As email marketing approaches its 40th birthday, here’s what marketers can learn about making email communications more relevant and effective.

The first mar­ket­ing email was sent near­ly 40 years ago by a mar­keter named Gary Thuerk from Dig­i­tal Equip­ment Cor­po­ra­tion. Thuerk sent an email pro­mot­ing his com­pa­ny to rough­ly 400 peo­ple with an ARPANET address. While this first mar­ket­ing email gen­er­at­ed a huge spike in sales, it also led to what lat­er became known as spam — unso­licit­ed, unwant­ed mes­sages sent en masse.

Today, there is a major dis­tinc­tion between delib­er­ate, care­ful­ly craft­ed com­mu­ni­ca­tions from a brand and hap­haz­ard­ly sent spam emails. This dis­tinc­tion is the result of sat­u­ra­tion. As most brands have adopt­ed email as a major com­mu­ni­ca­tion hub, con­sumers have start­ed to get hun­dreds of brand emails per day both from brands they’ve sub­scribed to and from those they’re nev­er inter­act­ed with. This devel­op­ment has prompt­ed mar­keters to become savvi­er in the way they use the email chan­nel to com­mu­ni­cate with con­sumers. As such, email has become a cen­tral “hub” for all things dig­i­tal, mak­ing it more use­ful and impor­tant than ever. Just think: When was the last time you pur­chased some­thing online (and even in-store!) with­out pro­vid­ing an email address?

As con­sumers do more online, they’re turn­ing to brands to pro­vide infor­ma­tion. That’s one rea­son the num­ber of new email sub­scribers (those who have sub­scribed with­in 90 days) is at an all-time high.

Accord­ing to new research from Yes Life­cy­cle Mar­ket­ing, as of the first quar­ter of 2017, new email sub­scribers make up 6 per­cent of a marketer’s data­base, reg­is­ter­ing a 30 per­cent increase over the last three years.

At the same time how­ev­er, click-to-open (CTO) rates have been on a steady decline, indi­cat­ing that while mar­keters are effec­tive­ly entic­ing con­sumers to sub­scribe to and open their mes­sages, they still strug­gle to dri­ve engage­ment beyond the open.

Email mar­ket­ing is cer­tain­ly alive and well, but there’s work to be done. To make the most of con­sumers’ dig­i­tal hub, smart mar­keters should con­sid­er these best prac­tices:

Offer unique content.

Entic­ing sub­ject lines are the foun­da­tion of effec­tive email cam­paigns, but mar­keters need to do more to engage sub­scribers beyond the open. This means learn­ing more about your audi­ence, and offer­ing them valu­able, rel­e­vant infor­ma­tion that meets their needs at the right time.

Email con­tent shouldn’t always be pro­mo­tion-heavy or dis­count-ori­ent­ed. As long as infor­ma­tion is rel­e­vant to a brand’s spe­cif­ic audi­ence, mar­keters should get cre­ative. For exam­ple, a brand that recent­ly sold patio fur­ni­ture to a sub­scriber online could fol­low up with emails with ideas for host­ing sum­mer par­ties or recipes for grilling out. But, unique con­tent doesn’t always have to reflect a pre­vi­ous pur­chase. Loft, for exam­ple, sends month­ly horo­scopes to sub­scribers and makes cloth­ing rec­om­men­da­tions based on a consumer’s zodi­ac sign.

By deliv­er­ing con­tent that’s unique and keeps their brand top of mind, email mar­keters will leave their sub­scribers want­i­ng more.

Look at the time.

There’s no mag­ic day of the week or time of day to send emails, but ana­lyz­ing the per­for­mance of past email cam­paigns can help indi­cate which days dri­ve the best email mar­ket­ing ROI. In the first quar­ter, the same Yes Life­cy­cle Mar­ket­ing report revealed week­ends proved the most effec­tive. While emails sent on Fri­days gar­nered the high­est engage­ment, emails sent on Sat­ur­days boast­ed the best con­ver­sion rates.

Along with tim­ing, it’s also impor­tant to get the fre­quen­cy of email cam­paigns right. Sub­scribers will like­ly opt out if a brand reach­es out too lit­tle or too often. To best deter­mine what their sub­scribers pre­fer, mar­keters should uti­lize pref­er­ence cen­ters that allow users to cus­tomize their mail­ing fre­quen­cy.

Trigger engagement.

Anoth­er strat­e­gy mar­keters can use to improve engage­ment is trig­gered emails, which are informed by spe­cif­ic con­sumer actions or data. Grub­Hub, for instance, sends food deliv­ery emails trig­gered by dif­fer­ent weath­er con­di­tions, such as snow or rain, at each subscriber’s loca­tion.

This past quar­ter, Yes Life­cy­cle Mar­ket­ing found that trig­gered email cam­paigns gen­er­at­ed almost five times the click rate, almost dou­ble the open rate and almost triple the CTO rate of busi­ness as usu­al cam­paigns. Despite their excel­lent per­for­mance, trig­gered emails made up less than 7 per­cent of total emails sent in Q1, indi­cat­ing that mar­keters are not tak­ing full advan­tage of the poten­tial of trig­gered cam­paigns.

Because trig­gered mes­sages are time­ly, rel­e­vant, informed and action­able, their use is appro­pri­ate for almost any type of email mar­ket­ing pro­gram. With each trig­ger not imple­ment­ed, mar­keters are miss­ing a huge oppor­tu­ni­ty to dri­ve engage­ment and con­ver­sions.

Make offers meaningful.

Con­sumers’ pro­mo­tion tabs are full of emails adver­tis­ing a dol­lar amount off, a per­cent off, free ship­ping or BOGO offers. In fact, we found offer emails make up rough­ly a third of all mar­ket­ing emails. And while these mes­sages dri­ve con­ver­sions, emails that don’t con­tain offers gen­er­al­ly per­form bet­ter in terms of engage­ment.

Brands can improve their over­all email pro­gram (and ulti­mate­ly dri­ve more con­ver­sions) by mak­ing each mes­sage more mean­ing­ful. By bal­anc­ing offer emails with life­cy­cle mes­sages and val­ue-added com­mu­ni­ca­tions, an offer is per­ceived as a treat that max­i­mizes pur­chase oppor­tu­ni­ties.

Email mar­ket­ing will soon be over the hill, but it’s cer­tain­ly aging grace­ful­ly. As we blow out the can­dles on email marketing’s 40th birth­day cake, mar­keters must ask them­selves if they’re doing every­thing they can to max­i­mize the channel’s time­less appeal.