Rich Media: Too Rich for E-Mail?

First, let me go on the record as being “pro” rich media. I love being able to watch news clips on my PC, listen to music and watch videos via RealPlayer, and I even occasionally suffer through rich media interstitials on those rare sites that use them.

When rich media and e-mail converge, it makes a static medium more interesting, too. But that convergence doesn’t happen much these days as far as I can see.

For whatever reason, I receive fewer rich media e-mails now. Yet every year brings another crop of analysts predicting that the widespread adoption by e-mail marketers of “rich media e-mail” is right around the corner.

The latest on this development comes from Jupiter Research in a report released in May. For once, someone told the truth about rich media e-mail. Jupiter said in its report that “for now though, rich media e-mail seems to be at a point where rich media on the Web was several years back where penetration levels weren’t quite as high as marketers would like or marketers didn’t have an excellent understanding of how to use rich media to its best effect.”

But that is only half the truth. What Jupiter should have said straight out was that for the foreseeable future rich media e-mail is a waste of most advertisers’ dollars, for several reasons.

For one, rich media e-mail is too expensive to create for one-time use. It is not universally readable and is threatened by changes in Outlook, AOL and Yahoo, among others. And unlike on the Web, where rich media is becoming ubiquitous, rich media e-mail is closer to being snuffed out than being the next big thing.

This should come as no surprise to those who follow this industry and the companies inhabiting it. The scrap heap of pure-play rich media e-mail services such as RadicalMail, MindArrow and others should be enough evidence for all of us.

In addition to my Hotmail and Yahoo accounts, I also have accounts with the two ISPs I use, one cable and one DSL – fast enough to handle streams. I’ve put a lot of targets up for the rich media people to fire at. So why haven’t I received a single rich media e-mail in the past six months? I don’t know, but I’ve got a few thoughts about the market for this type of message.

Movies and television – and all visual entertainment – seem like ideal users of these tools. After all, rich media e-mail can accommodate their promotional trailers better than a static HTML message can.

When a new release goes to DVD, shouldn’t Netflix send a message to its customers announcing the availability of this film? Shouldn’t HBO hype next season’s “Six Feet Under” through a partnership with the cable TV companies that carry both the show and the high-speed Internet access that make rich media tolerable? I haven’t gotten messages from any of these senders in rich media e-mail format.

How about cars? I own a BMW and signed up to receive e-mails from them. I am not actively in the market for a new BMW now but who knows? Maybe I’ll win the lottery tomorrow and decide I want to buy a new 7-series. They should be sending me some of those Guy Richey BMW mini-movies in rich media e-mail format. That would liven up my e-mail. And since I am already a buyer of BMWs, isn’t it likely that I am also a high-speed Internet access customer? After all, I fit the demographic.

It doesn’t appear that the many sites where I’ve registered have done much with the data that I’ve given them. And that may be part of the problem.

The Jupiter study noted that rich media e-mail is viewed as an expensive direct marketing tool because it costs marketers 30 percent to 60 percent more than its HTML variant and can be viewed by only one-third of consumers.

Considering the relatively low costs of e-mail marketing compared with other media, it is telling that these marketers are unwilling to spend to test in this medium. It tells me that marketers rather would go with the tried and true, especially in these economic times, than test a medium, which may not get them any lift over traditional methods.

But isn’t it accepted wisdom that during down times the ones that market and attract customers are the ones that get the business? Isn’t rich media e-mail this type of innovation?

Maybe marketers are merely afraid to take a risk and send something that I cannot read. I don’t need too many more offers from marketers, but if they really understand what I am in the market to buy then I am all eyes – and ears.

Nevertheless, I think rich media e-mail can succeed. The people selling it need to be honest about its capabilities and audience reach. They need to use it to sell the right kind of products. And they need to make it more cost-effective.

Then all they have to do is get rid of all the spam in everyone’s inbox so that e-mail becomes exciting and novel again, like it was in 1998 when everyone decided that the future was rich media e-mail.

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