Pitfalls of Point of Sale or Transactional Email Address Collection

In A Bounce of Prevention, Kelly Molloy explained how important it is to address potential list quality issues before getting listed on a blacklist such as the Spamhaus SBL. Blacklists such as the SBL have always been a pain point for marketers who are running legitimate programs but have list quality issues nonetheless.

Spamhaus has been a frequent topic of discussion lately, since several large retailers were listed over the 2012 holiday season.  Since the number of listings in December increased significantly, many marketers felt that Spamhaus was targeting them, creating processes specifically designed to catch senders who don't practice Confirmed Opt-In.

Denny Watson from Spamhaus posted yesterday in Problems Seen in Transactional Messages that Spamhaus did make some changes in December, which "included greater cross-referencing amongst our various spamtraps, closer communication amongst their maintainers, and greater machine analysis of spam headers." Marketers with list quality problems saw increased listings as a result, and the timing of the holiday season was a coincidence.

One of the main reasons that many marketers found themselves on the SBL during the holidays was the increase in addresses collected during Point of Sale (POS) or during online transactions. It is important to understand the pitfalls associated with these collection methods and take steps to mitigate risk before  you find yourself on the SBL or another blacklist.

Point of Sale (POS)

Acquiring addresses during Point of Sale is a common method of building an email relationship with a brick and mortar customer. During checkout, the customer is asked to provide their email address. There are numerous pitfalls associated with POS collection.

  1. Often, the customer gives the email address to the cashier who enters and submits it, without confirming the spelling of the name. When I tell a cashier that my email address is Christine Borgia at domain dot com, how often do you think they ask me how to spell my last name? (Hint: almost never.)
  2. There is often an incentive attached to collecting email addresses, so the cashier wants to collect as many addresses as possible. <<Rule of thumb: Any time an incentive is attached to address acquisition, there is potential for abuse.>>
  3. Cashiers usually ask "what is your email address?" instead of "Would you like to provide your email address in order to receive coupons and updates from the store?" Many customers do not want to provide their address but do not know what to say when asked, so they will provide a dummy address. "You want my email? Sure, it's Christina Borgia at domain dot com." Won't "Christina" be thrilled to be getting my newsletters?

If customers are giving you incorrect addresses, whether on purpose or inadvertently, you could end up sending large volumes of mail to spamtraps. With POS address collection, it's especially important to confirm that the address is correct and that the person at the other end of the line wants your mail. There are multiple ways to accomplish this.

  1. Obviously, implementing Confirmed Opt-In on POS address collection minimizes abuse more than anything else.
  2. Another effective method is sending an incentive to newly acquired addresses (something along the lines of 30% off your first order if placed within two weeks). This is less effective than COI, because you are not actually suppressing people who don't' click, but it at least tells you that the person behind that address is real if they click through and make a purchase. (Note: providing an incentive to an already-acquired address is fine. It's providng an incentive to actually acquire the address that is dangerous.)
  3. Lastly, remove customers from your list if they don't show signs of life in the first 30 days. Even if your normal engagement lifecycle is six or twelve months, inactive new to file addresses must be removed much earlier than that.

Transactional Email

Acquiring addresses during transactions such as password requests, purchases, etc. has its own set of pitfalls. By definition, a transactional message is a message sent as part of a transaction. There is no opportunity to do Confirmed Opt-In during the transaction, because you are only sending the recipient a single message. There is no future mail stream to consider.

It's important to remember that when you acquire an address as part of a transaction, this does not give you permission to sign the user up for marketing mail without their consent. Denny says, "We do not list IP addresses because of one-off transactional emails sent to a few spamtraps. If the email stream is persistent over time, especially high volume, and drifts outside the relationship of individual transactions, we will start to find these messages a problem. An example of this is when the transactional email stream to the spamtrap also contains marketing messages."

If you intend to send marketing mail to addresses acquired during a transaction, ensure that you have proper permission. Require users to check a box stating that they would like to receive offers and updates. Confirmed Opt-In is the most effective way of ensuring that addresses acquired during a transaction are valid. Denny agrees: "It is the view of the Spamhaus Project that email addresses used for transactional mail should not be used for marketing email without permission."


If you take action to avoid the pitfalls associated with POS and transactional address collection, you will greatly reduce your risk of hitting spamtraps and being listed on a blacklist. Of course, as Kelly mentions, good list acquisition is only part of the battle. You must also do proper list maintenance, including removing inactive users and processing bounces correctly. 

Questions? Contact me directly at christine.borgia at returnpath dot com or leave them in the comments.

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