The History of Email

History of Email

History of Email:  The Beginning

Ray Tomlinson sent the first electronic message between terminals in 1971.  The message he sent would be barely recognisable to those sending media-rich content in campaigns today.  The history of email contains many significant events which have resulted in the emails that we receive today.  Although the history is important, we also look forward to the future of email marketing and advancements that can be made.

Ray Tomlinson sent the first email between terminals via Arpanet.  Arpanet was a system which allowed users to send files between computers on a network.  When the first email was sent, few could have imagined how it would develop.  It simply read:


The Infancy of Email

Tim Berners-Lee created the world wide web as we know it in 1990.  Whilst working for Cern, he was tasked with creating a system for information sharing.  However, the web only became public in 1992, over twenty years after the first message sent between terminals.  Before this point, the internet existed as an Arpanet, set up to connect a small number of computers on a network.  Initially the Arpanet functioned as a file sharing mechanism before being adapted and modernised by the US Military.

Ray Tomlinson, the sender of the first ever email, was working for the Department of Defence at the time.  He established the @ sign as a key identifier used to determine where the email is intended for.  The sign has been adopted universally and is still used today.

In the early 1990s, the number of internet users increased steeply with 3.5 times the number of internet users in 1999 compared to 1997.  There are now an estimated 2.6 billion email users worldwide with the figure expected to grow.  Each user of email has an average of 1.7 email accounts.  Combined, these statistics give an indication of the scale of email as a mass communication tool.  Hotmail launched their email service in 1996, capitalising on the popularity of email.

Email as a Marketing Channel

Once it had been introduced as a tool to send messages over long distances, email quickly developed.  The first marketing message was distributed by Gary Thuerk in 1978, generating $13 million.  Whilst Thuerk’s message was the first marketing message sent in this way, it was also recorded as the first instance of spam.  Thuerk was nicknamed the ‘Spamfather’ as a result.  From the moment it was first used as a marketing tool, the huge potential of email was clear.

As it has been developed, email has faced a number of difficult challenges.  When email became popular for marketing purposes, spam became a serious issue.  In the late 1990s and early 2000s, inboxes filled with unwanted emails and measures were put in place to combat the problem. Anti-spam filters now capture the vast majority of spam messages that are sent and email senders are penalised for poor quality or spam email content.

The issue of spam email content was discussed by Time and the problem is not unique to email.  Blogs, website comment sections and social media have expanded the possible number of avenues spammers can use.  As spammers create new techniques to circumvent the protections put in place, the battle against email spam is set to continue.

The inception of behavioural email in 2001 gave email marketers the opportunity to develop their strategy around the ways that readers interact with their content.  Although it has now been a marketing technique for nearly 17 years, many email marketers are yet to realise the potential of behavioural emails.  As marketers develop their behavioural email strategies, email content is becoming more specific, tailored and relevant to recipients.

Within the last six years, emails have become more personal as marketers realised the importance of treating email recipients as individuals.  Building buyer personas and segmenting  email lists makes it easier for marketers to focus in on small, coherent groups.

Technological Advances

Email recipients want to receive emails which appear modern and sleek.  As a result, email marketers are constantly on the look out for new tools and techniques to stand out.

Since the invention of the smart phone in 1991, the way that users have viewed their emails has changed significantly.  According to a recent article by Marketing Land, the majority of email opens now take place on a mobile device.  This presents new challenges for email marketers as their email campaigns need to be optimised for mobile as well as desktop devices.  Although more emails are now opened on mobile devices, email marketers still have work to do to make their recipients convert as mobile devices still lag behind on this measure.  Mobile devices themselves are changing with the average mobile screen size now growing, screen resolution improving and edge-to-edge designs now being designed.

Email recipients are becoming more demanding and expect their emails to reflect changes in internet design trends.  To make your email more visually appealing, you could consider using a GIF or animation.  We recently created a tutorial about how to create an animation, the benefit of using an animation rather than a full GIF is the smaller file size.  Using a GIF or animation can bring your emails to life, attracting the reader’s eye.

The Future of Email

Email marketers have continued to innovate in the last twelve months.  In our post reviewing how email marketing performed as a marketing medium in 2017, we discussed the top 5 improvements we have seen.

The future of email appears bright.  Email marketers continue to strive for a more personal and tailored email marketing experience.  Email recipients appreciate receiving emails which appear to be written specifically for them.  Econsultancy recently reported that emails which contained personalisation in the subject line resulted in 10% higher open rates.  To improve email personalisation, marketers should use buyer personas, segmentation and email triggers.

– Buyer Personas:  Buyer personas are semi-fictional representations of the person you are targetting with your marketing campaigns.  Whilst buyer personas are not new, they represent a significant opportunity to hone in on the perfect marketing strategy.

– Segmentation:  Another area for growth for email marketers is more refined email list segmentation.  Marketers can narrow the focus of their email sends by choosing a relevant segment of their email marketing list.

Segmentation Banner

– Personalisation:  Treating your customers like individuals is important if you want your email marketing campaigns to succeed.  Email marketers stated that they needed to focus on personalisation when asked what their aims were for 2017.

– Dynamic Content:  Dynamic content allows the email marketer to change the content of an email based on contextual cues.  Creating content in this way develops a one-to-one relationship between the marketer and email recipient.

– AI:  Artificial intelligence software can be used to reduce the workload on a company’s workforce.  Once developed, marketers can use AI to automatically generate content based on the needs and behaviours of an individual contact.



Email has come a long way since Ray Tomlinson sent the first email on the Arpanet.  However, crucially, the fundamentals of email as a communication system are still the same.  Email is now a universal communication system which continues to develop at pace.  Marketers have an increasing number of sophisticated tools that they can take advantage of.

We hope you have enjoyed reading about the History of Email.  Why not download a free copy of The Complete Guide to Email Marketing.  The guide contains tips, resources and industry insights to help you improve your email campaigns.

Complete Email Marketing Guide

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