Stop the Madness! Wading Through Fact, Fiction Behind the AOL-Goodmail Announcements

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On Jan. 30, it was widely reported that: 1) AOL is discontinuing its Enhanced Whitelist in June, and 2) Goodmail will introduce a new class of paid e-mail known as CertifiedEmail that will receive preferential treatment by AOL.


The first is incorrect, according to AOL postmaster Charles Stiles, and the second has been heralded as nothing less than the Armageddon of e-mail -- ironically and most vociferously by those who compete with Goodmail.


The battle to retain the credibility and viability of e-mail communications is an ever-evolving one that obviously introduces uncertainty and ambiguity into the market. Unfortunately, for every vendor in the e-mail space who strives to educate mailers, there are just as many, if not more, eager to capitalize on misinformation and mailers' fear and naivete to promote their own wares.


To our friends and foes in the e-mail space, can we stop the madness for just a moment and provide the mailing community with the facts they need before we hammer them with our opinions? For the mailing community, I assure you, the latest changes are not of such significance that you need to run out and hire my company or my competitors, outsource your mail to an ESP, hire expensive consultants or call an emergency board session. The sky is not falling on e-mail.


We offer the following clarifications, corrections and facts. Of course, we have opinions on whether these things are good or bad, beneficial or not, but we suspect -- like us -- you have read enough of those already!


AOL has two whitelists: the Standard Whitelist and the Enhanced Whitelist.


The Standard Whitelist is the list most mailers are on, if they are on any at all. You may apply for the Standard Whitelist. Once approved by AOL, you stay on it providing your bounces, spam complaints and spam-trap addresses remain below thresholds that AOL sets and monitors but does not publish.


Being on the AOL Standard Whitelist provides benefits as it reduces the amount of filtering that will occur on your e-mails and improves your inbox placement rate. Being on it does not alter whether images will display; instead, this setting is controlled by the version of AOL that the recipient is using (with versions of AOL 8.0 and lower having images "ON" by default and AOL 9.0, AOL.com and future versions having images "OFF" by default).


The Enhanced Whitelist is a subset of mailers (IPs) that are on the Standard Whitelist. Similar to the Standard Whitelist, there are thresholds that AOL sets for spam complaints, bounces, spam-trap addresses, etc., that must be maintained to be eligible. These thresholds are tighter or more restrictive than those for the Standard Whitelist. However, you cannot apply for the Enhanced Whitelist; AOL automatically places mailers from the Standard Whitelist who consistently meet the tighter Enhanced Whitelist thresholds onto the Enhanced Whitelist.


Only a small percentage of those mailers now on the Standard Whitelist meet the standards of the Enhanced Whitelist. Similar to the Standard Whitelist, the Enhanced Whitelist improves your inbox placement. Additionally, being on the Enhanced Whitelist will change the default setting for images to "ON" in AOL 9.0, AOL.com and newer versions of AOL. Thus, the incremental benefit of the Enhanced Whitelist over the Standard is that it enables images in the newer AOL e-mail clients.


AOL is NOT discontinuing either the Standard Whitelist or the Enhanced Whitelist.


The AOL Standard Whitelist has not been the subject of any press this past week, but we want to mention that it will remain in existence as most folks are unaware there are two whitelists.


However, it has been extensively reported that the AOL Enhanced Whitelist would be discontinued in June. AOL's position on the Enhanced Whitelist has been clarified to Pivotal Veracity by Stiles. The Enhanced Whitelist will not be discontinued in 2006. Rather, the thresholds will be tightened in order to close some loopholes in the system. As a result, even fewer mailers will be eligible for inclusion on the Enhanced Whitelist.


Because only a small fraction of mailers are on it now, this will not affect the majority of you, regardless of the tightening restrictions. What will happen to AOL's Enhanced Whitelist after 2006? Nobody knows, and nor would it be prudent for AOL to make predictions about what it'll need to do months from now.


Goodmail CertifiedEmail is not replacing any of AOL's whitelists, but it does offer benefits unavailable with AOL's whitelists.


Goodmail CertifiedEmail is not yet available. When it becomes available, it will come at a cost but will provide benefits within AOL that are not currently supported by the AOL Standard Whitelist or AOL Enhanced Whitelist.


· First, Goodmail CertifiedEmail will be placed in the inbox providing your spam complaints stay below the threshold that AOL and Goodmail set. This benefit is similar to that provided by the two AOL whitelists except that your mail is guaranteed to be placed in the inbox while the two AOL whitelists dramatically improve inbox delivery but do not guarantee it.


· Second, your images will display and links will be enabled in all AOL e-mail clients. This benefit is identical to that provided by the Enhanced Whitelist. It is also the same benefit you have if your address is in your customer's address book. However, right now, the only e-mail clients where this benefit is even relevant are AOL 9.0 and AOL.com, as they are the only e-mail clients where the default is set to "OFF."


· Third, your e-mails will be labeled as CertifiedEmail. Whether this will engender trust among your customers and help thwart phishers is currently only a subject for debate since Goodmail CertifiedEmail is not live yet and has not been tested.


The AOL whitelists and Goodmail CertifiedEmail are options and are not required to reach the AOL inbox.


You do not have to be on either of AOL's whitelists or using Goodmail in order to reach your customer's inbox at AOL. Applying for whitelisting and using Goodmail are options. They are not, as some have inferred, requirements to reaching your customers' inbox. AOL is not mandating that you "pay to play." This is propaganda and is hype intended to scare an already weary mailing community.


Before investing in any solution, it is always wise to ensure you need it -- whether it be the AOL whitelists (both of which are free), Goodmail CertifiedEmail or the many other options out there. In closing, if we may be so bold as to venture an opinion, the best way to ensure inbox delivery is already within your control: respect your customers and follow good privacy and permission practices.


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