E-mail Evolution: Interactive inboxes next big development

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Miami Beach, Fla.—The e-mail inbox is increasingly behaving like a Web page, with interactive elements, video and real-time offers. That could have profound implications for e-mail marketers, according to presenters at the Direct Marketing Association's E-mail Evolution Conference earlier this week.

“Until now, there had been no real innovation in e-mail technology since at least 1998,” said Aaron Smith, VP-campaign services with e-mail marketing company Responsys. “But today we're seeing platforms experimenting with enhanced capabilities that make e-mail more attractive and accessible.”

Smith and other panelists cited such new and pending technologies as auto-play video within e-mails, automatic control of sending frequency, offers based on geolocation or time of day, and social interactivity directly within an e-mail.

These new features are enabling e-mail messages to behave almost exactly like Web pages, without the recipient having to leave the e-mail client by clicking on a hyperlink.

“Why avoid the Web page link inside the e-mail?” asked Joshua Baer, CEO of e-mail organization company Other Inbox. “Because every additional link costs you, by making people take additional actions. The real value of these new features is getting people to interact with e-mail as if they're directly on a Web page.”

Baer noted that Gmail, Hotmail and Yahoo Mail are implementing several of these new interactive features, enabling marketers to target users of these platforms with richer content. (Commercial e-mail clients, such as Lotus Notes and Outlook, are not as active yet in this arena, he said.)

One pending feature is expiring e-mails, where a message will self-delete from a recipient's inbox once a time-sensitive message or offer expires. For another, the rise of HTML5 coding will make video work right in an inbox, without requiring a recipient to visit a corresponding website. And real-time serving of content enables e-mails to refresh messages each time they're opened and (with geolocation) where they're opened.

“In a way, the rise of social media has caused the Internet service providers to wake up and to realize that they need to do things that make the user experience more attractive and profitable,” Smith said.

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