MAAWG: Not a Marketing Conference


There seems to be this great misunderstanding among a huge number of email marketers and delivery professionals that MAAWG is some sort of marketing or marketing related conference.
They’re wrong.
MAAWG is the Messaging Anti-Abuse Working Group. The intention of the group is to provide a setting where companies providing internet services can work together to stop abuse. Email is one of the major platforms talked about, but there are also discussions about other forms of messaging abuse.
This conference is unique both in its content and in the people who attend. For many ISP reps this is their sole opportunity to get together with peers, former co-workers and friends. Many of the ISP folks are actually low to mid-level employees who are working the front lines fighting abuse every day. MAAWG is a chance for them to work and socialize with people who understand their jobs and the challenges associated with handling abuse on a daily basis. It’s a place to look at the larger issues and blow off steam.
There are a number of folks who show up at the conference that don’t deal with abuse in any capacity, however. They don’t have to deal with rampant levels of spam heavy enough to take down a mailserver. They don’t have to deal with the horror that is child porn. They don’t have to deal with angry subscribers. They don’t have to deal with criminals.
In short, they’re not abuse desk folks. They are, at best, a delivery person but more often are some high level executive at a marketing firm. These folks treat MAAWG as a place to wheedle business cards and contacts from the ISP reps. Stop abuse? The only abuse they see is that their email isn’t instantly delivered to the inbox.  Spam? That’s what other people send. Phishing? Child porn? Not important.
All too many of them are not even subtle or coy about the fact that their only concern is finding contacts. One ISP rep tells the story of some marketer that followed him into the bathroom and attempted to trade business cards while the ISP person was at the urinal. Make no mistake, this is not an isolated incident. The badgering is so bad that some ISP reps refuse to state who their employer is.
The ISP folks are there to actually spend time with their peers and y’know, do actual work. ISP reps are not there to get hassled by dozens of marketers.
To be fair, a number of ESPs send delivery folks who are actually working to stop abuse. They do chase spammers through their systems. They do deal with criminals. Unfortunately, because they are from ESPs they are prohibited from actually working with the ISPs.
Why? Because so many of the ESP reps aren’t actually there to stop abuse that MAAWG has had to draw firm lines between ESPs and ISPs to make the ISP reps feel comfortable. I can’t fault MAAWG for that even as I can see there are ESP reps who perform the exact same job functions as the ISP reps.
The ESPs have created this situation. Instead of sending folks on their side who deal with messaging abuse, they send high level executives and marketers. They send people who think that the ISPs owe them something. That believe the ISPs will let mail through just because they shared a beer at the conference. That believe there is some inner circle and if they join they can find out the secret sauce so they can get their mail through filters. They send people who think that ISPs should be forced to sit at a table and listen to marketers yell about “the false positive problem.”
This isn’t to say ESPs and marketing companies shouldn’t join MAAWG and go to conferences. There’s a lot of abuse that both groups have to deal with. But MAAWG isn’t a marketing conference. Sending only marketers or executives to the conference not only misses the point of the organization, it actively sabotages it.

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  • Hi Laura!
    As a deliverability manager for a medium sized ESP, I regularly audit/cancel accounts of clients who abuse our system, as we allow a complaint rate of 1 out of 1000 emails sent. I also try to help legitimate clients achieve the best inbox rate that I can, but this is not always the case, due to ISPs sending email(s) into the bulk/junk folder. Personally, I think we have some of the best standards requiring our clients to prove that their contact lists are not bought nor that they will send spam through our system.
    I was actually going to attend the MAAWG conference (work kept me away) for the first time, not to lobby to ISP reps, but to learn how we can best work together, and how my position can best interact with ISP abuse desk reps.
    I’ll tell you plainly, compared to you and Al Iverson, I’m a rookie, so say this with my hand over my heart, I do not want to bother ISPs, I want to evolve and learn to become the best damn deliverability manager for both ends of this business, for the ISPs and my clients. I just wish there was a face-to-face forum for us interact in, because postmaster@ just isn’t cutting it.

