Inbox Providers Push the E-mail List-Hygiene Issue

May 04, 2006 3:34 AM  By

Though e-mail’s low cost has led to some infamously sloppy list practices, inbox providers are increasingly taking steps that will force marketers to clean their lists or face getting their campaigns blocked.

Microsoft, for example, turns abandoned Hotmail accounts into spam traps—e-mail addresses used to catch senders of unsolicited bulk e-mail in the act. Abandoned-address spam traps are a twist on the original spam trap, the honey pot, or a decoy address that has never been used by anyone, making any e-mail that arrives in that address, by definition, spam. Marketers who mail to honey-pot addresses cannot claim they have permission from subscribers to do so.

“If you hit a honey-pot address, you’re screwed,” says Ben Isaacson, privacy and compliance leader for CheetahMail, an Experian company. “It means you’re going to get blacklisted right away.”

But the issue isn’t so black and white with abandoned-address traps. As a result of these traps, permission-based lists with a lot of inactive addresses on them increase the possibility that ISPs will consider e-mail sent to them as spam and block the mailing.

How long must an address be abandoned before Microsoft makes it a spam trap? Microsoft’s executives aren’t saying. But the company is reportedly more forgiving to marketers who hit abandoned-address spam traps than it is to those hitting honey-pot addresses.

Microsoft also offers e-mailers campaign data—including how many spam traps they’re hitting—at http://postmaster.msn.com.

“If you hit a Microsoft spam trap, you’ll see it in your reports because they offer you that data, but you’re not necessarily going to get blocked right away,” says Isaacson. “It’ll take quite a few of them to get you blocked.”

Isaacson also says addresses that become spam traps will bounce for at least six months, so they’re more easily recognized as abandoned. “So if you’re not mailing anyone for six months, that’s when you run into problems. All marketers should be monitoring behavioral activity in their e-mail programs and assuring that the addresses they’re mailing to are active addresses, at least within a six-month period.”

Isaacson says it isn’t necessary to instantly discard e-mail addresses that have been inactive for six months. “Just do something,” he says. “Send them a customer service notice or a ‘thank you’ notice, something that will at least get them open the message and click on something.”

Also, whereas a postal direct marketer may try to reactivate customers with an aggressive offer, the tactic is not recommended with e-mail, says Isaacson. “If you’ve got a list that you haven’t mailed to in a long time—certainly more than six months—that’s a scenario where you have to pause and question whether or not you want to go through with a commercial campaign rather than a permission-relationship-type campaign.” His advice: “Send them a relationship message, such as ‘You’ve been a valued customer. We’d like to continue mailing you.’”

Isaacson adds that the message can be opt-out based, where the recipient must click an unsubscribe box to be removed.

Joshua Baer, chief executive of e-mail service provider Skylist, says marketers who follow even rudimentary e-mail list-hygiene practices shouldn’t have to worry about spam traps.

“That said, 80% of the e-mail programs out there are completely brain dead and don’t have anybody putting a pea’s worth of thought into them,” he adds. “They don’t take off [names] after they bounce, and they keep mailing to people three years after they’ve never opened an e-mail.”

Baer says that marketers should not consider ISPs the bad guys in this discussion. “They know what they’re doing,” he says. “If they picked these as bad addresses, the way they did it was they ran a bunch a stats and they figured out that 99.99% of the time, if somebody hasn’t logged in for a certain period of time, that they’re never going to log in again.”

What to do if spam traps appear on your list? Baer recommends isolating the problem by halving the list and testing mailings to it until the source of the bad data becomes apparent. One of the most useful ways to divide the list is by source, he says, “which for an e-mail list is typically the Website they signed up at or potentially a partner that supplied the e-mail address. If you’ve got a problem, nine times out of 10, it’s from one of them.”

Dividing the list by the date the addresses were acquired or by who signed up before the problem appeared and who signed up afterward is also useful, he says.

But, Baer warns, “this is not about finding spam traps. Not only is that almost impossible, it doesn’t solve any problems. This is about figuring out how a spam trap got on the list or where it came from.”

If the investigation narrows the source down to a couple of marketing partners, it is imperative that the marketer complain to them. “And if they can’t fix it, you might have to stop working with them,” Baer says.