Education, Not Escalation

by Melinda Plemel
Senior Receiver Relationship Manager

As hard as ISPs work to make sure their spam filters are accurate, every now and then a legitimate message ends up in the wrong place. And, reasonable people can disagree about which messages are actually legitimate, or which placement of a message is wrong. What’s often needed is a third party, trusted by both sides, to help senders understand why ISP spam filters might block their mail — and what to do about it. That’s where we come in.

Some might believe that all Return Path does is open up tickets or call the mythical ISP batphone to “fix” something for a sender that the sender simply doesn’t like. That can’t be further from the truth. I know, since I’m the one that holds the key to the locked gate that leads down the dimly lit, long and winding cobblestone path to the ISPs.

Return Path was built on the foundation of working to make email better, through hard work and the desire to change practices that might not be seen in a good light with ISPs and mailbox providers. How do we go about doing this? By understanding the data, and understanding what the industry wants and strives for. We take the approach of understanding, and then educating. We don’t ask for ISPs or blacklists to change for us, but rather we ask how can we and the sender change to be a better player in the email universe.

So you are probably saying to yourself, “Yeah, right. Return Path doesn’t ask for favors? That’s not what I see.” Okay, fair enough, so let me explain.

Here is the Return Path approach to mediation and escalation:

1. Understand how the ISP works, what matters to them.

We spend a huge amount of time reviewing postmaster pages and published email guidelines. Not only do we review the specific laws and guidelines for each ISP, mailbox provider, blacklist and country, but we also incorporate best practices that come from established and well-known organizations.

MAAWG is one of the organizations that we base many of our recommendations on, because they have some of the most amazing minds that are collaborating on these, and are highly respected in the industry. We also review blacklists and their best practices – primarily Spamhaus, whom many from the industry (including us) hold in high regard and have great amount of respect for.

Knowing what the industry wants is part of the foundation used to teach others.

2. What does the data show?

As you may not know, we have data from many of the largest ISPs worldwide. We review and understand what the data shows: Does it show the sender is good or bad? Does the data support that, across the globe, the sender is good enough to be on a whitelist? Not good enough? Where does the sender fall down? If we know this, we are able to focus on how to help resolve the issue — we can identify the root cause.

3. Is there a public process?

Many ISPs do have public troubleshooting ticket systems and other processes to help senders identify their issues, and remove any blocks that are in place. Once we have a good understanding of what the mailbox provider has for their guidelines and we also know what our data shows, we can diagnose the issue and develop next steps for the sender to help fix their issue. Only after we’ve developed a plan to help resolve the real issue, Return Path will use that public process to ask for the blocking or filtering to be removed — and then only so we are able to help our client implement the plan to correct the issue.

4. When all else fails, utilize the internal Email Intelligence and Professional Service teams

Sometimes there needs to be another set of eyes to help understand what is really going on. Return Path not only has extremely sharp Account Managers sitting on the front lines, diagnosing issues and identifying root causes every day, but we also have teams dedicated to doing a much deeper dive and consulting on the various technologies of the email world.

The Professional Service team is dedicated to really digging into the senders’ world: understanding how they send, how their systems are set up and how to develop a plan to help resolve any problems.

The Email Intelligence Group knows all about email technologies and how those affect email marketers, mailbox providers, and others; we are constantly staying on top of the email world and how it changes and constantly educating the sender-focused side of Return Path on what they need to know to help clients continue sending successfully.

99% of the time, between these teams, Return Path can give enough insight and direction that will help the sender resolve the issue so they never need to contact any ISP directly.

5. The 1%

Even so, there are still a few issues that leave us scratching our heads. After we’ve done everything, reviewed the data, worked with the Professional Service team, made sure we know all the latest from the Email Intelligence Group, made recommendations and confirmed that the sender has made all the changes…if there is still an issue, then and only then will we reach out to the ISP, blacklist operator, or filtering company directly, asking for some additional insight.

Keep in mind, we are not asking anyone to make an unwarranted exception or to change their rules, but rather to help us understand what we aren’t seeing. And sometimes — maybe 1% of this 1% — it turns out that they were wrong, and they appreciate that we helped them find the bug in their algorithms.

So no, we don’t just call an ISP or blacklist. We certainly don’t tell anyone to give us special favors, nor do we expect any blacklist or ISP to change for our clients. We will always take the organic approach and take the time needed to resolve the real problem first — no exceptions.

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