How can I act on bounce data when the ISPs and other domains don't always provide accurate information?

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The reliability of bounce data is a legitimate concern that was raised by both mailers and ESPs in a recent Email Experience Council (EEC) survey.

However, this concern cannot become an excuse for e-mail marketers not making good use of the data that are provided, leveraging bounce management systems that allow them to "see" the data, and agreeing on common definitions for the actions to be taken. The EEC survey found these to be significant problems as well.

There are initiatives under way at the Messaging Anti-Abuse Working Group (MAAWG), an industry trade group principally comprising ISPs and other receivers, to address the consistency of e-mail delivery notices and policies. Sender organizations, such as the Email Sender & Provider Coalition (ESPC), as well as many individual companies, are engaged with ISPs on this issue as well. While improved ISP transparency is crucial, it's important to recognize that it will take time to adopt and implement the appropriate changes.

In the meantime, e-mail marketers must make the best use of the bounce data they get from ISPs today. This means you need a bounce management capability that enables you to distinguish failures due to undeliverable records, such as bad address, from those due to practices ISPs find unacceptable, such as spam blocks. Visibility is the key to diagnosing deliverability problems and to driving corrective actions. The last thing you want to do is retain bad records while dropping good ones, or to remail into an ISP without rectifying the practice problem that may have precipitated a block.

In terms of invalidating bad records, a good bounce management system will assign confidence codes to the bounce data received from different ISPs. You should use these data in building your retry and invalidation rules. Applying a universal three- or five-bounce rule is not the best strategy; doing nothing is a recipe for disaster.

Dave Lewis is an e-mail marketing consultant. He was most recently VP-market and product strategy at StrongMail Systems.

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