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Email Power to the People, Part 1

  |  October 7, 2002   |  Comments

Paul thinks he’s got the solution to the email spam/blocking/filtering problem.

Since I began writing for ClickZ, nothing has generated more reader response than my columns about email delivery problems. It doesn’t matter if you’re a Fortune 500 company, advertising agency, product marketer, newsletter publisher, or nonprofit organization; every company that sends out email has been victimized by overzealous spam cops, filtering technologies, those black holes know as bulk email folders, and so on.

Many of you graciously shared ideas to help ease the situation. Though many look good at first blush, they ultimately don’t stand up to a reality check. In nearly every case, they aren’t able to satisfy the needs of the numerous groups involved: email recipients, emailers, ISPs, online services, corporate IT managers, spam cops...

Initially, no simple solution appeared to exist. But then a series of emails from inside and outside the U.S. sparked an idea I’ve since been developing. Today, I’ll outline that solution. Next time, I’ll demonstrate how it will likely affect the various groups connected to the email industry.

The solution I propose puts the power to block/filter email into the hands of consumers. Right now, that power lies with Webmasters, IT managers, spam cops, ISPs, and so forth, each of whom -- albeit with the best of intentions -- has developed independent sets of arbitrary rules on what constitutes spam.

That sounds like well-intentioned censorship to me. Think of it this way: I may want to receive home mortgage email offers by the truckload because I happen to be in the market for a mortgage. You may not. Whether the offer screams "free" or "hot" or "click now" is irrelevant.

Here’s how we can give consumers the power to decide: ISPs, online services, corporate IT managers, and the like can develop and implement a simple uniform system that allows individuals to specify which emails they want blocked and which they want to receive. Perhaps one entity develops technology and distributes it free of charge. Another option is for ISPs to let consumers choose from one of several technologies now appearing (more on this below) on the market.

The key is consumers must be able to change their email preference settings at any time, such as:

  • Accept or reject specific email addresses

  • Accept or reject specific domains

  • Accept or reject by country of email origin

  • Accept or reject emails with specific words in the subject line

Suddenly we, as individuals, get to choose what comes through! I get all the newsletters and offers I want and none of those I don’t. And we have the ability to change what’s blocked as often as our wants/needs change.

Also, when a person indicates "accept" or "reject," a notice is sent (the tech guys can figure out how best to do this) to emailers, indicating that consumer X at email address Y does or doesn’t want their emails, along with a date/time stamp for this request. This lets emailers know who wants to be on their lists (good prospects) and who doesn’t (bad prospects).

This also gives email system managers proof that someone asked to accept or reject specific emails, which is valuable information when dealing with spam complaints.

And it gets better. We’ve all been preaching (or have been preached to) that if we as an industry don’t do something about spam, the government will. Our plan, which I’m calling "Email Power to the People," can take hold and grow exponentially like the best viral program ever. My company’s CTO assures me this technology is not rocket science; it could be implemented quickly to spread like wildfire, especially with the endorsement of a number of high-profile companies.

During my research, I uncovered a number of technologies whose existence indicates the best route for implementation of this plan may lie in ISPs offering consumers a choice between several options based on personal preference. And, now that this column is out there, I’m sure other technologies will find their way to my desk.

Accessio (a start-up, looking for beta testers) from MiaVia (means "my way") has a solution targeted at ISPs and enterprise customers that combines text analysis and digital signature technology. The company claims its methodology plugs the loopholes in other spam detection systems that allow hackers to get around them.

Bluebottle has a clever software system that allows users to create an "allowed sender list" (power to the people, yeah!). When Bluebottle receives an email from a source not on the allowed list, a verification request is sent, asking the sender to reply to the email. Since many bulk mailers can’t respond, those who don’t reply aren’t allowed into the user’s email box. Users can choose an even higher level of security that requires the sender to reply with the user’s full name (which most spammers won’t know).

Matador, by a start-up company MailFrontier, uses that functionality as part of its approach, but it also adds a blacklist, content filtering, and collaborative filtering (in which a network of folks decide what is or isn’t spam). The user also has the option of deciding at what level he wants each method to act, assigning each a weight in the overall process. If he believes that collaborative filtering works best, he can turn that feature up all the way.

Additionally, both Yahoo and Hotmail offer customizable junk mail filters, although neither go as far as I’m suggesting in terms of giving the consumer real power. Yahoo’s Spamguard directs suspect emails to a folder where the user can decide which emails should not be blocked. Hotmail’s system offers low (only the most obvious junk mail will be blocked), high (should catch most junk email), and exclusive blocking (only email from the "Contacts" and "Safe List" are allowed through).

For every solution, of course, there are drawbacks. The point right now is simply that every ISP should offer consumers the option to decide between several ways to block spam and customize those options in whatever configuration meets their needs.

By giving the power back to the people, the burden is off the backs of ISPs and others, hopefully bringing an end to the knee-jerk reactions that not only waste a lot of human and technical bandwidth but also lose customers and revenue.

Next time, I’ll discuss in detail how each group might react to this plan. Keep reading.

Please join us at ClickZ Email Strategies in San Francisco, November 18-19.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Paul Soltoff

Paul Soltoff is the chief executive officer of SendTec, Inc., a direct marketing services company specializing in customer acquisition. SendTec combines extensive direct response experience with proprietary technologies to produce scalable results. Principal services include performance-based online marketing, offline direct response marketing and direct response television. SendTec represents advertising agencies and advertisers such as RealNetworks, AARP, Monster.com, AAA, Punch Software, MyPoints, Grey Worldwide, CosmetÍque Cosmetics, Columbia House, and Euro-Pro. Prior to starting SendTec, Paul was a founder and EVP of Saatchi and Saatchi's DRTV division in New York and has over 25 years of advertising, media and direct marketing experience.

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