A Wealth of Rich Media E-Mail Ideas

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I received an e-mail recently from a trendy e-commerce fashion portal. I bet you got the same one. The company did great with coverage. I got it in all my various e-mail accounts from AOL to Mail.com!


Lately my inbox has been stuffed with rich media e-mails. For the past six months, e-mail has been not only the hot medium for marketers; for some it has been the only type. With industry averages for banner ad click-through hovering around 0.5 percent and rich media e-mail marketing click-through rates of 10 percent, it's no wonder e-marketers have tuned into this emerging technology in droves. Many have chosen to use rich media e-mail as the Trojan horse of online marketing.


Back to the e-mail I received from this fashion portal. It was great looking, like the rest of them. It had my name at the top, "Dear Lixuan," just underneath the ever-present banner advertisement. Content articles were neatly stacked on a pale green background on the left side. Six graphical products covered the other two-thirds of my screen. Links to the Web site for more information and information to unsubscribe were easily accessible.


So what was the problem? Everything.


Though I'm the type of person who's interested in factoids and trivia, I am not interested in men's shaving tips for trimming sideburns. And the offer on boxer shorts? Not exactly what I need, either. How about something I can use, like the newest type of nylon stockings that won't run? Or a pair of python boots - that are so hot this season - for less than a gazillion dollars? That was certainly missing. Was this e-mail intended for me or for someone else?


Though rich media e-mail comes with plenty of action, sound and video, it's still unclear how e-marketers are targeting their customers. Common sense and direct marketing principles seem to have been thrown out in a frenzy to get as many e-mail names as possible in the hope that one might get lucky with pairing one's products with an undetected interest. To make your rich media e-mail campaign really pay off, follow some of these simple guidelines:


Add substance beyond novelty. Though rich media e-mail can be entertaining, clever or even shocking, once recipients get over the novelty of e-mail with streaming video or e-commerce capabilities, they'll tune out to any subsequent e-mail using rich media. One can argue that rich e-mail is not the buzz around the water cooler anymore. It's already old news, hence, expected. It's the job of the marketer to build fresh and creative content around the novelty, and more importantly, to offer increased relevancy in these marketing messages.


Your customers are not always online. Rich media will only work with a live Internet connection. If a recipient is reading an e-mail offline, he sees only broken links. Plenty of people still view their e-mail offline. To avoid this, follow the lead of other rich media solution providers and add helpful messages like "to view this rich media ad, please go online." This reminds your customers to view your message once they are online.


Branding is an ongoing process. Rich media vendors claim that rich e-mail offers great enhancements to the consumer's online experience with you, thus helping reinforce your branding. It offers greater interactivity with your customers. Consumers can click, play and even buy, all from the e-mail you sent. And they may find the e-mail fun and compelling. All this certainly adds to your brand equity.


However, as my latest experience suggests, it also can hurt your brand equity if you don't offer enough relevancy in the marketing message. The moment the consumer thinks what you offer does not meet her needs, the fun rich e-mail becomes just like all other online marketing - a lot of mumbo jumbo, not a lot of substance.


Make it relevant. Given the proper tools, e-marketers can learn extensive information about their customers and make marketing targeted and effective. Several personalization technologies are available to e-marketers to incorporate into e-mail marketing campaigns. By using rule-based technology, marketers can narrowly define a cross-sell opportunity, i.e., offer shaving tips to those who buy boxer shorts. By using segmentation techniques, marketers can slice and dice their list beforehand to make sure female recipients do not view male products. Or you can incorporate collaborative filtering technology into your e-mail campaign, so products recommended are based on an individual's tastes and preferences. In this case, the viewer would see merchandise of unique interest. These tools can be used as a stand-alone or together to make your e-mail marketing relevant to your customers.


Weigh the benefits against time and resources. What's great about non-rich e-mail programs is they are easy to deploy: You can write the copy in one day and send out the campaign that night. Rich media campaigns are creatively more challenging, as they speak more closely to your brand identity. As in the catalog business, marketers need to keep each subsequent campaign consistent and compelling. Just the design aspect of the campaign can push the planning into a week as opposed to a day. Therefore, it can be a much bigger undertaking.


Rich media e-mail can do a lot for your e-business. It can generate much better results than simple text versions. However, when you are in a crunch and the word needs to get out, the good, old-fashioned text e-mail may be just the way to go.


E-mail is here to stay. According to Forrester Research, by 2004, the average household will receive nine e-mail marketing messages a day. In fact, I have to feel this figure is way low because I get a lot more than nine a day right now. This means consumers will be drowning in a sea of e-mail marketing in the near future. Only by tuning in to the new advantages of technology, such as rich media e-mail, can marketers achieve a competitive advantage in turning on high response rates. Even beyond the novelty, rich media e-mail marketing can continue to outperform other media as long as e-marketers are dedicated to bringing fun and relevancy to their customers.


• Lixuan An is president of yo.com, New York.
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