Getting a legitimate email marketing message to a consumer's inbox has become progressively more difficult, and with coming changes around authentication, reputation and accreditation systems, it's only going to become more complex. E-mail service providers are taking a leading role in educating both marketers and consumers about the changes, but the key to success is seen by many to be quite simple, in theory at least: marketers must send relevant messages.
"Consumers are looking at spam with a new definition. It's beyond just pornography, Viagra, or fraudulent emails," said Al DiGuido, Bigfoot Interactive's CEO. "In the definition of the consumer, spam is irrelevant messaging. If information is not relevant to the audience, they'll opt out, not open messages, or they won't click."
Relevance will become even more important as reputation services become more widespread. Once authentication becomes common, which is expected to happen quickly with the broad support of Sender ID, reputation and accreditation services will be layered on top to further weed out unwanted messages. Reputation and accreditation services are both designed to allow email recipients to check the services' databases to get information about senders -- and therefore determine what to do with messages when they're received.
Once these systems are in place, marketers will need to focus on making their business practices customer-friendly in order to ensure delivery, said Bill Mahoney, CFO of Prospectivdirect.com. "Utilization of best practices for email marketing, not just acceptable standards, will separate the successful companies from the bad actors. Successful marketers will have to earn their way to the inbox through reputation and proving value."
Every time a marketer's message is marked as spam by a consumer, that marketer edges closer to being added to an ISP's or a reputation service's blacklist -- a development which would make it difficult or impossible to reach all customers who use that ISP or reputation service. This level of control will require marketers to place an even bigger emphasis on customer satisfaction to maintain a good reputation rating, said Dave Lewis, VP of deliverability management and ISP relations at Digital Impact.
"If customers like what they're receiving -- content consistent with their needs and wants -- their reputation ratings will be high," Lewis said. "There's a real opportunity in this approach for legitimate marketers. Some of the cruder forms of filtering that impact the acceptance and placement of email and produce 'false positive' headaches will be begin to fade away."
Widespread use of reputation services will help legitimate marketers stand out from the crowd, and will go a long way toward eliminating a crowded inbox, according to Kirill Popov, director of ISP relations and delivery at E-mailLabs. "In essence, ESPs and ISPs want to work together to set up a large scale white-listing framework that will enable ESPs to achieve greater delivery, and allow ISPs to take stricter measures against spammers without worrying about false-positives."
The issue of false positives, which occur when a filter mistakenly labels a message as spam, can be addressed even more effectively by consumers, according to Bigfoot Interactive's DiGuido. False positives will usually be re-routed into bulk mail folders or not delivered at all. However, most spam filters will not block an email from a "trusted sender" -- someone from the user's address book or whitelist.
In many systems, when a consumer adds a marketer to his address book, he is allowing that marketer's messages to bypass spam filters and avoid being mislabeled as spam. This is a very effective way for consumers to ensure that they will get the messages they want from a marketer, according to DiGuido.
"False positives are a significant issue. They can cause all kinds of problems. If you're waiting for a shipping confirmation from a vendor or some other information you've requested, that can have a significant impact in terms of your business or your livelihood," he said.
To help educate consumers about this approach, Bigfoot Interactive recently launched an "add to address book" campaign, featuring ads that show the perils of not getting an important email that was blocked by a spam filter. One ad reads, "Al used anti-spam filters. Al didn't get his flight status alert. Al's camping out tonight." Under the picture of Al sleeping on the floor at the airport, the ad goes on to explain that adding a sender to your address book is one way to ensure a message isn't blocked by a spam filter.
"As an email marketing company, we encourage individuals to include our email address in their address book," said Prospectivdirect.com's Mahoney. "Many ISPs recognize an individual's address book as the ultimate whitelist, and inclusion is the best guarantee for delivery."
Another technology development raising the address book stakes is the growth in challenge/response anti-spam systems. In challenge/response, an email from an unfamiliar entity is "challenged" -- an email is sent requiring the sender to respond and verify that a human, and not just a machine, sent the message. Once the sender responds, the email is allowed through.
The most prominent email provider to use challenge/response to date is ISP EarthLink. America Online acquired Mailblocks earlier this month, and has announced plans to integrate Mailblocks' challenge/response technology into its Web-based applications for AOL and Netscape mail by the end of the year, and into its AOL service at some point in the future.
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Kevin Newcomb joined ClickZ in August 2004, covering search marketing and other online marketing topics. He has been reporting on web-based businesses since 2000.
Before the bubble burst, Kevin was a marketing manager for an online computer reseller, handling copywriting, e-mail marketing, search marketing and running the affiliate program.
With a combination of real-world marketing experience and years of business journalism, Kevin brings to ClickZ a unique ability to deliver news and training materials that help online marketers do their jobs better.
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