging.

2003 – The CAN-SPAM Act Is Introduced in the U.S.

The CAN-SPAM Act of 2003 was signed into law by President George W. Bush as the nation’s first standard for sending commercial email, requiring companies to reduce their unsolicited email efforts. 

It also mandated that all marketing emails include sender details and an unsubscribe link, allowing readers to opt-out of receiving messages they found to be annoying or spammy. It clearly worked because we see this information in emails today. And, if we don’t, we can bet good money that the dodgy email in question is a scam. (Deceased long-lost relative with an inheritance, anyone?) Remember, if your marketing email looks like spam, you’re probably going to see your bounce rate rise and your email deliverability decrease dramatically.

For marketers, the Act’s stipulations also prompted trickle-down questions like “How many is too many emails?” and “How can I market to my target audience without deeply annoying them?” These considerations eventually led to a host of marketing best practices surveys and articles across the web with answers like “No more than once a week” and “Personalize wherever you can,” respectively — though it should be noted that every organization’s email strategy should be uniquely tailored for their audience.

2009 – Responsive Emails Are Introduced

Did you know that mobile opens accounted for almost 42% of email reads in 2021? That’s more than on any other device: Webmail opens made up just under 41%, while a little over 16% were desktop opens, according to Litmus. If your emails aren’t optimized for mobile, you run the risk of losing almost half your audience. 

None of this would’ve been possible without the introduction of responsive email in 2009, which enabled marketers to optimize their emails for every user, no matter what device they use to check their inbox.

According to Send Pulse, responsive email is the most effective way to improve email click-through rates, as 70% of people refuse to open or read an email if it doesn’t transfer well from a computer to their smartphone or tablet. Fair enough.

Modern Email Marketing (2010-2020)

Over the last decade, emails have become so much more than messages filled with general text. Now, we pay attention to pre-header text, word placement, visual hierarchy, hero images, gifs, sign-offs and external linking options, all of which can take an email marketing campaign to the next level. In fact, research by Litmus found email has the highest ROI of all marketing channels, generating $36 in revenue for every $1 invested in email marketing..

Today, marketers use email marketing software for virtually every aspect of their email campaigns, from email list segmentation and scheduling to personalizing campaigns and nudging people down the sales funnel. (No doubt we’ll soon see ChatGPT join the email automation ranks for writing email content).

Email marketing automation has also gone one step further with artificial intelligence (AI). Machines can learn what aspects of your email marketing campaign work (or don’t) and help you fix your email marketing strategy and optimize accordingly. Are the robots taking over? That’s up to you to decide.

Email Marketing in a Post-pandemic World (2020-Today)

Nearly everyone remembers where they were when the World Health Organization declared that the Coronavirus was a pandemic in 2020. Almost immediately, governments across the world instituted national lockdowns to curb the virus’s spread. Millions of people, forced to stay at home with nowhere to go, turned to the internet for entertainment (Netflix’s “Tiger King” comes to mind).

Somewhat naturally, this led to an e-commerce boom. After all, people couldn’t visit malls or high streets to make purchases (frivolous or otherwise). And so, marketers knew they had to hop online more than ever to market their products.

We’ve seen a few other trends emerge, too. Understandably, people are increasingly concerned about their privacy online, which has led to laws requiring marketers to gain consent before emailing contacts on their list. 

Because consumers these days are bombarded with marketing 24/7, hyper-personalization has become the name of the game. It’s not enough just to plop someone’s name in the subject line and intro: You have to tailor your messaging to match what a recipient wants to resolve or learn about.

Email layouts have changed, too. Users want to interact with marketing content, and marketers have responded by using interactive elements like polls. Smartphone “dark modes” have forced email marketers to ensure their email is legible (at the very least) when the display isn’t simply “colored text on white background.” 

The Future of Email Marketing 

Email has completely changed the way we communicate, and email marketing has made it easier for marketers to reach potential customers at scale. Very few people, if any, could have predicted the countless changes email would undergo since its humble beginnings in the 1970s.

With the success that stemmed from smartphones and social media, future digital innovations will only help email marketing grow and become a more optimized, prominent option for advertising. And, seeing as no one has a crystal ball (that works), we can’t forecast with 100% certainty how email will continue to evolve or what types of email marketing campaigns might be created in the weeks, months and years ahead.

If one thing’s for sure, it’s that email marketing isn’t going anywhere. That means marketers must stay up to date with the latest trends and patterns. For now, email marketing’s ROI shows no signs of decreasing any time soon. 

As a marketer, it’s your job to take advantage of this and look forward to what the future has in store. 

Editor’s Note: Updated May 2023.