E-Mailers Wrestle With AOL 8.0

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Less than a month after its Oct. 15 debut, America Online Inc.'s AOL 8.0 apparently is affecting e-mail marketing dramatically.

AOL claims that in the first two weeks AOL 8.0 was available, it was downloaded more than 5 million times, the fastest such adoption ever. AOL claims its worldwide membership is 35.3 million, including 26.7 million in the United States and 6.1 million in Europe.

"I can tell you that AOL 8.0 is definitely getting some traction," said Irene Pedraza, CEO of e-mail service provider CheetahMail, New York. "Five million downloads is nothing to sneeze at."

As a result, AOL 8.0's new "report as spam" button, which lets members lodge a complaint with AOL about an e-mail marketer with a single click, already has helped spur 25 percent to 50 percent increases in complaints from AOL users, Pedraza said.

"We've seen complaints go up, even for double-opt-in lists," she said, estimating that 99 percent of the spam complaints she receives come from AOL users. AOL addresses make up 20 percent to 30 percent of a typical e-mail blast, she said.

To its credit, e-mail service providers said, AOL indicated it understands the possibility for knee-jerk complaints and is working on a new measure of the number it must receive before it takes action.

"They've been very responsive, and they've been very clear in what they're looking for from us ... and how they're expecting us to move forward," said Matt Seeley, chief operating officer, CheetahMail. The company delivers 200 million messages monthly for 125 clients such as Macy's, Discovery Channel and CompUSA.com.

Another looming issue for e-mail marketers is AOL 8.0's new e-mail sorting feature, consisting of a drop-down menu that sorts mail into four categories:

· People I know: Mail from addresses stored in the user's address book or buddy list, and mail from AOL.

· Bulk senders: Mail from commercial mailers who have committed to honor AOL's e-mail policies.

· Unknown senders: All other e-mail.

· Everyone: Includes all of the above, and is the default setting.

Icons help AOL 8.0 users quickly identify which categories incoming e-mails fall into and whether they have attachments or pictures.

Currently, AOL is reportedly diverting all e-mail into AOL 8.0 users' unknown-sender folders while AOL works with e-mailers to determine who qualifies for the bulk-mail designation.

Marketers, not surprisingly, are seeking ways to get into AOL 8.0 users' people-I-know folders. San Francisco-based Topica, for example, which offers a turnkey service for e-mail newsletter publishers, suggests that its clients send e-mail to subscribers with AOL addresses asking to be added to their address books.

Marketing services and technology provider DoubleClick also plans to begin testing tactics to help its clients get into AOL recipients' address books.

"People [who already use bulk e-mail sorters, such as Yahoo users] are increasingly deleting the contents of their bulk-mail folder in its entirety without looking to see what is in there," said Court Cunningham, senior vice president, product development, global techsolutions, DoubleClick, New York.

The immediate concern, however, is avoiding the "report as spam" button by ensuring recipients know who the sender is. This makes putting well-known brands in the "from" line imperative, service providers say.

"The key to getting through this holiday season, assuming that you're going to be in that unknown folder, is to brand your subject line and your 'from' address with your brand," Pedraza said. Sixty percent of respondents to a DoubleClick survey in September of 1,000 people who use e-mail at least once per week cited the "from" line as the primary motivator to opening e-mail.

As a result, CheetahMail and Topica also suggest that clients include their names in the subject line.

"It's very important right now that subject lines be looked at very carefully, because what happens now could determine [bulk or unknown folder] placement in the future," said Anna Zornosa, CEO of Topica, which claims it has about 50,000 customers and serves about 1 billion messages monthly. "So a women's magazine that might normally not think twice about using the subject line '12 ways to please him' might at this point in time want to tone it down. Right now, clarity is everything."

Pedraza noted that it appears AOL 8.0 users still read their e-mail, even in the unknown and everyone folders. "Our open rates have not gone down," she said.

However, e-mailers must decide whether being in the bulk folder is positive or negative. CheetahMail's clients have said they want to test.

"We know people are looking into the unknown folder," Pedraza said. "The question is will they look into the bulk-mail folder?"

For Zornosa, the answer is "yes."

"Eventually, you want to be in the bulk folder versus the unknown-sender folder," she said, adding, "very important things will be in the bulk folder" such as Amazon.com purchase confirmations. "We have to change our mentality from thinking that bulk has some sort of stigma. All that folder indicates is that that person is not in your address book."

In the end, everyone interviewed for this article said AOL's anti-spam efforts overall are positive.

"They're making an attempt at trying to reduce spam, and we applaud that," Seeley said. "The question is, how do legitimate senders like ourselves make sure we are separated out in a smart way?"

AOL did not return a call for comment.


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