The truth, at least based on the many conversations I've had with the guys working on the ground at the world's top ISPs, is that they are most certainly not trying to punish email marketers. You, the beleaguered marketer just trying to do your best, are only minimally on their radar screen.
Think about it from their perspective. The amount of email they must process in any given day is staggering. Their servers groan under the weight of it all. And the vast, vast majority of that email traffic is AWFUL.
I don't mean awful in the way those of us inside the email community think of awful email. We all deplore "batch and blast" promotions with no value to the subscriber. But that's nothing compared with what ISPs are dealing with. I'm talking about botnets sending pharma spam, phishing scams, and messages aimed at driving visits to Web sites that will discreetly insert malware on their machines. That's what keeps these guys up at night.
Of course the system ISPs have historically used to deal with this problem is to block the bad: figure out which email is bad and keep it from getting in the door. This made sense and sort of worked. It certainly cut way down on scams, and most commercial inboxes are largely free of spam. But it's costly and has led to an arms race with spammers that makes it even costlier every year.
With well over 80% of messages being awful, is it possible that the paradigm could change? Could ISPs start spending more time and effort identifying good message streams and start to largely block the rest? Will they provide more functionality for known good senders?
Three pieces of news from Gmail last month add support to this view of the future. First, the company announced it would be adding a key icon to authenticated email from PayPal and eBay because those companies are known to authenticate all their mail and are often phished. Gmail simply blocks unauthenticated messages at the gateway and provides the key icon as a trust mark. Since PayPal and eBay are two of the most-often phished, this is an important security feature for consumers.
Of course, phishing has gone way beyond those two companies, so to call this a partial solution is a huge understatement. But I think it shows a commitment to recognizing and delivering good email -- with the side benefit of being able to worry a lot less about bad email. It will be interesting to see how programs like this play out in the future at Google and other large mailbox providers.
Second, Gmail has added a "trusted unsubscribe" link in addition to the "report spam" button for mailers that use the list-unsubscribe header, are authenticating their mail and have an excellent reputation. When a user hits the unsubscribe link, a complaint message will be sent to a specified address. This is the closest Google has come to offering a feedback loop for complaints. While it's always preferable, from the marketer's point of view, for subscribers to use the unsubscribe functionality within the message, this type of unsubscribe button can ultimately lead to lower complaint rates. This, in turn, helps email from those companies be more easily identified as good.
And finally, Gmail announced that it would be automatically turning on images for "contacts." For marketers, this means that if your email is authenticated and your customer has sent you at least two messages, then your images are on by default. I think this rewards two pieces of great behavior by senders: authentication and engagement. (If you are still telling your email subscribers not to reply to your email, perhaps you finally want to rethink that strategy?)
The impact of these changes is that mailers who authenticate and have good reputations get better treatment. And more of the really, really bad stuff is blocked at the gateway.
Ultimately, it's the consumer who will win. They will get the email they really want without having to wade through a bunch of junk or fear that the email might harm them.