How Not to Deal With ISPs

Online political group cried foul recently after Hotmail and AOL blocked its e-mail. At the same time, Yahoo! apparently has been shunting Truthout’s messages into subscribers’ junk folders.

But rather than conducting an internal assessment of its e-mail program to find out why it’s having delivery troubles at the three largest e-mail inbox providers, the organization’s executive director Marc Ash called on subscribers to pressure the ISPs into delivering their mail.

“NOTHING works better than public pressure,” he said in a post on Truthout. “They can ignore us; they can’t ignore you.”

There’s a lesson here for marketers: Ash’s approach couldn’t be more wrong-headed.

Large ISPs don’t block e-mail arbitrarily, and certainly not because of the messages’ political content.

“In all my years at AOL, I can tell you that AOL never intentionally blocked an organization for their political views. I would not have allowed it,” wrote Carl Hutzler, the former head of AOL’s anti-spam team, in a blog post commenting on the matter.

AOL, Hotmail and Yahoo! use spam-complaint rates — the number of people who press the “report spam” button — as the No. 1 gauge to determine whether to block incoming messages. By all accounts, a complaint rate of more than 0.5% will cause delivery problems.

E-mailers who send to too many bad addresses can also find their messages blocked. Sending to dead addresses is classic spamming behavior.

That two large ISPs are blocking Truthout’s messages independently of one another is a sure indicator that Truthout’s spam complaints are too high, that it’s mailing too many bad addresses, or some combination of the two.

“These ISPs are competitors. They’re not sharing this kind of data back and forth,” says Al Iverson, director, privacy and deliverability for e-mail service provider ExactTarget. “It’s a technical issue. In the case of AOL and Hotmail, there’s a big sign on the door that says if you want to come in here, you have to do ‘X,’ ‘Y’ and ‘Z.’ ”

According to Iverson, Truthout could easily clean up its act by doing the following:

  1. Sign up for feedback loops — programs that provide spam-complaint reports — at AOL and Hotmail.

  2. Make sure it unsubscribes people who complain.

  3. Ensure that bounced addresses get unsubscribed automatically.

  4. Apply for safelist status at AOL.

Or, he said, Truthout could move to a service provider where these processes are handled automatically.

Ash didn’t respond to an e-mail asking if he’d taken steps to clean up his group’s e-mail practices.


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