Industry News & Analysis

Lack of blogging, in 3 images


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Metric Monetization

As a digital channel, email provides a lot of different metrics for marketers to use. Not only can marketers measure things like open and click rates, but they can tie these numbers back to a particular recipient. This treasure trove of information leads to obsessing over making the numbers look good. For good deliverability senders want low bounce rates, low spamtrap rates, and high engagement rates.

These metrics are important because they’re some of the things that filters look at when making delivery decisions. We care about this data because the receiver ISPs care about the data. The ISPs care about this data because they are characteristics of wanted and/or opt in email.

Over the past few years a number of companies sell services selling good metrics.

  • List hygiene companies “tell you what addresses are valid.” These services can lower bounce rates, but they don’t address the underlying issue which is that a subscription process doesn’t do any data verification.
  • Spamtrap companies “tell you what addresses are traps.” But that’s not really what they’re doing. They’re telling you what addresses might bounce or belong to a domain that doesn’t have any actual user.
  • Engagement companies “tells you what addresses have any activity.” But just because a recipient interacts regularly with one type of email doesn’t actually mean they want all email.

These services attempt to mitigate poor acquisition and hygiene processes. They’re often used in lieu of ongoing good practices. In some limited cases they’re a good thing and can be used to facilitate the relationship between a recipient and a vendor they want to her from. But, overall, I don’t think they’re that great for the industry.



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Spring in San Francisco

And, of course, that means M3AAWG is coming to town. I’m speaking on two panels this conference and will be around starting mid-day Monday. Of course, half the fun of M3AAWG is watching the swarms of posts on Facebook of friends traveling to wherever.

Those of you visiting, weather is nice. Sadly (as we’re heading back into drought) we’re not expecting rain next week. And, we’re back up at the top of the hill – across the street at the Fairmont.

Looking forward to seeing everyone.

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Another day… another shooting

The importance of email fades when there is yet another school shooting in the US. I cannot fathom the depth of grief and sorry for the parents who lost their children today. It is an utter tragedy that we, as a country, continue to accept dead children as an acceptable price to pay for the second amendment.

I am a graduate of Virginia Tech. I went to class in the building that is no longer there because of that shooting. I shared a major with the first student the killer shot. I had a horrible realization a few years ago that shooting, once the worst mass shooting in US history, was no longer even in the top 3. I’m sure now it’s not in the top 5.

Yes, I could write another post about reaching the inbox. I could announce a new change at an ISP. But, in the face of what happened today, I can’t. Someone shot up a school. Another community is in mourning for their children. Our leaders in Congress offer thoughts and prayers and nothing else. This is the country the NRA has purchased.

“It’s too soon” to talk about gun control. “We shouldn’t react hastily” in response. We can’t travel on a plane with a full size bottle of shampoo and without taking our shoes off because of one man. But let’s not react hastily to another school with dead kids.

I do try and keep politics off this blog, I know how divisive politics is in the US these days.

But that I’m happy because a tragedy that I had a marginal association with is no longer even in the top 5 largest shootings is horrifying to me. How normalized has students, kids, babies getting shot become that I react so inappropriately? Way too normalized.

It’s Valentines day. A day we’re supposed to spend with our loved ones celebrating each other. Yet so many families are, instead, mourning their children or holding vigil in the hospital.

America should be better than this. I thought America was better than this. But I was so wrong. We can BE better that this, but we’re not living up to our ideals.

One of my favorite West Wing quotes (and, oh, there are many) starts:

The streets of Heaven are too crowded with angels tonight. They’re our students and our teachers and our parents and our friends. The streets of Heaven are too crowded with angels.

The streets are too crowded with angels tonight. I only hope we Americans step up as it says in the second part of the quote:

But every time we think we’ve measured our capacity to meet a challenge, we look up and we’re reminded that that capacity may well be limitless. This is a time for American heroes. We will do what is hard; we will achieve what is great. This is a time for American heroes, and we reach for the stars. God bless their memory, God bless you, and God bless the United States of America.

