Radically New E-mail Marketing Campaigns

Radical Communications lets e-marketers deliver audio and video e-mail messages. Get ready for your inbox to be clogged.

No one is more excited about broadband Internet access than online marketers. Who can blame them? On the Internet, advertisers have been confined to the narrow windows of banner ads and the austere limitations of text e-mail (like the ads carried in The Defogger and other eCompany Now newsletters). You can almost feel the advertisers’ desperation as they resort to annoying animated graphics and SHOUTING IN ALL CAPS.

Now some e-marketers have decided to put broadband together with another flavor of the month: e-mail marketing. Watch out. These two tastes go together about as well as peanut butter and ketchup.

A company called Radical Communications offers a technology to let marketers deliver video and audio directly to your e-mail inbox. You heard me right: You could be receiving video advertisements via e-mail pretty soon.

Radical Communications’ RadicalMail seeks to deliver streaming multimedia without swamping your inbox with gigantic messages. Instead, you receive a small (5KB) message that downloads a 20KB Java applet, which in turn delivers the video or audio stream from Radical’s servers — so you need to be online when you get the message. You’ll also need to have an HTML-compatible e-mail program, but given the inconsistencies in the way e-mail programs handle HTML, it works only with Outlook, Outlook Express, Netscape Communicator 4.5 or higher, or Eudora Pro. Users of other e-mail programs (such as AOL’s) need to click on a link, which brings up the multimedia message in their Web browser.

One test message I received featured an audio track of some guy named SuperGreg talking about Buddy Lee, a mascot for Lee Jeans. After I clicked on the link (I don’t use one of the compatible e-mail programs), it took about 15 seconds for the audio to start, and then I spent the next minute or so listening to SuperGreg. His voice sounded like it was being filtered through the same equipment Peter Frampton used on his live album to get all those funky wah-wah effects. Maybe that’s the broadband audio technology, or maybe that’s just the way SuperGreg always sounds. In any case, I didn’t feel any more compelled to buy jeans after the commercial than I did before.

To be fair, I’m probably not the target market. Radical’s customers are companies that want to communicate with their existing consumers through audio and video. Radical Communications CEO Bruce Stein is emphatic that the company wants to deliver only “opt-in” e-mail — in other words, he’s promising to send rich-media e-mail only to people who have requested it. “We decided it was very important that we govern ourselves and stick to very strict opt-in policies,” Stein says.

Radical’s Java applet also lets companies put order forms directly into their e-mail messages, and Radical can process these forms securely from within the e-mail program, without ever making the customer go to a Web browser. That may prove to be the most compelling use of Radical’s technology, because it eliminates a step in the ordering process — and the easier companies make it for you to buy their stuff, the more things they can sell.

But the problems with RadicalMail’s audio and video e-mail seem great. While Stein claims that as many as 45 percent of Internet users have broadband-capable e-mail readers, that still leaves a large chunk of the market unserved. The requirement that readers be online to receive their message is an unfortunate compromise, as it eliminates many potential users — such as the CEO reading e-mail while on the plane. Another problem for companies is that RadicalMail uses its own proprietary streaming-media format, so companies that have existing RealAudio or QuickTime files will need to convert them.

But what’s most serious, broadband-enhanced messages eliminate two of the most valuable aspects of e-mail — its speed and its asynchronicity. I can read text messages whenever I want to, skimming some and reading others in detail, often squeezing a few messages in between meetings or phone calls. But a broadband message requires my full attention for the duration of the message. That quality — while it may be very attractive to advertisers — is just plain annoying to consumers, and shows a lack of respect for their time. For this reason, if nothing else, marketers should use technologies such as Radical’s with great caution, if at all.

Posted by on November 30, 2000