Online Portal Battle Overlooks E-Mail's Superior Performance

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The buzzword of 1998 has been "portal" -- a name for a kind of customized interface to the Web. The excitement about portals is the desire to be the tour guide of the Internet.


Portals tell people where to go to buy a book or CD. Amazon.com will pay a lot of money if you send customers their way to buy books, and so will almost any site with something to sell. Many companies are busy reinventing themselves as portal companies, all struggling for a way to be that tour guide.


Go to any of the portals -- AOL's start page, MSN, Yahoo -- and they will offer you stock quotes, news headlines, sports scores and shopping services. While all this functionality is nice, I rarely go to the Web to "pull" information from a Web portal. I prefer to have it delivered to my desktop via the world's oldest Internet portal, e-mail.


Uniquely personal tour guide: In many cases, e-mail is a superior portal. Instead of surfing the Web for the latest news, I subscribe to services that send updates to my in box. If there is a headline I'm interested in, I simply click on that link and I am taken directly to the article. I don't have to search, I don't have to drill down within a site and I don't waste time. In fact, I find that most of the time I enter the Web by clicking a URL in an e-mail, not by going through a portal Web site.


E-mail is fast, inexpensive, manageable, easy-to-use and uniquely personal. It is already established as an important communications tool, often surpassing the telephone for many forms of business and personal interaction.


Jupiter Communications estimates that in 1998, 175 million e-mail messages will be sent per day and the number will grow to 465 million by 2002. This growth has significant implications for direct marketers who are looking to get their offer in front of the right eyeballs.


Welcome marketing tool: E-mail is increasingly being used as a means for receiving business and personal communication, news, entertainment, products and even ads. People want to receive marketing materials when they've asked for them. Frequent travelers, for example, ask that airlines e-mail them up-to-date information on discounted fares. When I buy a product, whether it's a new stereo, or a piece of software, I'm delighted when I get the option to receive e-mail updates of new products or offers from the vendor. Software vendors, for example, often send bug fixes or usage tips. If I had to visit the site periodically to access that information, I would never see it. When they appear in my in box, I typically read a short paragraph and can simply click on a link to be taken to a Web page with more information or I can delete the e-mail.


I bought a CD from a music company about a year ago. Now I get an e-mail every week suggesting other titles I might be interested in. I probably click on a URL in one of these letters every other week. Not only am I directed to their Web site, but when I get there, they already know who I am and what I am interested in.


There is, of course, the issue of too much of a good thing -- and if a vendor were to abuse its privilege, they would quickly lose me as a customer. It is all too easy for an end-user to click on a "Bozo filter" and prevent the vendor from ever sending that person e-mail again.


Response rates: In addition to being an accepted, effective resource for consumers, e-mail is an unparalleled tool for marketers. Effective Web banner ads garner click-throughs in the 1 percent to 2 percent range. Fantastic Web banners rarely generate a 3 percent click-through. Consensual direct e-mail campaigns' average response rates are well over 20 percent! And that doesn't even begin to address the personalization options that e-mail can bring to the table.


So, e-mail is not only a way to deliver a message to an interested audience, but a way to tailor that message over time to make it as relevant as possible. Response rates to opt-in e-mail campaigns (unsolicited e-mail marketing is called spam) are the kinds that marketers dream about -- and the cost is incredibly low.


I agree that good integrated marketing campaigns, using banners, print and other forms of advertising are necessary, but when you are looking to truly build, retain and up-sell customers, remember that e-mail is the Internet's killer portal.


Lenny Barshack is CEO of Bigfoot International Inc., New York. His e-mail address is Lenny@bigfoot.com.
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