What Happened?

A few years ago, rich media email was all the rage. Companies like Dynamics Direct, TMX Interactive, Audiobase, Mind Arrow, and Radical Mail were all touting their wares at big ticket conferences and opening branch offices around the country like a Seattle coffee franchise. I, myself, used to put on whole road shows dedicated to rich media email. But while rich media on web sites, banners, and floating ads grew in prominence over the last few years, rich media email seems to have just about faded from view. What happened?

Some of these companies, like Dynamics Direct and Audiobase, just imploded. Others like Radical Mail and MindArrow were combined, shuffled, and reshuffled until there were only remnants left to be absorbed by other entities. Of the original big players, only TMX still seems to be around, although I, for one, haven't heard much from them in recent years. (Although I'll bet that once this column runs, I'll hear from all of these companies telling me they've re-grouped and everything is going fine. If so I'll report that next week).

Most of these companies were victims of the "Big Idea" syndrome. The problem with "Big Ideas" is that people don't want big ideas, they want "Big Solutions" to help them through the Big Mess they got into when they bought into the last Big Idea.

In the case of Dynamics Direct, the Big Idea was that you would achieve dramatic response in your email if, when opened, you received a personalized recorded message: "BILL," the emails would shout at you, "How would you like this exciting vacation to ." And then they would dynamically shout out a place it thought you could afford based on your database profile (in my case Pittsburgh). Each message was delivered with a personalized highly caffeinated audio pitch. The Big Idea was that they recorded hundreds and hundreds of names so that you could hear your name, even if it was Pippy Longstocking.

The trouble was that many people were just plain startled when they heard their name shouted out, although when I used the technology to promote a conference I was doing back in 2001, the response was good.

As a side note, I question whether the whole notion of personalization works as advertised. I spoke with a marketer who paid extra to personalize an email blast with first and last name. During a routine auditing, the marketer discovered that the wrong list had been used and the personalization had been dropped by mistake. On re-running the campaign with the personalization the response was exactly the same as the non-personalized send.

Other forms of rich media included embedding video and audio in the message, providing sophisticated tracking tools, and, of course, providing just plain Flash in an email. For the most part, these tools were avoided by marketers for acquisition campaigns and were really the domain of retention campaigns. The big exception being Livemercial, which is the only company I see doing consistent acquisition campaigns by embedding "as seen on TV" type infomercials into email sends.

For others, the cost of production of the fancier technologies seems to have outweighed the benefits. Today the focus of discussion has moved away from content to delivery. When your messages may not even be getting through because of spam filters and black lists, it is even harder to justify additional expense on higher impact graphics.

The other shift that occurred is that smaller, lower overhead, companies such as VisionPoint Media, began providing high quality Flash emails at a much lower price than had previously been available. This forced some of the more heavily funded companies to seek other revenue sources such as email appending and other services removed from rich media. Rich media became a commodity, to a certain extent, (at least from a cost standpoint) without reaching mass appeal among marketers. These days, marketers save the Flash work for the jump page and drive traffic via a well designed HTML graphic such as the brilliant new Subaru email campaigns that drop you off at www.need-desire.com where the real graphical magic happens.

So is rich media dead as far as email is concerned? I doubt it. My prediction is that it will hibernate for a year or so until spam and legal issues are worked out and then make a comeback. One thing is for certain in digital marketing: once the genie is out of the bottle, it never goes back in for long. Just think of the return of push technology!

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