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Cultural Bias

Guest post by Chris Wheeler

After reading Laura’s and Steve’s posts on the gap between the “senders” and “receivers” (both excellent reads I recommend if you haven’t already done so), it really made me think about why I do what I do and why I think (hopefully not being too narcissistic here) that I’m reasonably good at it.

I was formally educated and then broken in after school with the technology world but have never considered myself a technology purist (I will never author a C# book or program my own killer app). However, I also enjoy people and working with (almost) all of them. Traditionally, these two skillsets have not meshed well in the technology industry to a nontrivial level. So, when I went into deliverability, I was intrigued by the fact that it is as much of a technology, business, marketing and people facing genre as any. And, one of the things I am highly grateful for was that I worked for a sender who really seemed to get it. Of course there were marketing jerks and revenue driven bullies there as well, but my management supported me in really trying to do the right thing by the end email recipient (and in this case, customer).

This helped me shape my view of my role in deliverability and decide which type I wanted to be. Mind you, I have never worked at an ISP. So, my bias is towards the senders. If you have a management team that understands that deliverability is not just a flashy word to throw around, push in prospects’ faces or otherwise excuse away as another service to potentially charge for when not necessarily needed, you’re in a good place. But, you also have to decide what you value as important and ethical for yourself. Unfortunately, there are a lot of folks who are in the deliverability space not because they like the work and are truly looking out for recipients, but rather (and as Steve’s post touches) out there to make money doing anything they can to drive revenue from their perspective without much respect or empathy for the person on the other end of the mailbox. ESPs have been given a bad name in the industry as the aggressors, those who are willing to use and abuse the email ecosystem to get money with no respect to the common rules of “best practices” or recipient perspective. Unfortunately, a lot of folks in the email receiving world have adopted this as their stereotype and dismiss anyone trying to triage a deliverability problem as one who is just wanting to get more emails in an inbox..to generate more opens…to garner more clicks…and ultimately put more cash in their pocket.

This is simply untrue. But, there are a lot of senders who do fit into this category, unfortunately.

The same can be said of ISPs, who seem to be on the defensive all the time and take every piece of incoming mail as having a negative relevancy score attached to the intended recipient and make the sender pay (literally in terms of some accreditation methods) to move towards what they perceive as a positive and user wanted email. The sloppy ISPs rely heavily on using highly automated systems to either do binary blocking outright on certain arbitrary indicators in mail or simply throw their hands up and call anyone not sending a one to one message from someone’s relative or friend spam. Again, though, this is an unfair stereotype that doesn’t apply across the board. I work with many ISPs that do take the time, effort and examination to help recipients get mail they want instead of just outright declaring jihad on mass senders altogether. If you pay close attention, these are also usually those who are very technicallly savvy (and thus breed a desire to keep the internet a free and open exchange for ideas to be messaged, including those that are marketing related and wanted). I enjoy reading the information they post. Our conversations. Listening to what they have to say. And in turn, I believe they do the same of me since they know I’m more about letting numbers and actions speak for themselves as opposed to trying to circumvent any process or “game” them. Numbers and actions, for me, are about spam complaints being driven down, email engagement being up, and benefit being gleaned from the messages sent via whatever method is most appropriate. CNN, for example, sends me transactional breaking news alerts. I may not read every one. And I certainly am not driven to purchase or pay into a service as a result. But, I do enjoy getting these and would be upset if that stream of information stopped. A lot of ISPs get this – the implied and real value I have as a result of knowing what’s going on in any facet of email communication when I don’t have a chance to proactively find out myself.

The rub is that ESPs are paid money to send email (with their hue changing based on types of email they send, the clients they onboard, adherence to their own rules, etc.). But, we are paid to send email (notice “quantity” is intentionally excluded from this sentence). It’s the core product of our systems…deliver communication via electronic mail. ISPs are not paid to receive email. Some ISPs are paid for the images or impressions they drop in which are driven by the mail a user gets being the catalyst for the times they check their mail. Or, some ISPs charge money for email (so in a sense, they are paid to deliver within their own confines of what is spam or not to the customer). Other ISPs just have email as an extension of their existing services (think cable providers or cellular companies) which ultimately can be ear marked for revenue.

So, not all senders are bad; neither are all ISPs good (and vice versa). But, at the end of the day, I can honestly say I don’t have that many problems when dealing with receivers since I tend to only really have a relationship with those I believe are trying to do the right thing, like me, in ensuring recipients get mail they want, need, or otherwise are just glad to have around.I don’t need to be yelled at as an abuser of the internet because I’ve found a living in sending email, as much as a mechanic does for contributing to global warming for putting gasoline burning cars back on the road. Nor, do the ISPs deserve to have fingers waved in their face either when, usually, they’re trying to keep their recipients happy and not melt under the deluge of true spam that technology has brought with it. I’m sure this will inspire some nasty comments, or at the least, a nonplussed double take, but ISPs are businesses as well. They are not run on cookies and rainbows. Same with ESPs. Finding a balance between the two with corporate management pushing down and reinforcing an intermediary relationship that doesn’t engage in an antagonistic or adversarial role is what will win every time.

