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ISP policies make reputation key to e-mail deliverability

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If you’ve been sending e-mail marketing messages, you’ve probably noticed a significant development over the past six months to a year: Deliverability now has more to do with reputation than it does with message content.

“Clients are always looking for a better understanding of what happens to their e-mails when they don’t make it into the in-box,” said Dave Dabbah, director of sales and marketing at e-mail marketing firm Lyris. “We’ve seen that ISPs are constantly putting new policies in place, and those policies relate to reputation best practices.”

George Bilbrey, VP-general manager at Return Path’s Sender Score division, agreed: “The thing that’s constant today is the importance of reputation,” he said. “Six months ago, content was an ISP’s first line of defense. Mail would be filtered or blocked based on content. Now, if someone’s reputation is really bad, their messages will be blocked at the gateway. We’ve done analysis [showing] that well over 80% of all mail problems are caused by reputation.”

Figuring out why your reputation is tarnished is never easy, but today there are three new ISP policies and strategies in place that will help marketers proactively monitor their reputation, Dabbah said.

One of the first—the use of “Unsubscribe” buttons alongside or under a “Report Spam” button—can significantly reduce the number of false spam reports you receive. Because the number of spam reports directly correlates with a marketer’s reputation, this is one of the most helpful policies, and one that marketers need to consider when designing their e-mail messages, Dabbah said. It won’t matter, however, unless you include the list unsubscribe header in your original e-mail.

The second ISP addition is deferral throttling. Simply put, this is the process ISPs use to set limits on the number of e-mails a sender is allowed to deliver in a specific time period. “Throttling is based on sender metrics that are tracked by IP and domain,” Dabbah explained. “This year, many senders have seen ISPs start using deferrals instead of hard bounces to enforce their throttling policies.”

This is a good thing because it lets marketers know that while their addresses may be good, their reputation may not be. They’ve either garnered too many spam complaints, sent e-mail to spam trap addresses or sent e-mails to too many unknown users—or a combination of the three, Return Path’s Bilbrey said. As long as they’ve scoured their metrics and lists to weed out bad addresses, and have proof that they’ve always unsubscribed readers when they received such requests, they can go to an ISP and ask how to fix the problem, he said.

“You can say, ‘I’ve done my homework. I’ve looked at data and I can’t find an issue. Can you tell me what I’m doing wrong?’ Then you can ask the ISP to temporarily unblock you as you fix the problem,” he said.

Another tip: You can pre-empt problems by having one dedicated IP address for all new addresses so that, if there’s a problem, it doesn’t affect your mature, larger list.

The last new policy also relates to feedback—so-called feedback loops, which provide message-specific details about messages that subscribers have reported as spam.

This is significant because marketers can see where their complaints are coming from. For example, are their co-registration partners providing bad addresses? Are their own salespeople to blame?

“It gives us and our clients the ability to process abuse reporting so we can help our clients take those people off their lists who appear not to be happy with e-mails being sent,” Dabbah said.

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