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Net Prophet - by Dylan Tweney

June 8, 1998

Next killer application may be old technology, but it's indispensable

What do you spend more time on during the day: Web surfing or dealing with e-mail? If you're like me, it is e-mail. I probably spend two to three hours every day just reading and responding to e-mail messages -- it's a major part of how I do my job.

E-mail is the lifeblood of a modern corporation, an essential communications tool that is so indispensable, people are seriously inconvenienced if it's unavailable -- even for one hour. By contrast, losing Web access temporarily is rarely a work stopper.

With the rise of Internet commerce, e-mail becomes a key channel of communication between companies and their customers. Although this 30-year-old technology may not be as endearing as the 7-year-old Web, it is truly a killer application.

Another question: Which is bigger, your company's Web development budget or your e-mail development budget?

I'd be surprised if more than a handful of my readers actually have an e-mail development budget. But if you don't now, you soon will. You will need to dedicate resources to e-mail development for two purposes: creating e-mail content and delivering that content to large numbers of people. Both of these tasks are labor- and computing-intensive.

Not surprisingly, there are companies willing to handle those chores, in exchange for a fee.

One such company is InfoBeat, which can be found at http://www.infobeat.com. InfoBeat specializes in delivering high volumes of personalized e-mail messages. Its servers match your customer database with e-mail message templates and content databases to create and deliver personalized messages on a massive scale.

InfoBeat is currently sending e-mail to the tune of several millions of messages a day. The company's founder and chairman, John Funk, told me recently that its current system is capable of generating one-half million customized e-mail messages every hour and can deliver broadcast messages to as many as 6 million recipients in the same time.

InfoBeat is essentially a direct-mail house for the Internet. But unlike direct-mail houses in the physical world, InfoBeat has a strong anti-spam policy: Funk says he absolutely refuses to send e-mail messages to anyone who has not specifically requested them.

Anyone schooled in the world of direct mail may consider that policy ridiculous. But it makes sense on the Internet because, as Funk pointed out to me, spam is ultimately self-defeating: Unsolicited e-mail makes users' mailboxes less valuable, and reduces the chance that they will actually read your mail. Besides, it's just plain rude.

There are still rich direct-marketing possibilities within the group of customers and potential customers who have actively requested your e-mail. For instance, you can advertise additional products and services along with monthly bills, as credit card companies do today with their paper bills. Or you can send a newsletter that provides customers with useful information even as it builds your brand and increases traffic to your Web site.

What's more, as e-mail client programs that can display HTML formatting proliferate, you can make your messages even more interesting and attention-getting. The formatting can make the text more legible and attractive; it also allows you to add pictures and interactive elements, such as forms, clickable buttons, ads with animated GIFs, even whole programs in the form of JavaScript or attached Java applets. You can even put a "click to buy" button right on an e-mail message.

If you're doing business on the Internet, e-mail should be a key component of your strategy.

And like it or not, the rise of e-mail commerce means we'll be spending even more time sorting through our mail.

Dylan Tweney edits InfoWorld's intranet and I-commerce product reviews. He welcomes your comments at dylan@infoworld.com.

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