Important Lessons on Email Marketing’s 40th Birthday

Important Lessons on Email Marketing’s 40th Birthday

May 3, 2018, marked the 40th anniversary of the first spam email being sent. While that may not sound like a landmark worth celebrating, the sender of the first unsolicited marketing pitch over email servers was actually onto something. Now, decades later, email serves as one of the most effective marketing channels.

The one thing that’s changed — and that’s also prevented people from ditching email altogether — is that email services have gotten more sophisticated. Spam filtering, contact list segmentation, interactive HTML elements, and especially email analytics have had a significant impact. They’ve given the marketing channel the edge it needs to keep people’s inboxes clear while also keeping marketers happy about their results.

And the results do speak for themselves. The average open rate for marketing emails is over 20%, meaning one out of every five recipients are likely to at least read an email. Some industries enjoy even higher rates; hobbyist businesses have open rates over 27%.

Meanwhile, the consumers themselves don’t seem to mind staying in touch with their favorite brands. According to a 2017 survey, 75% of online consumers say they’re at least “somewhat likely” to open a marketing email, and 44% prefer email for communication with brands over any other method.

How did we get to this point from the days when 99% of your email was sure to be garbage? Marketers took note of the following lessons from email marketing history:

1978: Even When Email Marketing Works, It Should Be Targeted to Avoid Irritating Others

That very first spam email we mentioned above was sent in 1978 by Gary Thuerk, who worked for Digital Equipment Corp (DEC). Wanting to promote the company’s new processors, Thuerk had an assistant type up a message and send it electronically to 400 ARPAnet addresses.

In true spam email fashion, the message was typed in all caps.

Thuerk’s email was a success, and he credits it with helping grease the wheels for $13 million to $14 million worth of DEC equipment sales. However, many people were less than happy to receive unsolicited advertising on their computer. “Complaints started coming in almost immediately,” Thuerk admitted in an interview with Computer World in 2007.

Lesson: Segment your email lists so that only the most relevant messages get sent to the crowd most likely to be interested. Maintain your lists, and audit them over time using KPI data, such as your unsubscribe rate.

1998: Let People Opt-Out (And Consider Defaulting to Opt-In)

Europe has always been more forward about privacy protections than us folks across the pond, but it still took 20 years for a European nation to act upon the deluge of spam and direct marketing that resulted from the rise of email. Chalk that up to the fact that many people were slow to adopt email, but by 1998, the UK had decided that enough was enough.

The Data Protection Act of 1998 was passed in direct response to abuses by the direct marketing industries. It gave UK citizens the right to audit their own data (a provision later extended by the GDPR), and it also mandated that citizens have a right to “unsubscribe” from email marketing lists. The US adopted similar laws with the CAN-SPAM Act of 2003.

Lesson: Sending unwanted emails can not only result in unhappy non-customers, but also potential legal action or fines. Make opt out easy, visible, and permanent. Now that GDPR guidelines are being embraced the world over, consider switching to “opt in” exclusively, and let people check off which types of promotions and emails they’re most interested in to make segmenting easy.

2004: Realize That Email Marketing Is a Privilege, Not a Right

The unstoppable flow of spam could not be plugged by legislation alone. Tech companies that provided the infrastructure for email had to step in.

That’s exactly what AOL started doing in 2004. That year, they introduced a program to notify email senders of exactly how many of their emails had been marked as “spam.” Companies that repeatedly abused the system had their access blocked by the email service provider.

Gmail also launched in 2004, and they later helped introduced the SenderScore. A SenderScore was the sum of your reputation as measured by KPIs like bounce rate, unsubscribe rate, and especially spam reporting. Senders could also see their addresses blocked if they showed certain mass spam signs, such as using dummy IPs to mask the true sender address.

Lesson: You do owe email recipients respect, and losing that respect could lead to you losing your privilege to send emails at all. Follow best practices to avoid spam filters. Otherwise, you could be blocked or have your emails automatically flagged.

2007: This Whole Mobile Thing’s Catching On!

Apple launched the first iPhone in 2007, selling 700,000 units in just the first weekend. While many were quick to shrug off the evolutionary traits the iPhone offered over earlier smartphones, those traits quickly became the baseline standard other device manufacturers imitated. The public got hooked, and the iOS model ushered in an era of doing computer activities like email on-the-go.

In 2018, mobile has come to dominate the world of email. Anywhere from 46% to 59% of email is opened via mobile device, and that doesn’t even include web-based email accessed via mobile.

 

Lesson: Make absolutely sure your emails are optimized for mobile. Preview your emails on several devices. You can use tools to see how the subject line looks, for instance. Also, view your open rates to see if certain device brands or types dominate.

2009: Email Marketing Can Be Easy With the Right Tools in Place

Email marketing automation and template tools have been around forever. Case in point: MailChimp was founded in 2001. But it wasn’t until 2009 that the company was able to gain more than a few thousand users.

One could argue that the “freemium” option the company added made the difference, but services like MailChimp had also put a number of important tools in place that made email marketing easier than ever. Those include: list segmentation, website opt-in forms and landing pages, and most importantly analytics.

Lesson: Analytics offer you feedback to improve your email marketing over time. Pay close attention to your performance data, and set KPIs that meaningfully measure success. Click-through rates, unsubscribe rates, and hard bounces can all tell you what methods work and which ones put you closer to spam territory.

Conclusion: Email Marketing Is Stronger Now Than It’s Ever Been

With sophisticated spam filtering, detailed data feedback, and anytime anywhere access via mobile, email has gotten better than ever for both marketers and the average person.

Any business that wants to find success with email marketing just needs to keep history’s greatest lessons in mind. Otherwise, anyone receiving emails from their campaign may wonder if they stumbled into a time machine to the year 2003, when logging into your email meant being assaulted by spam and Nigerian princes.

Looking to improve your email marketing performance for your local business? EverSpark Interactive can deliver strategy, segmentation, automation, and copywriting services to help you excel. Get in touch with us today to get started.