Unlike earlier generations of so-called spam filters, the new anti-spam systems automatically sort email messages after forcing senders to respond to a challenge message before allowing their message to pass through to a user's inbox. The technology, which is rapidly growing in popularity among consumers, could dramatically alter the playing field of commercial email marketing, prompting marketers to reevaluate the kind of dialogue they have with consumers.
According to a study released today by the Tolly Group, one such system, Mailblocks' "Challenge/ Response" (C/R), is emerging as a key player in a rapidly growing field of alternatives to conventional spam filters. The study compares Mailblocks' system to other industry standard filtering technologies and, as the study was commissioned by Mailblocks, the findings went rather predictably in favor of Challenge/Response technology.
Among other things, the research found that Mailblocks' C/R version 2.0 was the only anti-spam offering that blocked all spam messages without adversely affecting legitimate email messages. Other anti-spam solutions varied widely in their effectiveness of either blocking spam or letting legitimate email messages through; filtering products failed to block from 25%-80% of spam.
In a way, these results are not all that surprising, particularly because Mailblocks Challenge/Response is not really a filtering system, but part of a new generation of sophisticated email sorting program that are changing email marketing into much more of an interrogative process between senders and receivers of commercial email pitches.
In fact, Mailblocks' users actually receive all of their incoming email, but the program sorts and stores each message into a specified folder. The actual inboxes remain hypersensitive to foreign senders. As such, Mailblocks is more of a multi-faceted sorting system that filters out old, unauthenticated messages after a period of time determined by the user.
Because a system like this requires senders to respond to a challenge it could lead to more administration and higher costs for email marketers. Among other things it requires a human to oversee the mailing process because computer systems cannot respond to a C/R message.
While this could prove to be a problem for some marketers, surprisingly, marketing executives contacted by the MediaDailyNews don't seem to be worried about it. Rather, they're as eager as everyone else in the industry to find a suitable solution to the controversy surround email marketing and spam.
"I completely understand why [programs like these] are coming out," said Brad Aronson, president of i-Frontier. "It's best for consumers-a lot like the recent Do-Not-Call Registry. I'd rather see software like this out there because spammers are always going to find a way around a spam-filter."
Michael Mayor, president and CEO of NetCreations, echoed this view. "It's already a huge part of our business. The amount of challenges we get in a day is probably in the thousands. It's a significant task to undertake but we're happy to do it so that we know our mail is getting through." He added that even though this adds to cost and prolongs delivery time, "if you're trying to reach someone via email, that email should absolutely be overseen by a live person."
Still, the effectiveness of such email sorting systems are contingent upon how users manage them. For example, if a user does not create a separate "tracker" folder for incoming messages that users know are being sent from computer systems (such as confirmation numbers and shopping receipts), or they don't refer to their "pending response" folder (where unsolicited email awaits a C/R reply), these messages will automatically be deleted after a designated time. Such a system requires users to closely manage their email.
Also, as foolproof as the systems seems, a potential loophole could hamper its effectiveness at sorting email. Mailblocks has already disclosed special headers marketers can use in order to bypass receiving a challenge message. If legitimate email marketers can gain access to these headers and use them to their advantage, then it would seem spammers ultimately might as well. After all, sniffing out loopholes is something spammers seem to be pretty good at.
"With headers, there are two issues: Will it work? And for how long?" says Mayor. "This is definitely an issue that will need closer review."
And while Mailblock's C/R system looks to be a promising solution to the spam debate, at least one observer believes time will tell. Noted i-Frontier's s Aronson, "Whatever anti-spamming solution works best will translate to the big ISPs. They're working extremely hard on trying to find something universal. So whatever they pick up will become the industry standard."