Hallmark's new eCard mobile app hopes to target 'soulless' interactions

Hallmark, one of the world's oldest and best-known greeting card companies, says its first Hallmark eCard app for the iPhone and iPad is part of the company's omni-channel strategy

Hallmark, one of the world's oldest and best-known greeting card companies, launched its first Hallmark eCard app for the iPhone and iPad on Thursday.

The new app, which will eventually make it to Android devices, isn't just about ecards. It's part of a broader mission within the Hallmark eCard division to help users connect more deeply through mobile devices and social networks than they do today, said Dan Kessler, general manager of Hallmark eCards.

"We're talking about depth versus breadth" of social communications, Kessler said an interview. "If you post 'Happy Birthday' on somebody's Facebook wall, at the end of the day you're really just a number, a little red number at the top of somebody's Facebook page. What we're trying to provide artistically and technologically is a way to communicate more deeply."

Facebook, WhatsApp and other social networks often provide social interactions without much meaning, he said.

"We're entering a golden age for the greetings business," Kessler said. "There's an ongoing backlash against soulless communicating, and people are going back to a time of where it matters to say 'Happy Birthday.' I could just write it on somebody's wall or [instead] send a card or an ecard."

Kessler's description of a 'golden age' might be an exaggeration. Still, there's little question that mobile devices are opening a big door for ecards, said Natasha Rankin, executive director of the Greeting Card Association in Washington, which has 150 members, including Hallmark and American Greetings as its largest members.

"As with every company, Hallmark is recognizing wisely that to stay relevant, expanding into mobile is essential," Rankin said in an interview. "There's definitely an expansion toward leveraging technology."

Ecards are still relatively small compared to paper cards, with about $274 million in revenues for U.S. ecard companies, according to the analyst firm IBISWorld. Paper greeting cards and related products were a $6.1 billion industry in the U.S. last year, but have declined nearly 4% each of the past five years.

Rankin said that market sizing for ecards may be too low because there's a debate on how to count revenues from greetings that start online as ecards, but allow a sender to digitally sign a card on a touchscreen that is sent by a company to a recipient as a physical card through the mail.

Apps such as Handwrytten and Felt, among others, merge the digital and paper card worlds, while Spreengs even allows attaching a video shot from a smartphone to be attached to a physical card. None of these capabilities are in the current Hallmark eCard, but Kessler said more announcements are coming.

The 105-year-old Hallmark has offered ecards on the desktop for more than a decade and found that 25% of the visitors to its Hallmarkecards.com website were using iPhones to send cards. It made sense to create an app, Kessler said, to make it easier for users to send ecards and to plug into a phone user's native contact list, address book and photos.

"Having the app's presence on the phone's home screen is significant enough to build an app," he said. "Frankly, a lot of users on a phone are using a very app-based ecosystem, so sending ecards this way offers the best possible experience."

The current app was built in AngularJS, an open-source Web application framework, which starts by looking at an HTML page and then building a model that is expressed in JavaScript. "We got off Flash and .net and rebuilt it to really great code," he said.

There are hundreds of apps for iOS in the App Store that appear under a search for "greeting card" apps that could potentially compete against Hallmark. But Hallmark is banking on its long history in the greeting card business and exclusive art featuring Snoopy and Star Wars images, among others, to stand out. "With our high level of animation and artwork, you won't see as good a user experience," Kessler claimed.

Other unusual, if not unique, features include the ability to choose ecard recipients directly from a contact list and to send an ecard through Facebook, Facebook Messenger and email. Users can also schedule an ecard to be sent at a later date, to avoid missed birthdays. Also, users can view an ecard they have received right in the app, and can track when an ecard was sent and when it was opened.

While the app itself is free, a subscription is required to be able to send an unlimited number of ecards. A one-year subscription is US$18, while a one-month subscription costs $5 -- the same price as the Web-based desktop Hallmark eCard.

Kessler said there's no interest in offering advertisements to raise the company's revenues. Hallmark's current ecard business is profitable, although the company is private and doesn't disclose such information. "We have high engagement from all our consumers who subscribe and then re-subscribe and love what we provide," he said.

The app requires iOS 8.0 and is optimized for the iPhone 5. It also works on the iPad and the iPod touch. Kessler said it made sense to start with iOS since there are fewer differences in screen size than with the wide variety of Android devices.

Hallmark was founded in 1910 in Kansas City, Mo. The company posted revenues of $3.8 billion in 2014 and has a work force of about 30,000 full- and part-time workers in various divisions, according to its website. Hallmark entered the ecard market more than a decade ago, and in 2012, it acquired a company called SpiritClips in Santa Monica, Calif. SpiritClips runs eCards and the Feeln video streaming service.

While Hallmark recognizes the massive growth in mobile communications, Kessler said his team took "deliberate" steps in building its first mobile app for ecards. "In the past few years, there's been huge growth in mobile, and as Hallmark moves forward, you're going to see more deliberate moves, all part of a much bigger move to an omni-channel strategy" to integrate online with physical stores, Kessler said.

When asked if Hallmark is late to the ecard mobile game, Kessler responded, "I don't think the game has really started yet."

With so many people accessing the Web from smartphones and tablets, it simply makes sense for Hallmark to have a native app for such devices, said Jack Gold, an analyst at J. Gold Associates.

"Millennials buy a lot fewer paper cards at the store than older generations do and catering to the next-generation market is a sensible way to make sure you are still in business in 10 to 20 years," he added.

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