Email marketing, conversion optimization
and online privacy for Internet-centric businesses
Posted by : WhamboMPS
Email deliverability has always been something of a cat-and-mouse game. Large ISPs and free email services, what I’ll collectively call “email infrastructure firms,” are in an unending war against the scourge of (true) spam. As a result the email infrastructure firms have developed a raft of techniques to protect their users from unwanted messages. These firms have always been reluctant to discuss the specifics of their filtering processes: as is true in any war the most effective weapons are often those your opponent doesn’t fully understand. But there are signs that the folks in Sunnyvale may be rolling out some new artillery that does more than just protect their users from spam. Yahoo! Mail’s recently introduced spam handling techniques also may be intended to force large mailers to use Goodmail’s services.
So first some background. A company called Goodmail offers a product called CertifiedEmail that, amongst its other features, guarantees inbox delivery for participating mailers sending messages to Goodmail-enabled email infrastructure firms. Not coincidentally Yahoo! Mail is one of those enabled firms. As an email marketer if I can get my mailings certified as being acceptable to Goodmail, a threshold that most reputable mailers should be able to cross, then I can sleep easy knowing that my email will be successfully delivered to the inbox for every Goodmail partner. The catch? Goodmail is a pay-to-play service and they charge mailers on a CPM basis for the use of their service. A slice of that revenue stream goes back to the participating email infrastructure firms. While Goodmail would prefer that marketers not refer to it this way, Goodmail’s fees can be considered “postage” that needs to be applied to email to ensure First Class treatment. Importantly, the nature of the revenue share arrangement between Goodmail and their enabled email infrastructure firms means that these infrastructure firms have a financial stake in CertifiedEmail being used as widely as possible by legitimate email marketers.
No one likes paying a tax, especially if they think they don’t need to. to date most large, reputable email marketers have eschewed using Goodmail’s services and the company has struggled to find its footing. The biggest benefit of Goodmail’s CertifiedEmail, guaranteed inbox delivery, has not generally been a concern to most marketers if they are following best practices for the industry: for the most part their email has been getting into the inbox anyway. The most important metric that marketers have had to manage to ensure that they remain in the inbox is the “Complaint Rate” as measured by each individual email infrastructure firm. “Complaints” are chalked up when an email recipient clicks a This is spam link, button, etc. This link is not the same as the unsubscribe link within the email itself but is instead integral to the UI of the email reader; as a result complaints are captured by the email infrastructure firm, not directly by the mailer (though the email addresses are available to the mailer for future suppression via a “feedback loop”). The Complaint Rate is derived as Complaints/Delivered on an individual email infrastructure firm basis. While Yahoo! is cagey about disclosing the exact threshold, a Complaint Rate below 0.3% has generally been sufficient to keep the emailer in good stead.
Yahoo!, heavily dependent on advertising revenue, has been pummeled in the current recession. Recent changes in Yahoo! Mail’s spam detection processes will at least coincidentally make it likely that in the coming months Yahoo! can expect to make more money from its Goodmail revenue share relationship. And this is going to happen because in the coming months more and more perfectly legitimate but large mailers will be forced to rely on Goodmail’s CertifiedEmail solution to remain in the inbox.
Yahoo! has been messaging that they are modifying their filtering techniques for the identification of spam. In addition to Complaint Rate (and likely a host of other techniques) Yahoo! has indicated that they will also be looking at total nominal Complaints per mailer per day. Specific thresholds are, again, unknown. But Yahoo! has been clear that Complaint Count is a new metric that they will be using. Unfortunately even the cleanest mailing from the cleanest mailer generates complaints — many email recipients simply use the This is Spam link as a handy way to predictably unsubscribe for all mailings. No matter how small the Complaint Rate, total Complaints will rise linearly with the volume of email delivered per day. At some (unknown) point the total number of Complaints will exceed Yahoo!’s threshold and the message will be deemed spam; so long inbox. The more mail sent to Yahoo!, the lower the Complaint Rate must be to avoid crossing the Complaint Count threshold. And for large enough mailers it will in practice be impossible to stay below the Complaint Count limit.
It is unclear how low the nominal Complaint threshold is or how rigorously Yahoo! is enforcing it. But arguably it is in Yahoo!’s business interest to continually ratchet the threshold down until it reaches a point where virtually all mass mailers are unable to reach the Yahoo! inbox unless they participate in Goodmail’s CertifiedEmail seal program. Through this technique Yahoo! will maximize the revenue received from their Goodmail partnership while arguably only minimally diminishing the service offered to their customers. If you remember that the email marketer is most emphatically not Yahoo!’s customer then it makes sense that it is in their business interest to garner more revenue while disadvantaging a group that they don’t need to worry much about.
Sadly driving legitimate users to pay for Goodmail’s offering will not make a huge dent in the torrent of spam heading to Yahoo!’s customers. While there is no chance that spammers will actually sign up for Goodmail (!), today most spam does not originate from single-point sources but instead comes from massively distributed spam-bot nets of hundreds of thousands of hijacked computers. Since any one of those infected computers are likely to send only a fraction of the email that would come from a single legitimate mass mailer, focusing on nominal Complaints per sender won’t address this problem. But to this writer it is not clear that reducing spam is actually the problem that Yahoo! is trying to solve with their new spam filtering practices.