Email Turns 30

On August 30, 1982, the Internet’s most-used portmanteau (a mashup of two words) first entered the public lexicon. It arrived not with a bang, but with the issuance of a copyright to 16-year-old V.A. Shiva Ayyadurai for a computer program he called “EMAIL,” short for “electronic mail.” While historians debate whether Ayyadurai can rightfully be called “the inventor of email,” few can argue that his copyright did establish a common name for the dominant digital communication channel of our day.

How dominant? The Radicati Group estimates that there are over 3.375 billion email accounts worldwide with nearly 145 billion email messages zooming back and forth each day. This is a huge increase from just five years ago; in August 2007, comScore estimated that there were approximately 543 million Webmail accounts worldwide. This number is only expected to continue to rise — the Radicati Group estimates the number will reach 4.3 billion by the end of 2016.

Perhaps the most significant change since the birth of email is that it has become a habitual part of everyday life. According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project data from May 2011, 92 percent of adult U.S. Internet users send or read email, and 66 percent of those email users do so every day.

According to ExactTarget’s 2012 Channel Preference Survey, email today is both the channel consumers use most often for personal, written communications and the channel they prefer for permission-based marketing messages. In fact, an overwhelming 77 percent of all consumers surveyed prefer to receive promotional messages from companies via email compared to five percent who prefer text messages and four percent who prefer Facebook. Email is also one of the most utilized apps on every smartphone — right up there with the phone, text messaging and the browser itself.

With such compelling, sustained usage, one might suspect the 30th anniversary celebration of Ayyadurai’s “EMAIL” copyright would be cause for celebration. More than likely, however, August 30th, 2012, passed without much notice. Blame it on our Silicon Valley-fueled chase for the next big thing. First, prognosticators told us that instant messaging would topple email, then RSS, then text messaging, and then social media in the form of Facebook and Twitter.

And yet, email soldiers on — a much-maligned, far-too-underappreciated asset to those who chase trends.

The critical role of email in today’s social media ecosystem hasn’t escaped the notice of one of the Web’s leading minds — Fred Wilson, principal with Union Square Ventures and an investor in Twitter, Foursquare, Etsy and other social media start-ups. As Fred stated last year:

In an ironic twist of fate, it turns out that email is social media’s secret weapon….[T]oday, if you want to drive retention and repeat usage, there isn’t a better way to do it than email.

We’ve seen Wilson’s thoughts evidenced in our own research as well. We found 66 percent of consumers have made a purchase as a result of a marketing message received via email, making it the direct channel that most influences purchase, according to our 2012 Channel Preferences Survey. Plus, to buy anything online, what do you need other than a form of payment? An email address. And to sign-up for Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Foursquare and any other social network, what do you need? Yes, an email address.

Email is the connective tissue of the transactional and social Web. It’s the iceberg below the surface that keeps everything else afloat on an unseen foundation of promotional messages, alerts, receipts, reminders, service correspondence, reengagement requests and user-forwarded content. We may occasionally feel overwhelmed by its volume and angered by those who abuse it via spam, but email is the workhorse that keeps today’s Web — mobile, social or otherwise — running on all cylinders.

Jeff Rohrs heads up the Marketing Research & Education Group at ExactTarget. In this capacity, Jeff co-authors the Subscribers, Fans & Followers research series, an ongoing examination of how today’s online consumers interact with brands through email, Facebook and Twitter.

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