Apr 182006

A New Season for Bonded Sender (now Sender Score Certified)

A New Season for Bonded Sender (now Sender Score Certified)

(With apologies to my non-email industry readers for such a long detailed posting)

Ah, spring.  New life is everywhere.  Winter clothes are being put away, birds are returning from their winters in the south, flowers are blooming.  We at Return Path are doing our part by announcing the “rebirth” of our Bonded Sender Program, the Internet’s largest and oldest email accreditation program, or whitelist, as Sender Score Certified.

Since we acquired Bonded Sender last fall, we’ve had the opportunity to go on a “listening tour” – talking to marketers, publishers, ESPs, ISPs, spam filtering companies, system administrators, email appliance manufacturers – you name it.  What we learned was that the program was ground-breaking when it was launched in 2002 but that it needed a makeover in order to meet the challenges that have evolved around spam and deliverability for both senders and receivers during the past few years.

Our listening tour revealed that the Bonded Sender of old had four core issues that weren’t sitting well with the Internet community at large:

1.  Data validity:  some senders questioned the accuracy of some of the application and compliance metrics used;

2.  Black box:  a complete lack of transparency led many senders to be unclear as to what was driving them to fail applications or have bonds debited;

3.  Bond:  there isn’t a purchasing department in America that knows how to post a bond or understands why they should; and

4.  Complaints:  as far as ISPs were concerned, even though mailers had to pass some serious hurdles to join the program, mailers who were in the program still managed to generate too many complaints among their end users.

A spring cleaning was in order, and we had the experts to get the job done.   The deliverability gurus inside Return Path — George Bilbrey, Tom Bartel, Robert Barclay, Leslie Price, Dan Deneweth, and others — working with a myriad of external advisors, delivered the makeover the program needed.

So today, Bonded Sender is reborn as Sender Score Certified.  We have worked hard to address all four main beefs about the program, while keeping the elements of the program that have worked well.  So here’s what you can expect of the new program.  First, what’s new and different:

1.  New and Improved Data:  the program is now powered by our newly launched Sender Score Reputation database, which George wrote about last week – a robust source of reputation information sent to us daily by scores of different sources on the Internet, including B2B and B2C, domestic and international, ISP and commercial filters;

2.  Complete transparency:  the Sender Score Reputation Monitor service allows clients to have 100% visibility into every metric tracked for the program, including some super-cool drill-down features;

3.  Bye-Bye, Bond:  these high standards make the bond unnecessary (and they really made us need to find a new name – can you imagine Bondless Sender?).   You’re either on the list, or you’re not.  The transparency makes it much easier for us to work with our clients on compliance; and

4.  Radically Reduced Complaints:  the new standards have allowed us to raise the bar on the quality of the program.  We’ve built the statistical model underlying the program to have a VERY high correlation with some leading spam filters, enabling us to remove a huge number of senders who were previously on the whitelist.  The result?  Our largest ISP user, Microsoft, reports to us a nearly 90% drop in the number of complaints in their network coming from users of the program – and that was off a very small number of complaints to begin with, relative to the rest of the email universe.

OK, you say – sounds great.  But what did we actually keep about the program?

1.  We still partner with third-party watchdog non-profit TRUSTe to perform a critical, detailed practices accreditation of incoming clients as well as help us with compliance;

2.  We still use SpamCop complaint data as one data feed for the program’s compliance – but now it’s just one of several; and

3.  We still have more than 35,000 domains, including Hotmail, MSN, Outblaze and Roadrunner, as well as users of Spam Assassin and Ironport appliances, using the program to help determine what email to let through.

So spring has sprung at Return Path for our delivery assurance business.  The Bonded Sender makeover is done, and the new Sender Score Certified is here to innovate the next generation of email accreditation and whitelists for the industry.

For more on Sender Score Certified, read our press release or the program requirements today.

Oct 112005

Response to a Deliverability Rant

Response to a Deliverability Rant

Justin Foster from WhatCounts, an email service provider based in Seattle, wrote a very lengthy posting about email deliverability on the WhatCounts blog yesterday.  There’s some good stuff in it, but there are a couple of things I’d like to clarify from Return Path‘s perspective.

Justin’s main point is spot-on.  Listening to email service providers talk about deliverability is a little bit like eating fruit salad:  there are apples and oranges, and quite frankly pineapples and berries as well.  Everyone speaks in a different language.  We think the most relevant metric to use from a mailer’s perspective is inbox placement rate.  Let’s face it – nothing else matters.  Being in a junk mail folder is as good as being blocked or bounced.

