Hotmail Active Views Revives E-mail Innovation in 2011

Use dynamic content to keep e-mail messages up to date when the recipient opens it.

In December 2010, Hotmail began offering Active Views, the industry’s first “interactive e-mail” solution. Hotmail users can have more engaging, rich experiences with their e-mail messages and take actions more quickly and easily, within the e-mail itself.

Beginning in the late ’90s, primarily as a result of the dozens of ESPs who sprouted during the dot com boom, e-mail marketing evolved from plain text and attachments to supporting rich, HTML-based e-mail. This was a big development, and today nearly all marketing e-mails sent use HTML. Along the way, other interactive features like sound and video were added, but none have had the success that the switch to HTML had. I believe interactive e-mail focused on data and commerce (like Hotmail Active Views) is the next evolutionary step for e-mail marketing.

This new service marks the next big innovation in e-mail, past the move to HTML that began back in the 1990s. Back then, that was revolutionary because it took e-mail out of its infancy as a text-based communication method that relied on attachments and delivered a richer experience.

Based on the results of an initial pilot with Orbitz and Monster, I’m excited about the potential this technology offers to marketers in all verticals. I expect the initial innovators will be those with large amounts of perishable inventory.

In the Inbox: How Active Views Works

Hotmail’s new Active Views allows consumers to interact directly within the e-mail. Why wait for one to two seconds while your browser opens a new window for the website when an API can deliver real-time data directly to the e-mail?

Say you get an e-mail from Orbitz with a special offer for hotels in your favorite vacation spot. Instead of clicking on the offer and going to the Orbitz site as you would with a static e-mail, you can type in your dates and location into the search engine in the e-mail message.

Also, while still in the e-mail message, you can flip through the list of available hotels, as you would do on the website or on an iPad application. (Want to see it in action? Watch Hotmail’s demonstration video on YouTube.)

What’s In It for Marketers?

Bringing interactivity into the e-mail message itself delivers two immediate benefits: it reduces friction by cutting the number of steps in the conversion process, and it gives less cause for the customer to abandon the process. Think about how Ajax programming brought interactivity to websites. Now with Hotmail, and likely soon other e-mail providers, you can make a truly interactive e-mail message.

In 2011, look for it in e-mail applications such as these:

  • Working forms or exploding offers that adjust for time of open, sale deadlines, and inventory status. This can reduce the buyer frustration that happens when a recipient clicks through only to find the desired item is long gone, while still suggesting alternatives to keep the customer from leaving empty-handed. You can do this today with Omniture’s Test & Target. This provides yet another way to achieve.
  • Search widgets you can use from within the message to get the exact content you’re interested in (as in the Orbitz example above).
  • Ticket promoters who show which seats are available in real time.
  • Retailers with real-time auctions, where the recipient can see whether a desired item is still available and the current bid price. Imagine the possibilities for eBay and QVC.

Will Consumers Go for Interactive E-mail?

Like all evolutionary spurts, consumers will need time to realize and adjust to the benefits that interactive e-mail like Active Views permits. I believe that marketers who understand the potential it offers and are patient enough to figure out how best to use this technology will reap the benefits.

If you weren’t around for the debut of HTML, it took a while for consumers to understand. Initially, AOL users didn’t understand that they could click on pictures. Microsoft addresses some concerns that early users have about Active Views in its blog post on Active Views. For example, users can turn off the dynamic content and see a static version of the message. Also, senders who want to use Active Views must pass security and validation checkpoints before Microsoft will approve them for the service.

Innovation Keeps E-mail Vital

Active Views and other technology like it are e-mail’s answer to critics who dismiss e-mail as dead, dying, or too old-school to warrant additional investment of time and money. It shows that e-mail continues to evolve and address challenges like overcrowded inboxes, where static e-mail can go stale if they aren’t opened and acted on immediately.

With this kind of dynamic content, the message remains up to date when the recipient opens it. The interactivity means the recipient saves time by taking actions from right inside the e-mail itself. All of this keeps e-mail fresh and up to the challenges of today’s digital marketing.

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