National Geographic Campaign Begs Question: Too Soon for Visuals in E-Mail Marketing?

Never one to let a chance to use visuals pass by, the National Geographic Society's online arm launched a “Wild Cards” e-mail campaign last week featuring free digital greeting cards with full-color photo files of wild animals.

The not-for-profit firm is sending the graphics-attached e-mail to its database of 200,000 newsletter subscribers hoping recipients will like the digital cards enough to visit and send digital greetings to their friends and relatives, consequently beefing up National Geographic Interactive's e-mail house file.

“At 200,000, we're just a rounding error” to the rest of the organization, said Larry Lux, senior vice president and managing director of National Geographic Interactive, Washington. The magazine's circulation is 9 million. “This is purely opt-in, and we thought it would be an interesting way to build our list.”

Lux said the results of the initial drop will determine the extent of the campaign.

The technology driving the Wild Cards campaign, called @loha @ctive E-mail from Media Synergy, Toronto, has sound and movement capabilities, but National Geographic Interactive opted only to use photographs.

E-mail marketing veterans say, however, that attaching graphics is a sure way to kill response.

“Attachments turn off more people than they attract,” said Rosalind Resnick, president of e-mail list development and management firm NetCreations, New York. “They are a [memory] hog and they clog up your mail box. They just aren't ready for prime time.”

Regina Brady, leader of interactive services at Acxiom/Direct Media, Greenwich, CT, agreed.

“First of all, two-step marketing is very, very difficult,” she said, referring to the fact that opening e-mail attachments requires consumers to perform a two-step process. “The best direct marketing is as immediately gratifying as you can get.”

Also, Brady pointed out, some Internet service providers are automatically blocking delivery of large e-mail files.

“A year down the road, two years down the road, this will be the way everybody markets,” she said, “but not today. The pipes aren't big enough yet.”

Lux said that in light of other venerable direct marketer Reader's Digest's much-publicized financial troubles, the time to experiment with e-mail direct response is now. Reader's Digest's core older adult readership is shrinking and the company has cited a lack of response to its direct marketing efforts as a drag on earnings.

“The younger demographic doesn't respond as well to traditional direct marketing,” Lux said. “Look at what happened to Reader's Digest and how quickly it happened. Nobody here wants to be sitting five years from now in the same position.”

Also, people will take the time to open attachments “if you have something fun or interesting or compelling enough,” Lux said, citing the circulation of jokes with graphics as evidence.

Elan Vaknin, marketing manager of CBS SportsLine, also said there's no time like the present to test multimedia marketing.

“I would agree that maybe the pipes aren't ready yet, but should they stop developing the technology? No,” Vaknin said. “You can't wait, because when the pipes get big enough, things are really going to start to move.”

Vaknin said CBS SportsLine tested an admittedly primed Media Synergy house file of 20,000 people who had responded to previous @loha @ctive E-mail promotions. Vaknin said more than 20 percent of the recipients visited the CBS SportsLine store at

Lux said National Geographic Interactive's goal is to build its e-mail database to 1 million names with no particular deadline. National Geographic serves more than 6 million page views per month. The Wild Cards campaign began with four animals: an elephant, a rhinoceros, a lion and a zebra.

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