Email Can Do That?

You know the old adage about email being the killer app of the Internet? Well, it’s going to be the killer app of interactive marketing, too.

Unless, of course, it becomes the app that kills interactive marketing.

We (myself and a host of ClickZ columnists) spent this week prowling @d:tech‘s vendor exhibits, conferences, keynotes, and panels. If there is one apparent shift in this moribund industry, it’s that companies are funneling every aspect of advertising technology into email functionality. If they were touting rich media at the last @d:tech, they’re now selling rich media email packages. Ditto streaming, Flash, personalization, and targeting. Sniffers to determine what formats an email recipient can handle are in the mail; so are functions for list management and tracking. In short, anything ad technology ever did, currently does, or will do, now happens in your inbox.

Inbox Equals Eyeballs

Makes sense. Even if the online population in this country is showing signs of leveling off at around 127 million adults, that respectably sizable population remains skewed toward the type of people that marketers want to reach. They’re more educated, affluent, and relatively young. Yesterday, The New York Times guessed that there are 900 million email accounts worldwide, roughly half of which are in the U.S. If we ignore the millions of kids and teens that have email accounts, we can roughly estimate that 127 million Americans check an average of three email accounts each. In all probability, they do this every time they connect to the Web. Inboxes are viewed vastly more often than any single Web site.

The inbox is not only where people spend their time, it’s also where they want to communicate with marketers. Permission-based email is the medium through which 78 percent of consumers expressly prefer to receive communications from vendors they do business with, according to a DoubleClick study. They received an average of 36 permission-based emails weekly this year — double what they got last year.

Small wonder vendors at @d:tech hawked email marketing solutions for everything imaginable: from branding, offers, promotions, and sales to customer relationship management (CRM), service, and support. There are technologies to track customers’ Web behavior and integrate it with customized, targeted, and relevant email — including, but not limited to, messages, postcards, newsletters, surveys, queries, offers, solicitations, movies, music, alerts, confirmations, updates, billing, reminders, and catalogs. It’s all in the email.

(The exception that proves the rule was the rather incongruous presence of the U.S. Postal Service, promoting shipping and old-fashioned direct mail.)

There are almost as many reasons for the resurgence of email as there are messages in cyberspace, close to 10 billion daily. Reason number one? The buzzword du jour, ROI (return on investment). Court Cunningham, who oversees DoubleClick’s DARTmail estimated the average email cost per unit at $0.25, versus $1.25 for a direct mail piece. Response rate? One to two percent for direct, five to fifteen percent for email. Banners are dead? Big deal.

Bigfoot Interactive ran an email campaign for a telecom (MCI? It won’t say) aimed at enticing customers to switch to online billing. Thirty-five percent of them did, saving the client over $2 million annually. Competitor DoubleClick claims to have saved an unnamed client $15 million per year in postage alone via a shift to email marketing.

We’re talking envelopes here, not the big stuff, but the latest email technology addresses thicker things, too. One cool new technology (not present at @d:tech) from Mobular can pack a 500-item interactive catalog in a 3K email. Viewable within an email client or downloadable, the catalog auto-updates items and prices, reports user activity in real time, has browse and search functions, and handles streaming media. It offers way more functionality at a fraction of the price of producing and mailing any glossy catalog, not to mention a response time measured in days, not weeks.

So, email’s hot, but exuberance is irrational (you do know that by now, don’t you)? Where there was once the chocolate-or-vanilla choice between HTML or text, issues to sort out now include conundrums such as “What if the subscriber is receiving streaming video… on her Blackberry?” Personalization and targeting need work, too (Amazon — you’re good with the book recommendations. But why send me that ad for a DSL router a week after you sold me a DSL router?). These issues can be sorted out — and they will be.

Only one thing can stop email’s growth and its power as a marketing tool: other email. Spam. Today, The Wall Street Journal called spam, “A pathetic way to do business… The spammers are ruining the very use of email for millions of people.”

The Journal wants federal legislation against spammers — which is very much in your interest, dear marketer. We seem to be able to cobble together task forces and industry initiatives for measurement, research, trade shows, and networking. Why can’t the companies that showed up at @d:tech (who are betting the farm on email solutions) get together and work as a bloc to block spammers? If we don’t do it, who will? Mail Abuse Prevention System (MAPS) is the only organization really offering a solution. MAPS is noble and pure, but, alas, too noble and pure for the reality check of real business. Real business people are fully cognizant of the effect spam can have on their bottom lines, and they know MAPS can’t stop it. Why don’t they act? Must be some sort of death wish. How else can you explain the collective inaction of a battered industry with success once again within reach?

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