Sustainable email sending programs in an inherently hostile environment now require great care and planning. Before considering technical complexities and marketing tactics, email senders must adopt this basic paradigm shift.
The five guidelines included in this series should become watchwords for ezine emailers as they incur the risk and responsibility of sending newsletters or any other repetitive type of email.
Part 1 of 5: Treat Email as a True Risk and Cost Center
Part 2 of 5: Avoid Collateral Damage
Part 3 of 5: Use the Available (Legitimate) Tools and Tactics (M2M)
Part 4 of 5: Build Strong Relationships (H2H)
Part 5 of 5: Continuously Evaluate
Part 4 of 5
Build Strong Relationships (H2H)
to keep your communications channels open
The term “relationship” in this series refers to human-based interactions (H2H) that influence email and its delivery. This human side of the email process is essential. It also highlights several difficult facts about the email sending environment encountered today:
- the rules that define and drive the anti-Spam agenda are imprecise and vague, and thus are more suited for human interpretation and execution than machine
- the basis for detecting and blocking Spam used by systems today (e. g. the phenomenology of the message format and sending pattern) is unrelated to the definition of Spam as commonly used online and as use in law (permission status of the email) – human intervention is often required to reconcile this discrepancy
- the automated systems at work in this space display a low level of sophistication and operation – they are expected to make significant mistakes and are usually designed to be corrected or overridden by human actions
- your own ISP or NSP
- major recipient ISPs - where the majority of addresses on your list reside
- the hundreds or thousands of smaller local or corporate networks and ISPs on your list
- Email Service Providers that you use for portions or all of your sending
- email regulatory agencies, industry associations and groups, and self-appointed watchdogs
The old market balance of buyer and seller, service and price, has been disrupted in today’s ISP and NSP space. In the past, service providers would compete for your business; offer pricing advantages and service guarantees – and spend a lot of time and effort to get your attention. This is still true today, but with a twist.
Now, receipt of even a very small percentage of email complaints by your ISP/NSP, either directly from recipients or from third-party services, can cause your Internet service to be terminated. The decision to terminate is not made by the same people that expended all that effort to get you as a client, nor by those with financial reporting responsibility to the ISP’s shareholders. Look instead to a newly empowered group – often designated “abuse administrators”.
The current importance of abuse administrators, and their extraordinary authority to terminate accounts, stems largely from the actions of a small group of third-party anti-Spam activists. The threat of reputation damage and “collateral damage" (indiscriminant IP address blocking), have pushed abuse administrators to the forefront of ISP policy. Thus, while you pay your ISP to work for you, one portion of the organization autonomously works toward the elimination of traffic that is alleged to be Spam. If that happens to be your email traffic, for whatever reason, you have a problem.
The defensive, and potentially adversarial relationship with your ISP/NSP that this structure imposes has two basic consequences:
1) Your relationship with your own ISP/NSP should be pushed to the front of your list of business concerns, with an active program of communications in place. Your bandwidth sources have moved beyond being a simple infrastructure “cost of doing business”, into the area of risk and service management.
2) Distribution of sourcing (and therefore risk) is key. Single source ISP/NSP relationships might look cost effective and easier to manage, but they leave open the possibility of unexpected service problems without the ready ability to react quickly to problems.
In the final analysis it must be remembered that ISPs are NOT public utilities, and that the regulatory and policy boundaries expected from critical infrastructure suppliers do not apply to their services. Service access risk management, and the investment of time in building a strong relationship with these suppliers should be a basic part of every email sending program.
Relationships with major recipient ISPs
This is what Email Service Providers (ESPs) typically call “ISP relations”. The most important function of an ISP relations program is to avoid a termination of sending privileges to one of the major recipient ISPs (i. e. AOL, Hotmail, Yahoo, etc).
Virtually all ESPs offer some version of ISP relations as a feature of their service. This feature is implicit in their own efforts to sustain their own sending channels in the face of potential blow-back from the actions of any of their clients. Given their enforced experience, many ESPs are good at this job. Publishers that send a significant amount of email also typically have a version of this program in-house, often initiated when they find themselves blocked from sending to one of their large recipient ISPs.
"ISP relationships" means something very different, and something very specific, at each of the large recipient ISPs. Broadly, the requirements for a working ISP relations program are to:
- Knowing what channels and recourse each ISP provides for commercial email senders
- Generating the best sustainable outcomes possible from those channels
- Continuously broadcasting the fact that your company is one of the “good guys”
- Persuading clients (at ESPs) or management (in-house) that this program actually has a positive impact on email delivery
- While some ISPs are very open and helpful in defining how commercial senders must behave within their systems (such as AOL), others are intensely secretive, and provide effectively no data that would help senders adapt or adjust their email practices.
