Authentication solutions bolster trust in e-mail

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E-mail remains a key tactic for marketers. But, with large numbers of e-mail recipients reporting wariness about opening messages due to concerns about spam, security, privacy or viruses, e-mail marketing companies, ISPs and marketers are doing everything they can to keep the faith and restore trust.

"Our key challenge is to restore the trust and reliability to e-mail," said R. David Lewis, VP-market development at StrongMail Systems, an e-mail infrastructure software company. "Both are crucial to the viability of the channel for communication and commerce."

This is not a new problem. E-mail industry executives have been struggling for months with problems of their own related to the efficiency of e-mail marketing, particularly deliverability issues.

The average rate of gross e-mail deliverability of permission-based e-mail marketing messages for U.S. and European ISPs and ESPs fell in the third quarter of 2005 to 87%, from 90% in the second quarter. (Gross e-mail deliverability is the total number of messages delivered to e-mail in-boxes and bulk folders divided by the number of messages sent.)

Last month, the Direct Marketing Association took a stand at its annual conference in Atlanta by announcing it has required all members to adopt e-mail authentication standards as a condition of membership.

The DMA also issued an update of its "E-Mail Delivery Best Practices for Marketers and List Owners" in October to help e-mailers better ensure deliverability, as well as help them navigate the complex requirements, regulations and laws associated with e-mail.

Authentication growing

Meanwhile, the Email Service Provider Coalition, a 3-year-old organization of 80 members-including ESPs, ISPs, mail transfer agents, application and solution developers, and deliverability solution providers-last week announced what it hailed as good news: the results of an industry survey that demonstrate strong adoption of e-mail authentication protocols by major marketers. More than 70% of Fortune 100 companies use at least one authentication protocol on outbound e-mail, ESPC said.

Ironically, the financial services industry had relatively low adoption of authentication standards, despite the fact that it is the biggest target of phishing scams.

Last month, Goodmail Systems said it will deploy an e-mail certification service, a kind of e-mail seal of approval, on AOL and Yahoo!'s e-mail platforms. AOL and Yahoo! are the first ISPs to adopt the Mountain View, Calif.-based company's CertifiedEmail service, which is designed to protect users from spam, fraud and phishing attempts.

The service involves placing a "trust symbol" in the e-mail that designates it as certified. That enables it to bypass filters that often relegate legitimate e-mail to the spam pile.

Senders are charged a per-transaction fee, shared with Goodmail's ISP partners. Users will start seeing certified e-mail by the end of this year or in early 2006, according to the company.

"We're creating a safe class of e-mail where the messages are categorically authenticated and safe for the user," said Richard Gingras, chairman-CEO of Goodmail. "The two core issues in the e-mail environment are lack of e-mail delivery-even the best of messages get snared by filters-and second is the lack of user trust in incoming messages."

In addition to the ISPs, StrongMail Systems, Port25 Solutions and Coldspark, all e-mail infrastructure software providers for e-mail senders, have agreed to incorporate Goodmail's service into their products.

Disagreement over solutions

While industry stakeholders agree that e-mail's problems continue to affect the industry, there is still disagreement over solutions. Authentication tools exist, developed with the ISPs, and certification and accreditation products such as Bonded Sender and Habeas also offer solutions to allow the e-mail marketplace to attempt to further legitimize mail.

Des Cahill, CEO of Habeas, said he thinks Goodmail's new product is a bad idea because it allows spammers to buy a good reputation.

"It says to the sender, `There's an easy way, and you don't have to clean up your list,' " Cahill said. "For those who can afford it, you can buy your way into peoples' in-boxes. It encourages sloppy e-mail practices."

Gingras disagreed. "That is categorically false," he said. "You have to be a legitimate entity. If a sender is properly following policies, maintaining good lists, then they will be fine and their privileges will be continued, but if their complaints are out of bounds, then they will lose their privileges."

Room for everyone

StongMail's Lewis said the industry is better served by working together, and suggested there is room for everyone. "Habeas, Goodmail and Bonded Sender are all partners of ours," he said.

"I see Goodmail's market entry and AOL and Yahoo! participation in [Goodmail's] solution as significant validation," Lewis said. "It's validation of sender accountability as the right strategy to rid the channel of both abusive e-mail practices-spam, spoofing, phishing-and the irrational filters that today degrade both trust and reliability. It's also validation that we've got momentum in implementing this strategy, particularly in light of the Direct Marketing Association's recent mandate on authentication."

Lewis added: "I see the `pay to spam' comment as counterproductive to the broader interests of legitimate senders. We need multiple reputation services in this space."

Trevor Hughes, executive director of the Email Service Provider Coalition, agreed: "I think it's always encouraging to see new and innovative solutions," he said, but cautioned it is too early to claim victory in the war on spam.

"There's no silver bullet," he said. "Spam is not going to be cleaned up with one broom. ... We need to start from a platform of accountability, and then move on to accreditation and reputation systems. Those things will give us a healthier e-mail ecosystem that draws brighter lines between those who are accountable for what they are sending and those who are not." 

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