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Dec 11, 2023

Where did email marketing come from and why is it so effective?

Dayna Lang
Author Dayna Lang

Email is a pillar of digital marketing in 2023, but how did it get to be as prevalent as it is today, and why is it so effective? To put it simply, email has transformed the way marketers interact with customers and previously difficult distribution chains have been simplified into easy-to-navigate management software. 

Not only is email marketing incredibly convenient, but it is also low-cost and has a broad reach. Almost everyone with internet access has an email address and everyone with an email address can be reached via email marketing – so long as their email is obtained properly. 

Email marketing has an incredibly high return on investment (ROI), with some agencies, like Brafton, saying it has the highest ROI of any marketing channel.  

Research by Hubspot has also found that this high ROI is consistent. In 2022, that return was found to be as high as $36 for every $1 invested. 

So, where did this highly profitable marketing stream start and how did it grow to scale it is today in 2023?  

Where did email marketing come from?

To understand where and when email marketing first emerged, it’s best to start with where and when the internet began. Email has been around almost as long as the internet itself and as computers entered more and more family homes, so did email. And, as long as there have been people using email, marketers have been using it too. 

In 1971, the first email management system was developed by Larry Roberts. Users were able to list, select, forward, and respond to messages. These messages were known at the time as electronic mail messages. It didn’t take long for marketers to take note. 

With the use of email management systems growing, so did the attention of marketers, and in 1978 the very first marketing email was sent. And, to the astonishment of all involved, this single email resulted in a staggering $13 million in sales. This solidified email as a new communication stream, and one marketers were keen to take advantage of.   

“Electronic mail message” started to become an outmoded phrase as time went on and in 1982 the phrase “email” took its place. 

Alongside the growth in email marketing came the growth in ad fatigue and frustration among users tired of receiving unwanted and overbearing messages. And, of course, users developed a term to describe these annoying emails. In 1988 the word “spam” was added to the OED, a word developed specifically to describe the bombardment felt by users on the receiving end of frustrating and unwanted sales messages. 

Many marketers would adapt their email approaches, aiming to prevent fatigue and keep potential customers happy, but not all. Then, almost twenty years after it was added to the dictionary, spam was regulated in the United States. The CAN-SPAM Act of 2003 created a new standard for sending commercial emails, one that worked to keep users content while still giving marketers access to this critical stream of communication. 

As the internet continued to grow in popularity, so did email marketing. And not only has email marketing grown, but it has also changed alongside technology and attitudes, working to communicate with existing and potential customers to drive sales and foster loyalty. 

Marketers are always learning new approaches and adjusting their strategies to best target customers, new and old, at every stage of their journey and while the history of email marketing is important for informing where we go next, it isn’t nearly as interesting as the future of email marketing is sure to be. 


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