- Spam control groups at the major ISP can’t know whether your mailing list is 100% permission-based or not. The metric of choice today at major ISPs is the ratio of complaints over the volume of email processed. If your sends exceed a (typically) pre-set threshold of complaints (often determined over a pre-set period of time) then you are simply not one of the “good guys”, whatever you say.
- An increased level of complaints can come from any of a legion of issues with your list, your message creative or formatting, or from tagalong elements to your mailing (such as an outside advertiser, or a controversial topic in a newsletter, or even just an unfavorable story in the outside news media). The ISP relations function often must include the ability to discover why changes in complaint levels occurred, and to provide assurances to each major ISP that they won’t happen again. In the complex world of the Internet this can be a very difficult process indeed.
- In many organizations, the ISP relations manager does not have an effective influence over the content of email sends, or even list management practices. This means that these managers often inherit problems that they cannot actually fix without the active cooperation of marketing or IT managers.
- It is also under-appreciated that virtually all of the blocking/filtering systems at the major ISP are hybrid, with a portion that is under human control, and a portion that is operated algorithmically. Even with a sustained basic sending relationship, there are several essentially automatic factors that recipient ISP administrators do not directly control that can drive down actual in-box delivery. These are also typically outside the reach of an ISP relations program. Even completely independent actions by the recipient ISPs themselves (such as the introduction of the “report this as Spam” button, or where it is placed on the page) can dramatically impact the outcomes for many email senders.
The biggest ISP relations challenge for many ezines and newsletters is coming up with the time and resources needed to maintain an adequate program of this type. This is one of the strongest non-technical arguments that can be made for using an outside ESP program. Also see the Email PhD “ISP Relations " section for additional information.
Relationships with the smaller local or corporate networks and ISPs on your list
Relationship programs at smaller ISPs is an even more challenging problem. Unfortunately, it is a process that inherently absorbs increasing resources for decreasing benefit. Out of necessity, the approach most publishers take is to:
- array their list by recipient domain
- sort by number of addresses from largest to smallest domain
- set a cut-off point at some defined percentage of their list to be covered under direct ISP relations
- leave the rest of the list to the effectiveness of their M2M solutions and (frankly) random chance
B2B lists are typically more problematic in that they can have a very “flat” distribution, so the number of domains and contacts to be covered can be prohibitively large.
The most common solution to the “few addresses per domain” problem is to take a classical “exceptions" approach to management. The sender primarily relies on technical sending strategies for their delivery, and uses some form of enhanced reporting (typically server level data) to identify problem domains. These domains can then be identified and treated as exceptions. The ISP relations manager is thus looking for problems to solve rather than trying to build continuing high maintenance relationships with these smaller ISPs.
The ability to effectively take this approach resides largely in the communications and reporting capabilities of the sending system used, and in the data capture procedures set up by the ISP relations manager. Without having good capabilities within this area, a significant portion of most lists will be subject to a variable and unpredictable delivery profile.
Relationships with Email Service Providers
Managers may again be surprised to find that traditional market forces are disrupted in this seemingly basic relationship. You hire an ESP to deliver and track your email. You pay them to do this (sometimes a lot!). It is a highly competitive market, so the ESPs appear to really want your business (and if you ask them they will confirm this). Then one day they show up and say that they can no longer accept your email.
The reason this happens is (unfortunately) obvious. ESPs, because of their position in the sending/delivery chain have become the natural settling point for many of the worst problems in an admittedly troubled industry. Because of this they have also necessarily become good at solving problems, or as the case may be, at cutting their losses. This may mean eliminating accounts that threaten their continued operation.
To get a good quality ESP to take on many of the organizational, technical, and political problems of sending your email now often requires a strange role reversal. In this new paradigm your company is the seller; selling its policies, protections, and its responsiveness to the ESP. That is because to a meaningful degree the ESP is going to inherit everything that is wrong with you content, your list, or your sending strategy. And they do so for each client that they accept. If they don’t manage this process very carefully, they can be shut down (or worse, face a creeping decay in effectiveness) for all their clients.
