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The state of e-mail: Looking back at 2006 and ahead to 2007

As inboxes around the world begin to fill up with holiday-themed marketing e-mails, and tons of spam, of course, it’s an appropriate time to look back at the key e-mail milestones in 2006 and ahead to likely developments in 2007.

The Wikipedia entry for e-mail will no doubt soon describe 2006 as a pivotal year in protecting the future of the medium. The updated entry is likely to focus on the key developments in e-mail authentication, litigation and legislation.

Over the past 12 months e-mail authentication has finally reached critical mass, with adoption rates in excess of 50 percent. Industry adoption of e-mail authentication sets the stage for ISPs to begin focusing on reputation, which will compel senders to follow best practices to avoid having their e-mail relegated to the junk folder.

2006 also saw its fair share of legal actions brought by Internet service providers and the FTC against senders for non-compliance with CAN-SPAM. This past year’s high-profile litigation further discourages senders from engaging in abusive e-mail practices. Even inadvertent glitches (such as opt-outs falling into a junk mail filter) may lead to liability under CAN-SPAM, as evidenced by the lawsuit brought against Yesmail.

Finally, 2006 was a big year for protecting e-mail from unnecessary and dangerous legislation. A number of proposed state “do not e-mail” registries failed to make it into law. Their rejection validates the position of the FTC and industry groups who opposed the registries due to their data privacy risk and unwarranted impact on legitimate commerce.

While additional legislation was averted, it’s still incumbent on the industry to follow through with self-regulation that promotes best practices and restores trust to the medium. Failure to do so could bring about a resurgence of such legislative remedies.

As we look ahead at 2007, e-mail stands to benefit from several trends that should enhance its value for businesses and consumers alike. These trends will include the rise of reputation systems, sender accountability and the convergence of marketing and service-based communications.

The industry’s success with e-mail authentication has set the stage for reputation systems, which will dramatically alter how ISPs detect spam and hold spammers accountable for their practices.

This is good news for the medium, because without such accountability, inboxes around the world would continue to see an increase in spam, phishing and other abuse – which already accounts for 90 percent of e-mail traffic at the major ISPs.

It’s good news for legitimate senders too since it will mean less inbox clutter and less reliance on the imperfect filtering techniques that often intercept the good e-mail along with the bad.

The importance of senders’ reputations will get an additional boost with the new FTC rules expected early in 2007. The new rules should reinforce the accountability of senders for the practices of partners, agents and others acting on their behalf. This also is likely to have a profound and healthy effect on how affiliate marketing is performed today. The forthcoming FTC rules are also expected to address current ambiguities in the CAN-SPAM Act, which will help facilitate enforcement.

Finally, the convergence of marketing and service-based e-mail will continue to gain momentum. More and more companies will realize the benefit of adding relevant marketing messages to transactional e-mails.

Once an elite practice that was relegated to sophisticated Internet retailers like Amazon.com, embedding cross- and up-sells offers into transactional e-mail will be adopted by companies of all sizes, thanks to new technologies that simplify and automate the process.

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