What's wrong with the e-mail picture?

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While most other online marketing seems to be adding more engaging visual, audio and video bells and whistles, e-mail is under threat of being stripped of its key charm: images that entice consumers to click through to the retailer or publisher's Web site. Not everyone is aware of the repercussions this will have, particularly for retail, news media and marketing. These industries are heavily reliant on e-mail marketing and communications as a key revenue source and driver for other channels.

Microsoft's new Outlook 2007, which switched to Word 2007 as the e-mail rendering engine instead of Internet Explorer, offers much cause for concern. Like many new e-mail reader versions on the market, Outlook 2007 has images turned off by default.

"The problem is that Word does not support many of the features that marketers use in their e-mails, and many fear that as Outlook 2007 takes off and gains market share, we'll all have to resort to bland, non-interactive and, potentially, even text[-only e-mail]," said Deirdre Baird, president/CEO of e-mail deliverability services firm Pivotal Veracity LLC, Phoenix.

This image-default issue requires serious attention. The e-mail readers where images are disabled by default include AOL 9.0 software, Google's Gmail, Mac.com and Yahoo Beta. E-mail readers where images are still enabled by default include AOL.com, AIM.com, the classic Yahoo Mail, Road Runner Online, BellSouth, Comcast, Cablevision, Verizon and Cox. Most e-mail readers - in terms of quantity, not market share - still have images on, but the trend is towards off, Ms. Baird said. For example, Mac.com turned them off in the last six months. Yahoo Mail allows images in its classic version but said recently Yahoo Beta will turn them off. Windows Live Mail, a new reader, has them off.

That said, it's easy to turn on images on an e-mail-by-e-mail basis. But how many consumers will risk doing so when the link includes language that says the images were turned off to protect the consumer?

Protecting consumers from spam is a likely motivation for these actions from Internet service providers and desktop software firms.

Without images, you cannot track opens and the e-mail is less compelling, making recipients less likely to respond, Ms. Baird said.

"The implications of images-off means mailers who rely on images to convey their brand or critical message content or calls to action are totally missing the boat," Ms. Baird said. "Their customers are not able to understand who they are and what they are trying to say."

For now, legitimate e-mailers are caught in this crossfire. Reducing the chances of viruses may be another driver. Or, if you're thinking less loftily of ISPs, it might be a way for them to lower their costs. Displaying images takes additional bandwidth. So if ISPs can get away with suppressing images without a loss in advertising revenue and customers, why not?

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