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We are close to celebrating 50 years of the birth and emergence of email. Crazy to think that something that still continues to grow and evolve has been around for so long and yet we have only seen the tip of the iceberg for what limitless potential it has to offer.

When was the First Email Sent?

The very first email was sent in 1971 by a computer engineer by the name of Ray Tomlinson. Ray developed a new system of sending messages between computers, known now as electronic mail (email or e-mail). This method of sending and receiving messages between people using electronic devices pre-dates the invention of the internet. It relied on ARPANET, which was the US Department of Defense system, which eventually became the basis for the internet.

When was the First Email Marketing Campaign?

What was considered to be a mass email blast at that time, with an approximate count of 400 recipients, a man by the name of Gary Theurk of Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) sent out the first email marketing campaign in 1978. This email blast was a promotion for his company’s computers, resulting in $13 million worth of sales.

This first email marketing campaign set the following two things into motion:

#1 – It set the stage for the marketing through mass emails.

#2 – It became the first ever recorded spam message.

Early Evolution of Email

Email back then primarily relied on both sender and recipient to be online at the same time in order for the actual delivery of the email to occur. It wasn’t until the invention of the internet in 1991 that email began to be more readily available to users. Email was reliant upon computer networks, so the emergence of the internet expanded that network allowing greater access.

Today, email systems are able to store messages and deliver them to recipients at the time that the user decides to connect. This method is known as the store-and-forward model. This model allowed email servers to accept, forward, deliver and store messages as needed.

In addition, email was siloed into what was known as closed platform. Many of the email platforms during this time were closed off to other platforms, meaning that emails could only be sent and received to the same platform as you. Today, we know and understand email as being an open platform application. Allowing us to send and receive emails across many different apps and devices.

The Growth of Email Popularity

Though the internet was launched in 1991, email was still seen as a novelty for the general public. It was primarily used by Corporations and Universities.  I wasn’t until 1996, when Hotmail launched their first free web-based email service that email began to gain popularity with the general public. This changed the landscape not only for email but for internet and marketers alike.

The Evolution of Spam

As more and more of the public jumped onto email, marketers soon realized the advantages of email marketing, mass email blasting. People began to find their inboxes flooded with unsolicited emails.

These emails were soon labeled as ‘spam.’ Oddly enough the name was derived from the actual SPAM luncheon meat where in a Monty Python sketch Spam portrayed as ubiquitous, unavoidable, and repetitive.

Kudos to whoever came up with that one!

As a result of this overwhelming, unsolicited email wave, in 1998 the Data Protection Act was updated to ensure all email marketing included an opt-out.

Fun Fact: 1996: Only 20 million Americas had access to the internet with an average of only 30 minutes per month on the web. Today, the average American spends 96 hours per month online (24 hours per week).

In 2003, the US Congress put forth its first regulation towards commercial emails with what was known as the CAN-SPAM Act.

Fun Fact: CAN-SPAM is an acronym and is not directly related to the SPAM luncheon meat reference as earlier mentioned. CAN-SPAM derives from the bill’s full name: Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography And Marketing.

This law was enacted to be a measure in controlling the assault of non-solicited pornography and marketing and required the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to enforce its provisions. Among other things, the CAN-SPAM act required the following:

  1. Don’t use false or misleading header information.
  2. Don’t use deceptive subject lines.
  3. Identify the message as an ad.
  4. Tell recipients where you’re located.
  5. Tell recipients how to opt out of the receiving future email from you.
  6. Honor opt-out requests promptly.
  7. Monitor what others are doing on your behalf.

Oddly enough, this law was referred to by some as the “You-Can-Spam” Act as it failed to prevent e-mail spam and unfortunately prevented some states from being able to enact even stronger measures against anti-spam efforts. The biggest fail on the part of the CAN-SPAM Act was that it failed to require marketing permission.

But in that same year, Europe prevailed by introducing the Privacy and Electronic Communication Regulations, or PECR for short, which defined the rules for marketing permission. The main premise behind this regulation was the governing of marketing by electronic means, which included calls, texts, emails and yes even fax. Marketing permission required that someone must grant permission to be marketed to, via an opt-in agreement, or have some form of previous relationship in order to be marketed towards.

Fun Fact: The PECR also addressed the use of cookies or similar technologies to track information about people. Sound familiar? Well it should. The PECR was a precursor to the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR). The GDPR was not created to overwrite the PECR but rather further protect the rights and privacy of citizens.

These laws, written over 16 years ago, still protect us today from being spammed without our consent.

In 2004, Sender Policy Framework (SPF) was introduced to authenticate emails by validating their sender IP address. Simply put, it was an email validation system to prevent email spam through the use of forging a sender’s address. This system protected both the sender and the recipient from forgery and phishing techniques.

What is Phishing?

Phishing is a type of email scam and identify theft, towards both the business and consumer, used to dupe recipients into disclosing private information such as usernames, passwords, and credit card details.

Prior to the SPF, anti-spam efforts were managed more so by the internet service providers (ISPs) through the use of IP reputation and Content Reputation.

IP Reputation measured the bounces, spam and unwanted bulk mail that was sent from an IP address to determine whether users would want to receive email from that IP.

Content Reputation was based on a similar measurement. A sender’s content reputation would decrease if their emails get low open rates, blocked or unsubscribed from. The added measure came from a content filter that looked at the type of content. There are clear triggers that flag an email such as an attached virus or requests for personal information.

The Advancement of Email Marketing

Email marketing has come a long way over the course of the past couple of decades. Its rise and fall has led to advancements that have made it an even stronger form of marketing communication. Its ability to promote, advertise and engage with consumers has never been more worthwhile.

We have the following technological advancements to thank for this:

Mobile Emails

With the invention of the smart phone in 1992, access to internet and email is now accessible on the go. In 2007, Apple released their first iPhone and by 2011 had announced that they had sold over 100 million iPhones. This led to a major shift in the way marketers sent emails.

Fun Fact: In 2012 it was reported over 40% of emails were opened on a mobile device. This percentage rose to nearly 50% of emails being opened on mobile devices by 2018.

Mobile-Friendly Emails

With Apples iPhone launch came the demand for mobile-friendly emails. The ability for emails to be viewed both on desktop and phone had grown as the popularity and usage of smart phones had drastically risen overnight. The adaptation of the HTML email for mobile responsiveness allowed for marketers to send emails to their consumers with the peace of mind that it could render both on desktop and mobile devices.


Only time will tell where email marketing will take us, but if history has anything to say about it, it does tell us this – Email is here to stay.

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