Keep spam complaints down: Cohen

Internet service providers agree that authentication and good reputation are the best ways to increase deliverability. DM News¹ Dianna Dilworth spoke with Jordan Cohen, director of industry and government relations at e-mail marketing firm Epsilon, New York, about the role of authentication tools and reputation from the perspective of the e-mail service provider and the marketer. Excerpts:

Can you describe your experience with the different authentication tools?

There are two dominant forms of authentication: IP-based solutions such as SPF and Sender ID and Cryptography-based solutions such as DomainKeys and DKIM.

IP-based solutions have presented a simple, quick and affordable way to authenticate and, as a result, SPF and Sender ID have enjoyed rapid, early industry support. Ten million domains are now compliant with these solutions, accounting for more than 40 percent of worldwide daily e-mail volume.

Implementing cryptography-based solutions can be a more complicated undertaking. But cryptography provides additional security assurance for critical communications and presents a stronger, long-term solution. DKIM recently received preliminary approval from a key Internet standards body, which should accelerate its adoption over the coming months.

Do you think that these means of authentication are enough in a world of increasing spam? If not, what else can be done?

First, I think it¹s important to address whether we are indeed in a world of increasing spam. Our 2007 consumer study marked the third consecutive year in which most e-mail users reported receiving less spam than the year before consistent with what we hear from top providers like AOL, Yahoo and Microsoft, who have invested millions in their anti-spam technology and enforcement efforts to keep spam from reaching users inboxes.

Plus, consumers themselves are playing an active role in reducing spam. Most respondents in our recent study with GfK not only knew how to change their mailboxes anti-spam settings, but also reported changing them to more aggressively filter messages.

Second, authentication is a crucial piece of the puzzle, but it doesn¹t knock out spam by itself. Authentication can verify the source of e-mail messages, but complementary solutions like accreditation and reputation are needed to help ISPs figure out whether a verified sender¹s behavior and practices warrant delivery.

Do content and subject line still matter? What other ways are marketers trying to increase deliverability?

Remember, the development and adoption of authentication, accreditation and reputation solutions are just beginning, so marketers shouldn¹t neglect to pre-test their creative templates against commonly used filters like SpamAssassin prior to deployment, because content- and subject-line- based filtering still takes place at many ISPs.

It can also be important to monitor volume, because so much spam is being sent by botnets [that] many ISPs are responding by instituting throttling ‹ slowing down delivery ‹ against new IP addresses and those that demonstrate inconsistent volume patterns.

So starting slow and keeping e-mail patterns consistent has become necessary for optimizing deliverability.

But the biggest focus for the past year has been image suppression. As spammers increasingly turn to all-image spam in their attempts to circumvent filters, more ISPs are blocking images by default.

The best marketers have been attacking this challenge by adjusting their creative templates for optimal rendering when images are turned off, testing fee-based accreditation programs and stepping up efforts to get into end-users¹ address books so they can bypass image suppression altogether.

It¹s our hope that ISPs eventually let reputation guide deliverability practices and confer benefits on marketers with good reputations, including delivering their messages with images intact by default.

Will we get to a point where all e-mail will have to be certified?

ISPs will always be reluctant to arbitrarily reject messages simply because they aren¹t certified, because too much good e-mail would get lost. ISPs have positioned these as optional, premium services. So it¹s up to the certification system operators themselves to expand their programs by proving that they can deliver incremental ROI above and beyond what marketers already are achieving by adhering to best practices.

What do you think is the future of reputation systems?

ISPs will continue to migrate from legacy spam filters to more advanced

reputation solutions. Heuristics that currently play strongly in ISPs reputation scoring equations, such as list hygiene, will become less important as end-user feedback becomes the only thing that really matters. Ultimately, only relevant marketers with low complaint rates will survive.

Bottom line, what are the benefits of using authentication tools?

E-mail authentication has many benefits, but the two most important ones for marketers are fewer false positives and less clutter and fraud in the inbox. One of the earliest adopters of authentication on the receiving-side, Microsoft, reports that reputable marketers who comply with Sender ID have seen false positives plummet by 85 percent at Windows Live Hotmail.

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