Deliverability Update: Authentication Gaining Momentum

The recent Authentication and Online Trust Alliance Summit in Boston clearly showed authentication is an integral tool in the fight against spam and e-mail fraud — and is being widely adopted by senders and receivers alike.

If you haven’t yet taken steps to authenticate your e-mail, you’re falling behind peers and competitors in the vital effort to get legitimate e-mail into recipients’ inboxes.

The summit also made clear authentication alone is meaningless unless receivers can trust senders are properly configured and the service is correctly used. Microsoft reported many of the SPF records checked still fail due to simple errors.

Marketers must stay on top of the process, making sure it’s correct at the start and continues to work as e-mail programs grow and evolve. It’s also important to ensure the IT department understands the types of authentication used and its effect on delivery to major ISPs.

Authentication Alone Isn’t Enough

You must have a solid sender reputation. To borrow the analogy used at the conference: “Think of authentication as your driver’s license and reputation as your driver’s record.” The ISP may know who you are, but if your driving record stinks because of arrests or fines, the delivery cops won’t allow your e-mail into the inbox.

At the summit, Microsoft reported its SenderID/SPF authentication protocol is widely used; 43 percent of incoming e-mail employs authentication, representing almost 9 million senders’ domains. This gives authentication enough critical mass to become more successful in separating legitimate e-mail from spam and fraud.

But just inserting the code into a sender record, as required by either Sender ID/SPF or DomainKeys, the two major authentication protocols, doesn’t guarantee success. Many senders who have adopted authentication will still see their e-mail rejected or shunted to the junk folder because simple errors cause the records to fail inspection.

I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to make sure records are updated and correct. The most common errors that prevent you from taking full advantage of authentication include simple syntax problems (the way the code’s written), and listing an incorrect IP address as the one from which the e-mail is being sent.

Senders may set up records one time and fail to update them if they add new mail servers or change their hosted e-mail service providers or IP addresses. If you fail to monitor authentication records regularly to ensure they’re valid, you won’t receive any benefit from using them. Worse, you could be mistaken for spam.

Yes, It Is Your Job!

Another hot topic among summit attendees: Who’s responsible for the SPF record? Is it the marketing department, which creates and deploys the messages, or the IT people who handle the back-end mechanics? Several marketers said IT didn’t understand the need or effect of proper authentication, didn’t know how to implement it, or implemented an incomplete or wrong record.

If your partners in IT don’t know or understand the process, Microsoft offers a free wizard to help them create the record.

As marketers, we understand the need to test the creative parts of the e-mail message — the images, copy, offers, even the links — to weed out what doesn’t work. We need to be equally vigilant in patrolling the authentication records as set up by IT, and not assume they did them right, or the records can withstand changes over the years.

A host of free tools can help you stay on top of authentication, including DNSstuff and MXToolbox. The Email Sender and Provider Coalition also provides a free tool to help you quickly check your sender ID compliance.

Reputation Matters, Too

The drivers-license analogy used earlier explains the connection between authentication and reputation. ISPs use reputation to determine not only the legitimacy of incoming mail, but also whether it’s wanted by and relevant to recipients. E-mail delivery statistics will get a lift with authentication, but the full benefit is delivered only when a good reputation backs you up.

In several case studies, Microsoft showed how it uses reputation data to supersede or override content filters that could block or filter messages. Mail that scored poorly for content actually got routed to the inbox because the sender’s reputation score was more heavily weighted than the content score.

Conversely, a whistle-clean e-mail message can get stopped cold or filtered if it comes from a sender with a poor reputation score.

Authentication isn’t the end of the line for marketers who want to get their e-mail delivered correctly. It’s only the first step in managing their reputation. The heavy lifting is managing your reputation to ensure you’re seen as a sender of wanted and relevant e-mail.

Because authentication is tied to your domain, if you change your records, your reputation goes with you. If your records aren’t correct, your good reputation is lost.

Authentication and reputation work hand in hand to optimize inbox delivery.

Until next time, keep on deliverin’!

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

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