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Challenging The System

  |  October 27, 2003   |  Comments

How marketers can respond to challenge/response.

Friends and colleagues always ask, "How I entirely stop spam from reaching my inbox?"

Believe it or not, there’s a pretty simple answer: set up a filter to send any message that’s not from address book senders into another folder. As this causes many headaches when trying to find email from known senders who are not in the address book, some email filtering programs have adopted challenge/response systems to help manage those relationships for users. The question then becomes, how challenging is it for emailers to work with, or through, challenge/response programs?

Challenge/response systems require emailers to answer a question or respond in a predetermined way to a challenge in order to be added to a users’ address book or personal whitelist. Recently, Mailblocks offered emailers some guidance on how to work with challenge/response users. The problem is Mailblocks is just one of many competing providers of this technology. Each has their own unique challenge/response process (some of these techniques may be determined based on Mailblocks’ pending patent litigation).

The good news is there are ways for emailers to comply with challenge/response requirements, and there may even be a few bright points for those who can establish a relationship with challenge/response users.

Dynamic Versus Static From Addresses

The first issue emailers must resolve is whether their messaging infrastructure sends email with a dynamic, trackable "from" address, or from a static email address. This is not to be confused with the cosmetic "from" field, which reflects a sender’s brand name or list owner identification.

The benefit to having a dynamic "from" address is every email is treated uniquely and can be measured and responded to in an expeditious fashion depending on the content of the reply or suppression request. The negative is that users are not able to add that email address to their personal whitelist or, in this case, to the challenge/response system, thereby enabling that emailer to always reach the inbox. A benefit of a static "from" field is stronger brand identity and recognition by the recipient.

The Labor Factor

It may be obvious, but warrants a reminder: there’s no way emailers can circumvent challenge/response, or obtain pre-response whitelist status. That said, the first time every single sender emails a challenge/response recipient, that recipient must manually complete the challenge and establish the personal whitelist relationship with that user. Some challenge/response systems do accept a successfully completed challenge as a system-wide endorsement, unless subscribers complain about the sender in question.

Positive aspects of that extra-labor factor: First, users know you care. If you take the time to interact with them through this system, it should be clear the relationship means something to you. Recipients may then reward you for the extra effort by reading and responding to your message. Above all, your message will be delivered to a clutter-free inbox. All the spam and messages from unknown senders won’t get that far.

Is challenge/response worth marketer’s time and effort? While the answer depends on the nature of the relationship, it’s an important question. It represents such a small percentage of recipients, thus far, but use of this kind of system will only increase, at least in the short term.

What E-Mailers Can Do

I only got my first job (as an unpaid summer intern) because of my lack of shame making cold-calls. The point is there are lots of people who may be available to help your company with a "customer intimacy" project. You may want to determine lifetime customer value of your email efforts. Consider allocating resources for this type of customer relationship management.

E-mailers should research challenge/response programs and determine which are growing within your user base. As you identify those programs, reach out to the service providers and establish relationships, as you would with an ISP. The programs change constantly. There, better ways to work through the systems will evolve.

Finally, consider the benefits of dynamic or static "from" addresses. Request your subscribers add you to their personal whitelists before they begin using challenge/response. This may be easier for content publishers than for marketers, but if marketers have consistent value in their messaging, users will respond in-kind.

What The Industry Can Do

Challenge/response is not a volume friendly concept. That doesn’t mean solutions cannot be created to enable volume messaging to pass through the systems. One potential change could be continued use of dynamic "from" addresses by allowing users to whitelist static IP addresses, even domain-level IP addresses, to pass through their system. Another change could be for an http or other connection to be created between the challenge/response system and the online point of email acquisition to disable the challenge. Finally, the goal may be that one challenge/response solution emerges as the standard while others consolidate or fall through the cracks.

Unlike ISP whitelisting, challenge/response systems halt customer communications. Hopefully, the challenges will be a mere hurdle, not a significant deliverability roadblock.

Do you think challenge/response systems benefit or hinder emailers? Do you have any tips for challenge/response compliance? Let me know!

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

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Ben Isaacson

Ben Isaacson is the privacy and compliance leader for Experian, overseeing Internet and advanced technology privacy and compliance affairs across Experian Marketing Services products including CheetahMail, Digital Advertising Services, and Hitwise. Mr. Isaacson's previous roles include serving as the executive director of the Association for Interactive Marketing (AIM), a former DMA subsidiary. He regularly blogs at EmailResponsibly.com.

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