The streets are too crowded in heaven tonight. And I don’t know if American will ever be the America I thought it was.

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Following CAN SPAM isn’t enough to reach the inbox

One of the top entries on the list of things deliverability folks hear all the time is, “But my mail is all CAN SPAM compliant!” The thing is… no one handling inbound mail really cares. Seriously. CAN SPAM is a law that is little more than don’t lie, don’t hide, and heed the no. Even more importantly, the law itself states that there is no obligation for ISPs to deliver CAN SPAM compliant mail.

15 U.S.C. § 7707(8)(c)

NO EFFECT ON POLICIES OF PROVIDERS OF INTERNET ACCESS SERVICE.—Nothing in this Act shall be construed to have any effect on the lawfulness or unlawfulness, under any other provision of law, of the adoption, implementation, or enforcement by a provider of Internet access service of a policy of declining to transmit, route, relay, handle, or store certain types of electronic mail messages.

Many companies do list on their postmaster pages that they expect senders to comply with the law. (AOL, Yahoo, Microsoft). But just because email complies with CAN SPAM doesn’t mean it will be accepted or delivered.

Complying with the law is the bare minimum. And the way CAN SPAM is written it’s such a low bar it may as well be lying on the ground. Everyone sending unsolicited mail should be complying with CAN SPAM. But don’t expect the compliance to win you a path to the inbox. That’s just not how it works.

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Did the algorithm change?

When faced with unexplained deliverability changes one of the first questions many folks ask is “Did the algorithm change.” In many ways this is an meaningless question. Why? Because there are two obvious answers to the question.

A1: Of course it didn’t.

A2: Of course it did.

Both answers are correct, but they’re answering different underlying questions. When we understand how two diametrically opposed answers are both correct, we understand much more about filtering.

What is an algorithm?

When we’re talking about spam filtering the algorithm is the process or rules to follow.

Basically, an algorithm is a computer program that is set up to filter spam to the bulk folder and filter wanted mail into the inbox.  This algorithm doesn’t change. It can’t.

In the case of many (most?) spam filters, the filters incorporate features of machine learning. 

This means the algorithm is constantly changing, learning more and more about what is spam and what is wanted mail based on user interactions.

Algorithms don’t change

Overall, the algorithms don’t change that frequently. They are fed data (lots of data) on a continual basis. They take feedback from recipients (spam / not spam buttons) and developers (new data sets of known bad and known good mail) to learn what good mail looks like and what bad mail looks like. But the underlying code doesn’t change very frequently.

Results change

Machine learning algorithms are only as good as the data they’re fed. In the case of spam filters, the input data is constantly changing. So the output results change. Sometimes an email that was not-spam one day is spam the next because the algorithm caught up with a new threat or new behavior. 

Delivery is still in your control

This machine learning and reliance on end users to help tune filters may make it seem like spam filtering is completely out of the senders’ control. That there is nothing a sender can do to get into or out of the bulk folder. The good news is, the underlying algorithms are pretty simple: wanted mail goes to the inbox, unwanted mail goes to the bulk folder. As with everything, details matter. Senders who are focused on recipients usually don’t have a difficult time reaching the inbox. Companies that focus on themselves and try gimmicks find it much harder to consistently reach the inbox.


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More on AOL transition to Oath Infrastructure

AOL posted on their blog today about changes to DMARC reporting and FBL messages as they continue to transition domains to the OATH infrastructure. As AOL domains go to the new infrastructure, DMARC reports for those domains will be included in the existing Yahoo DMARC reports.

After the MX migration is done, they’ll start migrating the actual user mailboxes. Right now, FBL messages for AOL properties are coming from AOL and will continue to do so until the actual mailbox is transitioned to the new infrastructure. Once the mailbox is transitioned, then any FBL emails from that address will come from the Yahoo infrastructure. The blog post at AOL suggests signing up for both AOL and Yahoo FBLs during this transition phase.

