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Greeting cards find home online

Traditional card companies and others are getting into the online greeting card business as sending e-cards becomes more popular among Netizens.

    The Internet is fast enough, interactive enough, and still novel enough to make it an ideal medium for the greeting card business.

    In fact, both Greet Street, a pioneer in the digital greeting business, and Hallmark, perhaps the best known brand in the business, have had to more than double their bandwidth in recent months to accommodate demand.

    While online cards aren't yet replacing the pulp variety, a new study by market research firm ActiveMedia recently predicted that holiday email messages will exceed the number of snail-mail holiday greetings by the year 2000.

    The study also found that this holiday season marks the first time the Net was among the leading forms of communication among family and friends in the United States.

    Clearly, many Internet users are finding more and more interactive greetings in their email boxes, and often the recipients are eager to return the favor. From corporate well-wishing to familial card-swapping of many varieties, greeting cards are increasingly big business on the Net.

    Greet Street, which teamed up with traditional card company Gibson Greetings for its content, recently delivered its millionth card, and expects to pass the 2-million mark before Valentine's Day. Tony Levitan, president of Greet Street, which charges 50 cents for each card it delivers, attributes the rampant growth to the fact that many Netizens are no longer intimidated by the graphics technology used in many online greetings, and thus are evolving in their card-giving habits.

    This season's digital greeting cards also are evolving. Whereas online cards once ushered computer users through a time-consuming process: opening an email message, copying a URL, and then launching an Internet browser to track down the card--or, even worse, downloading a large attachment--today's online cards provide a direct link, making them more easily accessible even to technophobes.

    "Sending someone a URL is the equivalent of calling someone and telling them there's a package for them that they need to pick up on the other side of town during rush hour," said George White, general manager of Gibson's alternative marketing division. White pointed out that this season's holiday cybercards are more dynamic, yet also more efficient, than ever before.

    Now that many more computer users can quickly access graphics on the Web, corporations other than those in the greeting card business are increasingly getting in on the "card game," seizing upon the digital card concept and transforming it into a lucrative marketing tool.

    One such company is NEC Systems Laboratory, a division of NEC Corporation. As part of its effort to promote its AuraLine Multimedia Creation Kit, the company introduced a holiday greeting card site that allows users to send cards that show off AuraLine's multimedia bells and whistles.

    The stunt has been wildly successful. The site has been receiving some 2,000 visitors per day and, according to AuraLine's marketing research, 20 percent of the people who have used the site's free card service have gone on to visit the AuraLine product site as well.

    "From our point of view, the purpose of the greeting card is to promote the kinds of cool multimedia things that can be produced with our flagship product," said Erich Stein, AuraLine's public relations manager. "Whatever the appeal is from the end-user's point of view, it's working. We're getting a very high hit rate and we're generating sales."

    Hallmark--which offers digital greeting cards through its Hallmark Connections site, which debuted in November--initially offered free cards as a promotion aimed at enticing computer users to its online store. Ultimately, the cards became a main attraction. Disney experienced the same phenomenon with its D-cards, offered via its and Daily Blast sites. Both companies offer the majority of their cards for free, though premium selections cost $2.50 each.

    As a result of increasing corporate interest in electronic greetings, Greet Street is planning to launch a commercial division in 1998 that will apply the most popular elements of consumer greetings, such as interactive art and multimedia enhancements, to corporate communication efforts including human resource announcements, executive correspondence, and sales initiatives.

    Greet Street's Levitan suggested that eventually, digital greetings would make up a significant portion of all email traffic, citing a recent Forrester Research study predicting that, by the year 2001, 25 percent of all email will include some type of graphic element.

    "Sending greeting cards is a concept that is very familiar to people. It's a behavior that people already are in the habit of," Levitan said. "Once they [send a digital card], they realize it isn't just about birthdays and anniversaries, it's about exchange and communication."