That old ESP magic

Eva Paris via Flickr

Recently I was involved in a mostly-serious conversation with some industry folks that centered around political mailings and how they get routed to the spam folder vs. the inbox. As the conversation went on, some of the points discussed got me thinking on the unrealistic expectations many senders (political or otherwise) can have when it comes to working with an email service provider or consultant.


These expectations usually revolve around what I like to call “ESP magic.” The term refers to the mystical ability to get mail routed to the inbox, regardless of the quality of the list or the engagement of the recipients. Many senders are convinced that every ESP deliverability expert wields this extraordinary power, and with that power comes a great responsibility – to get their mail to the inbox, period. I couldn’t count the number of times in my career I’ve heard a client say, “it’s your job to get my email delivered” – but that’s only half true. Every deliverability expert is tasked with getting the best possible delivery results for their clients, whether they work with an ESP or separately, but for many senders that’s where their view of the delivery team stops. It’s often “fix my spam folder placement or else.”

What these senders fail to realize is the other (and arguably more important) part of the delivery pro’s responsibility: education. No one can get you to the inbox consistently if you’re sending to outdated, purchased, or scraped lists with no engagement. That blacklist isn’t going to remove you if you keep sending to spam traps – no matter who reaches out to ask. As delivery folk, we can look for common symptoms and take necessary steps (blacklist delisting, ISP remediation, etc.), but often the root of these problems lies in the quality of the lists or the sending practices of the marketer.

The real “ESP magic” comes from years of experience, research, testing, and even failing that have taught us all what to do (and not to do) to reach the inbox. The hours of industry conversations at various events and in online discussions that once had the effect of meeting the “right person” to resolve issues at a specific ISP. Now they help shine light on best vs. worst practices, ISP requirements, and advances on both the sender and receiver sides of the aisle. It’s our job to compile that knowledge and present it to senders in a way that helps get mail delivered while also improving the email ecosystem.

If you want to reach the inbox, you have to start by learning how to reach the inbox. And if you’re ready to learn, we’ll be happy to teach you.

– BG


Shield your sender reputation

capshield05UPDATE: The webinar is over, but don’t worry! You can download the recorded version here. 

Do you know how a blacklist works? How about a blocklist? Did you know there’s a difference?

Or that complying with anti-spam laws doesn’t guarantee a good reputation?

If not, don’t worry – most senders have lots of questions when it comes to sender reputation.

Chances are, you’re probably doing something right now that could get your IP address or domain blacklisted, which could have a major impact on your email deliverability. And even if you’re not, there’s likely more you could be doing to safeguard your sender reputation.

Tomorrow afternoon, I’m hosting a webinar designed to break down how blacklists work, what happens when you’re listed, and some steps you can take to help ensure your reputation is in top form. It’s at 2pm EST, and you can sign up at the link below.

If you can’t make the webinar but still have questions about reputation or blacklists, feel free to post in the comments here or email me!

– BG

Why buy the cow when you can get the whitepaper for free?

Durham_Bull_flip_sideRecently I’ve been helping a client who has been hitting spam trap addresses. Like most senders we see, they weren’t doing anything malicious but needed improvement in some of their practices. One of these practices involved their method for collecting data via whitepaper downloads, and it’s an error I’ve seen a lot of marketers repeating.

It’s not exactly a secret that one of the best list growth strategies is to offer useful resources – such as whitepapers, webinars, and other best practice guides – that require the recipient’s email address to receive the content. However, mishandling the sign-up process can lead to delivery headaches – most of which can be avoided by following some simple rules.

  1. Require an email open to download the resource. In the case of the client I mentioned earlier, users who entered their details were immediately taken to a download link for the whitepaper. There was no confirmation required, and no incentive for the recipient to open (or even look for) emails from the sender.Without this step, users can enter any information they please in that contact form. This can lead to hard bounces if the address doesn’t exist, complaints if the address exists but belongs to someone else, and possibly even spam trap hits. I’ve even heard anecdotally from anti-spam advocates who will intentionally use monitored or trap addresses for these types of forms (see #2 for more on that).You could include a direct link to the resource in the email or link to a specified landing page where the resource is located.
  2. Be transparent about your intentions. If you plan to send ongoing marketing messages to the recipient, say so. I’ve heard so many senders argue that anyone who submits the form knows to expect email from them, and that may be true in many cases. But I can assure you that appealing a block from a blacklist provider or ISP with the assertion that they “should have expected” your email isn’t going to get you very far.As with any opt-in form, you should set clear expectations of the type and frequency of mailings you intend to send. Whether it’s quarterly industry updates, daily news nuggets, or anything in between, the recipient should know exactly what to expect. Don’t limit yourself to bland legalese copy – let them know about all the great information they can get and how often they’ll see it in their inboxes.When these expectation are not set (most of the time in my experience), the likelihood of getting bogus information greatly increases. Even those users who provide accurate data will be more likely to report the message as spam later if proper expectations are not set at the time of sign-up.
  3. Provide value beyond the download. If you’ve gotten a reader to provide their (valid) information in exchange for a resource, they’ve already indicated they see value in your content. Your challenge now becomes giving them continued value. You can start this with those proper expectations mentioned above: promise the reader lots of engaging, relevant, and effective content in their regular email updates, then make sure you deliver it!Providing value to your subscribers helps your delivery by ensuring that recipients remain engaged with your content, which in turn helps improve delivery rates.

Much like contests or social media promotions, providing resources in exchange for email addresses can provide a boost to your email list growth efforts as long as you keep these principles in mind.

– BG

The persistent lie of “targeted” purchased lists

ecto1aIn recent days, I’ve noticed a few missed calls from an unfamiliar phone number based out in Southern California’s beautiful San Fernando Valley. Once or twice I’ve even answered but there was no one on the other end. Today, I finally got to speak with the man behind these mysterious phone calls.

