Message in a bottleneck: How to beat the e-mail filters

Neither rain nor snow nor sleet nor dark of night will stop the e-mail going through, but anti-spam filters and firewalls are a different matter.

Neither rain nor snow nor sleet nor dark of night will stop the e-mail going through, but anti-spam filters and firewalls are a different matter.

Measures put in place to block the continuing flood of unwanted mail increasingly block other messages as well. It’s a problem for anyone who sends e-mail these days, but most particularly for those who use e-mail for legitimate marketing.

The line between spam and legitimate marketing is sometimes vague, but there are certainly businesses that send marketing messages to consumers who have asked for them. Yet it’s sometimes hard for technology to tell what’s real spam and what’s not – and that leads to legitimate e-mails going astray.

“Deliverability for e-mail has probably migrated over the past three years from a concern to probably the No. 1 concern that marketers have,” says Jeanniey Mullen, senior director of e-mail marketing at OgilvyOne Worldwide, a New York-based marketing agency, and founder of the E-Mail Experience Council.

According to the Internet Retailer Survey Report on Email Marketing for 2007, only about 40 per cent of companies that market through e-mail are getting more than 90 per cent of their messages through, while 16.3 per cent report fewer than 55 per cent of their marketing e-mails get where they’re going.

“The problem’s getting worse,” says Wayne Carrigan, vice-president of client strategy at ThinData Inc., a Toronto-based e-mail marketing company. “And the reason for that is that the ISPs and the anti-spam efforts have introduced measures, and IT departments aren’t necessarily implementing the measures that are needed to get e-mail through.”

There are a number of things e-mail senders can do to improve their messages’ chances of reaching their destinations – and everyone who sends e-mail, whether for marketing or other purposes – could benefit from looking at them.

Anti-spam systems decide whether messages are spam based on a number of factors. One is whether they can verify that the message comes from who it appears to come from. Standards like Sender Policy Framework (SPF) and Domain Keys embed information in each e-mail that can be checked against a registry to make sure the sender is properly identified.

J.F. Sullivan, vice-president of marketing at Habeas Inc., a Mountain View, Calif., firm that audits companies’ e-mailing practices, says more than 50 per cent of mailers now use SPF and more than 20 per cent use Domain Keys.

Properly configured Domain Name System (DNS) servers are also important, says Matthew Vernhout, director of delivery and ISP relations at ThinData. Not only does a poorly configured DNS server leave holes through which spammers can send unwanted messages that appear to come from your organization, Vernhout says, but providers of anti-spam technology check senders’ DNS configurations and consider substandard ones more likely to be sources of spam.

Mullen says legitimate e-mail marketers must guard their reputations to ensure they are not labeled as spammers. Mail clients that allow recipients to hit a “this is spam” button when they receive unwanted messages can cause problems for mailers whose messages provoke as few as five complaints for every million messages sent, she says.

ThinData recently published “The Marketer’s Guide to Successful Email Delivery, a 12-page booklet that outlines steps businesses should take to give their messages the best chance of getting through.

Audits from companies like Habeas, for a one-time cost of US$3,000 to $5,000, check a few dozen technical and policy issues – including the procedures companies use for putting names on their mailing lists and removing them upon request – and recommend improvements. Habeas will also place companies it has audited on a “white list” that many Internet service providers and others refer to in deciding whether to block messages, says Sullivan.

Is there any ultimate solution? Mullen isn’t optimistic. “I think it’s going to be something that companies always have to manage through,” she says.

But she doesn’t expect the problem to diminish the use of e-mail for marketing or other purposes, and nor does Carrigan. “We’re busier than we’ve ever been,” he says.

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Grant Buckler
Grant Buckler
Freelance journalist specializing in information technology, telecommunications, energy & clean tech. Theatre-lover & trainee hobby farmer.

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