The e-mail marketing community is still quaking over recently announced plans by America Online and Yahoo to begin charging internet postage for optional "preferred e-mail" service, which would enable company e-mails to breeze past the spam filters of the two e-mail service providers.
"This is good for consumers and businesses," says Ted Leonsis, AOL's vice chairman. "If e-mail costs a little money to send, then legitimate companies have an incentive to send less of it, which means less mail in your inbox. On the other hand, if businesses are sure that their mail will get through, they can more effectively reach their customers with important news and information. Everybody wins."
Under AOL's plan, every message sent as preferred e-mail would be charged a fee of between one-quarter of a penny and one cent-based on volume-in exchange for special handling. Such mail, which would arrive in AOL inboxes as "AOL Certified E-mail," would bypass AOL's spam filter; that filter often inadvertently blocks legitimate e-mail. In addition, the preferred mail would also arrive with images and links intact, a promise that AOL cannot make for conventional e-mail.
Yahoo is working on a similarly structured plan.
"The program is totally optional," AOL's Leonsis says. "If your company does not want to participate, that's fine. Your mail will still get through if it doesn't violate our normal spam filters."
Not surprisingly, word of plans for internet postage quickly generated a firestorm of controversy. Some industry insiders balk at the idea of a fee on any kind of e-mail. But others see the move as a definitive way to crush spammers and phishers-or criminals who attempt to extract credit card numbers and other data from consumers by sending slickly designed e-mails that appear to be from highly respected companies. Both scourges of the internet have plagued the medium for years.
"I've never been a supporter of the internet postage concept, because it's an artificial fee," says Jeanne Jennings, an internet marketing consultant. "I think the true solution to spam and phishing lies in technology. Once we are able, without a doubt, to identify the sender of an e-mail, we can trace it back and hold spammers and phishers accountable."
Others, like Tracy Mitrano, director of Informational Technology Policy at Cornell University, say they are going to take a wait-and-see approach. Specifically, given that Cornell's marketplace orientation is decidedly nonprofit, the university most likely will not opt for the preferred e-mail format for the time being, Mitrano says.
Still, Cornell may re-evaluate that stance if paid e-mail becomes commonplace, and if deliverability issues with standard e-mail increase. Under that scenario, Mitrano adds, "it would stand to reason that we would evaluate the technologies-and our policies-accordingly."
Mike Adams, CEO of Arial Software, makers of e-mail marketing software, isn't willing to wait. "Let's face it: The e-mail medium has a reputation problem," he says. "Spam has polluted our inboxes and phishing has made us distrustful of even opening e-mail from our own banks. The medium of e-mail needs to be rescued, and I have long argued for a solution that would require that some sort of expense be paid by e-mail senders."
Other supporters of internet postage agree, adding that the guarantee of assured delivery, and the certification that the e-mail is genuine, easily outweigh any concerns over the nominal fee AOL and Yahoo want to charge. Indeed, e-mail will inevitably take on a much greater perceived value, they say, when recipients seeing a "certified" label are convinced such e-mail is authentic, and they begin, once again, to place more trust in communications sent via the web.
Internet postage will also mean that e-mail marketers will not have to spend as much time retooling message designs to ensure their e-mails get through the filters of internet service providers like AOL and Yahoo, supporters say. Indeed, currently, many e-mail marketers must design one e-mail message layout for general delivery, and another just for AOL delivery, since AOL's spam filters often strip out images and links of those design elements that aren't placed "just so" within an e-mail.
Moreover, Adams says, the paid e-mail model would translate into real savings for all companies, who too often find too much of their IT resources ensnarled in anti-spam prevention. "Every university, every corporation that accepts e-mail, anywhere in the world, spends far more on e-mail than it should. If the e-mail medium were cleaned up, the global savings in terms of reclaiming lost employee productivity and anti-spam resources would be practically incalculable," he says.
