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Returning Trust to Email Marketing

Richard Gingras
Returning Trust to Email Marketing Richard Gingras

This past holiday season provided further evidence of the inexorable consumer shift toward online commerce. In its Holiday eSpending Report, eMarketer reported that online shopping during the holiday season topped $30 billion-- a 30 percent increase over the same period in 2004. However, email marketers continue to suffer damages brought on by spam and phishing. Pivotal Veracity reports that online marketers are losing nearly 20 percent of their reach due to deliverability problems. The average email open rate dropped from 36 percent to 27.5 percent and the average clickthrough rate declined from 7.7 percent to 7.2 percent.

The biggest challenge the industry faces is the loss of consumers’ trust. The sharp growth in phishing attacks and the massive media coverage of problems related to phishing have understandably caused consumers to look at all commercial email messages with a sense of fear, uncertainty and doubt. Phishing has had a far more damaging impact on the email medium than spam. Although spam can be potentially harmful, it is for the most part a source of inconvenience. If a consumer is caught in a phishing net, however, the results are far more damaging and can cause serious personal loss. Following are some trends that will continue to impact email marketing:

ISP blocking of images in high volume messages will increase. The negative impact on the world of email marketing goes well beyond consumer trust. Phishing requires ISPs and mailbox providers to take drastic measures to protect the security of their members. As a result, the challenges facing email marketers will continue to get worse over the coming months before they get better. First, ISPs and mailbox providers are increasingly blocking the use of images in high volume email messages. Microsoft Outlook blocks images by default as does Gmail. America Online follows this practice too. Images are enabled for only a modest number of senders who have managed to get on AOL’s Enhanced Whitelist. Discussions with mailbox providers throughout the industry suggest that most mailbox providers will take similar steps in 2006. DoubleClick reports that the loss of default image presentation was the single biggest reason for the decline in open rates. Trends suggest that 2006 will see a continuing decline in open rates.

The use of whitelisting and the level of privileges provided will decline. In combating the potential damages of phishing attacks, ISPs and mailbox providers struggle with an impossible balancing act-- fighting phishers and spammers, protecting their users and addressing the interests of legitimate volume senders. It’s a losing proposition. The more they attempt to reduce false positives, the greater the likelihood that a nefarious phishing attempt will get through. The whole concept of whitelisting “good” senders is being reconsidered. They have been tricked too often by too many bad actors. Mailbox providers now realize that whitelisting is neither secure, nor scalable, nor economically practical. 

Domain authentication is an important tool but not a silver bullet. We are now beginning to see adoption of domain authentication protocols such as Sender ID and DKIM. This is a good thing. If you haven’t adopted these protocols, you should. Both are very helpful to ISPs in affirming the source of a message but domain authentication protocols are not designed to determine whether the sending entity is legitimate or bogus, nor do they determine whether the sender is well-behaved or not.

What to do

There is a dire need for a definitive solution to restore email reliability and trust. There is no simple or free solution to the problem. There’s no easy way to help consumers know whether a message is safe. No reliable way for ISPs to know that a sender is who he or she claims to be. And there is no assurance for senders that their messages will be delivered to a recipient’s primary inbox and presented as safe. In our own work with major ISPs, however, we are obtaining a clearer vision of what pieces are necessary to make them comfortable providing commercial bulk mailers with special delivery privileges. 

  1. The sending entity must be deeply accredited. There must be a clear path of legal accountability.

  2. A cryptographically secure token (represented as a message header) needs to be embedded into each message that can be detected by mailbox providers and tracked to monitor delivery and volume. This process prevents the unauthorized use of known brands and assures recipients that the message is authentic. We need to cryptographically tokenize volume so each can be securely tracked and the volume monitored.

  3. Senders need to respect permissions and unsubscribe requests and they must be willing to have their sending behavior measured to assure compliance with, and respect for, use policies.

  4. Economics must be added to the mix to prevent gaming, to properly motivate list management and to share the spam cost burden now entirely borne by the mailbox provider (estimated by the Messaging Anti-Abuse Working Group at $8 to $12 per mailbox per year).

These are the pieces that need to come together so that ISPs can provide their users with the assurance that messages from commercial mailers are authentic and safe, and feel secure in providing qualified senders with enhanced delivery and image-presentation privileges. 

This type of comprehensive solution will require marketers to take additional steps and spend a bit more money. Most email marketers would agree it’s worth reasonable additional expense. Even in its damaged state, email is the most effective medium marketers have ever used. It will be even more valuable once we can give consumers the level of reliability and trust they deserve and have come to expect.

Richard Gingras is co-founder and CEO of Goodmail Systems. Goodmail Systems created the CertifiedEmail service, the highest standard in email certification, to provide a safe and reliable class of email for the benefit of consumers, legitimate senders and mailbox providers.

For 25 years, Gingras has led pioneering development efforts in online services and new media, including satellite networking for television, data distribution over television, content programming, proprietary and web-based online services and various platform technologies. In recent years, he has guided many new ventures including Audio Mill (merged into Real Networks), web applications platform provider Laszlo Systems, custom book publisher MyPublisher and broadband applications platform developer Sugar Media (merged into 2Wire). Between 1996 and 2000, Gingras led online service efforts at @Home (which later became [email protected]) including the broadband and narrowband portal divisions, and most recently as SVP and general manager of the company's consumer-focused product division, Excite Studios. In the early '90s he led the development of the eWorld online service at Apple Computer and in 1979 created the first interactive set top-based news magazine in a partnership with CBS, NBS and PBS.


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