Hotmail's Battle Against Gray Mail: Boon Or Bane For Marketers?

Hotmail has been releasing new features to combat gray mail over the past year that have left marketers wondering if they’ll have an even harder time reaching the inbox. The good news is, the changes may actually be beneficial to senders and some will actually see their sending reputations improve. The bad news is, some senders may actually see response levels drop as subscribers tune out, filter, or block more email.

Microsoft claims that over 75% of subscribers report legitimate email that they’ve actually opted into as spam -- which dovetails with MarketingSherpa’s findings that 47% of subscribers specifically use the spam button as a way to unsubscribe from email. Given that, it’s no wonder that Hotmail decided to take action. Spam complaints are counted against a company’s reputation and are used to determine whether or not to send future messages to the junk folder, so when recipients use the spam button because they are tired of getting a certain type of message or because they want to unsubscribe without any hassle, the result can false positives. This isn’t fair to marketers, nor is it fair to other subscribers who actually want to receive those emails.



Three new Hotmail features aim to reduce these false positives: 

One-click unsubscribe.  If a subscriber clicks on a trusted unsubscribe link within the Hotmail interface, Hotmail will use the list-unsubscribe header to determine where to send the unsubscribe request. If that header isn’t present or isn’t working, Hotmail will quietly place the email from that sender in the junk folder for that recipient going forward.

Auto-expire or archive.  These new Sweep features allow subscribers to automatically delete or archive messages from a sender after a given time frame, like automatically deleting all old emails from a daily deal site when new ones arrive in the inbox.

Folder Management.  Last but not least, better folder management means that subscribers can choose to have messages delivered to folders besides the inbox, including the nested folders.

The good news is that these changes can actually work in a marketer’s favor. If subscribers start to use the unsubscribe button as opposed to the spam button, we could see complaint rates for marketers decrease substantially, especially if we believe the Sherpa stat that nearly half use the spam button to opt out. The auto-delete and archive features of Sweep will also mean that subscribers can’t report multiple emails as spam, and they will be less annoyed, dinvr future messages won’t reach the inbox. By giving their users more control over how to handle their inbox, Hotmail hopes to cut down on the false positive rates of gray mail. As a result, marketers should see their reputations and inbox placement rates improve.

The bad news is that if these practices are widely adopted by Hotmail users, marketers could have a harder time reaching their subscribers.  I believe giving subscribers an easy way for to opt out, like with the one-click unsubscribe, is a good thing for everyone.  Automatic unsubscribe gives a clearer signal of “this is something that I don’t want anymore” vs. “this is spam” to receivers. However, features like Sweep can mean your email is permanently moved from view of the subscriber and no amount of win-back campaigns can change that, since subscribers simply won’t see your messages to re-engage. Even if subscribers are moving your email to a different folder, they may simply check your emails less often.

There are three things I recommend to have these features work in your favor:

1.   Add the list-unsubscribe header to your emails. While you can use either a link or a URL, a link to your preference center page means you can give preferences on frequency and mailing type so your subscribers have the chance to opt down instead of out.

2.  Data is still key. Arming yourself with inbox placement rates and subscriber-level data can drive more effective messaging and strategy. There’s no need to change your practices if you don’t have a problem. On the other hand, sitting still while problems compound can make it harder to course-correct in the future.

3.  Look for other ways to reach your subscribers. Marketers may use transactional messages more to reach their subscribers. Just make sure you stay within CAN-SPAM’s limits.

What’s your take?  Is this a good or bad thing for your email marketing program?

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