Beauty is in the eye of the beholder - at least when it comes to online greeting cards. Just ask Apple Computer Chief Executive Steve Jobs, who - while introducing his company's own free electronic greeting card service this month - acknowledged that the artwork used by other free e-card services "make[s] me slightly embarrassed to be a human."
"They spared no expense," Jobs said tongue-in-cheek, showing a roomful of laughing attendees at the Macworld Expo conference in San Francisco one of the cartoon images to be found at one of the Web's most popular e-greeting card services. "They used several colors."
But is it as bad as all that?
A random sampling of Internet-based greeting card services - Amazon.com's E-Card service, AmericanGreetings.com, Blue Mountain Arts, Egreetings Network and Hallmark.com - finds an eclectic mix of photographs, cartoons, drawings, movie stills and animated greetings intended to appeal to a variety of tastes.
But whether the emphasis is on low-brow humor or high art, these sites actually share a singular vision: to use the lure of free e-greetings as traffic generators. That traffic, in turn, can be used to draw advertisers or online retailers looking for potential customers who might be interested in buying a gift to send along with their e-mailed congratulations. The services also help build brand awareness.
Does it work? In October 1999, Excite@Home purchased Blue Mountain Arts, one of the original e-greetings services, in a deal valued at $780 million - in large part because Blue Mountain Arts consistently ranks among the top 10 most visited Web sites, according to Media Metrix, an online measurement service.
Jupiter Communications, meanwhile, says its consumer surveys show that sending electronic greetings is one of most popular online activities.
In Apple's case, the new Internet greeting card service, called iCards, is part of an overall Internet strategy designed in large part to raise the company's profile among online users, says Peter Lowe, director of worldwide product marketing for Apple's Macintosh operating system.
Lowe says Apple has not ruled out the possibility of one day trying to cross-sell products to iCard senders, as Amazon.com, AmericanGreetings.com, Egreetings and Hallmark.com do. But for now, the iCard service is part of a grander plan to help the computer maker popularize its Macintosh computers and related iTools offering, and to sell copies of its newest operating system, Mac OS 9.
"The goal, as for all of Apple's Internet initiatives, is to contribute to Apple's image on the Web," Lowe says. "With iTools, we're providing a set of solutions that seamlessly integrates our Web site with the Mac OS. That makes the Mac platform more appealing to users."
The company is basing the appeal of its iCard service on the high-brow images it has licensed. The service features fine-art paintings by Cezanne, Degas and Monet, as well as images created for its popular "Think Different" ad campaign that uses photographs of John Lennon and Yoko Ono, movie directors Francis Ford Coppola and Frank Capra, and scientist Jane Goodall, among others. Apple plans to add images over time, and Lowe acknowledges that the company decided to go for "quality vs. quantity" at launch.
But online users will also find equally high-brow ArtCards at the free greeting card service offered by Art.com, an online poster shop, and PaintingsDirect, an online art gallery selling original contemporary paintings. PaintingsDirect founder Christine Bourron decided to offer ArtCards - which visitors can make from images of the paintings for sale on the site - as a way to get the word out about PaintingsDirect. Within weeks of offering the cards, Bourron saw traffic boom.
Amazon.com, which added a free e-greetings service last year, offers a mix of fineart and admittedly cheesy images. "I think there are some kinds of cards you would look at and say, 'Oh my God,' " says company spokesman Paul Capelli. "But others would look at the same cards and say they're great. . . . For us, it's the idea of offering customers a broad selection. That's the Amazon.com philosophy: something for everyone."