After the FTC Spam Forum, it’s not exactly breaking news spam has nearly everyone online whipped into a frenzy. Consumers, marketers, ISPs, email service providers, infrastructure providers, legislators, the media… all stakeholders in the email channel are up in arms about spam (except for the spammers, of course). If you’ve read any major publication over the past week, you probably feel like you’ve been spammed with stories about spam.
Let’s keep this in perspective. As I mentioned on an FTC forum panel last week, the sky is far from falling. The email channel is producing fantastic results for permission-based marketers. Organizations are migrating a greater percentage of their budget to email efforts. E-mail is going through a natural evolution — for the better.
In an effort to spare you from yet another negative report about how spam flooding inboxes portends the end of email, I’ll focus on opportunities emerging from the delivery environment.
The New Delivery Maze
The billions of spam messages blasted out daily mean significant costs in equipment, bandwidth, and staffing for ISPs, Web-based email providers, corporations, and others. In an effort to manage the onslaught, they identify and block spam with:
- Blacklists/header checks. Lists used by email providers that identify alleged spammers and permission infringers. Providers block all email sent from these addresses. Typically, message headers, including the DNS and IP address, are checked to determine if the sender is on a blacklist. They probe to see if the sender is using an open relay and if the IP address matches the domain name (reverse DNS lookup).
- Whitelists. Usually, internal initiatives conducted by ISPs and Web-based email service providers to evaluate whether a given sender follows best practices for permission-based marketing. “Good” senders are added to the whitelist, and their email messages are delivered to recipients.
- Content-based filters. Anti-spam software that scans subject line and body of email for trigger words, phrases, and techniques that frequently characterize spam.
- Volume-based filters. Software that closely monitor the amount of email sent to ports. An alarm is raised when the volume exceeds certain thresholds from a given sender.
- Customer-controlled features. Features that allow recipients to report email as spam. AOL 8.0, MSN 8.0, and Yahoo, for starters, all include a button/link that enables recipients to file complaints and make personal filters more intelligent.
ISPs and Web-based email service providers typically use a combination of the above, creating a complex delivery path that often hijacks legitimate, permission-based communications. According to a new survey commissioned by Bigfoot Interactive, 38 percent of respondents say they recently did not receive requested email sent by a trusted source: friend, family, or company with which they have a relationship. This is referred to as a “false positive.”
With filter and list options commonplace, permission-based marketers are faced with hurdles for opt-in email delivery. Reputable marketers who follows best practices and respect customer relationships have less trouble delivering email.
In an effort to help marketers like you take action rather than feed into the doom and gloom, here are 10 must-ask questions for your email service bureau or internal tech team if you use a internal email software product or CRM solution:
- Whitelist and ISP relations. If you send high-volume messaging, be in close, frequent contact with all the major ISPs and email account providers. That means a dedicated resource or several people responsible for ISP relations and problem resolution. Each ISP and email account provider operates by different rules and requirements. Some formalize operations in the form of a whitelist. Careful attention will ensure you’re aware of the latest requirements and on the whitelist wherever possible.
Question: Do we have relationships with the major ISPs, and, if they keep a whitelist, are we on it?
- Blacklist monitoring. Does your service bureau or internal team monitor blacklists? Which, and how often? Many ISPs, big and small, subscribe to blacklists. Knowing if you’re blacklisted and how to remove yourself from such lists can profoundly impact delivery rates.
Question: Do we have the resources to monitor the many blacklists out there?
- Opt-in and auditing. Many large organizations are decentralized. This causes enormous problems when a clear opt-in policy for email collection doesn’t exist. E-mail sending is often centralized in IT. Any inconsistencies across divisions potentially impact all company mailings. A proper process and consistent opt-in collection policy is a must, as many ISPs and Web-based email service providers are interested in the permission process.
If you’re building a policy, be up front and clear with permission requests. Send a confirmation, communicate the benefits of beginning an electronic relationship, explain types of email communications the individual will receive. Be proactive about problem resolution, and “stamp” each opt-in with day, time, and source of opt-in permission. Finally, include an opt-out option in every message as well as a link to a preference center where the recipient can update information.
Question: Are we tracking how and when permission is collected, and are our permission practices standard across the organization?
- Hygiene policy. Cleanliness is next to godliness. Data hygiene is vital and starts with collection. Collection policies requiring email addresses to be retyped or confirmed on input help tackle the likelihood of having misspelled addresses. Nonacceptance of invalid domains during data input can be programmed into Web forms and call centers.
If you don’t have such tools available, make every effort to clean up invalid or problem addresses prior to deployment. Suppress problem addresses, such as email@example.com, and role addresses, like firstname.lastname@example.org. Monitor bounces and undeliverables closely. Remove bad addresses from your delivery queue. Repeatedly sending to full or invalid accounts will get you blocked.
Question: What tools do we have at our disposal to conduct data hygiene on an ongoing, real-time basis?
- Properly identified servers. ISPs and email account providers conduct reverse DNS lookups to check sender identity. Spammers often mislabel or forge the identity of their email servers.
Question: Are our servers correctly identified and configured?
- Message/content scoring. Check your content against leading anti-spam filtering software. Pretest the content of your subject lines and body copy prior to sending to avoid spam trigger words that identify you as a spamming suspect.
Question: Are we testing our email content prior to sending so we can prevent any possible problems?
- Mail relay server. Above all, make sure your servers aren’t configured as open relays. Ask if the mail relay server can assure optimal flow control and delivery flexibility. This includes capability to throttle up and down based on the receiving ISP or Web-based email service provider, to configure per server for each domain or across servers in a domain, and to categorize bounce messages for increased intelligence and hygiene processing. The ability to attempt multiple passes for a given mailing when network or ISP problems prevent delivery (and process or suppress failed addresses) is a must.
Question: Does our mail relay server have the flexibility to control the flow of volume depending on the receiving ISP or Web-based email service provider?
- Delivery monitored across major domains. Seed your list with email addresses to check if messages are delivered properly. Implement some sort of automated monitoring reporting that allows you to quickly identify and react to issues. This is critical if you send sensitive communications such as billing statements or other account service notifications that are governed by legislation.
Question: Are we seeding our lists and monitoring campaign delivery?
- Issue logs. Track and document issues. Build a database of delivery issues you encounter so you can learn from each experience.
Question: Do we have a centralized log where we can pool and address delivery issues?
- Consumer education. Help customers help you. Educate them on proper use of anti-spam tools, such as “Report Spam” buttons; many consumers believe they are unsubscribing when they click. Make every effort to communicate clearly to customers. The golden rules of notice, choice, and access still apply. Supply the ability to change preferences, including types and frequency of communications they receive. That builds trust over time. Whenever possible, tell them how they can optimize delivery of your messages in a specific email client (e.g., adding your address to their contacts list). Encourage them to look for and report undelivered mail. Education is an ongoing process. Empower consumers to better understand the current delivery environment and react appropriately… it helps you.
Question: Are we clearly communicating to our customers steps they can take to aid the delivery process?
Send other delivery questions, and I’ll try to cover them in an upcoming column. Interested in helping to establish best practices and impacting proposed federal legislation for email delivery? Consider participating in the Association for Interactive Marketing (AIM), which is currently tackling issues surrounding email delivery.
Until next time,
Meet Al at ClickZ E-Mail Strategies in New York City on May 19 and 20.