  • RJ: the problem with your idea, wonderful as it is (no sarcasm, it would be awesome), is that ISPs are chronically understaffed and underfunded, and have no time at all to “interact in a face to face forum”. When the AOL postmaster team was at its peak it was 14 people, serving 30+ million subscribers and a whole world of ISPs and ESPs. When my team was destroyed, it was down to 3 people and one of them was a programmer, not someone working tickets. We didn’t have time to eat lunch, pee, take vacation, or be sick, and we certainly had no time to help marketers get their mail delivered. Marketing mail Just Does Not Matter when you have millions of subscribers relying on you to get their mail from Mom or Grandma safely into their inbox, and to keep spam from flooding it. AOL was unique in that for a few years it had a body (me) dedicated to the kind of interaction you yearn for, but in the last two years of my time there I was moved away from that to “helping people at a less granular level”…and that was before the recession really hit. Now? ISPs are trying to keep their servers from falling over, trying to keep their clients happy, and really, truly do not care at all if our marketing messages get where we want them to go. If the problem we have is one that could affect 1:1 mail, then they will look at it. If not…good luck. Even if you manage to find one to speak to in person, they’ll just tell you to go away, fix your mail stream and leave them alone to try and do the thankless work that eats their lives.
    Not trying to be mean. It’s just the way it is. And Laura is absolutely right about the MAAWG.

  • I’ve worked on both sides of the fence, as a mail admin at an ISP dealing with abuse complaints, and dealing with deliverability at an ESP; and I can say that attitudes like The Proverbial Barry’s don’t have to be the case, although it’s hard to avoid given the amount of scum floating around. It’s a shame that people get soured like that.

  • As a marketer I found MAAWG to be a great place to sit back and listen. There are very few places where one can get such a clear picture of what we are all up against in technology. And it is a great place to meet people who share your frustrations.
    As a human I found the numerous “why isn’t my mail special?” arguments rather like watching a young child throw a temper tantrum.
    I can certainly understand why Laura wrote this piece as dealing with such things year after year must eventually get old.
    However I must say that such sentiment has the potential to scare away some of the few marketers who are actually there to learn and do right for the industry.

  • Anyone that wants to go to MAAWG to actually *learn* has enough smarts to know who Laura is, and why she would post this. That is to say, they’re not part of the problem.

  • Hey, RJ — one thing I would recommend is not telling us your entire resume and your ESP’s policies when opening a discussion…that’s a marketer n00b thing to do…it comes off as wanting everybody to instantly accept you as golden because you promise that you stomp spammers. Problem is, EVERYbody promises to stomp spammers, and half of the people who say it are lying. Let the actions speak louder than your words.

  • “One ISP rep tells the story of some marketer that followed him into the bathroom and attempted to trade business cards while the ISP person was at the urinal. Make no mistake, this is not an isolated incident. ”
    Indeed. When I worked for Return Path Certification area I too was followed into the men’s room because someone had an urgent issue, apparently more urgent than my issue. Happily his boss was in there too, and I was able to voice my displeasure in no uncertain terms.

  • Dealing with attacks related phish, abuse, spam etc … and an abuse desk in general is a hectic task. When ISP folks get the opportunity to sit in the same room, face to face and brainstorm with peers on past, current, and future abuse trends, I must say that’s a huge chunk on people’s backs. After physically attending a maawg conference, I felt a new “energy” to fight abuse even more. Some of us have been in the industry for years, and trust me – when best practices and anti-abuse technologies are rolled out and spammers try to break through, its frustrating.
    I strongly support Laura’s write-up about MAAWG from different angles, anyway you want to turn the words over & over. I must say, ISPs deal with A LOT of stuff… its like a baby crying in a hot room – as we may already know, its very hard to make the baby stop crying unless you step outside. Companies “invest” money to send folks to anti-abuse conferences to mitigate abuse. And these investments bring out great results at each meeting – of which I can’t explain in detail.

