AOL Plans Enhanced Whitelist for E-Mailers

NEW YORK — AOL will roll out a new whitelist program to guarantee that legitimate marketers' e-mails appear correctly to the Internet service's 25 million subscribers, the company said yesterday.

The enhanced whitelist, which AOL plans to introduce in a few weeks, would turn off a feature in the new AOL 9.0 that does not display HTML graphics and links in e-mails from senders not in a user's address book. E-mail marketers complain the feature makes their HTML messages unreadable and hinders their ability to track open rates.

Speaking at a spam summit sponsored by e-mail service provider Bigfoot Interactive, AOL said the new whitelist would complement its existing one, which ensures that legitimate senders get their e-mail through the ISP's first level of filtering. Commercial e-mailers will be judged on their bounce rates, how they handle bounces and the number of spam complaints they generate.

AOL, which handles about 30 percent of e-mail traffic, is one of a number of e-mail providers that blocks graphics in an attempt to prevent pornographic images and to stop spammers from using Web beacons to verify e-mail addresses.

MSN 8.5 blocks them from unknown senders, and its new version of Outlook blocks HTML images in the preview pane. Marketers increasingly have turned to HTML e-mails, which DoubleClick estimates generate a response rate nearly double that of text messages. Web beacons in HTML e-mail also let marketers track open rates, the most common yardstick to judge a campaign's success.

AOL warned that commercial e-mailers will face strict criteria to get on the enhanced whitelist.

“If you're a fly-by-night, we will not let you on this list,” said Margot Koschier, a technical manager on AOL's anti-spam team.

Koschier said the team is evaluating commercial e-mailers for qualification for the list. Enhanced whitelist members are required to set up a feedback loop with AOL to receive complaints. AOL urges companies to automatically unsubscribe members who report e-mail as spam. The ISP blocks more than 2 billion spam messages daily.

Though the e-mail marketing industry is improving its practices, she said, some companies are “just miserable.”

Michael Della Penna, chief marketing officer at Bigfoot Interactive, called AOL's move “an important first step.” He said a further step would be giving AOL members an unsubscribe button as an alternative to the report-spam button, as a courtesy for legitimate marketers.

“It is a challenging landscape, to say the least,” Della Penna said.

Koschier said AOL wanted to make its whitelist more accessible to commercial e-mailers. The company soon will post information on its postmaster page about getting on it. Until then, marketers can phone AOL's anti-spam team at 703/265-4670.

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