Breathing New Life Into Old E-Mail

FRAMINGHAM (04/18/2000) - The Republican National Committee (RNC) wants to keep its finger on the pulse and purse of its membership as the campaign for the U.S. presidency heats up this summer. This year, however, the staff is adding to its usual mail and phone marketing efforts; it will deploy Web-based communications to initiate funding drives, test advertising campaigns and get feedback on key political issues.

Even better, the RNC will be using FireDrop Inc.'s Zaplet communications platform to send out its e-mail missives, says Larry Purpuro, deputy chief of staff at the Washington-based RNC. That's because Zaplets add interactive capabilities to e-mail.

"Static e-mail is dead on arrival," says Purpuro. "We hope that people will react to an e-mail, [but] there's very little way to judge the open rate and no way to measure the response in real time. Also, if we send someone a banner ad, are they going to type out a formal response and send it back, as opposed to using useful buttons and response devices [within the e-mail] that make it an easier form of communication?"

Hybrid Application

A hybrid of e-mail, instant messaging and Web-based collaborative tools, a Zaplet arrives via e-mail but allows recipients to interact directly with the content.

A polling Zaplet could allow the recipient to cast a vote on a particular issue from the e-mail and offer a real-time accounting of how other voters have responded to the query. It also could report back to the sender how many recipients have opened the e-mail and allow recipients to forward the message to others, who would also be included in the poll.

David Roberts, the president of FireDrop, says a Zaplet that aggregates all replies is ideal for corporate service departments in addressing customers' problems.

As opposed to "ping-ponging" blind messages between departments, one e-mail would contain all the relevant replies. "Seven people could be talking to the same customer, but the customer only gets one message, and the company knows everything that's being said in the background," Roberts says.

"We're going to see if it's useful in testing ads and in building issue-based dialogues with our activists," Purpuro says. "The idea that we could e-mail 50,000 donors and activists a question or sample banner ad to get their immediate direct reaction - and measure that reaction in real time - is exceptional."

Roberts and Brian Axe founded FireDrop last August. The Redwood Shores, California-based company's Zaplet communications platform will be available this month.

Roberts is an MIT-trained Harvard MBA and former Air Force captain and Central Intelligence Agency officer. He says he began toying with the Zaplet concept to organize a weekend getaway. "Telephone and e-mail may not work well for collaborative kinds of problems, but we looked at the reality of the convergence of the Web, e-mail and instant messaging and realized there were a lot bigger problems in the world to solve other than trying to create a way to schedule a weekend with friends," he says.

FireDrop has created disappearing Zaplets that self-destruct after an allotted time period, discussion Zaplets that let team members discuss résumés and Zaplets to group messages on a given topic.

Put to Good Use

Seattle-based GreaterGood.com Inc. hopes to use Zaplets as part of its socially minded business. Retailers that sell products on the for-profit company's Web site donate 15 percent of the purchase price to nonprofit organizations such as the Special Olympics and Big Brother/Big Sister programs.

GreaterGood.com also manages The Hunger Site (www.thehungersite.com), which donates money from sponsoring corporations to the United Nations World Food Programme each time a consumer clicks on a button. FireDrop set up a Hunger Site Zaplet on its own Web site, enabling users to donate directly from an e-mail message and track the progress of donations made by friends.

"The success of [The Hunger Site] has been driven by word of mouth and essentially nothing has been done to spread [the] word, other than friends telling each other about it," says Katherine James Schuitemaker, executive vice president at GreaterGood.com. "It's one of those things where it only takes a moment to click on a button and you've made a difference."

FireDrop Inc.

Location: 3000 Bridge ParkwayRedwood Shores, California 94065Telephone: (650) 620-2900Web: www.firedrop.comNiche: Residing on top of e-mail, Zaplets applications can be created for a variety of tasks such as scheduling, discussing and polling.

Pricing: Free for consumers who join MyZaplets; $5 per business user, depending on applicationWhy it's worth watching: With a unique communication tool that converges the Web, e-mail and instant messaging, FireDrop can build a consumer user base through its free Web service and leverage that stake in the corporate market.

Number of employees: 120

Company officers: - David Roberts, co-founder and president- Brian Axe, co-founder and vice president of platform products- Samir Mitra, general manager of e-business solutionsMilestones:- August 1999: Company is founded- April 2000: Zaplets communications platform is availableCustomers: Republican National Committee in Washington and GreaterGood.com in SeattleBurn money: $5 million from Kleiner Perkins Caulfield & Byers and $7 million from Comdisco Ventures, both in Menlo Park, California; additional funding from individual investorsRed flags for IT: Although useful for getting instantaneous reactions from recipients, most companies already have Web-based applications and sites deployed for interactive communications. Many may want to use other real-time applications that offer a greater range of collaborative features.

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