Dissecting the World’s First Spam Email: 5 Timeless Lessons We Learned

Does your email campaign’s spam complaint number give you headaches? All that can be traced back to a single moment in 1978 when humanity made history by inventing spam email. Now, nearly 40 years on, there’s plenty we can learn from this historic message. Today’s post takes apart the first-ever spam email line by line and gives five practical lessons to make sure your emails reach the inbox and avoid landing in the dustbin of history.

But first, a little backstory. The first known spam email was sent on May 1, 1978 to around 400 users on ARPANET (the Internet’s precursor). Gary Thuerk, a marketing manager at Digital Equipment Corp., came up with the idea of using unsolicited mass email to promote their new product line’s upcoming live presentation. While reactions to his cold emails were overwhelmingly negative, the campaign managed to generate between $14 million in revenues.

Here’s Mr. Thuerk’s email copy (exactly as written):

Email Marketing

This email really says a lot about how far spam has come in the past four decades or so. For one, spammers no longer rely on strict all caps all throughout. More importantly, though, the world’s first-ever spam email teaches us some valuable lessons on keeping our campaign’s spam complaint rate within the 0.1% sweet spot.

1. Get right to the point

You’ve got to hand it to Mr. Thuerk. He understands he only has a couple of seconds to capture the readers’ interest. So, he opens the email by telling the recipient what the message is all about. To anyone pressed for time, that’s a huge benefit.

But letting your readers know what to expect forms only part of an email’s opening section. Email openings also need to grab the reader’s attention and explain why the recipient should continue with the rest of the message. Here are several ways to do this:

  • Start with a question
  • Open with a relevant fact or statistic
  • Go directly to the benefit or value (more on this below)
  • Create a sense of urgency
  • Offer genuine compliments
  • Reference a common person or event

Related: Slaying Your (Mailer) Daemons and Reducing Email Bounce

2. Know your readers really well

Mr. Thuerk’s email list consisted of ARPANET users, which means the campaign was targeting a highly technical audience. The text was clearly written for readers already familiar with earlier DEC products or computers in general (which were a relatively novel item during that time).

Of course, lumping your email audience into a single group (even though they share a common attribute) goes against the idea of segmentation. In fact, segmentation helps your messages avoid spam filters. To refine your campaign’s focus, follow the below tips:

  • Define exactly the benefit and value you offer (again, more on this later)
  • Look at your current customers and identify common characteristics
  • Get acquainted with your competitors’ customers
  • Explore similarities with other buyers from a related industry

3. Turn features into benefits, and benefits to value

The email copy devotes a huge part of the text pointing out the new product line’s features and improvements. Reading the first two-thirds of the message feels like pouring over brochure excerpts.

While an unswerving emphasis on features may work for a highly technical audience, such as the 400 or so ARPANET users targeted in Mr. Thuerk’s campaign, most other prospects today (even tech-savvy ones) will want to know the business impact of whatever it is you’re offering.

  • Describe how your solution improves the reader’s situation
  • Point to  ideal but realistic outcomes
  • Use verifiable metrics to quantify your claims
  • Choose benefits and value that let you stand out
  • Keep it concise; save the details for later

4. Balance tiny details with the big picture

At 203 words, the world’s first spam email is a bit lengthy by today’s standards. An analysis of 40 million emails in 2016 suggests keeping emails between 50 to 125 words long. Emails within that range tend to fetch response rates of up to 50%.

Also, putting too much text in the email copy increases the risk of triggering spam filters. That’s why emails need to be short and concise. There’s a right time and place for going into the details of your offer, and email isn’t where this needs to happen.

  • Stick to one main idea throughout the copy
  • Focus only on the biggest benefits
  • Remove redundant ideas and information
  • Write short, simple sentences and paragraphs
  • Make your email part (not the end) of the process

Related: Sending Emails on Sunday? Are you Kidding me?!

5. Start strong, finish even stronger

That’s a pithy piece of sales advice from Steli Efti over at the Close.io Blog. It works great for emails, too. When your email has already caught the recipient’s attention and triggered their interest, you don’t want to throw it all away with a weak closing line. Strong and clear closing lines drive action and eventually conversions.

The closing line from Mr. Thuerk’s history-making email finished somewhat on an equal intensity with the way it opened. If you recall our first point, the email’s opening was straightforward but didn’t do much when it came to nudging the recipient to read on.

This closing could have been improved using some research-backed tips we talked about in a previous blog post:

  • Point to a clear, specific action
  • Sign off with a quick “thank you”
  • Keep it short and personal
  • Build on the benefits you’ve outlined
  • End with a sense of urgency

Related: Slaying Your (Mailer) Daemons and Reducing Email Bounces

The Takeaway

We took a look at the world’s first spam email with the benefit of four decades of hindsight. As marketers and sales practices evolve, only time will tell how the spam emails of today (or even the legitimate ones) will be judged in the future. One thing remains the same, though. Spam goes beyond your copywriting tactics or your sender reputation. Spam includes all the things you do in your campaign that harms your relationship with prospects.

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40 B2B Email Templates For Every Situation
These 40 examples have all been hand-picked from a variety of sources that tested these templates in terms of opens, click-throughs, and replies.