Email Insiders: Reputation Is Everything

SCOTTSDALE, AZ--As spam continues to aggravate Internet-savvy consumers of all stripes, and Internet service providers (ISPs) grow ever more leery of alienating their customer base, an email marketer's "reputation" is now the chief determinant of whether their emails will get through, a panel of industry leaders agreed on the first day of MediaPost's Email Insider Summit at the Boulders Resort and Golden Door Spa in the highlands of central Arizona. That's a marked shift from simple systems centered on the "authentication" of email marketers' IP addresses--a basic litmus test for establishing accountability that was the new industry's first gold standard.

As attendees eschewed the resort's pristine red rock formations and golf courses for just a few hours, panelists were both businesslike and blunt: "Just authentication isn't enough," warned J.F. Sullivan, vice president of marketing for Habeas, Inc., who compared the old approach to granting driver's licenses, which establish baseline identification but hardly speak to a holder's character. "Jeffrey Dahmer had a driver's license, but he was not a nice person," Sullivan observed. "So you want to know someone's reputation... and you want to make sure that your reputation as a sender of email is good."



It's all the more alarming, then, that "people don't know their real status," according to Richard Gringas, CEO and co-founder of Goodmail Systems. "What surprised us was the number of significant companies who walked in the door who had very different ideas of what their current licensing status was versus reality... Everyone believes they're white-listed at AOL--but we've found that 95 percent of the time that's not true at all."

Gringas' fellow panelists were quick to agree with this assessment. To illustrate the point, Sullivan asked the audience to guess the percentage of email marketers that have adopted the recommended protocol considered to be "best practice" by major ISPs; after guesses ranging from 5 to 50 percent, Sullivan stunned the audience with the actual number: "You're actually looking at less than one percent." Later, Craig Spiezle, director of online safety for Microsoft, confided: "We've seen some major Fortune 100 companies that get blocked because their spam rates go up," despite what they believed were rigorous quality assurance programs.

So what goes into reputation? In the end, it all boils down to one simple thing--whether or not people receiving the emails are annoyed. There was consensus among the panelists that spam identification buttons, in particular, have given power back to the consumers--although individual users may apply them willy-nilly for other purposes, like unsubscribing or complaining about content.

Overall, consumer complaints can usually be traced to three general sources: irrelevance of subject matter, excessive volume of correspondence, and links to less reputable Internet enterprises. On this last subject, especially, many marketers aren't aware just how broadly ISP monitors cast their nets. For example, Spiezle noted that if an email contains a link to a Web site that installs spyware, the sender is far more likely to be blacklisted--and also warned that volume and relevance measures apply even to "respectable" senders: "I don't care if [a recipient] has triple opted-in; if you're abusing that, sending out email three or four times a week that's not relevant, you're lying--that's spam."

Of course, all this raises the question: what is to be done? How can marketers determine their own reputation as email senders? As a matter of fact, the bemused panelists noted, there are already a number of metrics that are widely available. Spiezle noted "there are free services that we have available and AOL has available that you should be looking at on a daily basis," before springing another impromptu poll: "How many of you use Postmaster Tools at MSN to see the junk mail reports that you get?" Out of an audience of almost 100, two audience members raised their hands, prompting Spiezle to remark: "Wow, that's really poor."

Still, broadly speaking, there's hope for email marketing, according to George Bilbrey, general manager of deliverability services for Return Path: "In the end, if you treat your customer right, you'll have a good reputation." And the requirements are pretty simple, he went on: "If you're using authentication and sender ID, and you keep your complaints low and you're not getting spam traffic queries... you'll be okay... Anyone who is using authentication and has developed a good reputation will have their mail delivered."

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