AOL’s Getting Into the Postage Game

A couple summers ago, I made the trip down to Washington, D.C. to appear for the first time in front of the FTC’s Spam Forum. The hearings were a flashpoint for the battle between privacy advocates and their nemesis: spammers. A parade of speakers from both sides of the issue made their thoughts known. At times, voices were raised, fingers were pointed, and folks were even ejected from the hearing room. It was all great theater.

Everyone there came to listen to panels comprising ISPs, email service providers (ESPs), and the marketing community. For what seemed an eternity, I listened to my colleagues bemoan the costs spam inflicted on them, including rising human capital and infrastructure costs. Surely, something could be done to stop this runaway train. Mind you, all this debate was before CAN-SPAM, Sender ID, DomainKeys, and other potential solutions currently available in the marketplace.

When it was my turn, I brought a very simple recommendation to the floor: the email channel should mirror other media channels in the manner of a surcharge. Legislation would provide compliant merchants access to the outlet’s audience. This approach, detailed since that time, would stop unbridled access from fraudulent and unwelcome intruders.

With all the technical firepower in the room, I wondered aloud what prevented these minds from figuring out how to collect fees. I even suggested reputable marketers would be willing to pay a small fee in the hopes of ridding the inbox of troublesome, distracting, and unwanted messages, enabling them to build even more powerful relationships with their customers.

Many in the room scoffed that day. So began the trial and error of finding a non-economical solution to the spam problem. Local legislation bred national legislation. Unique technological solutions bore Sender ID and DomainKeys. Spam took its successive lumps. Research confirms spam is now reeling. In a December 2005 report to Congress on CAN-SPAM’s effectiveness, the FTC enthusiastically concluded “consumers are receiving less spam now than they were receiving in 2003.”

Now, after much debate, AOL has announced it will implement Goodmail’s CertifiedEmail solution as a means of authenticating messages. Goodmail will charge accredited companies a fraction of a cent per message to assure delivery to AOL inboxes.

The business case for Goodmail is pretty straightforward. It will be tested in the months ahead. Affix a paid token to your email message, and AOL will assure that message finds its receiver with no rerouting. It’s an express mail service with guaranteed delivery. For marketers who have deliverability difficulties due to issues around IP-address blocking or an inattentive ESP’s poor delivery practices, Goodmail’s solution may be appealing. Marketers already enjoying strong delivery rates through their association with top-tier ESPs, best list-hygiene practices, CAN-SPAM compliance, and so forth may need to experiment and analyze the overall outcome in terms of this incremental charge to their current email sending fees.

Based on my experience with our customers’ ROI (define) metrics, I still believe postal fees (should they truly rid the inbox of unsolicited, unwanted intruders) will have a negligible effect on this channel’s overall business dynamics. The real question is whether affixing postage will generate an incremental benefit to abiding marketers.

Such an analysis is elementary to conduct. First, you must understand your current campaign’s delivery and ROI levels. Then, conduct simple pre- and post-analysis to measure overall lift in performance of pre- and post-postage campaigns.

Will consumers note Goodmail’s certification and zero in on these messages more intently and, as a result, increase open rates? Only time will tell.

We should be mindful that if irrelevant messages carry postage, consumers will view them as spam. Gaining express mail access to an inbox is no guarantee of performance gains. We’ve all opened our postal mailbox to find an avalanche of bulk-posted, irrelevant messages.

It’s better to bear in mind the permission nature of the email channel. Postage or not, focus on delivering messages packed with relevancy, personalization, and value to customers. That way, when a consumer does open the postage-paid express mail package, she’ll find the marketer has done much more than just ensure message delivery; he’s made the experience valuable.

Until next time,

Al D.

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