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Recipient Rep Matters in E-Mail Deliverability Client Support

by Andrew O'Halloran, Chief Privacy Officer

This is a short article that I published in Direct Magazine: "Recipient Rep Matters in E-mail Deliverability".

When it comes to e-mail deliverability, there is no question that sender reputation plays a critical role. But there’s another important factor that deserves attention: recipient reputation.

A sender’s reputation is a function of past sending behavior. It is measured by various metrics such as complaints, hard bounces, and spam trap hits. By contrast, a recipient’s reputation takes a very different approach and determines deliverability decisions not by the sender’s historical behavior, but by the recipient’s historical spam-receiving propensity.

Here is an analogy that will explain what I mean.

Think back to the statistics class you once attended and picture a typical normal distribution curve. On the left-hand side you have recipients who tend to receive a high proportion of spam compared to the mean (the average value). On the right-hand side you have recipients who tend to receive a low proportion of spam compared to the mean. This can be broken down even further statistically by using the number of standard deviations from the mean to specify the severity of the spam received by a recipient compared to the average.

Place your bets.

Now, pretend for a moment, that you are placing a $100 bet on the outcome. Based solely on the destination address of the recipient, you must decide whether to bet that the next message that comes in to the destination address is a spam message or not.

How do you bet? Spam or not spam? And remember money is on the line.

Bet on the odds.

One way to improve your odds is to look at that recipient’s reputation for receiving spam e-mails. If this recipient tends to receive a high proportion of spam messages, then the probability is high that the incoming message is spam. You would bet “spam.” However, if this recipient tends to receive a very low proportion of spam e-mails, then the probability that the incoming message is spam is low. You would bet “not spam.”

Now put the odds in your favor

Of course, even if the odds are in your favor, sometimes you will lose the bet. Similarly, you will sometimes also win the bet even when the odds are not in your favor -- gamblers do occasionally win in Las Vegas. But in the end, remember, the house always comes out ahead because the long-term odds are in its favor.

Now, say you were given more information. In addition to the destination address, you were also given 14 additional recipients of the incoming message and asked to rate whether the message is spam or not. If all these 15 recipients tend to receive a high proportion of spam messages, then it is almost certain that the incoming message is spam and you would bet “spam.” With the additional information, your accuracy and odds have instantly improved and it would be in your favor to raise the bet. But even if 10 of these 15 recipients tend to receive a high proportion of spam messages and the other five recipients receive only an average amount of spam messages, then you still would likely see the odds favoring that the next message is spam and you could bet accordingly.

Recipient reputation in a nutshell.

The gambling analogy is a simplification of the concept. The key point is that with only a small sample of input, and very quickly, a system based on recipient reputation can make a highly accurate spam prediction for the rest of the messages being delivered by a particular IP/domain.

That prediction can be used to prevent other recipients from receiving a mail stream that has a high likelihood of being considered a spam by such methods as blocking the connection, delivering the messages to the bulk folder, and removing the IP or domain’s whitelisting status.

Recipient reputation is used with good results by large ISPs (in fact, one of the largest ones in the world uses it) and companies because it targets the modus operandi of spammers: they must send at high volumes to make money.

And because spammers send at high volumes and indiscriminately, they are guaranteed statistically to be detected by a recipient-reputation system. What’s more, there is virtually no counter-tactic that spammers can deploy to get around recipient reputation. Changing an IP address or sending domain will have no effect because the recipient list stays the same, triggering again the detection.

Garbage In, Garbage Blocked

*Purchased or rented lists – A big no-no! Anyone who purchases lists should be embarrassed (there are much better ways to grow a quality subscriber list). Almost by definition, purchased lists are the most over-mailed and contain a high proportion of spam-receiving recipients.

*Co-registration data – Very few co-registration sites are well designed. Most end up sharing data with an endless stream of e-mail marketers. (Notice how I didn’t write permission-based e-mail marketers. See my article: Names from co-registration sites ARE like the subprime mortgage crisis )

*Sharing data – Stop. But if you do, then make sure you do so only with a trusted partner and that your subscribers are well informed before they sign up to your list.

Think Marketing

The best results come from e-mail marketers who have a sound business model and direct-marketing programs anchored on cutting-edge industry best practices. With the continual evolution in the e-mail and anti-spam industries, a close and guarded relationship between sound direct-marketing channel practices and business success will become increasingly important. ISP anti-spam initiatives, in fact, will create more and more barriers to those who indiscriminately and inappropriately send e-mails. But it will also open up and reward those who do follow best practices guidelines. After all, the less spam subscribers receive, the more time and attention they will give to e-mail from sender lists to which they did subscribe.

Good delivery is a direct result of good marketing. Good marketing is a function of a good subscription process, good targeting, branding, mailing frequency, and thoughtful planning. Think, act, and send like a good marketer, and you will get good delivery results. You can bet on it.

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