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Technology does not trump policy when it comes to delivery

Recently Ken Magill wrote an article looking at how an ESP was attempting to sell him services based on the ESPs ‘high deliverability rates.’ I commented that Ken was right, and I still think he is.
Ken has a followup article today. In the first part he thanks Matt Blumberg from Return Path for posting a thoughtful blog post on the piece. Matt did have a very thoughtful article, pointing out that the vast majority of things affecting delivery are under the control of the list owner, not under the control of the ESP. As they are both right, I clearly agree with them. I’ve also posted about reputation and delivery regularly.

While some of us agree wholeheartedly with Ken, he did receive comments from a few delivery people indicating they thought that ESPs should talk about how their technology could improve delivery for senders. Having had experience with customers of most (if not all) of the major ESPs, I would argue that most of the ESPs have roughly equivalent technology. Some may have slightly different bells and whistles, but those bells and whistles are not going to improve delivery on their own.
One commenter says, “ESP technology completely varies, and as ISPs increase ‘throttling’, the ESPs that can optimize throughput will have dramatically better deliverability than others.” What’s wrong with this statement? Nothing is wrong on the surface, it makes sense if you don’t know much about delivery and ISP rate limiting. However, in the last 12 – 18 months ISPs have really moved from one rate limit for all senders to dynamic limits based on the reputation and type of mail coming from a particular source.  Throttling at the major ISPs is mostly controlled by  reputation – they are dynamically assigning rate limits based on a senders’ short term and medium term reputation. If your ESP has to implement technology in order to cope with those limits on your behalf then your delivery through that ESP, by definition, has a problem.
Moving to an ESP that can dynamically “adjust” to ISP imposed limits may improve delivery over the short term, but will not do anything to fix the underlying reputation issues that are prompting the ISPs to throttle mail.
Another commenter says, “Some ESPs have better support structure in place than others, whether it’s technology, staff, or approach, to make marketers more successful.” I agree with some of this. Some ESPs do have better techology and staff and will hold marketers hands and help them improve delivery. In most cases, this revolves around actually making the marketers into better senders, teaching them about best practices and even forcing the sender to make changes or find another ESP. Rarely does the actual SMTP technology factor into this improvement.
There are a lot of technical things that ESPs could do to improve delivery, but that many (most?) of them don’t do. Two of the more obvious things ESPs could do technically to facilitate delivery improvements are:

  1. Send VALID and w3c compliant HTML mail. This is pretty easy to do with off the shelf or open source technology, but most ESPs don’t do any cleanup of the email format. Invalid HTML will hurt delivery. HTML from a MS Word document pasted into an email creates ugly, uncompliant, messy HTML that looks a whole lot like spam to ISP filters.
  2. Use data mining techniques to identify potential problem customers before mail is sent. I know one ESP is doing this very successfully, but most ESPs deal with problems reactively instead of proactively. It is better for everyone concerned if bad mail is caught before it goes out, not after.

Overall, I am a big supporter of ESPs. I think their technology and their policy expertise makes them a good vendor for the average company wanting to use email marketing. I think, though, that delivery and deliverability are under the control of the sender, not the ESP. An ESP that attempts to sell the idea that the technology is more important than practices and policies is misleading both themselves and their customers.

4 comments

  1. Nicolas Toper says

    Hi Laura,
    The two points you describe are actually exactly what our company is about. We provide a simple SMTP gateway that do that exactly: we rewrite HTML into W3C compliant (and add compliance messages) and are able to identify a problematic delivery (we work at the delivery level, not the customers). We don’t send it and our customers are very happy because it protects their user base.

  2. Tami Forman says

    Great post Laura! I think you’ve articulated this really well. I actually think the analogy that both Ken and Matt made to response rates is quite apt. ESPs can help clients achieve higher response with a combination of cool technical features and strategic consulting services. But everyone knows that the client is only going to improve response by using the tools in the right way and taking the strategic advice. No one thinks that because the ESP’s average response rates are higher (or, it should be said, lower) than most that they have better (or worse) technology. Same with deliverability. The technical things that ESPs can do to influence inbox placement rates should be considered table stakes. If they offer additional support and services around deliverability they should absolutely sell that value proposition. But that is very different from what Ken’s original post was complaining about — “Hey, come work with us, our delivery rates are more than 90%!”
    Cheers,
    Tami Forman, Return Path

  3. Al Iverson says

    Great post, I like this a lot. Maybe it highlights more than anything that salespeople have to learn to be more accurate and more nuanced, if they want to be respected. And if, by extension, they want their employer to be respected. I’d be embarrassed for my employer if I had any sales colleagues spouting drivel like this.

  4. Mike Hillyer says

    I think a good analogy is golf clubs: A good golfer can get a better set of clubs and achieve a better game. A bad golfer can get a better set of clubs and his game is just as bad. Better tools on their own can’t improve a bad situation.

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