A Reflection On Our Email Marketing Forefathers

As we turn the page on another year, I wanted to take a moment to reflect on two prominent forefathers of email marketing: Ray Tomlinson and Gary Thurek. Here’s a brief history lesson about those who laid the initial groundwork for email marketing as we know it today.

The 1970s spawned the beginning of network email. Network is an important qualifier because there were earlier instances of email within a single machine. Computer networks, in any real sense, didn't exist until the ARPANET was built in 1969.

While there is common lore that the ARPANET was built as a redundant communication system able to withstand a nuclear attack, ARPA Director (1965–1967) Charles Herzfeld said that “the ARPANET came out of our frustration that there were only a limited number of large, powerful research computers in the country, and that many research investigators, who should have access to them, were geographically separated from them.”

Ray Tomlinson sent the first network message in 1971 between two machines “that were literally side by side” and connected through the ARPANET. After completing a series of test messages, Tomlinson sent a message to the rest of his group explaining how to send messages over the network.

Why did he do it? “Mostly because it seemed like a neat idea,” says Tomlinson. There was no directive to invent email. “The ARPANET was a solution looking for a problem,” and he and his colleagues were investigating ways in which to use it. 

Fast-forward to 1978 for the first “mass” network email. Gary Thurek, known as the “Father of Spam,” sent an email to 400 West Coast techies inviting them to a demonstration of his company's new product. He considered mailing invitations and calling all of the invitees, but it was too hard to reach them by phone and too expensive and slow to print and send via post, he told  Kate Stoodley for a post on ESecurity Planet.

When users checked their inboxes, they discovered a "foreign-looking message with a cc list that took up so much room it spilled into the message's body," wrote Stoodley. "Some seemed happy" to receive the notification. Others were upset when their computers crashed. The Defense Communication Agency responded by prohibiting Thurek from doing it again, saying ARPANET was considered a research vehicle, not to be used for commercial purposes. Despite the scolding, Thurek maintained that it was a great idea. He saw mass emails as a cheap, effective way to get a messages to a lot of people.

This simple statement was as true then as it is today. As we move forward into 2014, it’s important that we also take time to remember the spirit of technical innovation and creative thinking that led us to where we are now.

As marketers, we live in exciting times.  Consumer behavior is changing -- interaction with brands anytime, anyplace, agnostic of channel or device, is now the norm. To use Tomlinson’s words, do we have solutions looking for problems? Or, like Thurek, do we have existing tools that can be applied in new ways that will increase efficiencies? Either way, brands will need to adopt a marketing approach that is relevant, responsive and always "on" in order to meet changing consumer demands. 

As you embark on your 2014 initiatives, remember the spirit of experimentation demonstrated by these forefathers that led to great discoveries.  Keep an open mind about pushing the envelope to test novel uses of tools and strategies -- you may find that you’ll achieve more at a lower cost. Let’s carry forward the innovative spirit of Tomlinson and Thurek into our initiatives, and make 2014 a prosperous one!

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1 comment about "A Reflection On Our Email Marketing Forefathers ".
  1. Jennifer Finger from KeenReader Inc. , January 19, 2014 at 10:12 p.m.
    Thurek never should have just assumed that everyone would be okay receiving a commercial message that was so big that it crashed some computers. Email marketing is one thing, but given that it takes up space in people's inboxes that can't be used for other things while the spam messages are in there, virtually nobody is okay with spam. Always, always, always do opt-in when you do an email marketing campaign.