E-Mail Focus: Life After Text? That's Rich

HTML is now the price of entry. How long before rich media goes wide?

by Lynn Russo

Think the vast majority of your customers still want marketing e-mails delivered to them in text form? Think again. According to a JupiterResearch/IPSOS survey, just 3 percent of respondents said they still get text-only e-mail, making html the majority. But rich media is not far behind. Sixty-seven percent of marketers responding to a Forrester survey said they use or are planning to use rich media in e-mail and in display ads within the next 12 months.

"We're seeing better than 50 percent growth in multimedia embedded into e-mail," says William Luddy, vice president of interactive strategy and user experience at Wunderman. Among the things customers like best, he says, are stream-able educational videos, because users "don't need to visit the Web site to have it visible to them."

Media and communications companies lead the way, followed by consumer products companies, according to Forrester. Travel and automotive companies, not listed in the Forrester survey, are also heavy rich e-mail users.

"Sandals Resorts is doing a lot of rich e-mail, as are cruise lines," says Seana Mulcahy, president of branding consulting and marketing firm Brand Truth. "CPGs [consumer packaged goods marketers] like Kraft and P&G are advertising to working moms with offers like coupons for orange juice."

"Rich media lends itself well to products that are complicated or have a long sales cycle," adds Shar VanBoskirk, senior analyst at Forrester Research. "B2B companies would be good adopters of rich media because they have products that need explanation. They could say, 'Click here for a tutorial on how to install this product.'" In the consumer world, an appliance purchase would be a good example of a complicated buying decision. "A video in this case might advertise, 'Buying a refrigerator? Here are the important things to consider."

>The Challenges: E-mail suppression systems can wreak havoc on rich e-mail. Even when rich e-mails get delivered intact, rich capabilities don't activate in preview panes, so viewers only see a couple of lines of text unless they click to open the e-mail.

Luddy advises, "Ensure that a person has the choice of selecting to receive rich media or plain text. Then, encode the layout elements in such a way that, if the rich media gets filtered out, the e-mail still gets your message across."

Tracking ROI is an equally frustrating challenge. "It's no longer just a click-to-open rate," Mulcahy explains, "so you really have to strategize and think, How am I going to count this?" Without easy metrics, Mulcahy has found that agencies often integrate a variety of measurement tools to create a dashboard effect. This is time-consuming, however, and creates more billable hours.

The biggest problem, experts say, is that many marketers are forgetting the basics of Marketing 101. "Rich media often [overwhelms] marketers with the false promise of relevance," says VanBoskirk. "Capturing eyeballs isn't enough. They need to take some preliminary steps to understand their customers."

Adds Luddy, "Too many marketers still fail to consider how e-mail fits into their overall marketing program. Marketers should do more behavioral targeting and invest more in the strategic framework in which that e-mail functions." To be effective in the future, Mulcahy adds, "We're going to have to be more integrated and consistent across channels."

Moving forward, e-mail will continue to get richer, incorporating more video content and animation as time goes on. In the future, viewing screens will evolve into 3-D displays - a capability already available in Japan, Luddy says.

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