Apr 282008

Drawing the Line

Drawing the LineWe are having a bit of a debate at the moment internally around our Sender Score deliverability business about how to handle clients who are in businesses that are, shall we say, not exactly as pure as the driven snow.  As a company that provides software and services to businesses without a vertical focus, we are often approached by all sorts of companies wanting our services where we don’t love what they do.  Examples include:

Gambling
Tobacco
Neutriceuticals
Guns
Adult content or products

Our challenges are along three dimensions, each of which is a little different.  But common threads run through all three dimensions. 

Dimension 1:  Our deliverability technology platform.   Our basic technology is used by mailers of all shapes and sizes to preview their campaigns, monitor their deliverability, and analyze their reputation metrics.  It doesn’t deploy campaigns.  Do we care who the users are?

Dimension 2:  Our full service deliverability practice that comes with consulting and high-touch account management.  This service offering has an additional layer of complexity in that our employees work closely with accounts and their web sites.  We already allow employees to opt-out of accounts where they find the work objectionable.  But is that enough?

Dimension 3:  Our whitelist, Sender Score Certified. This one is even trickier.  On the one hand, our program has fairly clear, published standards.  We do a thorough qualitative check of the client’s web site and email program to make sure, among other things, that the program is opt-in.  We monitor the client’s quantitative reputation metrics in real-time to make sure its complaint rate is low, signifying that its customers like (or at least don’t mind) receiving its email.  On the other hand, this program is supposed to signify the best of the best for email marketing and newsletters, which is why it’s used by so many ISPs and filters as their standard for defining “good mail.”  And yet on a third hand (perhaps there’s some sort of herbal remedy that can help me with that problem), for many ISPs, our program is their only whitelist, so clients who are above board, even if in a grey industry, may have no other option.

So is it our place to legislate morality, or should we just focus on what’s legal and what’s not legal?  How much accountability do clients bear for content that shows up in their emails from advertisers?  For example, and I’m making this up, what do we do if a men’s health magazine that’s a client has links in its email newsletters that are placed by an affiliate network that click through to a pornography site?  What if the pornography in question is legal in one country but not another?  How much time and energy should we spend vetting clients before we take them on?  Or monitoring them around these issues once they’re a client?  Does it matter which product they’re using?

I’d love feedback from the outside world (or the inside world) on how we should think about and handle these issues.

Filed under: Business, Email, Return Path

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5 responses to “Drawing the Line”

  1. This may be tougher to scale but why not offer two tiers of service, one for companies you can safely deliver for (the non-gambling, non-porn companies) and one for the other companies that want your service but may have a less-than-clean reputation? Kind of the model of offering more expensive insurance to bad drivers. They have a bad history so you're going to make them agree to a different level of service, but you don't want to miss out on their business entirely.

    To make it work you'd need to use different SMTPs, etc so your cleaner clients aren't effected by the more questionable ones. Everyone needs email deliver ability though so why not make an effort to accommodate these other industries if you can swing it.

  2. rhhfla4895 says:

    I'd recommend only taking business from clients that meet your moral standards. Some day you may have to explain the client base on Wall Street or to an investor that has a defined morality. Your mother will be proud of you.

    Also, these less moral companies are probably the easy pickings and by living off them you only delay the day when you need to learn how to sell to the rest of the world.

  3. Since we don't do delivery, segmenting IPs isn't relevant, but the general concept of two tiers is interesting – thanks you!

  4. The good news is that we sell mainly to the rest of the world already – these are edge cases I'm talking about. But the question I'd ask is…how do we determine what's moral and what's not? Everyone here is likely to have a different POV. Whose is right?

  5. Geoffrey Hamilton says:

    It's a very interesting question you bring up Matt. As I understand the deliverability business, you guys are relatively content independent. If people are opting into these services, I think that they have as much of a right to have mailings from these "vice" services delivered to their inboxes as they do to have any other mailings delivered.

    With that said, I would look at it from an economic perspective. Would working with these particular services hurt revenues in other areas? If no, I see no reason to take a moral stance against something legal.

    As far as the legality across country lines, it seems to me that part of a company's trustworthiness should have to do with how well it adheres to these laws, so as long as they are within the law in every country that they service, it should be alright.

    That's my two cents at least,
    Geoffrey