What’s new on the e-mail deliverability front
Do you feel your e-mail campaigns are drowning in a sea of spam? If so, you’re not alone. But there are several things happening behind the scenes that should begin to stem the tide. This is good news for marketers.
First, let’s look at the obstacles e-marketers face today. To identify and reduce spam, Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and corporations take extraordinary measures. This may result in mail being blocked or poor placement in the recipient’s inbox. Companies employ blacklists and content filters. Some filters may block large volumes that are sent too quickly or mailings that contain too many bounces.
Even when e-mail makes it past these hurdles, a campaign may be delivered to a bulk folder if the sender is not in the recipient’s address book—and then all HTML images may be suppressed.
Customers also are reacting to spam. The average customer has three e-mail addresses, and one third of all e-mail accounts churn on an annual basis. America Online (AOL) customers are more likely to click the “report as spam” button than to use opt-out links in e-mails.
You might be wondering, where is the good news? The solution to our spam problem lies in combining solutions on three fronts: legislative, technical and self-regulatory.
Legislative: Can Spam
The Can Spam Act of 2003 was signed by President Bush in December of last year and went into effect January 2004. Marketers have quickly moved to be in compliance for all commercial e-mail. One impact of the federal law is that permission is defined at a line of business level. For example, a company such as Proctor & Gamble that has many lines of business—Pampers, Tide, Charmin—would ask individuals to opt-out of receiving e-mails from Pampers, but preserve the right for Tide or Charmin to contact them. For a company to do this correctly, any e-mail needs to be branded for the line of business. In this example, an e-mail would come from Pampers, not from Proctor & Gamble. When the recipient goes to an opt-out page, it should also be branded for the specific line of business.
The law gives states attorneys general and ISPs the ability to take action against offenders, and there is a good deal of recent case activity. Overall, this has produced positive action in the industry.
Technical: Authentication Systems
Authentication technology identifies the sender of an e-mail and verifies the identity. This may be the industry’s best chance to defeat spam and fraudulent e-mail. Authentication technology uses coding, encryption and other IT-based methods to eliminate the ease with which spammers can forge their identity under current e-mail protocols.
There are two e-mail authentication systems currently in development: Sender ID and Domain Keys.
Sender ID is the combination of AOL’s Sender Policy Framework (SPF) and Microsoft’s Caller ID. Sender ID authenticates e-mail senders and blocks e-mail forgeries and faked addresses. AOL already is testing its version of Sender ID and will move to full use of this system in the fall.
Marketers should register each IP address used to send e-mail at http://spf.pobox.com/. It’s important to think about all the e-mail a company sends out including promotions, newsletters and service announcements. Those marketers who use an outside service bureau should consult with their vendors.
Today, AOL uses the Domain Name System (DNS) listing of servers or IP addresses to verify that e-mail it receives has been sent from the domain it claims to come from. AOL compares the sending IP address with a listing of IP addresses authorized to send from that domain. If the numbers don’t match, the mail doesn’t get through. Expect wider adoption in the fall by other ISPs.
Next year we’ll see implementation of a more complex solution being developed by Yahoo called Domain Keys. It uses a combination of public and private “keys” to authenticate the sender’s domain and reduce the chance that a spammer or hacker will fake the domain sending address. Each message will contain a digital signature in the header that contains a private key representing the sending domain. ISPs will match up the private key with a public key registered with the Internet’s DNS listing of servers to determine whether an incoming message is valid.
Self-regulatory: Self-regulation Systems Based on Sender’s Reputation
Accountability systems tie sender identity to sender reputation. With IronPort’s Bonded Sender, a marketer goes through an initial screening of permission practices. Then the marketer posts a bond of $500 to $4,000 per month dependent on mail volume. The bond would be debited $20 any time an e-mail complaint is generated. If complaint rates are low, Bonded Sender can help a marketer avoid filtering at MSN/Hotmail and other domains using SpamAssassin or SpamBouncer. That translates into almost 30 percent of all e-mail boxes. More than 50 major mailers have signed up for the Bonded Sender program. The roster includes companies such as Amazon, CNET, About.com and Match.com. Habeas and Goodmail also offer reputation systems.
Such a confluence of approaches will result in better deliverability all around. A combination of legislation, technology and self-regulation holds the promise of finally defeating spam. It should mean less inbox clutter and less reliance on imperfect filters. It hopefully will mean better deliverability and with that will come higher response rates.
So, that’s the good news. But it will take time for all of this to happen. Most industry observers believe it will take a year or more for the technology and systems to be fully adopted.
What You Can Do Today
Deliverability is one of the biggest challenges facing the e-mail marketing industry. There are several deliverability “auditing” services available that provide marketers with very specific reports on whether their mail is getting through and which e-mail folder the mail is delivered to.
These services use a seeding system and provide marketers with decoy e-mail addresses to add to campaigns. They have opened e-mail accounts with all the major ISPs and also use various iterations of ISP software to determine how well the e-mail is rendered.
While these services work best for consumer marketers, there is much work also being done on the B-to-B front. Marketers can contact Return Path, Pivotal Veracity or their current e-mail deployment vendor for more information on these services and sample reports.
Good deliverability results from good permission practices. Embrace best practices, increase the relevancy of your campaigns, and use segmentation. You’ll reap the benefits and so will our industry.
Regina Brady is president of Reggie Brady Marketing Solutions, a direct and e-mail marketing consultancy. She can be reached at (203) 838-8138 or email@example.com.