Zombie email: Part 3


Last week, in Zombie email: part 1 and part 2 I talked a little about the history of email addresses and how changes in the ISP industry in the early to mid 2000’s brought about the rise of zombie email addresses. Today we’ll look at the effect zombie addresses have on email stats and why ISPs are starting to monitor zombie addresses.
A zombie address, despite the fervent belief of some email marketers, doesn’t come back to life. The person who initially registered that address has decided to stop using that email address.  The defining factor of a zombie address is that there isn’t now and won’t be anyone in the future reading email sent to that address. There is no human there to read or react to any email sent to that address.
A zombie address does not represent an actual recipient, they’re just remnants of a recipient that once was present.
Having a list containing any significant number of zombie addresses can throw off metrics enough to mislead a sender about the effectiveness of their email marketing program. Sometimes, the zombie addresses make the metrics look worse, sometimes they make metrics look better. In either case, the metrics don’t accurately represent the performance of a marketing program.
Zombie email addresses do bulk out a mailing list, making lists look bigger. They’re not real addresses, so they don’t reflect quality, but they do impress marketers that think bigger is always better. But, in reality, you may as well add thousands of addresses at non-existent domains for the real value these addresses bring to your list.
Zombie email addresses on a list depresses any metric that use “number of emails sent” or “number of emails accepted” as a denominator.  If 10% of a list is zombie addresses, then an open rate reported as 15% will actually be an open rate of 16.7%. The more zombie addresses on a list, the more the statistics will be depressed.
In addition to having lower open rates, lists with more zombie addresses also have a lower complaint rate. In fact, in the recent past spammers have padded their lists with zombie addresses as a way to artificially lower their complaint rates.
Spammers using addresses created just to bulk up the denominator and lower complaint rates have led ISPs to start monitoring the types of addresses on a particular list. I first heard about ISPs looking at recipient profiles at a meeting in 2006, so it is not, in any way, a new technique for ISPs. What is new is the number of zombie addresses on legitimate, well maintained lists, and the fact that they are present in high enough volume to affect reputation and delivery.
ISPs use zombie addresses to monitor the reputation of a sender because it is a more accurate way to measure what the recipients think about an email and that sender. Senders ignore zombie addresses because they make some stats look bigger (total list size) and better (lower complaint rates). Many senders also believe that addresses come back to life, despite all evidence to the contrary, and will not purge an address for any reason other than it bounces. They’d rather live with inaccurate and misleading metrics than removing non-performing addresses.
Tomorrow, in the final post of this series, we’ll examine how senders can identify potential zombie addresses and what steps they can take protect themselves from the negative reputation hit from zombie addresses. (Zombie Apocalypse)

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