From Papyrus to E-mail: The History of Newsletter Marketing

September 27, 2017    By Steven Klinghoffer ()

From Papyrus to E-mail: The History of Newsletter Marketing

From e-mail marketing to social media marketing, it seems that every year or two there is a new trend for you to keep in touch with your clients. Today, using ever-evolving technology that was nonexistent a generation ago, you can reach thousands of people with a click of a button.

As new as it may sometimes seem, your content marketing strategy—whether paper, digital or both—is rooted in principles that predate Cleopatra. As the oldest known piece of direct marketing, most marketers cite a 3,000-year-old papyrus from Thebes offering a reward for a runaway slave. And long before the computer and even the printing press, Babylonian merchants advertised their products to new audiences on clay tablets.

Soon after the appearance of these marketing pieces, we see some of the first known examples of newsletters: Handwritten reports from the Roman Empire and China’s Tang Dynasty kept literate adults informed about what was happening around them. But with so few people able to read and write—not to mention the lack of technology—examples such as these are few and far between until after Gutenberg’s 15th century innovation: movable type.

New technology spurred newsletter marketing
The invention of the printing press hastened the spread of knowledge and information, along with raising literacy rates. It also paved the way for the mass production of not only books but also flyers, brochures, newspapers and newsletters. Publications that we might now recognize as newsletters began to appear in the 16th and 17th centuries. One example is a 17th century newsletter distributed in England featuring accounts of events and people from the colonies. By 1704, a publication considered the United States’ first known newsletter appeared, The Boston News-Letter—a single sheet printed weekly that contained information from England of interest to Colonial Americans. These early newsletters evolved into what we today know as newspapers. Printed for 72 years, The Boston News-Letter is considered the first continuously published newspaper in North America.

Early newsletters paved the way for content marketing
While the term “content marketing” traces its use to 2001, we can find the first examples of content marketing in the mid-1700s. For example, in 1734, Benjamin Franklin began publishing Poor Richard’s Almanack to promote his printing business. He did this by printing weather predictions, recipes, trivia and other advice people considered valuable, selling 10,000 copies a year. Later examples of content marketing include the following:

The early 1900s saw a new flourishing of newsletters, such as The Kiplinger Letter, which forecasts financial trends for its readers and is currently read by 5 million people each month. Throughout the 1900s, newsletters covering myriad topics, from business and industry to farming and fashion, could be found.

The Internet changed life—and newsletter marketing
Just as the birth of the Internet in the 1990s transformed life as it had been known for centuries, it also revolutionized marketing. E-mail actually predates the Internet, as does the first e-mail marketing message, which was sent in 1978 by a Digital Equipment Corp. employee name Gary Thuerk. He sent an e-mail blast to 400 recipients that resulted in $13 million in sales. This is also considered to be the first spam message.

With the 1996 launch of the first web-based e-mail service, Hotmail, what began as a communications tool for business professionals and academics turned into a common means of personal communication. This innovation made free e-mail available to anyone with access to the Internet, even if only from a library or business center. Smart marketers seized on the newsletter marketing opportunities of this new technology.

Large companies and small professional firms alike use e-mail marketing to send eNewsletters to clients and prospects on a regular basis. While some eNewsletters contain links back to a company website to increase web traffic, many more are content-rich publications full of information. Like the paper newsletters that came before them, these eNewsletters have helped turn prospects into customers, or one-time customers into repeat customers.

E-mail technology continues to evolve. For example, in the mid-2000s, e-mail service providers began allowing senders to receive feedback. As a result, marketers today can measure open rates, clicks and other data, helping them to hone and improve their e-mail marketing to better meet their needs and those of their audiences.

In 2015, an estimated 2.5 billion people were using e-mail, though 50% of all e-mails sent were believed to be spam. These figures underscore the importance of sending newsletter marketing e-mails that contain information useful and valuable to the reader.

The lasting value of newsletters
The handwritten pieces circulated in the Roman Empire and the mass e-mails sent today share several characteristics: Chief among them, they contain valuable information that readers want to absorb. It’s this key characteristic that has made newsletter marketing a successful tool throughout history. Newsletters not only inform but they also position the sender as an expert in a specific field.

As a newsletter marketer for more than 30 years, I know this to be true. I started in this business helping accounting firms successfully market their practices with a monthly accounting newsletter that is still published today, in both print and digital formats. Today, our services have expanded to help accounting, legal, financial, medical, dental and physical therapy practices market themselves with print and electronic newsletters—using modern technology and long-standing, tried-and-true marketing principles.

The next time you click “send” on your e-mail newsletter, know that you are following a long line of content marketers that includes Benjamin Franklin, the Edison Company and even the first soap opera.

[ Back to top ]