Predictions for Hotmail Active Views

Throughout 2010, there were a lot of doomsayers on the subject of e-mail, with a seemingly continuous stream of articles and studies saying that e-mail is dead or dying, killed by twitbook, facepad, or something.

Admittedly, there hasn’t been much that one could call innovative in the world of e-mail, and the capabilities of most e-mail reading programs, whether installed client or Web-based, have decreased over recent years. The most notable changes in e-mail clients in the past years has been the disabling of images and Outlook’s gutting of its HTML capabilities by switching to the Microsoft Word rendering engine. Then, towards the end of 2010, Hotmail announced Active Views. A true innovation that enables real-time content in e-mail, the use of in-message authentication, and interactivity through the use of JavaScript.

For a technology geek like myself, that’s very cool stuff. You could do a ton of really interesting things with it and create much richer experiences for recipients right in the inbox – without the need for them to jump into a separate window or system.

But what does it mean for e-mail marketing? To make some predictions, we need to consider the value of this capability and its shortcomings.

The Value

Studies indicate users are spending increasing amounts of time on social networking sites and countering that is clearly in Hotmail’s interest. Facebook reported far higher than expected advertising revenue this past year; and competing more effectively for advertising dollars would, I’m sure, be attractive to Hotmail. It seems likely that Hotmail’s goal with Active Views is to increase the amount of time users spend in the Hotmail interface. More time spent there will equate to greater advertising revenue. Thus the value to Hotmail is increased revenue.

For end users, the value should be in richer, more seamless experiences with the products, services, and organizations that take advantage of Active Views. And those organizations will be preferred by Hotmail users and will see higher conversions and revenue.

The Shortcomings

Clearly the biggest shortcoming is that this technology is specific to Hotmail. While Hotmail has a very strong market share in some regions of the world, it’s not particularly large in the U.S. Only around 15 percent of a typical B2C list will be Hotmail.

While I said that for a technology geek this is very cool, most marketers aren’t technologists and most marketing departments don’t do software development. When you look at Active Views’ launch partners, they’re companies that develop their own Web-based platforms already. Making interaction with those platforms happen in the inbox is relatively easy for them and they have the expertise to do it; for many marketers I think the challenge is much greater.

The Future

So is it all doom and gloom for marketers? A cool technology that’s out of reach because it’s too narrowly available and requires too much expertise to implement?

I don’t think so. I think there are a number of things that may change to make this kind of technology more accessible and more attractive to e-mail marketers.

I have already heard that Yahoo is implementing a similar capability. I’ve been unable to find out much detail, but if there is a reasonable degree of compatibility the reach issue may go away rapidly. We should also not underestimate the degree to which competition may force Gmail and the like to implement compatible solutions so as not to be left behind.

I also think the bar for entry can be lowered. If users accept this capability (and I don’t see why they wouldn’t), the door may become open to a wider range of interactivity within e-mail. For many marketing purposes, simple dynamic capabilities from tools such as jQuery can do a lot to enhance the experience without requiring the deep development expertise of an in-e-mail shopping cart. We may also see e-mail service providers creating platforms that make adding this kind of functionality much quicker and easier than it is today.

Finally, I think there is some hope that we may actually see the ability to include JavaScript in e-mails one day in the future. What Hotmail has implemented is a sandbox for JavaScript. It’s this sandbox that makes running JavaScript in e-mail safe, whether it is delivered via Active Views or directly in the message.

Will we see this in Outlook in the near future? I’m not holding my breath, but it certainly opens some interesting doors and possibilities for e-mail.

What do you think? Are you planning to use Active Views anytime soon?

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