Cultivating Better ISP Relationships

Tom Mairs
Sep. 15, 2011 by Tom Mairs

There has been a great deal of talk in the email marketing industry recently about tuning for delivery and effective IP reputation management, but much of it seems to be misguided or misinformed in my opinion. Many of the articles I have read in past months focus on the concept of “getting around” ISP spam filters, or “bypassing” the bulk folder.

These methods typically use some kind of masking, or obfuscation to “trick” an ISP (Yahoo, Hotmail, AOL, Comcast, etc.) into thinking you are not really sending millions of emails, but rather present a much smaller profile by spreading across multiple rotating IPs or other similar strategies.

In at least one case I have heard of the strategy of blasting volume mail over a range of IPs until those IPs are burned out, then rotating to a completely separate IP block for a period of time and then repeating the process. A similar strategy is to re-route mail delivery through geographically distant data centers so that the mail looks like it is being generated from several different locations.

While all those strategies may be working for “spam-cannon” operations, that is really not the best way to send legitimate email. If you are in the business of pumping SPAM out to the masses and don’t care about responsible delivery techniques, you might as well stop reading now. Please also take my email address off your list(s) as I probably don’t want your spam anyway. If you are one of the many legitimate email marketers who are sending valuable marketing mail to people who actually want it, there are a few things here that may help.

First lets talk about philosophy for a bit. One of the most valuable life lessons I have learned comes from my days in enterprise sales. A fantastic manager and mentor of mine introduced me to the concept of “gardening” or “farming” prospects many years ago. This is the concept of building a relationship with a contact, grooming that relationship and then seizing the opportunity for a mutually beneficial sale when the time is right. This is point for point parallel to the concept of planting seeds in a garden, watering, weeding, feeding, and finally responsibly harvesting that garden so that it will produce again the next season. There is no reason email marketers should not be taking the same approach with ISPs.

The major ISPs represent on the order of 80% of the target email addresses in the B2C delivery market. That means that the vast majority of recipients have mailboxes living behind the protection of those ISP’s filtering systems. Most ISPs have intentional tar pits, honey pots and other traps to protect their end users (inbox holders) from spam – by definition, unwanted bulk mail. Most responsible senders already do the common things like only sending to double opt-in addresses and white listing IPs, but then things start to fall off. Every ISP has different “rules of engagement” or best practices for doing business with them and it makes sense to learn these and play “nice” with them.

Yes, you heard correctly – “play nice”. Remember that garden thing? How would you feel if someone masked their true personality or obfuscated the truth to get into your office? That would not do much in the way of building a relationship and building a relationship is exactly what you need to do with the major ISPs. They are even nice enough to publish their most critical rules if you actually look for them. Take a look at http://postmaster.yahoo.com or http://postmaster.aol.com for some examples. If email marketers start thinking about the process as a symbiotic relationship rather than an adversarial one, they will be much more successful.

Of course following the rules takes some dedication and more than a little perseverance. When Yahoo sends back a TS01 temporary failure, it means to stop sending mail on this IP and don’t resume for 4 hours. When AOL sends back a DYN:T1 temporary failure, it means you have been rate limited due to an uncharacteristic change in behavior. When Hotmail sends back an RP-003 message, you need to decrease your sending rate below the acceptable threshold immediately. Understanding what all the codes mean and what to do with each one can be a daunting task and that is what good deliverability professionals are for. Even the most skilled deliverability person, however, cannot work 24 hours a day, seven days a week and you just never know when these response codes are going to hit your system and affect your delivery.

The solution is to create a system where sending characteristics can be shaped in accordance with the ISP’s rules and acted on as soon as the responses are received. In order to be completely responsive, it would have to be completely automated. Message Systems has such a solution in our Adaptive Delivery® product. Others have also attempted versions of this theory but rely on more manual intervention. Message Systems Adaptive Delivery is designed to be fully automatic and real-time responsive. While you should still spread your volume mail load over several IPs, the practice of burning out large blocks of IPs and constantly warming up new ones to replace them should be a thing of the past. Responsibly managing relationships with the major ISPs is both more productive and more cost effective.

Whether it is an automation approach, or a manual process, it pays to manage ISP relationships in a non-adversarial way. The major ISPs want to deliver your mail to their end users, so why not build some trust with them by following their documented rules.

In this whitepaper, email expert Len Shneyder introduces Message Systems Adaptive Delivery – The first solution of its kind specifically designed to automate the monitoring of bounces and complaints, and adjust connection rates and throughput accordingly. 

Adaptive Delivery Whitepaper

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