The Interact 2013 Internet Service Providers Panel

To call the 2013 Internet Service Providers Panel at Interact a high point of the conference would be a bit of an understatement. Highly anticipated by the email professionals assembled, it was the most well-attended session of the entire event, it sparked the liveliest discussion and debate, and it, well, delivered.

The Gatekeepers Of Email Speak

The relationship between large-volume email senders and ISPs is, of course, not always an easy one. For big senders like email service providers (ESPs), social networks and banks, reliably getting messages into the inboxes that ISPs control is key to business success. Getting blacklisted by an ISP can cripple a sender’s ability to reach their customers. So if it’s your job to manage your company’s email operations – and that is exactly the job of 99% of the people in the audience that morning – then your professional success depends in large part on not running afoul of the folks on stage for the ISP panel.

And what a star-studded panel it was: John Scarrow from Microsoft, Olga Gavrylyako from Google, Severin Walker from Comcast and Lachlan Maxwell from AOL all participated. Moderating the panel was Twitter postmaster, Josh Aberant. He kicked off the discussion noting that the agenda was meant to center on helping postmasters get the information they need to do their jobs more effectively. To that end, the panelists spent the first part of the session describing the various resources their organizations have in place to support to help senders get their messages delivered.


All the big ISPs provide personnel and tools to help postmasters, including a number of online issue resolution tools. For instance, Comcast maintains a dedicated 50-person call center with a toll-free 800 number to help postmasters resolve all kinds of deliverability incidents, while Google is organized on a distributed model where small teams are responsible for individual aspects of the mail process. Microsoft very much takes a technology-oriented approach. While they do have support lines for live help, the Microsoft team finds that phone interactions can actually slow issue resolution in certain cases, and so they seek to keep person-to-person calls to a minimum. One of the ways they do this is through their Junk Mail Reporting or JMR system, which provides feedback loop data and a collection of online tools that empower senders to quickly gain an understanding of what’s happening with their mail streams. As John Scarrow put it, the idea is to allow senders to “go in and poke around to try and figure out what the problem might be so you’re empowered to look at it while it’s happening.”

A wide-ranging discussion of the value of feedback loop services and approaches to handling unwanted to mail transitioned into the pros and cons of junk folders and approaches to helping end users manage their mail more effectively. The group agreed that when recipients get mail that they don’t want, the antipathy people feel toward that mail source grows over time to the point where many people will mark as spam a newsletter they’d enthusiastically subscribed to just a few months earlier. Letting the recipient mark that newsletter as spam can lead to a degradation in the sender’s reputation, which can then snowball into other problems – which is why Gmail is trying several innovative new ways to keep their users from marking legitimate messages as spam.

AOL’s Lachlan Maxwell pointed out that recipients tend to see their incoming messages as a whole, to the point where AOL will get complaints from users saying they’re getting more spam than usual, even though that’s not necessarily the case. “We’ll actually get complaints… where people will say ‘I’m getting too much spam!’ and we go look at the user account, and we’ll find that they’re only getting spam in their spam folder – no spam has gotten to their inbox. People keep track of how much spam they are getting total.”

The benefits of sharing spam data eventually brought the panel around to the subject of junk folders and the emerging trend of priority inboxes, such as Google’s new practice of segregating the Gmail inbox into Primary, Social and Promotions sub-boxes.

Here’s where the competing interests of ISPs and senders came into fairly sharp contrast, and where the session got liveliest. The panelists were more or less unanimous on the subject, and as Comcast’s Severin Walker put it, customers want a smarter inbox… it speaks to the efficient utilization of their time.”

This is a point that bears emphasizing: inbox providers like Gmail, AOL and strive to provide their end-users with the most convenient experiences online – they compete for customers based on which service delivers the most value. And if segregating out commercial email such as daily deal offers and commercial newsletters from personal messages from friends and family make end-users happy, that’s exactly what the ISPs are going to do.

Personal disclosure: I’m a long-time Gmail user. When the Primary inbox shift first came into effect, I found it a little confusing, but once I got used to it I find that I love it.

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