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Address Book Seen as Way Around Spam Filters

As Internet service providers grow more vigilant in blocking spam, e-mail marketers want customers to add them to their address books in order to bypass some restrictions.

The largest ISPs are treating mail from senders in the address book differently. At AOL, mail from senders in a member's address book is not stripped of HTML images and links, a move AOL made to prevent spammers from sending pornographic images or using Web beacons to find valid e-mail addresses. (AOL promised marketers some relief from this with an enhanced whitelist that will display HTML images and links from senders that meet strict guidelines.) Microsoft made a similar move with MSN 8.5 and Outlook 11.

For marketers, disabled graphics translate into lower open and conversion rates and a tougher time tracking campaign performance.

The challenge for marketers is getting consumers to act. Dave Lewis, vice president of deliverability management at e-mail service provider Digital Impact, San Mateo, CA, said action is inhibited by two factors: general consumer inertia and the sense that the address book is personal.

“We're asking the customer to take a big step,” he told clients recently. “You've got to establish trust.”

The stakes are high. Return Path, a New York e-mail performance management company, estimates that 17 percent of legitimate e-mail is blocked. Ferris Research pegs the cost to U.S. businesses from blocked legitimate e-mail at $3.5 billion for this year alone.

A recent survey by Jupiter Research found that 31 percent of marketers viewed blacklists and spam filters by ISPs and corporate IT departments as their biggest worry. By comparison, just 9 percent cited anti-spam legislation as their foremost concern.

With the adoption of AOL 9.0 proceeding, Lewis said marketers could not afford to wait for ISPs to implement an authenticated-sender program to cut down on false positives.

In addition, new hurdles to e-mail delivery are appearing. EarthLink expects 1 million of its 5 million subscribers will use its challenge-response system, SpamBlocker, by May. SpamBlocker is bypassed when a sender is in the address book. Placement in the address book also overrides some so-called personalized filters that “learn” which e-mail to treat as spam based on previous user actions.

“It's increasingly important due to a variety of changes at different ISPs,” said George Bilbrey, general manager of assurance services at Return Path.

Getting in the address book does not guarantee delivery past ISPs' numerous gateway filters, but it does reduce the chance that wanted mail will be misidentified as spam, advised George Webb, a business manager in Microsoft's anti-spam group.

“Technology will continue to empower end users to configure their systems to fight spam,” he said. “Getting yourself added to [the address book] is a great solution.”

Lewis advises clients to think through their address-book strategy. Before asking consumers to act, marketers need to clean up their own practices. For example, he urges marketers to use as few return addresses as possible, avoiding the use of dynamically generated addresses to track campaigns.

Second, he suggests marketers give clear instructions, customized for each ISP, for customers to add a business to the address book. Finally, Lewis believes in segmenting customer lists. New customers should be asked immediately, while high-value, engaged customers should be asked next. Addresses with low response rates should be a final priority.

“It's a case where best practices and having that relationship are critical to getting your customers to act,” said Helen Roberts, chief operating officer at e-mail service provider Responsys, Palo Alto, CA. The company plans to include address-book strategy in its suite of deliverability services.

Despite the attention paid to getting into address books, measuring success remains difficult.

“There's no sure-fire way, other than monitoring your open and click rates, to know whether these programs are successful,” Lewis said.

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