Ask the Experts: Rich E-mail

This month’s experts, Socketware’s Michael Pridemore and consultant Robin Lebo, answer the question

‘What should I consider before investing in rich e-mail?’

Rich e-mail is the incorporation of animated graphics, video, and sound into an e-mail marketing campaign. It can be as simple as a moving image or as elaborate as a full-scale television commercial embedded in an e-mail message.

There are three general forms of rich e-mail for a marketer to consider:

  • Attachment to an e-mail message. This is the least preferred, because subscribers must download a message before viewing it.
  • HTML message with embedded graphics or sound. It’s the entry point for most marketers.
  • Streaming media message. This is video, graphics, and/or sound hosted on a Web server and deployed when the recipient opens the message.

Before embarking on a rich-e-mail campaign, ask yourself if it’s appropriate for your marketing message. Rich e-mail is an experience vs. a message. If you’re sending an e-mail campaign for a commercial airline selling discounted fares, a text message may be as effective as rich e-mail. Travelers don’t have to experience an airplane seat to understand what you’re offering. On the other hand, a text message promoting a new reggae CD can’t reach the subscriber with video clips and sound samples as a rich e-mail can.

You’ll want to know the distribution by domain or Internet service provider of the intended recipients of your message. America Online, the nation’s largest ISP, does not support streaming media e-mail campaigns. And keep in mind that, according to Internet analyst NetValue, only 11.1% of U.S. households have high-speed broadband access. Depending on the size of your message, you’ll want to make sure that download times will not hinder subscribers from viewing the rich e-mail.

When compared to text or HTML campaigns, rich e-mail is not cheap. Start-up costs begin at $1,500. The cost to create or convert a message from another format is typically based on an hourly rate: $5,000-$10,000 overall is a good entry point. Vendors typically charge delivery costs in the pennies-per-message range, and streaming fees start at $0.10 per message. When all is said and done, the entry price is around $18,000 for a 30-second campaign, and this does not count the cost of list rental. Four factors affect the final price: the size of list, the number of messages tested, the amount of creative services needed, and the size of message.

Before you begin your search for the right vendor to help you craft and deploy your campaign, consider what services you’ll need. Most vendors will provide you with the software necessary to create message content and the ability to deploy your message using their servers and infrastructure. In most cases, you’ll need no hardware other than your desktop PC. Some of the larger vendors provide creative design services and Flash or Java programming. The Association for Interactive Media can help you locate a vendor with the skills you need.

What sort of payoff can you expect? If the quality of the list, the offer, and the content is high, expect to see response rates in the 12%-18% range for your first try.

Rich media, broadband, streaming video: All are attention grabbers, but the debate continues as to whether their use justifies the cost and effort of the technology.

Does the customer really want or need this new technology, or do the software developers and advertisers want them to have it? According to eMarketer, Americans are on track to receive more than 1 billion permission-based e-mails this year. How many e-mails do you send and receive each day? How many “subscriptions” do you suppose the average consumer has signed up for over the course of a year primarily because signing up entitles him to receive a premium or incentive? More important, how many e-mails are deleted before being read, because of lack of time and interest?

There are a lot of statistics out there to help you determine the ROI on a rich-e-mail campaign: 45% of e-mail clients support, at the very least, HTML-based messaging; rich media has the potential of providing 22% higher recall; studies show a 35% increase in the propensity to click through rich e-mail.

But notice that we’re missing a key piece of information: What percentage of recipients actually bother to open the e-mail message?

I believe that we, as an industry, need to revert to some of the basics of direct marketing in our use of e-mail campaigns:

  • The offer. Is it compelling, timely, and targeted to the audience you’re trying to reach? Does it offer a value proposition worth someone’s time and effort to consider? What kind of competitive advantage can you provide?
  • The copy. Is the length of your message fitting for the complexity of the product or service you’re trying to promote? Do you emphasize benefits over features? Do you spell out the action you’d like the reader to take (and offer alternatives for that action)?
  • The list. By far the most important element, and one that I think is most often overlooked. Is the list that you have permission-based? How long ago did they opt in? Under what pretense? How many e-mails are they receiving a week? What do you know about them in terms of their demographics and psychographics? Are they mail-order or Internet shoppers?

In general, there is a time and a place for all kinds of offers — whether they are simple as a postcard or as involved as the old “You May Have Won a Million Dollars” mailing. So if I were you, I’d test the concept of rich e-mail.

Michael Pridemore is CEO of Socketware, the Atlanta-based maker of the Accucast e-mail marketing software solution.

Robin Lebo is president of Lebo Direct, a direct marketing and Internet consultancy based in Charlottesville, VA.

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