Here’s a novel way to get advertising into email without calling it spam: RelevantMail. RelevantMail, from a company called RelevantAds, inserts contextual ads into emails very much as Gmail does. Only the folk doing the inserting are your ISP:
RelevantMail provides a new high quality way to distribute advertisements to consumers while providing a much needed revenue stream to email providers. Email is a very effective medium for advertising with the capability of high conversion rates. However, existing techniques of marketing through email have a high user rejection rate due to the disruption of the normal workflow of reading their email. Additionally, existing email marketing strategies suffer from the lack of relevancy and timeliness. RelevantMail addresses all these problems and provides it as a benefit to the end user instead of a hindrance .
These ‘contextual ads’ would appear as links at the bottom of emails. Say you wrote to a friend about your upcoming trip to Vegas, or your new BBQ grill, or your uncomfortable hemorrhoids problem, your email would include links to products or services somehow connected to casinos, BBQ sauce or cushions. The economic aspect of this is the idea is that ISPs bleeding from having to provide virus checking, spam filtering and other services to users can turn a profit cost into a profit centre.
I am, of course, skeptical. RelevantAds suggests that it is focusing on privacy: The entire system is automated and at no time are emails read by human eyes. Moreover, we are intentionally separate from email service providers and do not store any information on emails. In other words, our engine never receives information as to who sent or received the email message. It only receives the text of the email itself. And the company say the ads are not particularly intrusive. The screenshot seems to bear this out, in that the ads are just text links that appear at the bottom of the message.
But I think users might be a bit freaked out by seeing their emails combed for possible ad-related subject material. It’s one thing to put ads alongside web-based email where it’s clearly not part of the body. But inside an email that arrives in your inbox? And how will those same recipients feel if they find out that their emails to you are also being added to in this way?
But to me the biggest drawback is the impact on spam-filters. Are emails which once would have sailed through a spam-filter now likely to be caught? How are recipients going to feel if emails to them arrive with links inserted at the bottom And if we alter our settings to allow them through, are spammers not going to capitalise on this to make their spam look similar?
I can quite understand the need to explore opportunities to turn an honest buck or two. But I’m not convinced email, already on its last legs, is the place to do it.
But there’s an interesting link here that may prove me wrong. One of the people behind RelevantAds is David Rodecker, who is also involved in Mail2World, a company that hosts email and other messaging services (think SMS and things like that) on behalf of customers (ICQ was a recent sign-up. Last November it started offering users two gigabytes of storage and some other bundled features for a small fee.)
It’s not clear from the press release whether there’s a link between these two companies (and I suppose it’s possible they’re not the same guy). But if there is a link I guess the broader vision here is one where ISPs, companies, vendors or pretty much anybody could outsource their email to a company like Mail2World, who would in turn offer the option of including RelevantAds as a way for the customer to defray the cost. An interesting vision, but I stick with my view that email is already a stumbling beast. But clearly not everyone agrees. In an edition of CNBC’s World Business Review last June, where Rodecker appeared, host Alexander Haig sang email’s praises: “Those who are seeking ways to tap into the potential of e-mail,” he said on the show, “will find themselves in a position to capitalize on the pending explosion in Internet usage.”