It does bring up an interesting question as to whether or not the combined FBL is going to be IP based, DKIM based or a mix of both. It sounds like at least during some part of the consolidation there will be a DKIM only FBL. It could be that there will be some expansion to an IP system in the future. Or, it could be that all FBLs from AOL addresses will be based on DKIM domain.

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Where to get deliverability help

There are lots of places to get deliverability help, I thought I’d list some of them here so I have a post to point people to.

Of course, we provide deliverability consulting services and have done since 2001. Our customers are mostly large companies sending millions of emails a month. I focus mostly on complex problems that other deliverability folks haven’t solved. Overall I focus on understanding client programs and business needs as well as current deliverability situation. Once I have a picture of a client’s program, I craft solutions that work with their business processes and get mail to the inbox. We don’t sell tools or certification. Instead, we work with our clients to help them fix delivery and teach them how to analyze the data they already have.

The nature of the work I do is intensive and I limit the number of clients I have in order to provide personalized service. But that’s OK! We have 2000+ blog posts to answer questions. And, there are lots of other companies that provide deliverability help. Here’s a partial list of places to look for resources.

Your Service Provider

Many (most?) ESPs and MTAs provide deliverability help for customers. In some cases, this is primarily self serve through their website support pages, blog posts, and knowledge bases. Other ESPs have dedicated deliverability support staff to answer questions and help customers answer questions. MTA vendors and SaaS SMTP providers also provide deliverability support.

ISPs and Filtering Companies

Many ISPs and commercial filtering companies also provide deliverability advice in their blogs. Sometimes the information on these sites is not presented in as sender friendly a way as the third parties and the ESPs. I know some of my clients have visited these websites and bristled at the tone. Nevertheless, the information is good and it’s written by the people who block mail. It’s worth looking past the tone and seeing the content.

Email Associations

Most email adjacent organizations provide deliverability resources. The EEC, M3AAWG, and the ESPC are organizations we belong to that provide free deliverability resources, many of them developed through member collaboration. Other organizations, too, have deliverability sections, I’m sure.


Many governments provide information about local laws. Not necessarily deliverability advice, but vital for successful businesses.

Third Party Tools

Gone are the days when Return Path was really the only game in town for monitoring inbox delivery. There are multiple players in the market including 250OK, GreenArrow, Postmastery and eDataSource. But not everything in email is about monitoring inbox delivery. Many other companies have email focused products and provide information on delivery and email issues including (in no particular order) places like InboxPros, Litmus, Sendforensics, dmarcian, ValiMail, Agari.

I know I’ve missed some resources, this wasn’t intended to be a comprehensive list. Just some information about where to look for deliverability help besides yours truly.

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List-Unsub header

Benjamin asked in the comments where in the interface the “unsubscribe” or “block” popup appeared. This is the dialog box Microsoft uses when the add the “unsubscribe here” link at the top of a message. Screenshots taken today from my Hotmail account:

At this point we have 3 of the major webmail providers (Yahoo, Microsoft, Gmail) using List-Unsubscribe headers and at least one mobile client (Apple Mail). 20 years on it seems List-Unsubscribe is finally gaining traction.

Notice, too, that ISPs hold their own mail to the same standards as outside mail. This really is Microsoft offering to let me block everything from MSN News.



GDPR and Whois data

For folks who aren’t following the discussion about whois records and GDPR compliance there’s a decent summary at What Is Going to Happen With Whois?

The problem, briefly stated, is that ICANN has agreements with the thousands of domain registrars around the globe like GoDaddy or HostGator which oblige the companies to post WHOIS data—such as names, emails, and phone numbers—for every domain registrant with their service. On the other hand, the GDPR prohibits companies from publishing information that identifies individuals, which means that when the law goes into effect in April, ICANN’s agreements with registrars about WHOIS data will be illegal, at least in Europe.

Many researchers, including those fighting online crime, malware, phishing, and spam, use whois data as a significant part of their investigations. Losing access to whois data is going to hamper those investigations.


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