How to Impress the ISPs

I’ve been working on email for more than a decade, and I’ve met a lot of people from all sides of the industry. When working on Yahoo! Mail and before that on Microsoft’s MSN Hotmail, I was very popular at industry conferences. People would interrupt each other to introduce themselves, seek out my opinion, hand me their business cards, and so forth. It was really quite disconcerting.

I can understand why they thought it was necessary. In business, in politics, in almost every aspect of most peoples’ lives, building relationships is inherent to accomplishing pretty much anything. But when it comes to deliverability, fawning over ISP staff will not get your mail where you want it to go. That’s simply not how email operates.

In my experience, many marketers and other large-volume email senders confuse the tactics that will make the ISP staff like you with the tactics that will actually get your email to the inbox. Of course there are also the tactics that annoy the ISP guys, but those don’t always mean your email gets blocked. Here’s a quick (and surely incomplete) rundown of a few of the methods I’ve seen marketers attempt, categorized by the actual effect on where your email ends up:

Tactics that may improve your social reputation with the ISP staff, but won’t have any effect on whether your mail gets into the inbox:

  • Buying drinks in the hotel bar at a conference
  • Sending a big box of meat (which makes for a great story to go with those drinks.)
  • Sending a “Napa” gift basket from the Midwest to people who actually do live in Northern California (ah, the irony.)

Tactics that annoy the ISP staff, but still won’t affect your deliverability in any way:

  • Ranting on your blog about some shadowy conspiracy
  • Calling your old classmate from Stanford who now works for an ISP, and brow-beating them into putting you in touch with “someone in charge of email”
  • Asking repeatedly to set up a meeting to discuss how much your mailing practices are going to improve
  • Insisting that you absolutely must deliver 8,000,000 messages precisely at noon, not one second later
  • Claiming “it wasn’t me, it was my client that I’m sending for!”
  • Asking deliverability questions during a technical presentation about the latest virus attacks

Tactics that will hurt your reputation with the ISP staff, and will also hurt your deliverability:

  • Causing a disproportionate amount of spam complaints from the ISP’s users
  • Sending to a high number of unknown users
  • Hitting spam traps
  • Using shoddy infrastructure (good example: open relays)

Tactics that will actually improve your deliverability, yet have no bearing on what the ISP staff thinks about you:

  • Sending mail that your recipients actually want
  • Keeping your list clean (such that you don’t send unwanted mail)
  • Using good data sources (such that you don’t send unwanted mail)
  • Keeping a squeaky clean infrastructure (such that you don’t send unwanted mail)
  • Getting on Sender Score Certified (which requires not sending unwanted mail)

As you can see, there’s a fairly simple theme here.

It’s probably most helpful to realize that you and the ISP staff actually have the same goal: you both want the human behind the email address to get the email they want to get, and not get the email they don’t want to get. An inbox cluttered with spam doesn’t help legitimate marketers – it just makes it harder to get your message noticed. It’s like putting a tiny ad on the back of a free weekly newspaper alongside 54 other tiny ads, each a more blatant scam than the last. Yours may not be a scam, but it’s hidden among the badness.

So, the work the ISP staff does to protect those inboxes actually helps you. If your email subscribers are thrilled with what you are sending, you’ll get through – no meat baskets required. And if too many of your subscribers call you a spammer, then all the free beer in the world won’t help you.

As my new boss George Bilbrey explained nearly two years ago, your sending reputation is what really matters – and most reputation-based systems, including Return Path’s own Sender Score, are primarily based on user feedback. When an ISP’s user thinks a message is spam, it’s spam – no matter how much you try to bribe or befriend the ISP. People do matter – but make sure you’re paying attention to the right people. They’re your subscribers, and they’re the ISP’s users; from either perspective, they are people just trying to live their lives. Delight them, give them what they want, let them be in control of their own inboxes – and everyone wins.

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