Back to the Future IV: The Evolution of Email Marketing

If 2016 was the year that will go down in the history books for testing our patience for the term “dumpster fire” (no matter how accurate it was at all times always), 2017 is already shaping up to be a year of unparalleled technological advances.

A Keurig for cocktails! A Nintendo where the controller comes apart, and it’s supposed to do that! And most importantly of all, a time machine!

That’s right.

Granted, it’s not perfect yet. It’s not encased in a gull-winged sports car. It can’t fly. And it can only travel through the history of email marketing. Okay, fine, it’s just this blog post.
Maybe it’s not a tricked-out DeLorean, but a look back at how everybody’s favorite marketing tool has evolved through the years is still pretty darn exciting, right? There’s only one way to find out: get in and buckle up.

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Traveling salesman Aaron Montgomery Ward creates the first direct mail catalog, pioneering fundamental marketing practices used to this day. If you don’t remember postal mail, think of it as analog email. Acoustic email. Email: The MTV Unplugged Sessions.

1971: Fast forward to a century later, when junior ARPANET employee Raymond Tomlinson sends the first electronic mail. Sadly, the true contents of the historic message are lost to time; the only thing Tomlinson remembers was that it was something “insignificant”, most like a hardworking dog GIF. A far cry from the last cat gif you sent to your pal.
1978: On May 1, a day which will live in infamy, Gary Thuerk sends the first unsolicited mass email in an attempt to sell computer equipment. The message earns him the title of the Father of Spam, even though Thuerk insists he was merely “marketing.” You probably know how that feels. While the stunt annoys a few people, it works: the emails rake in $13 million in computer sales, an astronomical ROI that to this day has only been matched by saying, “Dude, you’re getting a Dell!”

Late 1980s/Early 1990s: The term “spam” first gained prominence as a way to describe annoying
online behavior
(such as clogging chat rooms with a repeated message), paving the way for its eventual adoption by email users in 1993. A reference to the classic Monty Python sketch, the term is the bane of every email marketer’s existence, but it could be worse: at least you don’t get called the Spanish Inquisition.

1996: Meanwhile, as the Internet goes mainstream and AOL “You’ve got mail!”s its way into our hearts, Hotmail also becomes the first web-based email client. Email is everywhere, and marketers begin to ask questions: Is this a new channel to reach potential customers? Can we use this to establish one-on-one communication with our audience? Did you see last night’s episode of Friends?

Dancing baby.

1998: Outlook introduces support for HTML in emails, and other major clients follow suit over the next few years. While this paves the way for the beautiful emails that fill the modern inbox, critics of HTML email have concerns about security, compatibility, and whether “fancy” email takes away from the focus of plain-text email. These concerns are surely put to rest when detractors realize updated email clients make it easier to pass around that dancing baby gif.

The New Millennium: As if the Y2K bug wasn’t scary enough, the Internet must deal with another growing problem threatening to destroy the world. With no legislative limits, and only the most rudimentary of filters, spam is everywhere. People can’t open their inboxes without requests from Nigerian princes, a digital twist on the old Spanish prisoner scheme. Maybe calling spam “The Spanish Inquisition” wouldn’t have been so far off after all.

2003: Congress finally takes a stand on spam by passing the CAN-SPAM Act, and just in time; this is also the first year more spam is sent than legitimate email. In addition to setting a new standard for contrived acronyms, the law establishes some basic best practices for marketers to follow and some hefty fines for those who don’t.

2007: While the BlackBerry had long made email mobile, the introduction of the iPhone spurs a smartphone revolution. Email marketers now have constant access to their audience, but the email developers already tasked with accommodating different email clients must now keep mobile screens in mind.

Unfortunately, those email clients don’t make things easy; this was also the year that Outlook switched to a Word-based rendering engine, to the chagrin of marketers, developers, and gif-watchers everywhere. Outlook has yet to reverse this move, but perhaps in 2017 though with the “year of unparalleled technological advances…?”

2010s: After dethroning fake foreign dignitaries and their promises of untold riches, spam filters go one step further by factoring engagement metrics into inbox placement. People were already starting to use “spam” to refer to any marketing emails, and now inboxes are too. Now it’s marketing’s turn to adapt: in order to make it to the inbox, marketers have to send open-worthy email.

2015: Emails opened on mobile devices surpass desktop opens for the first time. Mobile-friendly email is now a necessity, but developers are more than ready with an arsenal of design tools. Whether by fluid or responsive design, emails are just as pretty as the devices opening them, #NoFilter.

2016: Developers hesitant to implement responsive email design are thrilled by a Gmail update that introduced support for media queries. The shift means that the vast majority of email users can now view responsive emails as they were designed to be seen, which pretty much makes the whole rest of 2016 worth it.

Your future is whatever you make it, so make it a good one.

Back to the Present: Despite the never-ending parade of “email-killing” apps, platforms, and bloggers, a look outside our time machine seems to indicate that email is still very much alive. Email is the preferred way for audiences to receive communication from companies, the newsletter is all the rage, and email outpaces everything when it comes to ROI. Maybe we’ll never have flying cars, but a marketing tool that can do all that without unraveling the fabric of the space-time continuum will certainly be part of our future for years to come.

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Editor, PostUp PlayBook