  • Commenters like Barry are the reason why commenters like RJ feel the need to introduce themselves with a paragraph about best practices. As I don’t know RJ yet, I appreciate that he did say something regarding his practices. He does have to back that up with results, but you should appreciate his intention and hold him to it.
    Let’s stop being destructively pessimistic and try to encourage newer people to become part of the conversation. Email marketing best practices are for everyone, please don’t alienate and shame them before they get started.

  • For those that have been keeping up on Laura’s posts, I apologize for the use of the term ‘Best practices’. I’m sure that you’ll take the above usages in context. 😉

  • You can approach by pointing out you’re not a spammer and following “all the best practices.”
    Or you can also just approach ISP reps as human beings and have a talk with them about non-mail things. How typical this conference food is. What the night out is going to be. The great place you found to eat (or drink) last night. Treating them as automatic advice dispensers is … creepy and dehumanizing.

  • Of course! Defending yourself only comes naturally, however, after being talked down to by someone who has a bad attitude about ESPs and marketers in general. That comment was not without provocation.

  • Sally, let’s place this in context. At least two people I know have been followed into the men’s room at MAAWG to talk about ‘deliverability’. Surely you don’t think the ‘bad attitude’ comes from out of the blue?
    One thing that has yet to be mentioned was the attempts by one very large ESP at a MAAWG a few years ago in San Francisco. They were trying to get other, smaller ESPs to ‘waterfall’ for them (essentially to run campaigns of dirty lists to listwash). No-one was willing to stand up and call them out on that. Happily, they are no longer MAAWG members.
    What I personally find lacking among the ESP community is the willingness to call out the bad players among their own. Of course, in a litigious legal environment like the United States, it may be sane to keep such things to private fora, but it seems to me very unfortunate that when this particular incident happened, no-one wrote to the MAAWG Board and informed them of this incredibly sleazy practice, and a lot of people knew about it.

  • No, bad behavior should not be tolerated, and it should be reported. New ESPs should be made aware of what’s expected from them, and then they should be held to that standard. I don’t think the majority of ESPs behave badly, however, so they should be treated civilly unless they show themselves to be a problem.

  • Sally, the majority of MAAWG-member ESPs may not behave badly – but the impression that the representatives they send to MAAWG give doesn’t always back that up.
    Sending the sales, marketing and bizdev end of your staff to MAAWG to schmooze gives the impression you don’t care about abuse, you just want to smooth things over with the ISPs by liberal application of booze, strip clubs and hookers. (Even if your sales and marketing staff aren’t the type that actually do that, schmoozing is what they do, and that’s the impression they give).
    Sending the ops, dev and policy folks who actually work to keep abuse off your network is going to give a much better impression – and, not coincidentally, those people will both get more from and give more back to the conference.

  • “Email marketing best practices are for everyone, please don’t alienate and shame them before they get started.”
    Actually, Sally, email marketing best practices are for email marketers. Most of the people who attend MAAWG don’t do email marketing. Most of the abuse discussed at MAAWG isn’t related to email marketing. A lot of email spam isn’t even selling anything anymore — it’s an attempt to phish credentials, or install malware, and get at your bank account.
    The Proverbial Barrys of the world aren’t trying to alienate and shame you for wanting to talk about email marketing; they just want you to stop assuming that THEY want to talk about email marketing too.

  • I always find it [amusing | depressing | unfortunate] how ESP is always synonymous with marketing [email], as is the case in this comment thread and in the MAAWG sentiment towards ESPs. What about all the transactional email – account activations, password resets and related 1:1 email, from web apps that end up in the spam folder (or worse) and directly affect the usability of these apps. It sucks to be a web startup whose product adoption and usability depends on these critical emails that end up as just another (“gasp” do I say it?) “false positive” in the email filtering game.

  • I’m late, but there’s one thing I’d like to point out. If you’re an ESP and you’re talking to me about a reputation/listing issue, rest assured I don’t take your listing/poor reputation personally and I hope you won’t either. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had someone say “You guys don’t like us,” and that’s just not helpful. I’m happy to talk to you about the observed behavior of your IPs, but it has little to do with how I feel about you personally. If you understand that distinction, the convo will be much more productive for both of us.

By laura

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