E-mail Marketing Firms Push Deliverability Offerings

So-called deliverability services are popping up in practically every e-mail service provider’s toolbox, as vendors rush to prove they have what it takes to get marketers’ mail all the way to the inbox.

Responsys was the latest to unveil premium deliverability services for its clients Monday, specifically addressing marketers’ concerns about bounce rates, spam law compliance and false positives.

The Responsys offerings come at least in part through a partnership with ReturnPath. That company, which this year bought deliverability pioneer Assurance Systems, offers e-mail audits, consulting and list hygiene services designed to improve delivery. Additionally, Responsys is making its consultants available to assess compliance with anti-spam legislation and best practices.

Other firms have for months been touting similar tools, pointing clearly to a growing sense of urgency about declines in the delivery of legitimate e-mail — as well as to an eagerness on the part of e-mail marketing firms to get beyond those fears.

Deliverability offerings abound. Responsys partner ReturnPath also provides delivery services to DoubleClick — one of its investors — and several other e-mail service providers (ESPs). The company reports its client list has gone from 30 in June to approximately 100, and the firm expects a further uptick in demand during the coming months.

“This is the hot space right now,” said VP of Marketing Jennifer Wilson. “As marketers try to deal with spam issue and where they fit into that, it’s only going to grow.”

In another example, ESP ExactTarget last week began issuing its own “deliverability report cards” to clients, informing them when they exceed predefined thresholds for bounce rates and spam complaints. For clients with consistently high numbers of both, the e-mail marketing firm will initiate a “deliverability improvement plan” to improve list hygiene and opt-in practices.

“It provides an entirely new method of self-policing that has the fringe benefit of maximizing e-mail delivery rates,” said Chip House, ExactTarget’s VP of privacy and deliverability.

Digital Impact has for some time also offered tools to maintain list hygiene and combat false positives at the ISP, corporate and desktop levels; and DoubleClick has an extensive deliverability infrastructure, including dedicated IP addresses via IronPort boxes. Back in October, e-mail communications firm Socketware launched new services designed to boost e-mail delivery for users of its Accucast marketing product.

“Deliverability services are no longer just nice to have, they are crucial,” said Socketware CEO Michael Pridemore.

Getting Down to Detail

E-mail marketing firms are clearly racing to unveil deliverability offerings that will differentiate their services from the pack. But because of the complexities involved in understanding the issues, it can be difficult for marketers to compare vendors’ services on an apples-to-apples basis.

One of the challenges of the deliverability business is that it’s difficult to even quantify how big of a problem it is. Block rates are notoriously hard to calculate, since most corporate-side and desktop filters don’t bounce messages back to the sender, but simply absorb them. E-mail service providers deploy a number of techniques to attempt to decipher a sender’s ratio of blocked messages, but the process isn’t nearly as cut and dried as one might think.

“Everybody says, ‘Sure we do that,'” said David Lewis, Digital Impact’s VP of deliverability management and ISP Relations. “But do they really?”

To take one example, Lewis cites the reports ISPs are supposed to use to indicate when a sender’s e-mail has been caught in a filter. While an e-mail service provider may claim to monitor such reports, he says very few ISPs consistently issue them.

“Having an ability to capture and correctly interpret what the ISPs are telling you about the delivery of your e-mail is important,” Lewis said. “But if you’re relying on those records, you’re not doing it right.”

It’s just this sort of ambiguity that has many marketers in a panic and frequently unsure where to turn for deliverability aid. When asked to identify their biggest concern, 31 percent of e-mail marketers pointed to blacklists and spam filters, and 22 percent cited bounces and e-mail address changes. A mere 8 percent mentioned anti-spam legislation.

Further complicating the problem is the lack of a clear definition of deliverability, one that takes into account not only mistakes on the parts of filters and blacklists, but also best practices on the parts of marketers. According to Lewis, marketers are often uninterested in altering their own e-mail practices, which are frequently the root of the problem.

“When I look at deliverability issues our clients are having, I’d guess 80 to 90 percent stem from problems that are more on the client’s side than from anything we can do as a service structure,” he said, adding that it’s crucial marketers not distance themselves from the basics of maintaining a business relationship with consumers.

“For the most part, clients don’t understand this,” said Digital Impact’s Lewis. “They turn to us and say, ‘Damn it, solve this problem. Make sure my mail gets through.'”

He added, however, that he believes this attitude is gradually changing, and that clients are coming to understand they must actively engage in managing customer permissions, sending relevant messages and maintaining lists.

“It’s not about how you evade the filters at MSN or Hotmail,” he said. “It’s about differentiating yourself from spammers in the eyes of the consumer, the ISP and even the legislator.”

Ultimately, according to DoubleClick spokesperson Dave Frankland, it may be a little bit backward to think in terms of simply getting through to the inbox. Instead, we should be thinking in terms of our relationship.

“If we’re having this conversation in a year’s time, it hopefully won’t be about how to get in the inbox, but about how to find the right person with the right message,” said Frankland.

And how might such a utopia come about? Many believe ISPs, marketers and outside vendors will jointly develop e-mail authentication tactics making it impossible to spoof a sender’s address. In theory, this would greatly reduce the volume of spam and, along with it, the need for voracious filters that sometimes result in false positives. Traces of such a future may be found in bonded identity programs such as those offered by IronPort or Vanquish.

“It’s crucial that we separate the good guys from the bad guys, so we can effectively deal with the bad guys, and most importantly, differently treat the good guys,” said Lewis. “I don’t think we’re too far away from that. Unfortunately, it won’t be in time for this holiday season.”

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