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E-Mail Deliverability’s Future: Total Transparency

  |  March 29, 2006   |  Comments

E-mail’s come a long way since the bad old days.

What’s been the greatest boost to email deliverability since the Internet bubble burst in 2000? The growing transparency throughout the email industry. It’s helped dispel much of the uncertainty that plagued email marketing in the early days.

We previously illustrated how email marketing and e-newsletter publishing have evolved from batch-and-blast simplicity to a more complex, trustworthy marketing channel. These six developments illustrate how transparency contributed to that evolution.

Authentication Systems Establish Identities

Transparency means recipients know you are who you claim to be. In email’s early days, spam was the first factor to undermine recipient confidence in email as a marketing channel. Address spoofing was right behind.

Today, you must prove your identity all along the delivery chain. Authentication systems check to see either if you are who you claim to be (SPF and SenderID) or that you’re an authorized sender (DomainKeys Identified Mail, or DKIM). ISPs are beginning to use authentication systems to either block or pass along email.

Some authentication systems operate invisibly. Others, including DKIM, may include a visible notice in the message (e.g., Yahoo DomainKeys has confirmed that this message was sent by CompanyX.com). Authentication systems can also originate with the end user, such as a recipient’s challenge-response program that requires unknown senders to authenticate themselves before an email is delivered.

Authentication hasn’t solved the spam and phishing problems, but the transparency they foster should help make legitimate senders stand out better.

Reputation Vendors Expose Systems ISPs Use to Block, Filter, or Deliver E-Mail

Transparency occurs here because the workings of these previously closed systems are now open to email senders through the efforts of reputation venders, such as SenderBase and TrustedSource. Your IP address’ reputation is no longer a mystery. Either of these sites can show you how the world views your email patterns.

Often, your only clue your email wasn’t delivered is a cryptic, coded email bounce message from an ISP or recipient server. More often, nothing comes back at all. Now, more email broadcast solutions are incorporating delivery monitoring that uses seed addresses to track whether and where email is delivered. This also adds to transparency.

ISPs, Vendors, and E-Mail Industry Trade Groups Offer Best-Practices Policies

E-mailers who follow these policies are more likely to have a greater number of their email messages delivered. They include email bounce and address management, delivery volume, opt-in practices, content triggers, and IP address integrity, among other factors.

These policies also reinforce the idea that transparency extends to the emailer’s own program. In this context, transparency means the sender’s subscription process clearly explains what the subscriber is signing up for, what email he’ll receive, how often he’ll receive it, what the sender will or will not do with the address, and how to unsubscribe.

This creates the atmosphere of trustworthiness an ISP looks for (via accreditation services) in determining whether to block, filter, or pass on email.

Postmaster Pages and Relay Feedback Legitimize Commercial E-Mailers

AOL sets the industry standard for transparency. Its information-rich site details every aspect of sending bulk mail to its customers. AOL also was a leader in establishing feedback loops that return rejected messages to their senders along with the reason for the rejection.

This means senders must monitor spam complaints, bounced email messages, and reply-to emails more closely, but all these are essential steps if you send email to the major ISPs. They also contribute to the transparency that makes email sending more accountable.

Find more information here:

E-Mail Senders and Receivers Work Together to Reduce Spam

A truce in the standoff between ISPs and permission emailers was declared in 2003, when a small group of email senders and receivers sat down together to air grievances and share concerns.

Out of that meeting came industry working groups and trade associations, including the Messaging Anti-Abuse Working Group, which tackles email spam and fraud issues, and the Email Sender and Provider Coalition, made up of ISPs, email service providers, agencies, and senders who review concerns, develop solutions, advocate for the industry, and promote responsible practices.

ISPs Filter Out Bad E-Mail and Filter In Permission E-Mail.

The détente between email senders and ISPs helped blunt a previous bias against bulk email, a stance ISPs took in the ’90s to stave off a rising flood of junk email.

Permission emailers were able to show how simplistic content filters or restrictive server settings blocked requested email, both commercial messages and transactional messages. These emailers are the ones who have demonstrated they’re willing to work within an ISP’s requirements.

ISPs are also learning to identify and trust email sent from clients of third-party authentication systems, reputation vendors, and email certification agencies that guarantee their legitimacy. This guaranteed email now bypasses regular server-level filters and is delivered to the inbox as requested.

Transparency, both in email sending and delivery, has helped banish some of the mystery and uncertainty that once prevented marketers from understanding how to use email effectively.

If you’re still in the dark about why your email isn’t delivered, or even if you don’t think you have a delivery problem, you need to come into the light. You can start by taking our survey on email deliverability issues. We’ll report results in a future ClickZ column.

Until next time, keep on deliverin’.

Want more email marketing information? ClickZ E-Mail Reference is an archive of all our email columns, organized by topic.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Kirill Popov and Loren McDonald

As director of ISP relations and delivery, Kirill Popov creates and enforces strict usage and anti-spam policies, maintains ISP and community relations, and oversees all abuse and policy investigations and inquiries for EmailLabs clients. Kirill works with clients on best practices, content, design, and list hygiene to minimize potential delivery issues. He's a registered member of the SpamCon foundation and representsEmailLabs on AIM's Council for Responsible E-Mail.

Loren McDonald is vice president of marketing at e-mail marketing automation company EmailLabs, overseeing corporate marketing activities and client consulting services. He has 20 years experience in marketing, consulting and strategic planning. Earlier, Loren was founder and president of Intevation, an e-marketing services firm specializing in e-mail and SEM. He's held executive marketing positions at companies including USWeb/CKS (marchFIRST), NetStruxr, and Arthur Andersen.

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