Justin’s secondary point is also a good one.  An email service provider only has a limited amount of influence over a mailer’s inbox placement rate.  Service providers can and must set up an ironclad email sending infrastructure; they can and must support dedicated IP addresses for larger mailers; they can and must support all major authentication protocols — none of these things is in any way a trivial undertaking.  In addition, service providers should (but don’t have to) offer easy or integrated access to third-party deliverability tools and services that are on the market.  But at the end of the day, most of the major levers that impact deliverability (complaint rates, volume spikiness, content, registration/data sources/processes) are pulled by the mailer, not the service provider.  More on that in a minute.

I’d like to clarify a couple of things Justin talks about when it comes to third-party deliverability services.

Ok, so he’s correct that seed lists only work off of a sample of email addresses and therefore can’t tell a mailer with 100% certainty which individual messages reach the inbox or get blocked or filtered.  However, when sampling is done correctly, it’s an incredibly powerful measurement tool.  Email deliverability sampling gives mailers significantly more data than any other source about the inbox placement rate of their campaigns.  Since this kind of data is by nature post-event reporting, the most interesting thing to glean from it is changes in inbox placement from one campaign to another.  As long as the sampling is done consistently, that tells a mailer the most critical need-to-know information about how the levers of deliverability are working.

For example, we released our semi-annual deliverability tracking study for the first half of 2005 yesterday, which (download the whitepaper with tracking study details here or view the press release here).  We don’t publicly release mailer-specific data, but the data that went into this study about specific clients is very telling.  Clients who start working with us and have, say a 75% inbox placement rate — then work hard on the levers of deliverability and raise it to 95% on a sampled basis, can see the improvements as their sales and other key email metrics jump by 20%.  Just because there’s a small margin of error on the sample doesn’t render the process useless.

Second, Justin issues a big buyer beware about Bonded Sender and other “reputation” services (quotes deliberate – more on that in a minute as well).  Back in June, we released a study about Bonded Sender clients which showed that mailers who qualified for Bonded Sender saw an average of a 21% improvement in inbox delivery rates (range of 15%-24%) at ISPs who use Bonded Sender such as MSN, Hotmail, and Roadrunner.  We were pretty careful about the data used to analyze this.  We only looked at mailers who were clients both before and after joining the Bonded Sender program for enough time to be relevant, and we looked at a huge number (100,000+) of campaigns.  Yes, it’s still “early days” for accreditation programs, but we think we’re off to a good start with them given this data, and the program isn’t all that expensive relative to what mailers pay for just about everything else in their email deployment arsenal.

Finally, let me come back to the two “more on that in a minute” points from above.  I’ll start with the second one — Bonded Sender is an accreditation program, or a whitelist, NOT a reputation service.  Accreditation and Reputation services are both critical components in the fight to improve inbox placement of legitimate, permissioned, marketing emails, but they’re very different kinds of programs (a little background on why they’re important and how they fit with authentication here).

Accreditation services like Bonded Sender work because, for the very best mailers, third parties like TRUSTe essentially vouch that a mailer is super high quality — enough so that an ISP can feel comfortable putting mail from that mailer in the inbox without subjecting it to the same level of scrutiny as random inbound mail.

There are no real, time-tested reputation services for mailers in the market today.  We’re in the process of launching one now called Sender Score.  Sender Score (and no doubt the other reputation services which will follow it) is designed to help mailers measure the most critical levers of deliverability so they can work at solving the underlying root cause problems that lead to low inbox placement.  This is really powerful stuff, and it will ultimately prove our (and Justin’s) theory that mailers have much more control over their inbox placement rate/deliverability than service providers.

Where does all this lead?  Two simple messages:  (1) if you outsource your email deployment to an email service provider, pick your provider carefully and make sure they do a good job at the infrastructure-related levers of email deliverability that they do control.  (2) whether you handle email deployment in-house or outsource it to a service provider, your inbox placement rate is largely in your control. Make sure you do everything you can to measure it and look closely at the levers, whether you work with a third-party deliverability service or not.

Apologies for the lengthy posting.

Jun 222005

Why We Love Email Authentication, But Why It Won’t Stop Spam

Why We Love Email Authentication, But Why It Won’t Stop Spam

Microsoft made a big announcement today that they’re taking email authentication, in the form of Sender ID, very seriously.  They’re using a stick, not a carrot.  Emailers who do not publish a proper Sender ID record are now going to (a) find themselves in the bulk mail folder at Hotmail and MSN, and (b) have a big fat disclaimer thrown on top of their emails from Microsoft warning users that the email’s source can’t be authenticated.

