by Kevin George, Brand Marketing Manager, EmailMonks

A Brief History of Email Marketing

Today’s guest post is from EmailMonks, an email design and HTML coding company.

Whenever the teenager within me thinks of email, the 2004 novel “Where Rainbows End” by Cecelia Ahern comes to my mind. The author beautifully captured email conversations between two best friends that portrayed the strength of their relationship despite tough circumstances. I remember how I used to wait for an email from my best friend who had moved to Canada, back in 2004. Today, I wait for “Order Shipped” emails.

Discovered as a simple means of communication in 1971, emails have evolved from an inter-departmental office tool to one of the world’s most effective marketing channels. According to The Radicati Group, the number of worldwide email users will increase to over 2.9 billion by the end of 2019, equating to over one-third of earth’s population.

Email isn’t going anywhere, no matter what social media pundits say.

In this post, we’re going to take a brief look at where email has been, where it is, and where it’s going. Let’s hop in.


In 1971, the first email was sent through a network set up by the Department of Defense called ARPANET. The network was basically the foundation of the internet as we know it, and this first email send was one small step for inboxes, and one giant leap for email kind. 😉

There’s a large gap in the history after that, since the internet was being built and email was primarily being used for inter-organizational communication.

Fast forward to the 1990s. The internet started to catch on with the general public and AOL, Yahoo!, and Hotmail were introduced to the world. “You’ve got mail” became a thing, and marketers started to pay attention.

AOL cds

In 1988, the word “spam” was added to the Oxford English Dictionary; not because of everyone’s favorite “meat” but because consumers were being bombarded with email spam. This set the stage for the CAN-SPAM Act of 2003 that reduced unsolicited email marketing, and required every marketing email to be sent with an unsubscribe link, along with sender details.

The late 1990s brought us HTML emails (everything was plain-text before that), and then the 2000s brought us smartphones, responsive emails, and interactive emails made possible with the integration of CSS and HTML…which brings us to the present.


The Pew Research Center conducted a 2015 study where 46% of smartphone owners said they “couldn’t live without their phone.” When it came to email, 88% of smartphone owners used email on their phone at least once over the course of the study period. But we don’t need the data to tell us that we look at our email inbox all the time. We already know that!

Along with the growing attention we put on our inboxes, marketers have followed suit with their email efforts creating intense competition to stand out from the “me too” masses. This has led to our present day email marketing context where companies use clever ideas to increase engagement.

Segmentation and personalization will always be the building blocks of good email marketing, but adding some high-conversion flair through stand-out features is also key.

Features of emails in 2017

1. Pre-header text

Pre-header text is a snippet that doubles up as a secondary subject line. Marketers use it as an extra teaser of their email content so that people are compelled to open it up.

Pre-header text

2. Visuals, graphics and videos

Images are a way to visually engage subscribers. To add to that visual appeal, there’s a growing trend of adding GIFs to convey information more clearly and to delight readers.

Anthropologie email gif

3. Pixel art

There was a time when marketers had to write relevant images captions as “alt text” so emails could communicate what was in the image just in case the email client disabled images by default. In that scenario, people would read what the image was instead of seeing it.

Today, some savvy marketers use “pixel art” which sections the image into large pixels. This way, when an email client blocks images, all the pixels come together to form a work of art, like so…

Pixel art

4. Interactive elements

Interactive elements, like countdown timers, are being used to encourage email recipients to take action. Ecommerce sites have made the most of this feature to draw attention to limited time sales and discounts during busy shopping seasons.

Email countdown timer

5. Dynamic personalization

72% of consumers are frustrated with generic marketing. Modern shoppers want messages that are timely, knowledgeable, and tailored to their specific context. This is where personalization comes in. Instead of one-off, batch-and-blast emails, today’s marketers are setting up triggered campaigns to create a personalized customer experience, like sending automated emails when a person meets certain criteria, or when a product they were looking at before changes in price.

Redfin price change email


Brace yourself: email marketing is continually evolving, but there’s a lot to look forward to.

The team at EmailMonks (where I work) believes that email clients will get more effective at identifying the emails that are most relevant to readers. Think Google’s search algorithm but for email. In the future, my team’s gut is that superior segmentation will supersede conventional segmentation—we’re just not sure what that’ll fully look like yet!

Personalization and automation will rule the day, by providing more contextual email based on data-backed clues like time, geographic location, weather, and subscriber behavior.

Emails will be integrated into the Internet of Things. Who knows, maybe your fridge will be able to email you and ask you to bring eggs and milk on your way back home? How I wish.

To sum up the future of email in a line, email will become more dynamic, portable and morph into a channel that’ll make our lives easier and easier. I can’t wait to see what the future holds.

Where do you think email marketing is going? Let us know in the comments, and check out this Theory of Email Evolution infographic from my team at EmailMonks to learn even more.

Author Kevin George, Brand Marketing Manager, EmailMonks

Kevin George is the Head of Marketing at EmailMonks—one of the fastest growing Email design and coding companies, specializes in crafting beautiful email design, custom email templates and much more. He loves gadgets, bikes, jazz, and breathes ‘email marketing’. He is a brand magician who loves to engage and share insights with fellow marketers. You can follow him on Twitter.

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