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Viewpoint: The Limitation of Labels

I’m passionate about the power of e-mail and want to use this column to prompt dialogue on the important issues facing our medium and e-mail marketers. To start, I want to talk about the labels we apply to ourselves and others.

There are three major constituencies in the e-mail arena: senders, receivers and end-users. Senders are those of us who deploy or enable outbound e-mail messages to be sent. Receivers are intermediaries, such as ISPs, domain administrators and other guardians of the end-users’ inbox. And, of course, end-users are the intended recipients of our messages.

As an industry, we tend to align ourselves in one of two camps – senders or receivers. We affix those labels to ourselves, talk about issues in those terms and associate with others who have like labels. We even join groups that serve our constituency’s interests and sometimes even bear its name or mission, such as the E-mail Sender & Provider Coalition (ESPC) or Messaging Anti-Abuse Working Group (MAAWG).

There’s no denying that labels have utility in defining who we are, finding our voice and advocating our positions. However, we can’t overlook the fact that labels can be divisive as well as definitional. They can restrict our perspective to our own worldview and self-interests. And when it comes to the e-mail medium, the stereotypical labels simply aren’t that accurate.

Consider for a moment the term “receiver.” We use it to describe the ISPs as if they weren’t also some of the biggest senders of e-mail on the planet. And what about those of us who wear the “sender” label? In truth, we don’t just send e-mail. With rare exception, our companies are also receivers of e-mail … and tons of it. More important, whether we identify ourselves as senders or receivers, we are all end-users of e-mail. E-mail is central to how we communicate in our personal and professional lives. It’s a vital tool for how all of us transact business and transmit critical information to our customers, partners and suppliers.

My point is that the e-mail medium can’t be viewed as a series of separate silos of senders, receivers and end-users. It’s more like a continuum with messages being deployed by senders passing through receivers (or maybe not) and ending up in the inboxes of end-users. And it’s an inter-connected ecosystem where virtually all players are senders, receivers and end-users of e-mail. In other words, there is no “us” and “them.” There is just “us.”

Over the past three years, senders and receivers of e-mail have come a long way in recognizing their commonality of interests. Our conversations have become decidedly more civil (even congenial) and productive. But, we have a long way yet to go in restoring trust and reliability to e-mail and making this medium all it can be for communication and commerce. We need to be discussing holistic, end-to-end solutions that extend from the process of sending e-mail to its final receipt in the inbox and everything in between. And it’s in those discussions where we need to move beyond our labels and recognize our commonality of roles as well as interests.

Here are three examples of where this perspective is immediately relevant to those of us who typically see ourselves as senders:

  1. Authentication . Hopefully, you’ve recognized the importance of authenticating your outbound e-mail and are now doing so. But authentication won’t work if companies aren’t also checking their inbound e-mail. And where is the biggest problem with the adoption of authentication? That’s right, it’s on the receiver side with companies like yours and mine. So if you’re committed to cleaning up the medium and protecting your brand, maybe it’s time to find out what your company is doing in its receiver role.
  1. Spam Filtering . We all complain about the ISP filters, but ask any B2B e-mail marketer where they see the most irrational spam filters. What you’ll hear is that it’s at companies like yours and mine in their role as receivers of e-mail. Maybe it’s time to take personal ownership of this issue and chat with your IT department about the virtues of responsible filtering.
  1. Best Practices . We all tend to talk about the recipients of our e-mail in the third person – the consumer. Yet, we’re all end-users of e-mail. Everyday we see evidence of poor practices as we wade through the junk in our personal and business inboxes. Maybe it’s time to put aside our sender label for a minute and apply that end-user lens to our own practices for targeting, relevancy and frequency.

I’m not expecting that we’ll discontinue use of our sender and receiver labels. But I am hopeful we will use them with an appreciation of their limitations and applicability to us all. I’m also hopeful that we acknowledge “end-user” as the one label that would best inform and guide our future actions. After all, it’s the role we all share. And it’s in the satisfaction of the end-user – our mutual customers – where senders and receivers will find their greatest common ground. For marketers, this should be comfortable ground too since the satisfaction of customers is what good marketing is all about.

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