Hunting the Human Representative


Yesterday’s post was inspired by a number of questions I’ve fielded recently from people in the email industry. Some were clients, some were colleagues on mailing lists, but in most cases they’d found a delivery issue that they couldn’t solve and were looking for the elusive Human Representative of an ISP.
There was a time when having a contact inside an ISP was almost required to have good delivery. ISPs didn’t have very transparent systems and SMTP rejection messages weren’t very helpful to a sender. Only a very few ISPs even had postmaster pages, and the information there wasn’t always helpful.
More recently that’s changed. It’s no longer required to have a good relationship at the ISPs to get inbox delivery. I can point to a number of reasons this is the case.
ISPs have figured out that providing postmaster pages and more information in rejection messages lowers the cost of dealing with senders. As the economy has struggled ISPs have had to cut back on staff, much like every other business out there. Supporting senders turned into a money and personnel sink that they just couldn’t afford any longer.
Another big issue is the improvement in filters and processing power. Filters that relied on IP addresses and IP reputation did so for mostly technical reasons. IP addresses are the one thing that spammers couldn’t forge (mostly) and checking them could be done quickly so as not to bottleneck mail delivery. But modern fast processors allow more complex information analysis in short periods of time. Not only does this mean more granular filters, but filters can also be more dynamic. Filters block mail, but also self resolve in some set period of time. People don’t need to babysit the filters because if sender behaviour improves, then the filters automatically notice and fall off.
Then we have authentication and the protocols now being layered on top of that. This is a technology that is benefiting everyone, but has been strongly influenced by the ISPs and employees of the ISPs. This permits ISPs to filter on more than just IP reputation, but to include specific domain reputations as well.
Another factor in the removal of the human is that there are a lot of dishonest people out there. Some of those dishonest people send mail. Some of them even found contacts inside the ISPs. Yes, there are some bad people who lied and cheated their way into filtering exceptions. These people were bad enough and caused enough problems for the ISPs and the ISP employees who were lied to that systems started to have fewer and fewer places a human could override the automatic decisions.
All of this contributes to the fact that the Human Representative is becoming a more and more elusive target. In a way that’s good, though; it levels the playing field and doesn’t give con artists and scammers better access to the inbox than honest people. It means that smaller senders have a chance to get mail to the inbox, and it means that fewer people have to make judgement calls about the filters and what mail is worthy or not. All mail is subject to the same conditions.
The Human Representative is endangered. And I think this is a good thing for email.

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  • Just look at Cloudmark, they have the highest false-positive rate out of any major anti-spam company and their system is almost entirely “automatic.” You can never beat something that is mostly based on the variety of words we can use every day from each and every language. The meanings that each word and phrases represent coupled with the recipients opinion on what those words mean to them is never a fine line and an automatic system will never be good enough to fully understand that.

  • Great post, Laura. It seems like the email marketing industry is learning that our time is better spent proactively promoting good ideas in email delivery rather than reactively cleaning up the messes that inevitably result from bad ideas. Attempting to leverage human capital to de-list a block that results from lack of solid strategy can serve as a painful reminder that we wouldn’t be in such a situation if we had been sending email people want, to people who want it!
    Your blog is a treasure trove of top habits to get into, but several are worth repeating: Personalize., Don’t Append, Opt In, Send a Welcome Message (or better yet, a Welcome Series), Use List Hygiene, Handle Bounces, and perhaps most importantly, Know Your Audience.

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