Mailers and ISPs: Can’t We All Just Get Along?

The uneasy relationship between email marketers and ISPs may be improving.

Traditionally, mailers felt ISPs, in their struggle to contain the ever-growing spam epidemic, were too distracted or untrusting to ensure legitimate messages got through to recipients (many mailers, of course, neglected best practices).

ISPs, meanwhile, worried subscribers would flee if there was any perception of consorting with the enemy. Spammer are marketers, after all.

Organizations like the Institute for Spam and Internet Public Policy (ISIPP) and the E-Mail Service Provider Coalition, and conferences including the E-Mail Deliverability Summits arose to bring the sides together.

“At the second email deliverability summit, 20 decision makers from ISPs and 20 from email service providers met. The realization was that they actually had the same goals, and those goals were to deliver mail to people who wanted it, while not delivering mail to people who didn’t want it,” said Anne Mitchell, president of the ISIPP.

“There’s been a change for the better over the last year,” agreed Trevor Hughes, executive director of the ESPC.

Yet the relationship remains complicated.

Consumers don’t necessarily discriminate between legitimate marketers and spammers. ISPs are concerned if word gets out they work with marketers — any marketers — it could lead to churn.

Any information an ISP shares with mailers might be misconstrued as a privacy violation. Those outside the industry may not discern the differences between open rate and delivery rate, or personal versus aggregate data. A director in AOL’s mail operations group who prefers to remain unnamed weighed in.

“That is a concern. It’s always there as a perception issue. The only thing we ever report is aggregate troubleshooting; how much of a mailer’s email do we show that we were able to send yesterday, for example. [The marketer] might ask how many bounces they had that day.”

“We do not provide information on whether users read email or not. We’re extremely sensitive to that. That information is not provided, has never been provided and never will be provided.”

“Over the last year, the relationship between the email marketers and our members has changed,” the AOL director said. “We have always talked to them and shared information. Now, they can see [user] feedback and respond to it,” referring to subscribers who hit the “Report Spam” button.

“The popularity of the ‘Report Spam’ button has helped to drive the improvement in the relationship we have with email marketers,” spokesman Nicholas Graham said in a phone interview. There are certain mailings they [subscribers] love to receive, and some they don’t. Marketers have learned the difference primarily by the feedback loop.”

The difference between spammers and legitimate marketers, “has grown and become night and day,” according to the AOL mail operations director. “The way we measure is complaints per million emails. A legitimate emailer may have a few thousand complaints per million.” A spammer has many more.

A Yahoo spokesperson says if a legitimate marketer sends valuable, relevant information, Yahoo Mail will work to deliver the message to the appropriate folder. The company provides guidelines for marketers: send content people want; email to people who want it; honor opt-out and the scope and frequency of the list; keep lists clean and eschew spam delivery techniques.

Maintaining lines of communication between ISPs and marketers can only be positive, says the NAI’s Hughes.

“Subscribers should be thankful that ISPs are engaging with senders to make sure the messages they want get into their inboxes and the message they don’t want will not,” he said. “The average subscriber might not know the dynamics, but they would expect that the ISPs would be talking to the good guys to get mail in the inbox and the bad guys to make sure it doesn’t.”

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