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You’ve Got Spam: The New Field of Reputation Management

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As we approach the end of 2007, I have been thinking back on the year’s events in the worlds of privacy and anti-spam, and the industry that is emerging around one of the many interesting intersections of the two: the budding field of reputation management.

For years I have written about the running battles between spammer and the builders of various anti-spam technologies. Among the many casualties of that war have been legitimate marketers who are trying to build a business amidst the landmines and blast craters and innocent companies whose domain names have been hijacked by spammers.

Reputation management services aim to change all of that, and not a moment too soon!

While marketers focus heavily on consumers’ perceptions of their corporate identity and the value of their brand names, many IT managers fail to consider the impact that their company’s email reputation has on both. For many years, marketers have been aware of the challenges of email deliverability and have planned their email marketing campaigns accordingly.

But getting marketing email delivered is only one part of the email reputation picture.

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In the world of email, a domain name is a company’s identity. In many cases, it is one of the very few bits of information that consumers have access to when deciding whether to read an email message or to click “Report Spam.” Similarly, Internet Service Providers (ISPs) also use a domain name (along with its corresponding IP addresses) and the reputation associated with it to determine whether – and how – email gets delivered.

Many companies have huge consumer goodwill built up through years of investments in their brands and their overall marketplace reputation. But for an email server, even a century’s worth of stellar corporate reputation doesn’t entitle anyone to reach a consumer’s inbox.

Of even greater concern is that even in the most challenging competitive environment, seldom does an off-line brand have people actively trying to ruin a brand name by misusing and abusing it. Yet you only need to look in your own inbox to see criminals and scammers destroying trust in brand names like eBay and Bank of America while trying to trick unsuspecting recipients.

ISPs are one of the choke points where the process of assessing reputations and rendering decisions about email delivery is possible, and that’s why so many ISPs have invested so heavily in anti-spam technologies, many of which are built on automated means of assessing and making decisions about the reputations of senders.

Is your marketing email being blocked by ISPs? Is your corporate email – which often bears the same domain names and brand identifiers (such as embedded URLs) – being blocked as spam too?

The answer to these questions varies according to the policies and user demands of each and every ISP and the vendors they use in rendering their decisions. But there are a few common elements, many of which are well within the purview of the IT professional.

A large number of the delivery decisions can hinge on a variety of technical elements, including proper DNS configuration, use of outbound authentication systems such as DKIM, adherence to general industry best practices, and compliance with technical elements required by a variety of laws in the U.S. and around the world.

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For email marketing, a bad email reputation can translate directly into lost revenues and lost opportunities. Failure to get requested emails delivered can reflect badly on a company. Customers perceive it as lack of follow-through, and might eventually choose a competitor who seems to be more responsive.

Even if a message gets delivered, the question of where the email lands also has a direct impact on its effectiveness, and on the overall perception of the company and brand. For example, if a company’s email reputation is only positive enough for an ISP to permit delivery to the junk or spam folder, it can result in a negative consumer perception of the company.

When legitimate email lands in the spam box, a recipient may perceive a company’s messages – and by extension, the company – as suspicious, even if the consumer opted-in to receive those messages. Landing in a spam box is “out of sight, out of mind” at best, and a sign of possible bad behavior at worst.

In the end, a poor email reputation can be fatal to the utility and effectiveness of a company’s entire email strategy and can tarnish the goodwill associated with their good name.

To help with that, the emerging field of reputation services is beginning to make a real difference for businesses which recognize that it’s not difficult for their reputation to be damaged, yet it can be very difficult to discover the extent of that damage and to repair it.

Reputation service providers specialize in assessing a sender’s reputation, identifying the technical matters and operational practices that shape that reputation, and recommending mitigation strategies. Because many reputation service providers are independent of email marketing services, they can also serve as a trusted mediator of delivery disputes between senders and receivers.

As companies are beginning to realize how spamming, phishing, and other issues have tarnished their email and domain reputations, the challenges of managing that reputation are going to wander down the hall from the email marketing team to the IT group.

As you look forward to 2008, smart IT executives will be adding “get my email reputation back into shape” to their list of new years’ resolutions. Luckily, unlike other new years’ resolutions about getting into shape, there is an entire industry of reputation service providers to do the heavy lifting for you.

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