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How to get rich media's punch without the pain

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If a picture is worth a thousand words, how many words is an e-mail with video and Flash animation worth?
It’s a question that many in the e-mail marketing industry have debated. On the plus side, rich-media e-mail has the potential to grab recipients’ attention and give them a highly visual brand and product experience in a way that HTML newsletters with static photos cannot.

"If Flash or other rich media really can help you demonstrate new [product] features, as well as the complexity of products and services that can’t be conveyed with words, a rich-media e-mail message is a good way to use it," said Debbie Weil, a b-to-b communications expert and publisher of the newsletter "WordBiz Report."

On the downside, such e-mails present challenges for marketers and recipients. Most significant of these drawbacks is the fact that many popular e-mail utilities do not support rich e-mail content embedded in the e-mail message, said Nate Elliott, associate analyst for Jupiter Research. "Although it is less of a problem than on the business-to-consumer side, we believe the majority of rich media sent to corporate users won’t be able to be seen directly in the message," he said.

One way for b-to-b marketers to get around the problem, Elliott suggested, is to embed a video window with a "Play" button inside the body of the e-mail message. When the user clicks on "Play," a separate window, with the streaming media content or Flash animation, opens.

In June 2003, IBM Corp. used this tactic in experimenting with a rich-media version of its "ForwardView," a monthly newsletter targeting small and midsize businesses. Two months later, IBM formally adopted the presentation format.

To create the newsletter, IBM worked with IQ television group, an interactive marketing agency based in Atlanta. IQ came to IBM with a proposal to develop a version of Showmail, a product that uses e-mail to distribute and spawn interactive TV-like rich-media content.

IBM liked what it heard from the outset, said Leslie Reiser, manager of relationship marketing for IBM. "We determined that this two-way exchange of information would help us develop more of a relationship marketing approach, and that [rich media] was the best medium to deliver our communications messages," Reiser said.

While making "ForwardView" a rich-media newsletter would allow IBM to engage recipients, the company and its agency didn’t want to embed the rich media into the e-mail.

"There are practical reasons why it does not make good business sense to put large amounts of data and content within e-mails," said Tony Quin, IQ president. "Even [Microsoft] Outlook was not designed to take large amounts of [rich] content. Plus, it can be very intrusive."

When users receive their monthly "ForwardView Showmail," they activate a customized link that opens the presentation. "This way, we don’t have issues with corporate firewalls," Quin said.

"ForwardView Showmail" is not an overt product promotion mechanism, but more akin to a TV documentary on the desktop. A recent issue contained videos two to three minutes each in length on subjects such as best practices for customer relationship management, how customers are forcing retailers to improve and how to extend your PC’s life. Video articles are grouped under six general categories, including Featured Articles, Market Insights, Solution Planning, Promotions, Bulletins and Break Time.

IBM said "ForwardView Showmail" subscriptions are up 28% over the number of recipients who received the company’s HTML newsletter in July 2003, a month before "ForwardView Showmail" was officially rolled out. IQ television group said the number of subscribers is "in the hundreds of thousands" per month.

IBM said the click-through rate was slightly less than 5% for the November issue of "ForwardView," compared with 1.5% for the older "ForwardView" format. The rich-media newsletter achieved an average viewing time of 12 minutes.

Because "ForwardView Showmail" is not an e-commerce vehicle and subscriptions are free, IBM’s Reiser disavows any return on investment concerns. "Our objective is not for this to be a way to optimize a direct [sales] channel but to increase the consideration of a purchase and to deliver messages," Reiser said.

Even when ROI is an issue, Jupiter Research’s Elliott said b-to-b marketers with a high value per customer might want to consider rich media.

"If you are spending $100,000 [to create and distribute the rich e-mail content] and selling [a product or service] for $100,000, you can offset the cost with one extra sale," he said.

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