Hotmail Takes Live Branding, Cleaner Interface

Microsoft has begun its global user migration from MSN Hotmail to Windows Live Hotmail. The new Web-based e-mail solution introduced last week has built-in advertising opportunities and leans more toward sender reputation than content filtering to deliver marketer messages and pull spam from inboxes.

The new UI includes cleaned-up ad elements. Each page features a standard UAP ad unit. Sponsored links and clutter have been stripped out, an element Microsoft arrived at through an extensive beta period.

“For an advertiser, what we did was to run a pilot with the advertiser and see what kind of brand lift they could experience,” said Paul Major, director of Windows Live Hotmail at Microsoft.

Ad placements that ran during a trial period include campaigns from Jeep, Cingular, and NBC. Each was run individually, which is the preferred format for the new e-mail client.

“Instead of having a share of voice, advertisers take over big, large elements,” said Major. “It offers a cleaner experience and gives brand advertisers opportunity to own the message and do takeovers…it drives the needle on the metrics they care about.”

Brand messages appear “inches away from where e-mail conversations are happening,” said Major. The placement presents contextual opportunities. Microsoft research shows 78 percent of users discuss social arrangements in e-mail; 66 percent of women discuss health and medicine; 72 percent of users discuss travel; and 75 percent of men talk about buying electronics and gadgets.

Takeovers of media can be bought for a particular day, part of the day, and more finite targeting. For example, a bank in Brazil bought localized media during the evenings between 6 p.m. and 9 p.m. to match its demographic’s usage habits.

Messages delivered by e-mail are under the scrutiny of Sender ID. E-mail service provider (ESP) Responsys noted Microsoft has begun placing a higher priority on reputation than content filtering, though both e-mail characteristics play a strong role in deliverability to Hotmail inboxes. Two existing tacticts, “SmartScreen,” and a partnership with BrightMail, now take a back seat to Sender ID, according to the ESP.

“[Microsoft] used to heavily rely on these two technologies to figure out whether messages are spam, now they are looking at e-mail reputation,” said Kirill Popov, senior manager of ISP relations and deliverability at Responsys.

One issue ESPs, and therefore marketers, are finding with the reliance on Sender ID is the practice of throttling e-mail sent to Hotmail users. Marketers are advised to limit the number of messages sent until a reputation is established. Guidelines are available to ESPs and e-mail marketers at Microsoft.com/postmaster.

“Content filtering has been used worldwide for the last dozen or so years. Challenges in the threat landscape are changed,” Craig Spiezle, director of industry relations and business strategy at Microsoft’s Technology Care and Safety Group told ClickZ News.

While content filtering continues to play a role, the shift toward reputation means most follow Sender ID and other authentication guidelines in order to maintain deliverability.

“An e-mail marketer with a good reputation has realized an 85 percent enhancement over comparable marketers who are not authenticating,” said Spiezle. “By us adding reputation data on top of it, we are able to reduce false positives by 85 percent and improve the experience for marketers and users.”

Windows Live Hotmail includes an “unsubscribe” button, which helps marketers maintain a positive reputation. In the past newsletters no longer deemed desirable were often marked as spam by users. A spam label, in turn, downgrades a marketer’s reputation and affects deliverability.

“We actually introduced the unsubscribe functionality,” said Spiezle. “It appears in the interface, users see unsubscribe for known and trusted e-mails, it directs [users] to a Web page and allows them to unsubscribe. It provides marketers with better information.”

A tool developed for ESPs and e-mail marketers is SNDS, smart network data systems, which allows senders to understand mail coming through the network. “It shows complaints, bounced messages, and gives an idea of how spam filters are treating your e-mail,” said Popov. SNDS offers senders a rating from green to red, depending on the current reputation.

Before opening Windows Live Hotmail, Microsoft conducted an extensive open beta to test the UI, filtering, and ad placements within the Web-based e-mail program. Approximately 20 million signed up during the open beta. The remaining users will be given the option to initiate a migration from MSN to Live Hotmail though the summer and into the fall, at which time Microsoft will manually move any hold-outs. Users can access the informational site discoverhotmail.com to learn more about enhancements to the UI and how to make the change.

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