The History of ‘Spam Mail’

September 14, 2016 3:32 pm Back to News & Offers

What is ‘spam mail’?

computer-imageA marketer’s worst fear is their campaign ending up in a junk or spam mail folder. Now, mastering deliverability has taken over and become an art form – beautifully optimising the content of a HTML to land right in the audience’s inbox whilst also avoid spam filters. But the term ‘spam’ was not always the official name for unsolicited emails. Spam mail actually has a more amusing origin. When mass emails started becoming increasingly common, these emails were seen by many as creating unnecessary noise, often ruining conversations.

They disturbed this line of communication so much, they were likened to a Monty Python’s Flying Circus Skit. In this particular scene the waitress mentions Spam – the tinned meat – and a group of characters in the corner began loudly chanting and singing about Spam. They flooded the scene with dialogue and made it impossible to hold a conversation. The similarity of the sketch and the characteristics of mass mailing lead these emails to be labelled ‘SPAM’.

When was the first mass email sent?

First ever spam mail

A copy of the very first mass email sent by Gary Thuerk (1978) source: was the first mass email sent?

Emails are without doubt one of the most effective methods of communication in the world. Its no wonder that as technology improves, marketing professionals find increasingly innovative ways of utilising such technology. Back in 1978 when internet access was sparse and most Americans did not even have an email address Gary Thuerk
launched the first mass email.

The email was broadcast on 1st May 1978 using ARPANET, he invited 400 senior military officials and researchers from the US defence department to a demonstration of his company’s new product. In an interview, he states that about 200 of the 400 contacts opened the email, and about 40 people came to this event.

From that, we gather the first ever mass email received a 50% open rate and about 10% went on to accept this invitation (the call to action, so to speak). Gary also revealed that email had a return on investment of about $12 million.

Although hugely successful, it seemed spam mailing was hated right from the get go, with Mr Thuerk’s email going on to receive a relatively large backlash of complaints. That’s probably because he broke some of the rules for using ARPANET – a strictly U.S Government business network at the time. Their justification, which you can read here, for the rules were that broadcasting on a network that only a limited number of people have access would disadvantage those who do not have access.

One would say it disadvantages other businesses, i’d call that a resourced based competitive advantage – something thoroughly encouraged in today’s business environment. We don’t ask Apple to slow down so Microsoft can catch up.

How has Email Marketing Developed?

mailing1971 saw Ray Tomlinson send the first email, 1978 saw marketing pioneer and ‘father of spam’ Gary Thuerk utilise this growing technology. However, like with many things, some see the opportunity to abuse. Many governments and regulatory bodies introduced laws and industry regulations to control the erratic and rather explosive expansion of email marketing.

The era of simply sending out an email to as many people as you can is over.

In the late 90’s and early 2000’s as data was becoming the forefront of marketing it was clear it needed to be controlled, thus letting people restrict what was marketed to them. The Data Protection Act of 1998 included a section forcing an ‘opt-out’ option so that people can stop receiving mass mailings if they wish to. The Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations (PECR) were introduced to set a precedent for use of email data for marketing purposes. Due validation systems such as the Sender Policy Framework (SPF) that were introduced in 2004, marketers now more than ever have to delicately balance relevant content which their audience would enjoy with sales content, which perhaps the higher ups with less marketing know how would want to force feed their audience.

What now?

Marketing via emails has become so saturated. There will be people who argue it is still very much an effective means of marketing and in a way they are right. Through quality research and data driven strategies, targeting the right segments with the right products, marketing automation etc… one has the ability to be a powerhouse in that particular field. the image to the right shows the difference between mass, unsegmented mailing and finding niche groups and targeting them with relevant content.

These types of mailings provide significantly more ROI as people respond better to well targeted mail rather than ‘spray and prey’ spam mailing. However, with it being such a saturated channel, it is all too easy to slip from being a leader in email marketing to being just part of the noise.

The real question to think about is, are you sending targeted, content relevant emails or are you just adding to the noise with more spam mail?