“Hello Mr. Bradley, this is [mumbled] from [mumbled] and we have many databases of qualified leads. I’d love to go ahead and send over some samples. Do you do any email marketing?”

I understand Mr. Mumbles has a job to do, so I didn’t want to be too hard on him. I politely (but somewhat incredulously) informed him that I was in fact the person in charge of making sure purchased leads don’t get sent through our system, and that it was best for all parties if he kindly removed us from his database.

We could simply laugh this off as poor targeting, but think about it in a different perspective: what if you bought this list? What if you sent me an unsolicited email as a result? Not only did he have me in his database, but he didn’t know if I did email marketing – even though he called me on a phone number owned by an ESP! If he has my details in that list, it’d be a smart bet he also has the contact details of others in the anti-abuse and deliverability industry, and probably more than a few spam trap addresses.

But my list broker is different!

Unfortunately, they’re not.

Think about your in-house contact database – customers, paid members, newsletter subscribers, and others. How large is that list? And what did it cost you to acquire that list? Now, let’s ask the most pertinent question: would you sell it?

You likely answered “no” to that question, but if you didn’t, what price would be adequate to profit from selling your list? To compensate for the time and effort you put into building that list, you’d have to see a pretty high premium, right?

Why would any list broker be willing to sell a much larger list for a smaller fee? If the list is as qualified and targeted as they claim, surely they had to expend significant resources to acquire it – does the cost reflect that?

The sad truth is that even the most reputable list vendor is selling a list of indeterminate origin, and full of people who have never even heard of you. They didn’t ask for your emails and – if they’re even a real person – they will be far more likely to report you as spam than actually buy your product or service. Recent statistics put the response rate of emails sent to purchased lists at just over 1 percent. Is that worth the potential of trashing your sender reputation and seeing mail to your confirmed subscribers delivered to the spam folder or outright blocked?

– BG



Return Path will offer Certification for Domain Reputation

ReturnPath-LogoReturn Path has long been a fixture in the email delivery community as a provider of tools for monitoring and improving inbox delivery rates, in addition to their newer data and intelligence products. One of Return Path’s most well-known offerings is their Return Path Certified program (formerly Sender Score Certification), which provides some additional metrics and benefits at certain ISPs for senders who meet the high standards of the program.

Certification has previously been available only to clients on a dedicated IP with an established sending history, but today the company announced their forthcoming Domain Certification – allowing senders on shared IPs and pools to use their domain reputation as the basis for certification.

With so much of the industry moving towards domain-based reputation and the advent of IPv6, this allows many good but small or inconsistent senders to reap the benefits of the program. Over the years I’ve personally worked with many clients who wanted to be certified but didn’t qualify, so I’m sure there’s a sizable market for this service. It will be interesting to see how the benefits at different ISPs play out – are they the same as the IP certification? Given that not all ISPs weigh domain reputation as heavily as IP, it seems there would have to be at least minor changes.

Domain Certification is currently in beta, but senders interested in beta testing can reach out to the Return Path team through the link posted above to get involved.

– BG

Google: TLS auth warnings work, malicious link warnings now more prominent

Today on the Google Security blog, the email giant took a moment to laud the success of their “lock icon” indicating that a sender or recipient of an email doesn’t support TLS encryption. The post indicates Google has seen a 25% increase in the amount of inbound mail authenticated with TLS in just 44 days since the change was implemented.

In light of this success, Google has teamed up with Comcast, Microsoft, Yahoo, and others to draft an IETF spec for “SMTP Strict Transport Security.” This protocol, if implemented, would dictate that all mail is sent using authentication and require any auth failures to be reported to allow for further investigation.

In addition, Google also announced that their potential malicious link warnings, which are currently displayed at the top of the message, will now generate a full-page browser interrupt when one of these links is clicked: Google warning

This behavior will also carry over to the very rare “state-sponsored attack” warnings that are displayed for journalists and activists who may be potential targets for government censorship (or worse).

– BG



The CRTC wants to help you avoid CASL penalties

Canadian TV

Much has been said about the Canadian Anti-Spam Law, CASL, both before and since its effective date in July 2014. On the anti-CASL side, one of the loudest arguments is that the law places undue burden on lawful, legitimate marketers instead of the malicious spam peddlers of the world. However, it seems the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission (CRTC) is trying to address those concerns and reach out to marketers who fear running afoul of CASL regulations.

In an address to the Canadian Marketing Association on Tuesday, CRTC chairman Jean-Pierre Blais reiterated the importance of allowing consumers full control over their digital communication channels. Comparing spam messages to personal violations of privacy, he noted that “[J]ust as we don’t like it when strangers intrude on our personal spaces or show up on our doorsteps, we don’t like it when unwanted messages and annoying calls enter the private spaces of our smartphones.”

Blais went on to address the feelings of many marketers that the CRTC is targeting too many legitimate businesses, asserting “[w]e don’t go out looking for dragons to slay. We much prefer helping marketers comply with the law than enforcing it after they’ve broken it.” Blais’ statement here seems to address the high volume of complaints received by the CRTC that have ostensibly driven most of the penalties assessed thus far. As for his personal preferences on marketing email, he stated “I actually want [brands] to tell me (as a consumer) when they’ve got specials, as long as there is that trusted relationship.”

Later, Blais reminded those in attendance of the new provision of the law coming into force in 2017 that allows private citizens the right to take legal action and seek damages against senders. Along with the reminder came a warning that the CRTC may be the least of some marketers’ worries: “Once there’s a private right of action, I won’t be able to help you … you’re on your own. Good luck with that. All the more reason to get into compliance as much as you can with us, because it will diminish the risk.”

– BG