E-mail once held the greatest promise of all online marketing vehicles. It can be highly targeted, it enables marketers to engage their customers in a two-way, ongoing dialogue, and users often voluntarily sign up to receive them. In a time that has now past, these attributes led to high click-through and action rates. Unfortunately, much like many successful biological organisms, e-mail marketing appears to be dying out precisely BECAUSE of its tremendous success. Many extinct species disappeared because they overpopulated, exceeding the carrying capacity of their environment – and that is exactly what is happening to e-mail marketing.

Spam, nefarious opt-in programs, and legitimate e-mail marketing are all competing for a very limited resource – people’s attention – and e-mail is slowly loosing its effectiveness due to all of this noise in the channel. With ever increasing volumes of “junk” e-mail, it is a major challenge just to get a user to open your message. Many users simply delete e-mails from people or organizations that they do not recognize – which is understandable considering that computer viruses continue to proliferate via e-mail. This leads one to wonder: is this the end of e-mail marketing?

Not likely. There is no doubt that e-mail marketing has moved past its “golden era,” but it is still a viable and cost effective medium for use in direct response campaigns and CRM. From a branding standpoint, e-mail has never been terribly effective. So what has changed and where will it all lead?

Much like other forms of online advertising, e-mail is moving towards more glitz and greater interactivity. E-mails can contain Flash pieces and other forms rich media, which catch a user’s eye and increase response and pass-along rates. Another emerging trend is the use of sharp wit or slapstick humor in the creative to further engage the audience. This takes advantage of e-mail’s innately viral nature – people will pass an e-mail along to their friends and family if it is entertaining and/or offers a valuable product or service. The key to producing results in an e-mail campaign is this enticement factor. What is the e-mail offering, and why should I care? Is there a compelling reason to forward the e-mail?

When developing rich media e-mail messages, it is critical that marketers remain cognizant of bandwidth and inbox limitations. While most of the content for an interactive e-mail is streamed in as needed, most of these e-mail messages are still larger than a standard text message. Crashing your audience’s e-mail program is not a good way to attract customers. Streaming into an e-mail program also has its drawbacks. It may take several minutes for the piece to begin running, leaving the user with nothing to do but wait patiently. Even users with broadband connections must pause for a few moments while the content loads. The longer that it takes for the data to stream in, the more likely the user will be to delete it and move on to the next message.

Another potential downfall of rich media e-mail marketing is the challenge of keeping it fresh. We have seen how other forms of media, such as television, have had to progressively increase the edge of both advertising and programming alike. Humor, stunning visual effects, and shock value have all become staples of television advertising with ever-increasing amounts of action, noise, colors, etc. If e-mail is evolving towards this level of sensory stimulation, will it too enter into a virtual arms race between marketers battling for users’ eyeballs?

As broadband continues to proliferate and new versions of e-mail software become better at accommodating Flash and Java, the issue of download time will disappear. Improved rich media technologies are also on the horizon as well as anti-spam legislation. Overall, the future of e-mail as a marketing vehicle is assured. Before long, we will all be viewing streaming video in our e-mails and playing video games from our inboxes every day.