It’s about the people, the personalities, and a new industry that’s evolved in the aftermath of the advent of spam and marketing mail. But, if your culture is one which doesn’t fit what makes you feel you’re successful or back your mores you’ve developed or adopted over the years, you must realize you’re empowered to make yourself respected and happy. No one else, though. And, at the end of the day, I think the issues between ISPs and ESPs not communicating effectively is more about what the company culture is and how well (or not) they respect and encourage their employees to drive for whatever measurement of success you both share (be it money, recipient satisfaction, client satisfaction, just putting in an honest day’s work, or the fact you get to work from Punxsutawney).

10 comments

  1. The Proverbial Barry says

    Good headline. This entire article is a fine example of cultural bias.

  2. Chris Wheeler says

    What do you mean?

  3. The Other Barry says

    He means the entire article discusses email as if it is comprised only of ESPs and ISPs. This is the cultural bias of ESPs. They tend to forget all the other places that mail comes from and goes to.

  4. Chris Wheeler says

    Ah yes. Although I did mention that ISPs have a deluge of spam to fight off (and by spam, I wasn’t necessarily referring to ESP induced email). 🙂

  5. Neil Schwartzman says

    “ESPs have been given a bad name in the industry as the aggressors, those who are willing to use and abuse the email ecosystem to get money with no respect to the common rules of “best practices” or recipient perspective. […] This is simply untrue. But, there are a lot of senders who do fit into this category, unfortunately.”

    ESPs, some of them, have *earned* a bad name in the industry.

    Why do their peers tolerate, cooperate and profit from waterfalling? Where is the public outcry about such abusive behaviour (waterfalling, for the uninitiated, is when a sender or ESP knowingly takes a very bad list and list-washes it by mailing it over 3rd-party systems, generally cooperative or unwitting ESPs. The list owner usually claims bandwidth constraints or some other claptrap)?

    Annalivia Ford was blunt, as was I about the need for Senders and particularly mass/aggregate senders to step up.

    http://www.annaliviaford.com/2009/12/shell-game.html
    http://www.circleid.com/posts/i_dont_give_damn_about_my_bad_reputation_joan_jett/

    Where is the push, from the ESP end of things for more stringent BCPs and more importantly, for their widespread and strict adoption?

    Where is the public ostracism of bad players? Heck, where is the private ostracism? Sigh, yes, I know, everyone is afraid to be sued for saying the wrong thing. Idea: Say something fact-based like “ESP X just approached us to do some sending on their behalf” on some of the discussion lists, as a caveat for the unaware.

    I disagree with Steve that the issue is primarily who represents a given entity; while that may be the crux of the communication problem, it isn’t at the root of the fundamental issues.

    Abusive behaviour such as what has been mentioned in countless blogposts among a handful of people, all referenced on this blog, are the core issue.

    As Anna & I said, it is time for the ESPs to step up, not merely wish we could all just get along. We clearly aren’t, and some concrete actions must be taken before we will.

    => The opinions contained herein are my personal stance and may not reflect the viewpoint of Return Path Inc.<=

  6. The Other Barry says

    You did, and that is progress. 🙂 The next step is to see if the folks in the ESP community can really wrap their heads around the myriad of other legitimate uses of mail. At the moment, even the folks trying to be helpful still only suggest things that specifically help ESPs. Not out of selfishness or maliciousness, just due to an incomplete perspective. Changes to a system as large and diverse as mail have to take all of those uses into account, or they just create more problems.

  7. Al Iverson says

    As somebody mentioned to me the other day, it’s a shame that 95% of deliverability folks give the rest of us a bad name.

  8. Mike Hillyer says

    Great article Chris. In my work I get to sit down with a lot of “Good” ESPs and it really helps to realize that they are staffed with individuals trying to do the right thing. Of course, I’m dealing with a lot of the technical savvy people so that may impact the profile of the ESP people that I typically deal with.

    And there are good ESPs out there. I’ve talked to ones that won’t go near a waterfalling deal with a ten-foot pole, knowing full well that if another ESP comes to them to send something it’s not going to be pretty, and I even know some who have automation in place to filter mail on egress, halting a customer campaign that trips the filters (that’s not the norm but shows that some take their reputation very seriously).

    As a technology guy, I think a certain amount of the issues with ESPs stepping up has to do with technology, they have to get beyond the basics of assemble and send and use better tools to ensure that what they send maintains their reputation as a sender. Of course I’m a little biased in that regard but it’s producing results.

  9. J.D. says

    Seth Godin just posted an article which seems entirely relevant to this discussion:

    http://sethgodin.typepad.com/seths_blog/2009/12/think-like-me-agree-with-me.html

  10. Chris Wheeler says

    @Neil – There is outcry. It’s just not done in a way that’s highly publicized when staring revenue in the face and for reasons you mention (such as legal, which you mentioned, or a bullying reputation). Leading by example takes a long time. But, there are mailing lists, groups, committees, etc. that those of us really committed to doing the right thing by the recipient (and thus the responsible ISPs) participate in. In my role, I am very vocal internally as well to ensure that folks at least cannot claim ignorance of best practices. One day at a time…

    @Al – Ditto. And makes for a good laugh. 🙂

    @Mike – Thanks for the comment. It is a matter of either shifting (if not already the thought model) or maintaining (if it is) the idea that in the long term strong standards when vetting clients, backchannel communications between trusted partners at other “good” ESPs, and keeping a close on their sending practices when onboarded justifies the loss of revenue in the short term.

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