Don't Count On Your E-Mail Being Delivered

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E-mail is increasingly losing its reliability as a way for businesses to send notifications to interested consumers, according to new figures from a message-monitoring firm.

Unsolicited bulk e-mail (UBE, also known as spam) has grown so rapidly that it now outnumbers legitimate e-mail 4-to-1. Internet service providers, in an attempt to avoid spam complaints from end users, routinely block millions of messages every day. As a result, a large percentage of legitimate business notifications, which users voluntarily signed up to receive, never arrive. One ISP currently rejects more than half of such notifications, a consulting firm says.

Pivotal Veracity, a service that works under contract for several Fortune 1000 corporations, is in the business of measuring the number of e-mail messages that actually get through to their intended recipients.

The Arizona-based firm, which was founded in 2003, monitors only "permission-based" or "opt-in" e-mail lists, according to the firm's president, Deirdre Baird. That means the recipients of the messages must have signed up to receive communications via e-mail. Corporations that "rent" e-mail addresses aren't accepted into the monitoring program, says Baird, much less outright spammers.

The messages that are being monitored include newsletters, notices of sales, transaction confirmations, and other business-based communications. Unfortunately, the legitimate nature of these messages is no guarantee they'll be delivered as intended.

ISPs Are On The Defensive

Many Internet service providers advertise that they protect their users from spam. That may be true, and it's certainly a worthy goal. But millions of e-mails that these ISPs automatically delete appear to be messages that the intended recipients asked for.

Three ISPs -- Excite, NetZero and Verizon -- currently delete or bounce more than one-quarter of the opt-in messages that Pivotal Veracity's clients send to opt-in recipients, according to figures provided by Michelle Eichner, the firm's vice president of client services.

Even when an e-mail message avoids outright deletion, it can be misrouted by an ISP into a folder labeled "spam," "junk" or "bulk." Consumers rarely examine these folders to catch errors. Three ISPs -- Hotmail, Yahoo and Google Mail -- presently misroute more than one-eighth of requested e-mail into such folders, according to Pivotal Veracity's figures.

Now You See It, Now You Don't

To monitor e-mail deliverability, the consulting firm obtains numerous e-mail accounts at various ISPs. These include business-to-consumer ISPs, such as AOL, Comcast and Earthlink, and enterprise-oriented filtering services, such as BrightMail, MessageLabs and Postini. When an ISP maintains two separate lines of business (such as Yahoo and its partner, SBC), they are treated separately in the figures.

During the period from March 15 to April 15, the monitored ISPs deleted, bounced or misrouted the following percentage of its clients' opt-in e-mails, according to the firm's figures (in descending order of deleted/bounced opt-in e-mails):

chart of e-mail delivery

Some ISPs that rejected a fairly low number of permission-based e-mails had a high rate of shunting requested e-mails into a "spam" folder. Google Mail's gmail.com service, which is in beta-test mode at the present time, was the worst in this regard, according to Eichner, mislabeling more than 53% of permission-based messages as spam.

Overall, permission-based messages are being misrouted to spam folders 7% of the time, and rejected 15% of the time, according to industrywide averages published by Pivotal Veracity.

It's true that the consulting firm's clients may be sending e-mails that contain "spammy" words, such as "sale" and "discount." But it's also true that real people signed up for these notifications because they were interested in the subject matter. These customers may not even be aware that their ISPs aren't delivering to their inboxes the messages they requested.

Affirmative Measures for Legitimate Senders

Personally, I no longer allow companies I do business with to send me notifications and billing information via e-mail. I require that I receive important notices via postal mail. If a company sends me a bill using postal mail, I figure there's a 99% chance I'll actually receive it.

That's a terrible commentary on how lousy we've allowed e-mail delivery to become.

Companies that want to improve the percentage of permission-based messages that their opt-in subscribers receive do have a few steps they can take, says Baird:

Verify your HTML content. Minor errors in the HTML coding of e-mail messages can have a big effect. Baird says ISPs often summarily delete messages that contain such errors, since spammers often use malformed HTML to evade filters. Before sending an HTML communication, you can catch coding errors by running your file through the free W3C validation service.

Apply for membership in ISP whitelists. Internet service providers commonly maintain lists of high-volume e-mail publishers who are not spammers. Each ISP has its own peculiar way that you must apply for membership, but once you've completed the process it can pay big dividends in improved deliverability.

Monitor block lists. One of the biggest surprises that's emerged in her studies, Baird says, is the severe penalty that's applied by some ISPs to messages that contain links to "banned" Web addresses. A single such link can result in 100% of your messages being rejected by AOL, Cablevision, Charter, Hotmail and MSN, according to Pivotal Veracity. To check whether a link in a planned mailing is forbidden, you can pre-send the message to test accounts you've obtained at various ISPs or do this using a commercial service such as Baird's.


To demonstrate the seriousness of the threat to e-mail as a communications medium, Baird says her firm is planning to release next month the results of an extensive test. In this experiment, Pivotal Veracity subscribed to the e-mail lists of more than 100 major corporations. When signing up, her firm used the e-mail addresses of scores of test accounts maintained at more than 25 ISPs. Every corporate mailing was then monitored to see which messages arrived safely, which were mislabled as spam, and which were deleted entirely by an ISP.

Baird says the results will shock some corporations that believed e-mail was a reliable way to reach customers. "37% of those companies had one or more of their e-mails placed in the spam or bulk folder," she states. "That includes U.S. FDA drug alerts and messages from the Wall Street Journal, AARP, Walgreen, Wal-Mart, SAS, and IBM."

When her new study is published in May, it will be made available free of charge, Baird says. You can look for word of its release at PivotalVeracity.com.

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