Are Your Customers Ready for Rich-Media E-Mail?

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A year or so ago, when everyone was suddenly discovering interactive marketing, rich-media e-mail campaigns were something almost every marketing department had to evaluate. Often, the CEO or senior marketing executive got a glimpse of what was possible from seeing the campaigns of others. The marching orders were clear: "Get us this cool stuff, and get it soon!"


In our e-mail services business, we still see that scenario playing out. I call it the "wow factor." Rich-media e-mail can be an impressive marketing tool, but there are important limitations and risks marketers must understand before they hit "send." There also are some effective alternatives that should be considered.


The fundamental rule, one that cannot be overemphasized in considering whether to use rich media in your e-mail program, is to know your audience. Having an existing, permission-based relationship with the e-mail recipient is the key to success. This relationship can help determine if rich media is appropriate and can prevent some of the common pitfalls.


First, let's be clear on the terminology. What is rich-media e-mail and what are the other options?


E-mail can be created in plain text, in Web-like HTML (the hypertext markup language your browser displays so well), and in HTML augmented with animated graphics. None of these are considered rich media.


Rich media can include sound, video clips and animation, often using Macromedia Director or Flash as the file format. As e-mail, rich media can be delivered as an attached file (a self-running format that can be compressed from the original size) or it can be embedded into an HTML file, much like a graphic would be. If embedded, the rich-media file is automatically displayed when the e-mail is opened, provided the recipient has the correct plug-in.


Rich media can be very attractive and interactive, allowing for input and choices from the recipient.


Pitfalls to Avoid


Some of the most common pitfalls are obvious and others are learned the hard way. Here are some key issues that everyone looking into rich media should consider:


Bandwidth. Rich media files are much larger than other e-mail attachments and require additional resources to send. If that's not a problem for you, think for a moment of your recipient. Imagine your loyal customer waiting for an e-mail to download on a slow home account: "You made me wait 20 minutes to download an ad? Thanks, but no thanks, and get me off your list."


While bandwidth might be less of a problem for business-to-business marketers, don't jump to conclusions. Just because someone is signed up with a work account does not mean they will be in the office when e-mail arrives. What if your recipient is a road warrior dialing into the company network from a hotel room? The reaction to having to download huge, rich-media e-mails might not be pretty.


Plug-in required. Certain rich-media formats, such as the popular Macromedia Flash format, require that users have a plug-in installed on their computers. This raises obvious compatibility issues. Again it requires knowing as much as possible about the recipient. And even if recipients had the plug-in, they may no longer have it, may have an older version, or they may log on to the same e-mail account from separate machines - not all of which have the plug-in.


Imagine that someone has waited patiently to download a large e-mail attachment you have sent, only to discover that he needs to download and install the latest version of a player to view what you sent. Ouch.


Virus fears. You have probably heard the term "viral marketing". In fact, e-mail that can be passed from customer to prospect and on to other prospects is a great example of effective viral marketing in its most positive sense. Unfortunately, e-mail with the attachments required for rich media raises the fear among many recipients of another kind of infection - a computer virus. Again, the value of the prior relationship, built on earned trust, becomes all the more important. Recipients are much more likely to open attachments from trusted sources.


Some campaigns rely on converting rich media file formats to self-running files. Significant file compression is possible so senders can overcome bandwidth and compatibility issues. Still, technically savvy recipients may object to any executable file sent as an attachment as a possible virus risk. Once again, you might just alienate the loyal customer you intended to attract.


Strong Responses - Pro and Con


There is no doubt that the reaction to rich media campaigns is exceptionally strong, but that cuts both ways. Although the negative responses can be exceptionally shrill, the positive reactions are exceptionally glowing.


In a rich media campaign nominated for a CASIE award that we ran for a well-known client this past summer, an astonishing 30 percent of the 35,000 people who received the self-running attachment followed through on the offer. At the same time, even though the list was limited and permission-based, the campaign elicited vocal criticism from some users who balked at having been sent an attachment, even from a trusted source.


We have had other clients test programs only to pull back from a rich-media strategy because of preliminary negative feedback from customers.


As in-house lists grow, and as e-mail becomes increasingly about building stronger customer relationships online, most companies appear to be moving away from the sizzle of rich media. Most are moving instead toward other creative ways to engage customers: good copy writing, better lists, and better back-end targeting and campaign design, so that the right offer reaches the right recipient at the right time. In addition, e-mail marketers are increasingly realizing the need to apply better tracking methodologies to their programs, and to use key metrics such as buy rates and pass-along rates to benchmark the success of campaigns.


Rich media e-mail grabs the recipient's attention. Our instinct as marketers is that anything that is attention grabbing and interactive must make a great marketing tool. Clearly, though, there are risks that need to be considered in evaluating e-mail programs that rely on rich media.


Nevertheless, I think it will play a role in the future of interactive marketing. The most current Web browsers increasingly are able to handle rich media formats without requiring a separately installed viewer. Bandwidth, too, will become less of an issue. Once some of the computing infrastructure issues are resolved, rich media might even become pervasive to the point of becoming entertaining background noise used to build awareness more than for direct response, much like banner ads today.


In the meantime, clients who want to use e-mail to build on already strong relationships with clients are seeing tremendous results, even without rich media. By focusing on an appropriate offer, or by combining HTML formatting and graphic elements with great copy, and perhaps by including animated GIF images in e-mail, clients are creating campaigns with sizzle, interactivity, and measurable results.
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