E-Mail Publishers Find Bulking Up Can Be Harmful

A major problem is looming that could cost e-mail newsletter publishers millions in lost revenue.

With the growing numbers of people signing up for e-mail service from companies such as Hotmail, Yahoo and AOL Time Warner, publishers are increasingly finding that their newsletters, which generally are opt-in and not spam, are being consigned to the “bulk mail” folders along with spam e-mails.

The problem, newsletter publishers say, is that many people never look at their bulk mail folders, which e-mail services generally empty on a regular basis. So not only is spam thrown out without being read, but so are newsletters that people opted in to receive.

“People have legitimately requested newsletters,” said Anna Zornosa, president/CEO of Topica, a San Francisco-based list hosting and newsletter publishing service provider. “The sudden switch to the bulk-mail folder is an inconvenience. Over time it will affect the publisher's ability to reach the reader and their open rates.”

Many publishers that use Topica's services have complained that their publications are disappearing and that their circulations are being affected, Zornsa said. She noted that Topica plans to alter the way it addresses newsletters to the recipient. Instead of putting a group of names on the “To:” line of the message, which many e-mail providers read as spam, the company plans to make sure the name of the subscriber is in that field. The change will take place in September, she said.

“We noticed this was becoming a problem [earlier this month] when Yahoo changed their practices,” Zornosa said. “This would solve the problem because services like Yahoo assume all e-mail sent to a group is spam.”

Anne Holland, publisher of MarketingSherpa.com, a Washington-based company that produces e-mail newsletters covering marketing, said the problem is industrywide and growing. The company sends more than 200,000 messages a month.

“It's a well-known problem in the e-mail newsletter industry,” she said. “Everyone thinks it's a problem for the small publishers. But it's everyone's problem. It affects business-to-business and consumer newsletter publishers.”

She noted that acquiring opt-in names can cost 50 cents to $11 per name. With that much of an investment, newsletter publishers want to know whether their publications are being read and whether people are clicking on their ads.

“It's worthless if the newsletter goes into bulk mail,” Holland said.

She said that while her newsletters have been getting through, she has been finding that many of the newsletters she personally subscribes to have ended up in her bulk-mail folder.

Holland called for a consortium of e-mail newsletter publishers and messaging service providers to open a dialog with Hotmail, Yahoo and AOL to work on a way to distinguish between unwanted bulk mail and opt-in newsletters. Holland suggested the e-mail providers could provide some sort of “registered mail” code that can be used, which would flag opt-in mail and pass it to subscribers' inboxes.

“If you're a newsletter publisher trying to make a living, your newsletter probably will never be read,” Holland said. “If it's not read, the ads are not clicked on, resulting in lower click-through rates. If you have low click throughs, advertisers think you stink and they won't advertise with you.”

Interestingly, Christopher Knight, CEO of SparkLIST.com Corp., a Milwaukee-based provider of list hosting and management services and the host for the MarketingSherpa.com newsletters, does not think the problem is severe enough yet to warrant an industrywide coalition.

He said much of his company's traffic is getting through, largely because of the software the company uses on its servers. E-mail headers can be changed easily so the company's messages do not look like bulk mail to services such as Yahoo and Hotmail.

“We don't have a large enough crisis right now where our business is threatened,” Knight said. “The problem is solvable on our end with software.”

He said he looks at the problem as an opportunity for SparkLIST. The company, he noted, can honestly say to prospective clients that they do not have the bulk-mail problems that are affecting other hosts.

“It's actually a benefit for us because our mail is getting through,” Knight said. “Our clients aren't having a big problem right now.”

He said that of SparkLIST's 1,000 clients, maybe a dozen complained about the problem. In fact, by changing the e-mail headers, he said, SparkLIST increased its delivery rate to between 5 percent and 25 percent. The company sends more than 300 million e-mail messages a month.

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