Email Marketing Is a Seven-Year-Old Child

I’ve recently been thinking about the life cycle of Net-based marketing — how it has progressed over the years — and I came to the realization that its progress can be measured as one might a growing child’s.

If you count the years, beginning when the Web arrived into the world for everyone to see, online marketing is basically seven years old.

If you have ever raised a child, you know that a seven-year-old is not terribly experienced in the ways of the world. So let’s not be too hard on ourselves. The Internet is just starting to grow up — it hasn’t even reached puberty yet.

Let’s go through the growth stages…

@ Birth (1994). Newborns aren’t really even aware of themselves or others. They don’t see colors very well. They can barely see, in fact. This pretty much describes the state of email marketing — email exists, but email marketing is nonexistent. There is nothing to market online, yet.

@ 1 year (1995). The Internet starts being used for e-commerce, thereby engendering great debate — after all, this is an academic network sponsored by the government! But the spark has ignited, and email marketing is on the move. The fact that almost no one had an email address was a bit of a problem, though, and the typical mailing list probably had fewer than 100 addresses. We’re walking, but we’re quite wobbly.

@ 2 years (1996). This is when questions start getting asked, without stop. Kids ask, “Why is the sky blue?” Wired magazine asks, “Wow, wouldn’t it be neat to put banner ads on a Web site?” The ad-sponsored business model is born, without much hesitation regarding the effectiveness of banner ads. Maybe not enough questions were asked? Everyone runs with the answers they want to hear (like two-year-olds), and things get really crazy. Everyone’s growth curve resembles hockey sticks.

@ 3 years (1997). At three years, we are starting to get a bit independent. We can eat, walk, run, and tear stuff apart. Email is still not ubiquitous, but people start getting bright ideas about how the Net can change everyday things like buying pet food and paying for parking tickets (documentary at We’re doing some stupid things (stupid in hindsight), but email marketing is still under the radar.

@ 4 years (1998). Here’s where things start getting interesting. Like many four-year-old kids, we start experimenting and playing around with fairly dangerous things. We’re also very adventuresome and are doing stuff we probably should think twice about doing. But what the heck — what have we got to lose? Text email morphs into HTML email, and modern, friendly, easy-to-use email marketing is born. We start tracking all sorts of things in email and invent the “Web bug.” Spamming is just another experiment among all the things we try. Unfortunately, it is an experiment that doesn’t end. It gains strength and runs amok. Just about everything explodes, and companies sprout like mushrooms.

@ 5 years (1999). Now we get careless and start doing things without caring about others’ feelings. Or their pocketbooks. Money is no object. But our parents (read VCs) tell us to watch out and to play by the rules. We acquire and spend and try everything under the sun. We think we’ll be young forever. We stop going to sleep at normal bedtimes, and we play outside our sandboxes. Email marketing just gains steam and is accepted as a solid way to communicate with customers, as long as companies play by the rules. Opt-in is one of those rules. Some play fair, but many don’t. Noisy chaos reigns on the playground.

@ 6 years (2000). Reality hits home. Parents take you to kindergarten, where you learn to play with others and respect your elders. VCs take you to the cleaners and get out while the getting is good. Of course, your lesson is, “Listen to your elders.” In the meantime, your inbox is inundated with spam. Some people never play by the rules, and you learn to live with that.

@ 7 years (2001). First grade is here, and it is time to start learning what real life is all about. Reading, writing, ‘rithmetic — the basics. Indeed, we all should take a look at the basics. The basics of how one communicates to a client: how often to talk and when to listen. Email marketing keeps chugging, and database technologies get more complex while banner ads occupy more and more of your browser screen and start to get a bit obnoxious.

There are 12 long and arduous grades to get through before we graduate into the real world… Will you graduate from high school? Do you have what it takes? The Curmudgeon shudders at how many more important and painful lessons are yet to come.

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