It's the last shopping day before Christmas, and the clock is ticking. Luckily for the complacent, forgetful and downright slothful among us, we still have time to send a Christmas card. Sending an e-card means that you won't have to resort to the old trick of placing a strategic footprint (a strategic tyre track is probably over-egging the Christmas pudding a little) on the envelope to give the impression that the card you failed to send in time was just 'lost in the post'.
These days, thankfully, e-greetings don't carry the same sense of slapdash, errant lack of thought they once did. Before, receiving a generic one from a friend blitzing their e-mail contacts list - or worse, from faceless employers - was a mild irritant and quickly deleted. Now, e-cards have become a bit more nuanced with unforeseen spin-off benefits.
Aside from providing that momentary sense of smugness one gets from doing something green, they are often cheaper than traditional paper cards. One assumes e-cards are a godsend for overworked postal employees around the holiday period. For the more creative, they also allow anyone with a working knowledge of Photoshop to create the ultimate homemade card, doing away with hours cutting and gluing together coloured bits of paper.
E-greetings have come of age. Companies like JibJab and Rattlebox (which has the matter-of-fact company strap line 'free e-cards that don't suck') have taken personalisation to the next level, with funny videos encompassing all the great internet memes which may or may not involve your own head spliced onto a kitten singing Justin Bieber. PortableNorthpole has made Santa come alive, literally, with personalised videos of Santa spouting your message and inspiring equal parts wonder and fear.
There is now a multimillion-dollar business in e-greetings, with the larger companies offering the full gamut of services from libraries of thousands of stock cards to personalisation services that allow the customer to incorporate personal video or audio messages. The growth of the phenomenon is all the more remarkable given that the fledgling industry almost died on delivery during the dotcom crash at the beginning of the last decade. In those early, frontier days of the internet, when the mere mention of the word 'digital' in an initial public offering prospectus would get investors all hot and bothered, e-card maker Blue Mountain Arts was sold to Excite@Home in a deal worth US$780 million. In September 2001, barely two years after purchase, Excite@Home was forced to sell the loss-making Blue Mountain Arts to American Greetings Inc for a paltry US$35 million.
Despite the troubled start, e-greetings companies have found a winning formula of convenience, choice and personalisation and have managed to appeal to consumers beyond the traditional occasions of Christmas, Valentine's Day and birthdays. Today, dotcom bubble case study Blue Mountain is flourishing and offers a popular annual subscription service allowing customers to send as many e-cards and for whatever occasion as they like for a very reasonable set fee.
And it isn't just nominally Christian or Western occasions that have taken to the 7-Eleven convenience of the e-card. E-cards have become increasingly popular for the Islamic holy days of Eid ul-Fitr and Eid ul-Adha, as well as for more mundane occasions. Islamic e-greetings company Eidmubarak.com has been in business for four years but has already sold more than five million e-cards to Muslims in almost 200 countries. Shinto, Buddhist and other world religions have fallen for the e-card, with perhaps only the technophobic Amish resisting.
A funny or memorable e-greeting has also become a ubiquitous marketing tool with companies seeing the mass audience and sharing potential of a cleverly themed card as an inexpensive way to communicate with consumers. Coca-Cola, the king of holiday marketing, has created a Christmas e-card microsite (xmas.coke.com) that allows consumers to send free e-cards which are also optimised for mobile devices. The soft drink giant also ran a similar e-card campaign during Lunar New Year with much success. Google's Gmail has even engaged Santa to produce personalised phone calls to your loved ones(sendacallfromsanta.com).
Santa selling out might not sit well with everyone, but objecting to commercialism and giving presents at Christmas is worthy of the Grinch. After all, even charities have jumped on the e-card bandwagon with 'click to donate' e-cards fast becoming one of the most effective forms of e-campaigning.
The traditional paper card was once as much of a Christmas staple as the Baywatch/Jason Priestley/Cute Kittens calendar. While the internet has slowly made the paper calendar redundant, we hope the paper greeting card won't die out completely. There will always be homemade cards, and there will always be people who value the physical act of posting a card - especially those uncomfortable with the digitising of every act. But for those of us who aren't mired by such noble worries and, more importantly, are pushed for time and struggling for inspiration, the e-card has become the digital gift that just keeps on giving.