Marketers Say AOL Floats E-Mail Report

America Online is said to be quietly floating the idea of a premium report service that would let bulk senders know whether and why email did or didn’t make it to users’ inboxes, according to several email marketing players.

Officials from the giant ISP wouldn’t comment before this story was originally published, but subsequently categorically denied the company is considering such a service. “This idea was never floated or proposed or ever even seriously considered by AOL,” said spokesperson Nicholas Graham in an email message. Graham stressed only the existing AOL Postmaster Team will continue to offer technical assistance and support to bulk emailers.

Getting through to AOL members has long been one of email marketers’ biggest frustrations. It’s not a problem that can easily be ignored, either, considering the online service had 24.3 million members at the end of 2003. AOL officials say its aggressive efforts to fight spam lead it to block up to 80 percent of incoming mail.

“A year ago, we couldn’t even find the right person to talk to if we were blocked,” noted Quinn Jalli, director of ISP relations at email marketing firm Digital Impact. “It wasn’t easy, let me tell you.”

The rumored new service, at least some parts of which are currently unofficially made available to major email marketers known to AOL, would give statistical information to marketers such as mail that was or was not delivered and the reasons why.

“AOL is considering a premium service, now purely in the beta stage,” said Jalli. “Legitimate marketers who are known quantities to AOL would be able to pay to get status reports,” Jalli said. “The reports give raw statistical data.

“They’re opening their records,” Jalli said. “This is something legitimate marketers would embrace because it lets us see the workings of AOL.”

“I know they [AOL] are talking about premium services and some of them are built around a report mechanism,” said David Lewis, VP of deliverability management and ISP relations with Digital Impact. “They are exploring whether or not they can charge for some of these things.”

“There definitely are premium services being considered that would involve reports as to whether email is delivered and why or why not, but other services might be involved and not all of the services would be for pay,” said Lewis.

“AOL has an unofficial premier system for large volume emailers,” said Bill Nussey, CEO of email marketing firm Silverpop. “If you are of a certain volume they make people available to you and explain to you how their systems work.”

Digital Impact’s Lewis said he believes the premier service under consideration “might just be formalizing the type of information some of us [providers] have been given in the past.”

“There are a number of initiatives under consideration we’re been pressing for for some time and one of them is to provide some form of notice around delivery of mail,” Lewis noted.

As to the fee aspect, “if they’re talking about whether it reached a specific place within the inbox, that’s a valuable service,” Lewis said.

In the past, as Jalli noted, it has been difficult for such firms to work with AOL to solve problems such as erroneous blocking of legitimate messages.

But now, some marketers say AOL has adopted a new approach, becoming more responsive and more aggressively helping marketers get on its whitelist — a list of qualified mailers whose emails are not subject to blocking.

According to Jalli, “their [AOL’s] attitude seems to have changed.”

“I believe AOL is trying to be responsive to legitimate marketers and they are trying to engage us in discussion as to how they can improve their communication, which is to be applauded,” Lewis said. Digital Impact has been talking with AOL for more than a year about ways to deal with spam.

Lewis also pointed out that communication problems have been ongoing not only with AOL but other ISPs, such as MSN, as well.

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