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New Deliverability Challenges Ahead

“The main hurdle e-mail marketers face in the next 12 months is e-mail delivery,” begins a Dec. 23, 2004, report from JupiterResearch. In a recent executive survey, “57 percent of e-mail marketers said it would be their biggest challenge during the coming year.”

On Dec. 27, America Online announced a more than 75 percent annual reduction in daily clicking of the “report spam” button by its members and a 50 percent decline in spam blocked at the gateway. However, concerns about deliverability have hit new heights, even as spam shows signs of decline.

Tectonic shifts in the delivery landscape have begun as Sender ID, SPF and DomainKeys are in various stages of implementation at the major ISPs, with accreditation and reputation systems emerging as part and parcel of the authentication movement. A more fiercely competitive ISP/Web-based e-mail provider marketplace (Gmail, AOL’s reportedly upcoming free e-mail service, storage boosts at Hotmail and Yahoo, etc.) also promises to have deliverability ramifications this year.

A few predictions for this year:

Some things will stay the same. ISPs will continue to emphasize having a sound technological e-mail delivery infrastructure. Automated hygiene, high-volume bounce-acceptance capability and effective SMTP connection/throttling management will continue to play a role in achieving strong delivery rates.

“Old school” anti-spam solutions will make way for a newer breed. The emergence of new reputation systems linked to authentication will let ISPs depend on more sophisticated, reliable and autonomous methods of assessing reputation to senders and making deliver/non-deliver decisions.

A case in point is AOL’s Enhanced Whitelisting program, which lets marketers/senders bypass certain levels of filtering and fully render their content and links so long as they adhere to the program’s requirements and don’t exceed AOL’s complaint threshold.

America Online says it plans to make SPF publication mandatory for senders in Enhanced Whitelisting because it thinks authentication will allow it to more accurately and automatically assess reputation to senders before letting their e-mail reach its members. Those that publish SPF records already can have their Whitelisting and feedback loops with AOL dynamically updated.

Meanwhile, Microsoft implemented “Bonded Sender” as a type of white list for Hotmail and indicated that Sender ID soon will be a factor in its delivery decisions for both MSN and Hotmail. Also, Yahoo, EarthLink and others are testing DomainKeys on both an outbound and inbound basis.

Having a good reputation and keeping complaints to a minimum will be key. The big ISPs have been making deliver/non-deliver decisions using complaints against senders’ IP addresses for a long time. Authentication and reputation solutions will let them do so at a more granular level, but the idea remains the same: Good senders have low complaint rates.

ISPs will reinforce to the business community that spam is in the eye of the beholder and will base their reputations not on their “real world” brand names, but on how relevant their e-mails are determined to be by consumers. Authentication- and reputation-based solutions are not being implemented for the sake of giving brand names a “Pass Go” card. They are being done to better protect consumers from deceptive and unwanted communications and to serve the business interests of the ISPs.

Accountability will be enforced. At a certain point, ISPs will start enforcing accountability by filtering non-authenticated e-mail and rejecting authenticated e-mail that receives too many complaints.

The higher level of trust that authentication allows for in e-mail will enhance communication between legitimate senders/marketers and ISPs. The current spam complaint reporting provided by AOL and Juno/NetZero gives marketers more valuable, actionable information about how their campaigns are being received and, therefore, how they can improve deliverability. and folder placement.

Automation of complaint reporting and enhancements to feedback loops will continue to improve the communication and processing efficiency of unwanted e-mail between leading ISP/Web-based e-mail providers and legitimate senders.

Education will be a central theme. ISPs and industry groups will educate the legitimate business community about how to comply with the latest standards, policies and procedures required for e-mail delivery. ISPs will educate consumers about the benefits of their latest anti-spam features, and businesses will further educate consumers about the importance of placing them in their “address books” to ensure delivery of critical and requested communications.

A good year in Washington. One can’t help but feel optimistic about the political outlook this year. If Congress holds a “CAN-SPAM Act – one year later” hearing, it’ll hear about a large-scale, public-private partnership to attack spam. In the past year, the feds, ISPs and the legitimate marketing community have teamed to develop and file criminal and civil cases against spammers using provisions of the act. The political ramifications of AOL’s “spam is down big time” announcement are significant, especially because the Internet giant attributed part of the decline to the effectiveness of “tougher” laws like CAN-SPAM.

The Federal Trade Commission will use discretionary rulemaking to clarify areas of CAN-SPAM, such as viral and multiple-sender marketing. It will be clarified that one message means one sender, and that if a friend forwards a message, it’s the responsibility of the friend and not the original sender.

If federal spyware legislation is enacted, it will be nationally preemptive and focused on fraud and deception. Similar to CAN-SPAM, it will preserve the medium for the legitimate business community and have severe criminal penalties for deceptive spyware operators.

Wild cards. Will any of the authentication proposals become Internet-wide standards? Will third-party reputation services come into play, or are the ISPs going to keep reputation proprietary? Will communication between ISPs and senders/marketers continue to become more two-way?

Needless to say, there is a lot to look out for.

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