At Return Path, we’re big fans of authentication, and we’re sponsoring the upcoming Email Authentication Summit in a couple of weeks in New York as one way of supporting the effort — encouraging our clients to get on the ball with authentication is another one.  Here’s what we think it will (and won’t) do:

– It WILL make a big dent in spoofing, phishing, and fraud, right away.  Why?  Because those particular elements of the Internet Axis of Evil are identity-based…therefore, identity authentication will either stop those things, make it easier for consumers to steer clear of them, or make it easier for law enforcement to go after them.

– It WILL NOT make a big dent in spam right away.  Why?  Because spam is much more nuanced than fraud.  If I’m Microsoft, and I know that you are the particular sender of an email into my network, that’s all good and well, but I might not have any idea if I want to accept that mail or not.  Another way of saying this is that spammers can publish Sender ID records, too.

– It WILL lay the foundation for longer-term spam solutions.  Why?  Because it’s important to understand exactly who is sending mail into a network in order to answer that next question of “do I want to accept your mail or not?”  We think the answers to that question lie with accreditation and reputation services.

Obviously, I have my biases.  Return Path owns Bonded Sender, the leading accreditation service, which answers that question by saying “yes – you want to accept this mail, because Return Path and TRUSTe have examined me thoroughly and are vouching for my integrity, they’re measuring how many people are complaining about my mail, and if I get too many complaints, they fine me and kick me out of the program.”

Look for another announcement from us soon about what we’re up to in the reputation space, which is a more complex cousin to accreditation in answering that same question.

Jun 152005

Counter Cliche: Who’s The Dog in this Scenario?

Counter Cliche:  Who’s The Dog in this Scenario?

Fred’s VC cliche of the week is a good one — “If you lie down with dogs, you’ll come up with fleas.” His point is a good and simple one, that VCs shouldn’t take people risks in deals and shouldn’t try to back management teams they have serious concerns about (ethical or otherwise) in the hopes of trying to change the team or change management.

The obvious counter cliche is that entrepreneurs run that same risk in accepting capital from less-than-savory venture investors.  An ethically-challenged investor can wreak havoc on a young company, potentially tying the company up with peripheral legal problems or even damaging the company’s attempts at raising future rounds of capital.  So, VCs can be the dog in the scenario as well.

But I think there’s a broader counter cliche here, which is that one’s reputation in business is always tied, to some extent, to the company one keeps.  This applies to investors, and also to clients, vendors, and partners.  The appearance of a connection to an unsavory character, even if it’s just an appearance, and even if “unsavory” is in the grey area instead of black-and-white, is almost as problematic as a real connection.

Our business at Return Path is a good illustration of this principle, as is the case with many companies in email marketing, since email marketing has some very visible bad guys (spammers), good guys (think eBay and Expedia), and lots of companies that operate in shades of grey in between.  One of our lines of business, Delivery Assurance Solutions (email deliverability), is particularly critical in terms of us having a great reputation in the industry, since we work on behalf of email marketers to get their mail accepted (not blocked/filtered) at major ISPs.  No matter how you cut it, this business invariably involves making some judgment calls from time to time on who’s a “good guy” vs. a “bad guy” in the email marketing world.

We try to be as clear as possible with our prospects and clients about what kinds of behavior we wil or will not accept from clients, since our reputation in this business is everything to us.  We won’t, for example, help a client with ISP relations or monitoring tools if they don’t sign reps and warrantees in our contract about their email practices that go well beyond CAN-SPAM in terms of compliance with industry best practices.  We can’t accept clients into the Bonded Sender whitelist program unless they jump through all kinds of hoops with our third-party watchdog partner, TRUSTe.  And as painful as it is from a revenue perspective, we do fire clients periodically who we discover to be either not in compliance with their reps and warrantees to us, or who we discover to have a particularly poor reputation in the industry.  All of these things are designed to make sure we stay flea-free.

One area that’s particularly tricky for us is what to do with a “bad guy” who comes to us asking for help to become a “good guy.”  While it’s hard to be completely objective about this type of situation, we have an emerging policy around it.  We WILL work with clients who the world perceives as a “bad guy,” but only on a consulting basis to teach them email best practices and how to become a “good guy” (one of my Board members, Scott Weiss from IronPort Systems, calls this Return Path’s 12-step program).  If those clients take our advice and make meaningful and measurable changes to their email programs, we will continue to work with them and will slowly allow them to use our other services over time.  If those clients resist our advice or are too slow to change their ways, we will stop working with them immediately.

I guess the point of the counter cliche is that sometimes it’s hard to tell, as Sally told Harry in the movie, who is supposed to be the dog in a particular scenario.

