Text-Based E-Mail Arrives as Envisioned

Henry Ford is remembered as saying, in the early days of the automobile industry, “We’ll sell you any color automobile you want as long as it’s black.”

With that statement and the standardization of many other parts of the early automobile, an industry – unrivaled in the 20th century – was born. People loved the auto and the wonderfully colored (black) Model T’s of Ford Motor Co.

E-mail marketing is experiencing growing pains today. Much like the early auto, the smart players have kept the variety of e-mail types to a minimum. Many of the most branded e-mail databases on the market offer only text-based e-mails. You cannot send HTML, XML or streaming anything through those organizations. What you do get is an effective, correctly sent message that looks exactly as you envisioned it.

This may not be what many creative types want to visualize, but there is more creative in copy when it comes to e-mail than in any graphic content. And at least what you want the recipient to see is actually what he sees.

Some readers may wonder why I’m saying this while my company and many others possess the technology to deliver all sorts of beautifully designed e-mails.

The answer is simple.

Many recipients cannot see HTML messaging yet. Furthermore, many recipients prefer text-based e-mail. Finally, text-based e-mails may be more effective.

These may come as troubling statements to many marketers, venture capitalists, graphic artists and the many firms hawking new technology.

Here are some surprising facts that caused me to reflect on how marketers can use the new technologies:

• Response rates have been dropping on e-mails, especially those sent as HTML e-mails.

• Only 40 percent of consumer recipients and a smaller group of business recipients can receive HTML-based e-mail as the composer anticipated they would see it.

• A large segment of recipients uses America Online, which requires a different methodology than HTML to see a graphically enhanced message – though it’s not difficult to do. The graphic AOL message would be similar to an HTML message.

• Many consumers, and still many businesspeople, are on dial-up, slow-speed hookups to the Internet. The download time and effort of HTML messaging continue to frustrate even browser-based recipients.

• HTML e-mails may be a signal to a recipient that he is about to receive a commercial message. That in itself may decrease response rates.

Many e-mail gurus will tell you of sniffers that can tell whether a person is on a browser-based e-mail system, which should mean that the person can see HTML messages.

Not true. In many offices the HTML capability of, say, Microsoft Outlook is turned off. Therefore, even though the sniffer would recognize that office as an HTML-enabled site, it would not actually be, and the received message would be unintelligible.

Two direct response media are being meshed into one “envelope.” One is the graphically appealing and extraordinary medium of the Web, which calls on a vast array of visual technologies. The second is the quieter medium of e-mail marketing. Siblings in technology – but not twins.

Think about how you use e-mail to communicate. One-to-one communication between two individuals is a text-based medium. You may send an attachment, but you are not building an HTML message. HTML is the true flag of a commercial message; the Federal Trade Commission need not look any further for a warning.

This first became apparent when I noticed that many management information system/information technology recipients of e-mail were responding to text-based e-mail rather than the more sophisticated HTML/exotic e-mail used in test cells. This was a surprise, since one would expect early adopters in the technology field to be the first to respond to HTML. The e-mail medium is similar to a written letter, which is designed to foster a feeling of one-to-one, though the goal should be one-to-many.

Eventually, this may change. The e-mail of tomorrow will be the product of several generations raised on the Internet and its related parts. For now, as with the early autos that were meant for faster transportation and not variety, e-mail may mean speedier communication and not creativity.

• Roy Schwedelson is CEO of Worldata Inc. and co-founder of WebConnect, both in Boca Raton, FL.

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