Procrastinators beware: Some holiday e-cards charge

Slackers and tightwads accustomed to sending free, last-minute holiday e-cards may find the equivalent of coal in their in-box this year: Several major greeting card sites now charge for their wares.

          Slackers and tightwads accustomed to sending free, last-minute holiday e-cards may find the equivalent of coal in their in-box this year: Several major greeting card sites now charge for their wares.

          AmericanGreetings.com and recent acquisition BlueMountain.com, the two most popular e-card sites on the web, now charge for access to their holiday selection and other specialty e-cards. The introductory offer: $US11.95 for a year of access that lets you send an unlimited number of cards, as well as providing an address book and a reminder service. The company continues to offer other types of e-cards--such as "thinking of you" messages, free of charge.

          A dollar a month isn't exactly pricey. Still, it's likely to rub some users--accustomed to free stuff--the wrong way, even in this, the jolliest of seasons.

          "The reaction has been what we expected," says David Poplar, spokesperson for AmericanGreetings.com. "Our most frequent users have subscribed, but we've had some customers say 'we understand why you are charging, but we're going to find another site.'"

          Still (mostly) free

          Tops among alternate e-card sites are FlowGo and Hallmark.com, each of which has found ways to make money from their e-card offerings without charging subscription fees.

          At Hallmark the e-cards remain free, but the company hopes you'll stick around and buy some traditional cards or a gift certificate through its online store, says Kathi Mishek, a Hallmark spokesperson.

          "Our revenue model is based on generating revenue from sales of goods and services," she says. The company has offered free e-cards since 1997, and has no immediate plans to start charging for them.

          Over at FlowGo, a subsidiary of eUniverse, e-cards remain free of charge. However, the parent company is redesigning the site to be more entertainment-oriented, and is pushing e-card seekers to its new Perfect Greeting site, where the contents remain free.

          With two major competitors charging for digital greetings, traffic through FlowGo and Perfect Greeting should spike noticeably this holiday season, says Shawn Gold, president and chief strategic officer at eUniverse. Over five days at Thanksgiving, visitors sent a whopping 6 million e-cards through the service, he says.

          Gold understands why his competition is charging, but says eUniverse is profitable through another means: direct marketing. By knowing plenty about the users who access and share its content, eUniverse lets advertisers more accurately target their ads, he says.

          However, Gold expects eUniverse may eventually also offer a subscription-based service. "There are always going to be people who won't pay, so there will always be free cards," he says. However, some people have asked for a subscription-based, ad-free service, he says.

          "E-cards are ripe for commercial-free content. People want to share a good experience, without the ads," he says.

          Big e-business

          Regardless of how they make money, the most popular e-card Web sites are generating huge amounts of traffic.

          During October, 16.8 million unique visitors visited the leader, BlueMountain.com, according to Nielson/NetRatings. The web traffic measurement firm says that in the same month, 11.8 million hit FlowGo, about 10.3 million stopped by AmericanGreeting.com, and another 3.9 million sent cards from Hallmark.com.

          The numbers are likely to drop somewhat for the sites that now charge for content. But traditionally, December's numbers surge a bit higher still, says Betty Yeh, e-commerce analyst for Nielson/NetRatings.

          Those numbers indicate that sending e-cards has hit the mainstream, she adds. "AmericanGreetings.com reaches 22% of the active users online," she says. "That's right up there with eBay.com and Amazon.com."

          FlowGo.com's Gold says his site is particularly popular with women, who have always been the predominate senders of cards--electronic or paper. "We have the number one destination site for woman online. We have more than iVillage.com or Women.com," he says.

          Estimates are difficult to calculate, but Hallmark's Mishek says various experts suggest the e-card industry has shipped anywhere from 600 million to 2 billion e-cards in the last year, worldwide.

          Are all those e-card biting into sales of paper cards? According to the Greeting Card Association, people purchase more than 7 billion paper cards per year. And that's just in the United States.

          Still not the same

          Despite the growing popularity of e-cards, even their biggest proponents acknowledge the digital greetings don't offer the same experience as the vastly more popular paper card versions.

          "I think it's a different animal," says FlowGo's Gold. "The feeling of receiving and opening a handwritten card is a different feeling than opening your in-box."

          Hallmark.com's customers offer similar sentiments, Mishek says. "Our customers tell us e-cards are great for last-minute, 'how-ya-doing' messages. They think a paper card means more because somebody took the time to purchase it, write a note, and put a stamp on it."

          Other times, an e-card fits the bill better than a print card, says FlowGo's Gold. Their top benefits: simplicity and immediacy, he says. "You can touch base with more people, and it's easier to do relationship maintenance with more people," he says.

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