Why Is Deliverability Still an Issue for Marketers?

David Daniels’ recent interview with Dave Lewis brought up a point that I’ve heard elsewhere and rings true for people who’ve been working in email for any considerable amount of time. Dave Lewis mentions that back when he started, he didn’t expect that we would still be dealing with deliverability as a major challenge in email marketing.

As I thought about this, I realized that if you’d asked me back in 1998, I, too, would have found it preposterous that by 2011 we’d still be dealing with the same deliverability issues we were back then. I really thought we’d get a handle on this. There would be clear rules that everyone would follow and the problem would essentially cease to exist for all legitimate marketers. Clearly things have not worked out that way.

As I write this I’m preparing to travel to the Messaging Anti-Abuse Working Group (MAAWG) meeting in San Francisco. MAAWG is an industry group focused on the prevention and management of email abuse. It started as a group of mailbox providers, often called Internet service providers (ISPs), but has since grown to include anti-spam technology providers, email service providers (ESPs), and other senders. I find MAAWG a useful reality check and expectation reset. It also helps remind me why deliverability is still an issue for marketers.

The first thing that MAAWG reminds me is of the scale, breadth, and depth of email abuse that mailbox providers are dealing with everyday. The threats online are continually changing and evolving, and it seems the criminals are unceasingly inventive. Unsolicited commercial email is only one facet of the problem. There are many other issues including phishing (attempts to trick recipients into divulging private information), malware (viruses, Trojans, and keyloggers intended to take over and control your computer, and steal your private information), and 419 scams (the famous money transfer scams named after the Nigerian criminal code). Beyond these, email can be involved in almost any form of criminal enterprise that can be imagined, and mailbox providers work independently and with law enforcement on practically all of them.

Marketing email makes up such a small proportion of what mailbox providers are dealing with on a daily basis that it’s a wonder it receives the level of focus that it does. The implementation and support of authentication systems, whitelists, and feedback loops probably constitutes an over-investment on their part, and hopes for more unified standards are at best wishful thinking.

The second thing of which MAAWG reminds me is how fragmented, fractured, and inconsistent the sender community is. We have, as an industry, made significant progress towards defining standards, and many individuals and organizations have worked extremely hard to encourage their adoption. Unfortunately, those standards are far from universally accepted and effectively optional, as there is no enforcement. Legitimate companies regularly engage in behaviors that are, for end recipients, functionally indistinguishable from those of the most egregious spammers.

One might reasonably ask why legitimate companies would do such things. In my experience, the answer lies in the lack of clarity as to which behaviors are acceptable and which are not. Just as spammers are endlessly creative, so are marketers. Companies are continually looking for new ways to use email to reach new and existing audiences. This in turn creates a market for companies offering new and different tools and techniques.

Questions such as what is opt-in, when is list rental or purchase acceptable, what constitutes transactional messaging, etc. become so complex that many marketers get lost. Combine this with an unclear set of standards and the result is a marketplace of companies of all shades, every one of them claiming they’re legitimate. Simply understanding who is doing what is hard enough. Determining how valid a given approach or behavior is in the context of changing social morays and lack of clear, enforceable standards leads to situations where even the most upstanding organizations do things their recipients find disagreeable.

Given that the legal situation is not going to change, mailbox providers are not likely to implement consistent standards, and marketers are going to continue pushing the envelope, I fully expect deliverability to continue to be a challenge for as long as email exists in its current form.

At MAAWG I reconnect with smart people working hard on these challenges. In the end, though, the responsibility will always lie with marketers to make the effort to understand what is appropriate and acceptable and to act accordingly.

Will you be part of the solution or part of the problem?

Until next time,


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