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The late creator of e-mail also reinvented marketing

Ray Tomlinson's passing is a good reminder of how digital changed everything

When I first started working on a technology magazine in the mid-1990s I went through some of its archival issues from the start of the decade. I broke down laughing at articles predicting the growth of “electronic mail,” given how obvious this has become and the fact we had shortened it to e-mail. Of course, it was Ray Tomlinson who had the last laugh.

Over the weekend Tomlinson, who later worked for Raytheon, passed away. As DigiDay noted, the reaction online has been a combination of posts and social mentions that celebrated his achievement in creating e-mail in 1971 and also some good-intentioned humour at the problems it has caused. Despite the rise of messaging apps, despite the hype over Slack, despite the options for communicating via videoconference and myriad other channels, we all still get too many e-mail messages.

What marketing executives in particular should think about as Tomlinson’s legacy is discussed, however, is how e-mail fundamentally changed the way brands communicated with their target audiences. Unlike TV commercials, billboards or even phone calls, e-mail represented the transition from mass marketing to micro-marketing. Tomlinson suggested as much in an interview just a few years ago:

At the time there was no really good way to leave messages for people. The telephone worked up to a point, but someone had to be there to receive the call. And if it wasn’t the person you wanted to get, it was an administrative assistant or an answering service or something of that sort. That was the mechanism you had to go through to leave a message.

In other words, the arrival of e-mail meant that marketing would move from simply trying to make contact to measuring more precisely the nature of engagement once contact is made. For instance, unless someone has good filters, e-mail tends to reach its destination. Whether they open, read, click through or pursue some other kind of action, however, is much more nuanced than almost any other channel, even today.

People may or may not pick up the phone, and we won’t be sure whether it’s because they’re not home or if they have call display. Social media activity depends on whether the person makes great use of a particular service or not. And unlike many other, more ephemeral or temporary marketing touchpoints, an e-mail message can sit in someone’s inbox for months or years. It represents an archive of brand relationship-building.

Tomlinson’s death comes almost a decade since so many other technologies were described as an “e-mail killer.” Even if e-mail dies, however, the story of how it grew to become both a lifeline and the bane of everyday existence may provide clues that help CMOs understand how to approach similar innovations. It could wind up being more important than any individual e-mail they ever send, or receive.



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