E-mail flexes its marketing muscle

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While the fight continues over spamming and other issues of e-mail "netiquette," technological advances are turning e-mail into an ever more powerful marketing tool, capable of delivering far more than today's text messages.

Two key trends that are changing what people see in their e-mail: First, corporations are switching from mainframe or LAN-based packages such as Lotus' cc:Mail to Internet mail programs such as Qualcomm's Eudora Pro.

Second, Internet mail programs are now moving to support HTML.

"A number of products support HTML composition for e-mail messages," says Mark Levitt, research manager for electronic messaging at International Data Corp., Framingham, Mass.

That means that as users upgrade during the next two years, the messages they send can look more like Web pages.

Already, millions of people who use the e-mail program included in the Netscape 3.0 browser can put embedded hot links in messages, says Ross Rubin, a group director at Jupiter Communications, New York.

For example, marketers can send Netscape 3.0 users messages with in them, referencing Business Marketing's NetMarketing's Web site.

People who have their Internet connection on can then reach the site simply by clicking on the highlighted phrase, explains Mr. Rubin.

Such references in messages aren't distracting, says Mr. Levitt, they make a worthwhile addition to your e-mail marketing pitches. But it's a mistake to go beyond that, he adds.

"If you send HTML to someone, they would need to use their Web browser to read that message," he says.

Defining an Internet program

An Internet mail program can be defined as a program that supports TCP/IP protocols such as the Simple Message Transport Protocol (SMTP) for delivering messages, the Multipurpose Internet Mail Extensions (MIME) for attaching graphics files, and the Post Office Protocol-3 (POP-3), for running Internet mail post offices.

In a corporate environment, LANs and mainframes support Internet mail through gateways that translate messages and addresses from one format to another. In this kind of setup, users may have Internet addresses, but they can't read HTML codes unless they save the messages, then open a browser separately to view the file.

For now, corporate mail systems retain some advantages that will slow the move to Internet mail programs, International Data Corp.'s Mr. Levitt says. They can download messages separate from headers, sort mail into folders and offer special services for mail administrators. They also offer better support for directories of users.

But Internet mail packages are catching up through the Interactive Mail Access Protocol (IMAP-4), which brings those sorting capabilities to Internet mail servers, and the Lightweight Directory Access Protocol (LDAP), which supports directories.

Microsoft Exchange and Lotus' cc:Mail will support IMAP-4 later this year.

"Support for LDAP is expected to become widespread in browsers and e-mail clients this year," says Mr. Levitt. "That will enable people to more easily locate Internet addresses and send messages."

Back in the old days

Early Internet mail programs, such as Eudora Light, a free Qualcomm product that remains popular, were separate from early Web browsers. But integration with the Web and support for HTML codes in messages followed quickly.

Among the pioneers was NetManage, Cupertino, Calif. Its Chameleon browser had lost the Web market to Microsoft and Netscape, so the company moved rapidly to add HTML authoring capabilities to its Z-Mail Pro e-mail package, says senior product manager John Guertin.

In addition to hot links, the new capability lets you add Web elements such as tables, fonts and graphics to e-mail messages, Mr. Guertin says. "That's what's coming down. In a message body you can deliver those very same things."

For large graphics, such messages could reference these files on your Web server, which would download and display them along with the message, he notes.

Notes Mr. Levitt: Unfortunately, Netscape reacted quickly to the rise of Internet e-mail.

The company added e-mail as a standard feature of their browser in 1996 and instantly became the market leader. "It was a major change," he says.

Netscape's success has moved Microsoft, which previously offered a separate e-mail program called Microsoft Exchange, to emulate it.

The next version of the Microsoft Internet Explorer, due later this year, will include an e-mail program called Outlook, with both the browser and e-mail program tied closely to the Windows 95 operating system.

Both Explorer, with Outlook, and the new Netscape Communicator, due for release this summer, will include full support for HTML tags in e-mail.

Mr. Rubin of Jupiter says Microsoft will also create an ActiveX Control for HTML e-mail, so users can embed the capability in other programs.

Other factors

While most of these changes will make e-mail a better marketing medium, other changes on the horizon make netiquette, or network etiquette, even more important to those sending marketing messages over the Internet, says Mr. Levitt.

Filtering will, in time, let recipients ignore all but the most important messages, reducing e-mail clutter by sorting notes before they're read based on rules set by their users.

"Rules have been around a lot of years," Mr. Levitt explains. "Rules continue to get better. Products that didn't have rules now have them."

Current filters are primitive -- both ineffective and difficult to use, says Jupiter's Mr. Rubin. But that's changing.

"In the future, vendors will move to a friendlier, wizard-like environment for setting these things up," he says. "It's a feature vendors are working hard to put in."

A second trend in new e-mail packages will be adding security, both encryption and digital identifications, which will identify senders.

"That's easy to do when two people are using the same software," says Mr. Levitt, but standards will make such protection commonplace.

What this means is that by early in the next century, marketing e-mails better be welcomed, even anticipated, or they won't be read, says Rob Enderle, an analyst for Giga Information Group in Santa Clara, Calif.

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