Because ESPs are so accessible and visible (unlike the “hidden” Spammer population) they generally take a very disproportionate share of the blame for the mail-box flooding problem. They are subject to blocking and shutdown of their own and their client’s email and Internet access, potentially on the basis of a single instance of only one of their client’s sends.
Some ESPs know a lot about how to get mail delivered while staying out of trouble. Others don’t. Always investigate an ESP's basic approach and strategy for delivery. If you find an ESP with the expertise and skills necessary to handle your email delivery requirements, then you can expect to be required to be responsive and helpful in resolving problems that occur because of your account. Your ESP generally will be very good at defining what information they need, what policies you need to institute, and what channels of communication you need to maintain to keep the relationship productive and effective.
Relationships with email regulatory agencies, industry associations and groups, and self-appointed watchdogs
This may be the subtlest of the relationship categories, where each publisher needs to craft a unique strategy to fit its own circumstances. Options here generally follow the old bureaucratic dictum that you either want to be on the inside, or so far outside as to be off the radar screen altogether.
Some large ESPs, for example, have opted to be on the inside; presenting themselves as major Spam fighters. Wherever that has been resisted by the self-appointed Spam-policing community they have created a new inside (or organization) to make their position known. Many of the largest companies and ESPs have also rushed to become certified “good guys” through the use of reputation services, but this trend has moderated somewhat due to what can conservatively be called “complex” political and practical considerations. Generally there remains a vast gulf of differences between the definitions, goals, and objectives of the different power blocks within the anti-Spam political space.
The rules and requirements for compliance have become much clearer with the passage of broad legislation in many national jurisdictions. In the US this legislation sets standards that attentive companies can, in most cases, readily achieve. By far the most significant regulatory agency in the US for email senders is the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), and excellent guidance for senders can be gotten from their Web site.
It is important for publishers to realize that the laws governing email in different countries vary significantly from those in the US, and that a compliance review should be undertaken before sending any commercial email that lands outside the US.
Also see the Email PhD “Compliance " section for additional information.
Industry groups and associations:
These advocates tend to promote standards and ideals that are sourced from industry, which in this environment usually means the anti-Spam software companies, the ESPs, or the large recipient ISPs. Often the standards for being a “member in good standing” have little to do with regulatory compliance. Usually, it has more to do with either supporting a particular commercial agenda, or behaving in a way that makes sorting, filtering, and blocking email easier to accomplish.
Memberships within this level of organization also tend to be relatively expensive, but (again) because of the lack of consensus even within commercial elements, these memberships often do not carry much demonstrable practical benefit (for example, membership in a major email industry association does not inherently confer a broad spectrum increase in email delivery success), so cost/benefit should be carefully analyzed.
Following the lead of many regulators and most of the major commercial interests online, publishers using email for digital communications are virtually always best advised to keep their distance from this community.
From anonymous blacklists to vigilante style citizen action cybergroups, these types of organizations represent an enormous range of diverse views about the ”proper” use of the Internet, including, significantly, the types of individual actions and enforcement appropriate within a largely unregulated “commons”.
This is a space that is chaotic, with more than its fair share of ideologues and frankly scary organizations. A prime difficulty lies in the fact that many of these groups do not agree with current US legislation, or even with the additional policies and tests imposed by large Internet organizations. In the tug of war of ideas that is taking place online, this sector has developed a general reputation for being confrontational rather than cooperative, and negative publicity can be expected from many such associations.
Unfortunately, it has become a minor badge of sophistication and a recognized form of empowerment within the Internet literati to support and use radical blacklists and other resources that come from this community. IT employees at many major companies covertly run the Spam traps and host the honey pots that are in fact the source of so much commercial email disruption. Many smaller network administrators preferentially use information from within this community to inform their filtering and blocking systems. It is safe to say that this dissenting population will have a significant influence on email sending and delivery into the foreseeable future.
The network of human-to-human (H2H) relationships extending from your own hosting facilities to your recipients ISPs has become critical to sustaining open channels of email communications. The algorithmic and programmatic systems in place to control email Spam are so fallible and subject to error that without these H2H relationships anyone's email channels can be expected to begin to fail. At a minimum, building and maintaining open and friendly ISP relations wherever possible allows “people” to get in and adjust for the conceptual, design and implementation limitations of current anti-Spam technology.
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Tim Starzl is the chief editor of Email Ph. D. , an informational Web site dedicated to improving email delivery for all permission-based senders. With years of experience in email sending system design, high volume sending, and high precision tracking systems Mr. Starzl provides practical working advice for a difficult and rapidly changing environment.