Make the Most of a Good Reputation

Maintaining a good working relationship with ISPs is essential to improving your e-mail delivery. One or two wrong moves, and an ISP representing a big chunk of your recipients could cut you off completely.

You can enhance that relationship two ways:

  • Authenticate yourself to prove you are who you claim to be and you have the right to send e-mail from the domain or Internet address you cite. (For more on this technical step, see my previous column.)

  • Improve your sender reputation by following best practices in permission e-mail marketing, so an ISP can recognize instantly you’re one of the good guys, not a spammer.

This isn’t an either/or situation. You serve your e-mail program best when you pursue both methods to prove yourself a genuine, reputable marketer whose messages deserve to be accepted by the receiving ISP and routed to the correct mailboxes of your recipients.

Authentication vs. Reputation

Although both methods enhance your standing with ISPs and your recipients, they differ significantly. Authentication is a process over which you have direct control. You choose which ISPs to authenticate yourself with and install the code required or provided by the ISP.

Reputation, on the other hand, evolves from the way you conduct your e-mail business. Even upstanding, legitimate businesses can develop bad reputations if they fail to follow good e-mail practices. You control it only by the extent you employ e-mail best practices, such as:

  • Add names to your database only with permission, and remove them promptly when requested to do so.

  • Remove bounced or obsolete addresses quickly from your database. Sending repeatedly to bad addresses is a spammer signal to many ISPs.
  • Participate in feedback loops with ISPs that offer them and resolve spam complaints quickly.
  • Track your IP address on major blacklists, and document all efforts to resolve blocks.
  • Earn certifications or assurances from third-party reputation services that ISPs consult when deciding whether to accept, block, or filter your e-mail.

How to Evaluate Third-Party Services

Another difference between authentication and reputation is authentication is easier to achieve. You just need a database person who knows how to install the code. Reputation is trickier, because it involves variables beyond your immediate control.

This has led to a growth in third-party reputation services. Although the major services vary in how they approach reputation assurance, all will examine your e-mail program in detail and either certify or verify you as a reputable sender to ISPs that have agreed to use their reports when deciding whether to deliver, block, or filter your e-mail.

When you contract with a reputation service provider, expect to go through a rigorous audit of your e-mail practices. The audit likely will turn up problems and weak spots to correct, along with recommendations for correcting them. The service should also help you resolve block listing issues.

The three major services available are Habeas, Sender Score Certified (formerly Bonded Sender), and Goodmail. All three will audit your program, highlight weaknesses, and help you correct problems. However, each one has a key relationship with different ISPs and e-mail receiver systems. Those relationship could help you decide which service to choose if you’re in the market:

  • Habeas maintains a DNS-based safe list of reputable senders (the opposite of a block list). SpamAssassin is its largest key relationship and provides up to a -8 in content scoring to help marketers get e-mail delivered to recipients’ inboxes. This relationship provides the greatest lift to business-to-business clients. Habeas also sets up feedback loops and whitelisting services at the major ISPs and will work with major block list operators to resolve block listings against their clients.

  • Goodmail has a key relationship with AOL, the first major e-mail provider to come on board earlier this year. E-mail senders who want to boost their chances of getting delivered correctly to members’ mailboxes with fully rendered HTML have to pass Goodmail’s standards and pay a per-message fee. Goodmail also is expected to bring in Yahoo for delivery of transaction messages only.
  • Sender Score Certified (SSC) has a key relationship with Hotmail. Messages with an SSC code are recognized and passed through Hotmail’s network of filters.

To figure out which service offers the greatest advantage, look at your delivery reports to discover where you’re having the greatest delivery difficulty. For example, you find 60 percent of your e-mail into AOL is being blocked completely, not merely filtered. You’ll want to contract with a service closely aligned with the AOL system.

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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