Bring two seasoned rocket scientists together and you might be surprised at the result: Mobular Technologies, a technology start-up that makes a searchable e-mail product that's well suited for e-mail marketing campaigns and document distribution.
The firm's Mobular Engine service uses e-mail as its delivery mechanism, but its payload is a searchable database, such as a product catalog or an annual report.
Unlike a standard e-mail, which may include links to e-commerce sites or online documents, Mobular Engine lets recipients search content from within their in-boxes instead of clicking on links to Web sites.
"We were surprised that those two activities were not integrated into one package," says John Horack, president of Mobular Technologies and a former scientist at NASA.
Horack and David Noever, another former NASA scientist, founded the company in January of last year.
Pushing the E-Mail Envelope
"E-mail is a pretty competitive world," according to Michele Pelino, an analyst at Yankee Group Inc. in Boston. "But Mobular is trying to differentiate its offerings by linking [the e-mail] to information about the [referenced product] and pulling that into the e-mail content."
Mobular Engine aggregates and compresses the customer's data and sends it out as an e-mail message. The information decompresses itself when the recipient opens the e-mail.
The service's compression technology creates relatively small e-mail documents, even though these documents contain a database and a search engine. Most Mobular Engine documents can be delivered as a 3KB e-mail message, Horack claims.
For the past year, SCI Systems Inc. has been using Mobular Engine to make its reports available to shareholders, says Richard Layman, webmaster at the Huntsville, Ala.-based maker of electronic components.
SCI offers its annual reports via the Web as downloadable Portable Document Format (PDF) files and as Mobular Engine documents.
A Mobular Engine document allows the recipient to view and search content without having to open the PDF file, says Layman. That saves a step and makes the process of reading the document easier.
"Searching a PDF is clunky," according to Layman. "Mobular's search engine is more flexible and allows index-driven searches."
Layman also says that setting up the system didn't take very long because Mobular gave him a preformatted Web page that included a searchable table of contents. That made the job of linking the Mobular document to SCI's Web site simple, he says.
To succeed, Mobular must educate its potential customers about the advantages its approach has over regular e-mail, says Pelino. It also must compete against advertising companies, which offer e-mail marketing campaigns.
Harbor Freight Tools, a Camarillo, Calif.-based hardware retail chain, does its e-mail marketing in-house, but it plans to try Mobular Engine for direct marketing by year's end, says David Martel, vice president of marketing at Harbor Freight.
"We like it because it's searchable and small in size," says Martel. "But our satisfaction depends on results and whether we'll see an increase in sales to offset the increase in costs."
Horack says Mobular's service improves customer response rates. However, although the firm claims that the bulk of its customers are in retail, the start-up wasn't able to provide the names of customers that are actively using it for marketing campaigns and that can discuss the results.
Mobular does say it plans to broaden its offerings by branching out into the electronic distribution of content for vertical markets such as financial services and travel.
E-Mail Gets The Message
Using e-mail as a marketing tool "has been a painful process for a lot of people," says John Horack, president of Mobular. "Someone sends the e-mail with a Web link, then their focus shifts from the e-mail to the browser, and if they can't find what they're looking for, it's not long before they're off on Yahoo.com. It's a disruptive and interruptive experience."
Mobular Technologies claims that it eliminates that searching by putting all the relevant purchasing information or other data into the e-mail itself. Analysts say that's a compelling and different approach to e-mail marketing but customers must first buy in. Mobular's competitors don't offer searchable e-mail technology, but they do offer marketers standard e-mail as part of an integrated marketing campaign. Competitors include the following companies:
DoubleClick offers products and services targeted at online advertising and marketing, including its DoubleClick Network online advertising tool.
Flomedia specializes in traditional e-mail advertising, as well as online coupons and direct mail materials.e-DialogE-Dialog offers e-mail with embedded links, graphics-rich HTML and text-based messages.
ClickAction's e-mail marketing tool automates processes such as event-based e-mail, sends and triggers follow-up e-mails, and sorts outbound and inbound message replies and answers. The company also builds a database of customer responses.
Niche: E-mail delivered with embedded, searchable content such as e-commerce catalogs or annual reports.
Company officers: Stuart Obermann, chairman and CEO; John Horack, co-founder and president; David Noever, co-founder and chief technology officer.
Milestones: January 2000: Founded as Science Communications; April 2000: Signs SCI Systems as first customer; August 2001: Changes name to Mobular Technologies Inc.; launches Mobular Engine.
Burn Money: $6 million from ABS Ventures, Southeastern Technology Fund and private sources.
Pricing: An e-mail distribution to 500,000 recipients costs US$15,000 to $30,000.
Customers: SCI Systems, BMG Music Service, The Boeing Co., Lockheed Martin Corp., NASA.
Partners: Adobe Systems, Intel, Palm and others.
Red flags for IT: Mobular Engine users should ensure that they have the acceptance of customers before embarking on mass e-mail campaigns. Improvement in response levels when using the technology for marketing has yet to be proven.