Riding the E-mail Highway
Every e-mail marketer knows about the existence of the dreaded blocklist or blacklist. While you may not understand the criteria for being listed on or delisted from such a file—few do—you surely know your e-mail won’t be delivered if you’re on a blocklist used by the domain to which you’re sending.
Is the reverse true when you’re whitelisted or accredited as a “good” sender? Do these lists and certifications confer a special status that ensures the delivery of your e-mail? The answer to these questions is a resounding “maybe.”
A Good Sender Record
Before we can answer the aforementioned questions, we first need to clarify the similarities and differences between whitelists and certification services.
Whitelist. A list of e-mail addresses, domain names or IP addresses maintained by some Internet service providers (ISPs) to identify qualified senders and exempt their e-mail from some or all anti-spam filters and rules. Whitelisting typically is a free service to those senders who qualify.
Certification. Certification is a service offered by third-party reputation service providers (RSPs) that warrants the e-mail from the domains or IP addresses of qualified senders. When recognized by a receiving ISP or domain, certification serves to identify senders and exempt their e-mail from some or all anti-spam filters or rules. In some cases, additional privileges may be extended, such as trust tokens, inbox placement and image/link rendering. RSPs typically charge a subscription or transactional fee to those senders who qualify for their service.
Some have suggested that e-mail authentication is akin to the license plate on your car. It indicates that you own the vehicle and that it’s authorized to be on the road, but says nothing about your driving record. Extending that analogy, being on a whitelist is somewhat like having a driver’s license. You have to pass a test to get it and maintain a good driving record to keep it, but it affords no assurance that you won’t be involved in an accident. Certification is like an insurance policy for good drivers. Depending on the issuer, you may enjoy certain privileges, but regardless of the premium you pay, your certification status can be revoked if you don’t maintain a good driving record.
The availability and benefits of whitelist and certification services differ by ISP and RSP. A few ISPs, such as AOL and Yahoo!, maintain their own whitelists and use a certification service to extend additional privileges to qualified senders. Some, such as MSN/Hotmail and RoadRunner, use a certification service in lieu of a whitelist. Other ISPs and domains maintain a stand-alone whitelist or use an anti-spam filter that weights certification along with other factors in its algorithms. Still others neither offer a whitelist nor honor certification.
License and Proof of Insurance, Please
While qualification requirements for whitelisting and certification vary from service to service, there are some common themes. They are:
List Management. Most ISPs have requirements for effective bounce management. Maintaining low levels of “unknown users” is a key consideration.
Regulatory Compliance. Strict adherence to the Can Spam Act is a prerequisite. There must be no attempt to hide, forge or misrepresent the sender or deceive the recipient as to the e-mail’s intent. All e-mail must have valid, nonelectronic contact information for the sending organization. Plus, there must be a simple and obvious unsubscribe mechanism that works, and senders must honor all unsubscribe requests within the prescribed legal time frame.
E-mail Authentication. Many require that senders authenticate their e-mail using the protocol required by the receiving ISP, such as SPF, Sender ID or DKIM.
Sending Infrastructure. All ISPs require that the infrastructure used to send e-mail is well-maintained and operated in a responsible manner. This means that your e-mail servers connecting to the ISPs must have valid reverse DNS entries and be secured to prevent unauthorized use. Having static IP addresses also is a common requirement.
Get On the Ramp
Assuming you will qualify, your next two questions are: Should I apply for ISP whitelisting? Should I make the added investment in RSP certification?
The answer to the first question is easy. Yes, you should. It’s free. You’ve got nothing to lose and everything to gain. Just don’t expect to get a free ride. Being on a whitelist won’t prevent your e-mail from being blocked or routed to the junk folder if your complaint rate or practices deteriorate. However, whitelisting will identify you as a legitimate sender to the ISP and open an important channel of communication should an “accident” occur. Additionally, the qualification process itself will help you better understand the requirements of different ISPs and allow you to evaluate your own practices relative to their standards.
The answer to the second question about RSP certification is more involved. To start, you’ll want to examine your delivery rate and other key metrics—such as opens and clicks—after you’ve taken advantage of ISP whitelisting, looking for performance improvements. Since coverage and benefits vary, you’ll next want to review the distribution and performance of your list by ISP and compare that to what’s offered by the different RSPs. If you’ve got a solid reputation and a good delivery rate, you may find that the benefit is not so much in improved deliverability, but rather in better placement and image/link rendering that yields higher click and conversion rates. Also, some have better solutions for B-to-C mailers than B-to-B and vice versa. ROI testing is the final critical step. You want to be sure that the premium you pay for certification with a RSP actually pans out in terms of better bottom-line results.
As with e-mail authentication, whitelist and certification services are part of the new ecosystem for e-mail. These services help convey the reputation of senders, so once a sender’s identity is established through authentication, ISPs can do a better job of sorting the good e-mail from the bad and preserve the medium for legitimate communication and commerce.
Dave Lewis is vice president of market and product strategy for StrongMail Systems, a Redwood City, Calif. e-mail infrastructure software provider. Lewis actively is involved with the Email Experience Council and co-chairs the Email Sender & Provider Coalition working group responsible for ISP relations. He can be reached at (650) 421-4200.