Email Marketing

Celebrating 50 Years of Email

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This October marks the 50th anniversary of email as we use it today. Half a century ago in October 1971, an MIT graduate named Ray Tomlinson became the first ever person to send an email over a network. When interviewed, he said, “The test messages were entirely forgettable… Most likely the first message was QWERTYUIOP or something similar.”

We’re celebrating the 50th anniversary of email by thinking back to how we got started in email, and we’d love to hear how you got started in email, as well! Post about your email story on Twitter and LinkedIn using the hashtags #qwertyuiop and #50yrsofemail.

But first, let’s take a look back at how email got started…

The start of email as we know it today

During his time at Boston-based Bolt, Beranek and Newman, Ray Tomlinson had been working on a program called SNDMSG, which functioned much like MIT’s CTSS. At the same time, he’d been refining a means of transferring files across a network from one machine to another. When he put the two projects together, the first email program was born.

When it came time to decide how to organize people’s email addresses and the computers that held their accounts, Ray chose the “@” symbol from the limited selection of punctuation characters on his Model 33 Teletype keyboard to accomplish this. The symbol has been an iconic presence in the internet age ever since.

At first, email was only used by an exclusive group of university researchers, government employees, and members of the military within the U.S. Department of Defense, but it was quickly proven as a means of direct yet efficient communication. Soon after, the appeal of email as a channel for uses beyond professional communication began to appear.

In 1978, Gary Thuerk accidentally sent the first mass email marketing campaign to 393 addresses to announce the launch of new computers. Widely recognized as the first ever spam campaign, this effort resulted in a slap on the wrist from a high-ranking Pentagon official, but also generated $13 million in sales for Thuerk’s company. The risk paid off and a precedent was set. Adoption spread further among academics in the eighties, and as computers and the internet became commercialized, email was set on a path toward widespread global adoption, for good and bad actors alike, leading us to where we are today.

Email has come a long way since Ray’s first message was sent. Statista estimates that 4 billion people around the world use email every day, and while it’s still being used the way Ray intended, email aficionados have contributed to the broader email ecosystem over time and helped transform the way we use email.

Validity’s email history

At Validity, we’re invested in the success of email for senders and recipients. Our historic work in email is built upon a rich history, including Internet Email Change of Address services way back in 1999 and the onset of email deliverability services through Return Path and 250ok over the past two decades. Validity Email Certification was born through acquisition of the Bonded Sender program in partnership with Cisco and Microsoft back in 2005. Our Sender Score reputation services launched in 2006. In 2008, we began providing Feedback Loops for mailbox providersThrough the years, we’ve witnessed email evolve from a killer app on the internet to a tool that is beyond foundational to ecommerce and digital communication, and we’re grateful and fortunate to have been able to contribute to the broader email ecosystem along the way through our work.

Back when email was only about 30 years old, as digital marketers were beginning to use email for consumer marketing and communications, inbox placement became a critical issue. Caught in the battle between spammers overloading the system with junk, mailbox providers raced to keep up—and when working to keep dangerous mail out of inboxes, friendly fire, or false positives, happened. This is where Return Path stepped in, introducing inbox placement measurement through email seed list technology for the first time and helping digital marketers understand where their mail was landing (i.e., inbox or spam folder) at mailbox providers globally. Others soon followed and as digital marketers continued to adopt the email channel as a viable marketing tool, the discipline and age of email deliverability was born.

Once senders knew where their mail was landing, it became critical to determine why their mail was being placed in the spam folder. Return Path and mailbox providers recognized the need for sender reputation, which led Return Path to develop Sender Score. The premise of Sender Score centered on understanding how a sender looked to a mailbox provider’s system based on their fundamental messaging performance (i.e., How much mail is sent? How many bounces are generated? How many complaints are generated? How many spam traps are hit?). Through the development of our Mailbox Provider data cooperative, we were able to amass the world’s most comprehensive sources of sender data from the email ecosystem to derive a score-based measure of reputation, useful to mailbox providers and to senders themselves.

Following its launch in 2006, Sender Score, much like a credit score to gauge credit worthiness but for email, became the first stop for many in determining the health of their IP reputation—a factor that remains critically important to deliverability to this day. Each mailbox provider has its own formula to judge whether or not to accept incoming mail and where to filter it. Sender Score gets hit tens of millions of times each day, making it a simple and effective way for senders to determine how mailbox providers may view their reputation.

As a provider in the email ecosystem, Validity is neither a sender or a receiver of email, but we serve those who do both. Deliverability for us is all about helping both sides meet the common objective of providing a great inbox experience for recipients. Another way Validity facilitates this is through our universal feedback loop platform. For senders, part of getting ahead of deliverability issues is understanding when users complain about messages by marking them as spam. Feedback loops are a purpose-built solution for this—a mechanism by which senders can register their IP addresses or Domains and, if approved by a mailbox provider, receive complaint reports when users mark messages as spam. Since 2008, we’ve operated a feedback loop platform for what’s now more than two dozen mailbox providers to provide a free universal feedback loop management service to anyone hoping to become a better sender.

In addition to partnering with mailbox providers, we also work with numerous filtering and security partners in the email ecosystem, such as Spamhaus, to support efforts to protect users from malicious, unethical activity and contribute to a safer and more secure email environment for all.

Share your story

Throughout its fifty years, email has evolved from a simple means of communication to one of the world’s most valuable and versatile resources. While some consider email an outdated channel, ongoing demand from consumers and adaptation from both senders and the wider ecosystem proves otherwise. The age of email is far from over, and we’re looking forward to what the next fifty years have in store.

Now that you’ve heard the history of email and our own email history, we’d love to hear yours. Head on over to Twitter or LinkedIn and tell us how you got started in email by using the hashtags #qwertyuiop and #50yrsofemail!