Apr 112005

You Heard It Here First, Part II

You Heard It Here First, Part II

Tomorrow, Return Path is going to announce that we have acquired the Bonded Sender Program from IronPort Systems (the release is here).  As usual, I’m happy to pre-announce M&A activity on my blog in exchange for a moment of self-promotion.

Bonded Sender is the industry’s oldest, best known, and most effective whitelist/accreditation program.  In a nutshell, it’s a bitch for mailers to qualify for it — they have to demonstrate that they’re a super high quality mailer and get certified by our partner TrustE — but once they do, they have relatively guaranteed safe passage and default images into the inbox at Microsoft (Hotmail and MSN), Roadrunner, and a number of smaller ISPs plus over 35,000 corporate domains who use SpamAssassin or who have Ironport’s email appliances installed at their gateway.  BUT — and this is a big but — they have to keep clean in order to stay on the list, and if they receive more than a tiny number of spam complaints against them, they get fined (hence, the Bond) and ultimately kicked out of the program.

Why is this big news for us and for our customers?  We pioneered the delivery assurance business starting back in 2003.  That business is really hitting its stride now.  The things we already do for clients — monitor their deliverability, analyze and resolve their most pressing problems, and manage their reputations — are critical and raise companies’ deliverability rates from 78% to 95% on average, after six months.  Bonded Sender will automate much of this process for the best clients at the biggest ISPs, and raise that number to 100% in the process.  Look for other announcements in the coming weeks about the expansion of the program in terms of major ISPs who use it.

Why is the Bonded Sender program so great?  Well, ultimately, I think it’s a big part of the solution to spam.  Legislation will do its piece, as will authentication technologies.  But reputation/accreditation systems are a critical component to solving spam as well, and what we love about Bonded Sender is that it attacks one of spam’s biggest root causes, which is that sending an email is free.  The world can’t continue to operate on the principle of exclusion (e.g., I’ll filter out everyone I don’t like), because exclusion leads to too many errors when carried out at an extreme level.  Whitelists like Bonded Sender operate on an inclusion basis, meaning that mailers who are squeaky clean and who are willing to put their money where their mouth is are allowed in.  Those mailers SHOULD BE allowed in and don’t mind paying a modest fee to guarantee or virtually guarantee inclusion.  So the program does exactly what it’s supposed to do.

I blogged about Bonded Sender last May when they came out with their initial announcement that Microsoft had decided to use the Bonded Sender whitelist (well before our deal was in the works with IronPort).  That posting still holds today, although there’s a fourth misconception as well, which is that it’s too expensive for smaller or non-profit or educational institutions (not true – it’s actually free for non-profits and extremely affordable for small companies, relative to what they pay to send their email in the first place).

Anyway, we’re excited to partner with IronPort and to add Bonded Sender to our Delivery Assurance product portfolio…and a big welcome to Scott Weiss and his team from IronPort (especially Peter Macdonald and Josh Barrack, who will be joining us full-time) to the Return Path family.

May 262004

Popular Misconceptions About Bonded Sender

There have been many postings about Microsoft’s recent announcement to use Ironport’s Bonded Sender Program as one of its many tools to fight spam and reduce false positives. I won’t belabor them here, but there are three common misconceptions I’m reading on the web and in blogs that I thought I’d point out and try to clarify.

Misconception #1: Bonded Sender is a Microsoft product, and Microsoft will profit from it. Why it’s not true: Bonded Sender is operated by Ironport, Inc., a completely separate company from Microsoft. Bonded Sender and its cousin, Sender Base, are used by over 20,000 domains. Microsoft is just the latest, and highest profile, user. I don’t believe that Microsoft is making any money from their use of Bonded Sender, but at a minimum, it’s not their product.

Misconception #2: With Bonded Sender, spammers can now buy their way into your inbox. Why it’s not true: While the premise behind Bonded Sender is that commercial emailers should put their money where their mouth is and have a financial penalty associated with spam complaints, that doesn’t mean any old mailer can join the program and pay to play. In fact, senders have to quality for the program by undergoing a fairly rigorous application process that is overseen by TrustE. If anyone doubts this, have a look at the application’s “email standards” section. I know a bunch of legitimate mailers who wouldn’t pass this — let alone spammers.

Misconception #3: Bonded Sender won’t do anything to stop the spam problem. Why it’s not true: Sure, it won’t stop it tomorrow. Nothing will. And it may not be the exact right approach to solving the problem, either. But starting to quantify and publicize mailers’ reputations, and starting to remove the economic free ride associated with spam, are important steps in the war on spam. Bonded Sender will inevitably change over time as the program gets market tested, but let’s give credit where credit is due for a good start.