E-mail reputation systems: Can we learn from social networking?

In case you haven’t noticed, there’s a revolution happening in social networking with vast implications for e-commerce that extends down to e-mail marketing. I use the term revolution deliberately, not in the hyperbolic usage of many Silicon Valley vendors. I say revolution, because there’s a radical shifting in the balance of power from a centralized authority – a brand, system or site owner – to the people. The Internet, through Web 2.0, has democratized the marketplace by empowering the individual. This has far-reaching implications on how ISPs calculate your complaint rate or if you are a “spammy” sender.

Delivering your e-mail requires maintaining best practices to ensure that your e-mail is considered relevant by your opt-in recipients. It’s simple reasoning: Consumers have a big hammer – the “Report as Spam” button – that can whack senders who, in the consumer’s perception, violate the consumer’s perceived right not to be inundated with unwanted messages.

The problem is consumers’ treatment of the “Report as Spam” button. There is no differentiation between an herbal Viagra e-mail sent from Bulgaria and the coupon offer that arrived one too many times. Any click of that button dings your reputation. As complaint rates rise, your e-mail deliverability decreases. To make matters worse, there is often no ability to differentiate how many times a user clicks the button. Someone who has had a bad day can punch the “Report as Spam” four times, possibly generating four dings to your company. Currently, the system aggregates the crowd’s implicit wisdom -not consumer reliability.

However, using social networking’s playbook may change the industry. It is possible to allow users to specifically complain and differentiate between unauthorized senders and opted-in senders who send too frequently. As we work to build registration pages allowing consumers to specify types of e-mail they want and frequency, it is possible for complaint systems providing similar levels of granularity.

In calculating your complaint rate scores, it is possible to envision a system that allows us to score the scorer, and determine if a complaint is accurate and about true spam versus just someone complaining for the sake of complaining. Applying the wisdom of crowds to sender reputation systems can help to accurately determine a sender’s real complaint rate.

So next time you think this Web 2.0 stuff has no lessons for you, the e-mail marketer, think again. It is quite possible that the wisdom of crowds will become a very important ally for you in getting to the inbox.

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