Jennings doesn't believe the change would be so rosy. "Obviously, smaller universities and colleges will be hit harder by this than larger ones," she says. "Their e-mail budgets are smaller to begin with. Some are having real success with e-mail, but many aren't. So this is one thing that increases their costs and cuts into what may already be a negative or small marginal profit on their efforts."
A two-tier e-mail system-one that charges for some e-mail messages, and not for others-will also leave companies opting to send free e-mail with the same old spam filter problems, some analysts say. Indeed, 20 percent of all legitimate e-mail is now currently blocked by overly aggressive spam filters, according to Ferris Research. And it's hard to believe that the same ISPs responsible for that blocked mail are going to put major resources into solving the problem, when they can simply charge companies a fee to solve the problem, these analysts say.
Others also fear that grudging acceptance of a fee for an optional preferred e-mail service may ultimately lead to a fee for every e-mail sent. Plus, ISPs might also begin charging additional fees based on the size of e-mail content. There might be one rate for plain text e-mail, a higher rate for e-mail with links and images, and still an even higher rate for e-mail with attachments like e-documents, audio, and video. "Anything is a possibility," Jennings says.
Julie MacLean, marketing manager for e-mail marketing software firm Mailworkz, sees higher costs for consumers. "Larger and smaller business will see an impact in end costs, and most likely the postage fee will be passed along to the consumer if the marketer chooses to use a paid internet postage program," she says.
Fortunately, the good news is that no matter how you perceive the advent of internet postage, you'll still be able to send e-mail for free for the time being, and be reasonably confident your message will arrive intact. The secret is to engage in "white list" practices, which signifies that the sender agrees to engage in extremely recipient-friendly e-mail practices. Key among those practices include:
Getting added to a recipient's address book. While it's tough getting users to take the time to add your company to their e-mail program address book, it's well worth the effort to at least keep requesting the favor. Many marketers, for example, make the request at the close of every e-mail they send to a mailing list subscriber. Getting listed in a user's address book generally enables your e-mail to breeze past many spam filters.
Keeping a clean mailing list. Increasingly, ISPs like AOL and Yahoo want to be assured that you'll "clean" your list regularly of bad e-mail addresses, addresses of recipients who have requested you remove them from your mailing list, and the like. Companies maintaining clean lists also agree to only add subscribers who have requested to be on their mailing lists, and must make it easy for people to unsubscribe from the list.
Being SPF-compliant. Major ISPs have endorsed the concept of forcing e-mail marketers and others to clearly identify the mail servers they're using to send e-mail. Essentially, being able to pinpoint precisely where an e-mail is coming from enables AOL and others to track the source of spam, and ideally, shut it down. In computer-speak, agreeing to disclose the locations and identities of your machines means you are SPF (Sender Policy Framework) compliant.
Being sensible with your subject and sender lines. By now, even the guy who has worn a lampshade to office parties knows that obnoxious subject lines are a turn-off to virtually every e-mail recipient-and that they can get e-mail caught in a spam filter.
In contrast, reasonably worded subject lines mean messages less likely to be blacklisted as spam. Rule of thumb: In addition to avoiding THE SHOUT, or subject lines using only capital letters, keep your sender address line to about 16 characters, and your subject line to about 50 characters.
Being extra careful with HTML messages. Many ISPs have a strict policy of blocking HTML e-mails that are not formatted properly, so you'll need to ensure your web staff takes special care to make your HTML e-mails are squeaky clean. Check the HTML requirements of specific ISPs for detailed information.
Meeting complete white list requirements for specific ISPs. If your institution is still having problems getting its mail through, you may want to take the time to join the white lists of specific ISPs like AOL. Be forewarned: The institution will be forced to jump though a great many hoops to get such a listing, and you may have to redesign the layout of some of your e-mails to get one. But many organizations feel it's worth the hassle.
Joe Dysart is an internet speaker and a business consultant based in Thousand Oaks, Calif. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.