In early 2001, Macromedia Flash was widely touted as the next big thing in e-mail marketing. In theory, e-mail marketing pieces embedded with Flash can combine the power of direct marketing, interactivity, and even a television commercial-like ability to convey a more complicated storyline. Add to this the ability to easily pass it along to friends, colleagues, and family – thus introducing a viral aspect to the campaign – how could any marketer possibly resist?

Unfortunately, more than two years later, Flash has almost disappeared from most e-mail marketers’ radar screens. Why, you may ask? There are really several reasons, of which technological complications are perhaps the most important.

While Flash has been completely compatible with Web browsers for several software generations now, and the number of Web browsers in widespread use is limited to about two or three, e-mail clients are much more diverse and browser integration is secondary to the primary functionalities related directly to e-mail itself. This variety of e-mail software, combined with the ability for users to personalize their settings, myriad ISP policies, and filtering software, make it absolutely impossible to create a Flash-embedded e-mail piece that can be viewed by all (or even most) users.

Bandwidth has also proven to be a technical limitation. While broadband connections at both work and home have proliferated rapidly over the past few years, there are still a great many people who access the Internet through dial-up services. If a user’s e-mail client locks into downloading your SWF file for 30 minutes, they are highly unlikely to respond positively to your message when they final do see it.

Beyond these technological issues, there are also concerns about e-mail marketing’s overall viability due to the explosion of spam and the government’s interest in regulating these unsolicited commercial e-mail messages. Consumers, ISPs, legitimate marketers, and the government are all struggling to combat this scourge without compromising the overall integrity of the medium. As filters become more effective at sheltering consumers from spam, they are also increasingly intercepting legitimate e-mails. Given the nature and size of embedded Flash, these filters invariable discard Flash-based e-mails.

Lastly, consumers have widely varying opinions regarding what constitutes spam versus legitimate e-mail marketing pieces. Many consumers even disagree on whether or not they should receive any commercial solicitations at all through their e-mail. In fact, a significant percentage of people have come to consider e-mail as solely a part of their private life. Just as you and I would not want any marketer to walk into our bedroom at night, they do not want to be bothered in their virtual personal space.

Even when care is taken to ensure that the specific individuals on a marketing list truly want to be on it, there are many who really do not want to be marketed to through their e-mail. Current opt-in systems rarely make it perfectly clear exactly what kind of commercial agreement consumers are entering in to, leaving the door wide open to consumer misinterpretation – regardless of whether they were added to the marketing list through a double opt-in procedure or not.

It is a shame that there are so many obstacles to using Flash e-mails as part of an online marketing campaign. Flash is a fun technology that lends itself well to marketing. Unfortunately, there is no solution to the issues delineated above in sight. For the time being, Flash is not the “killer application” for e-mail marketing that it was initially hyped to be. Without a more concentrated effort by Macromedia and the major developers of e-mail software to create standards for handling Flash and other forms of rich media, these powerful technologies are simply not viable in the e-mail medium.