Email Marketing: What’s Ahead?

by Franco on March 22, 2008

Domain level authentication is already here. In a response to phishing attacks, Yahoo and other mail service providers have instituted Domain Key Identified Mail (DKIM), a combination of DomainKeys (a Yahoo developed product) and Internet Identified Mail (a standard from Cisco Systems). Essentially, it looks for a cryptographic signature on incoming emails that identifies the domain from which they were sent.

Why is this important? Well, before authentication, phishers and spammers can put any return address they wish in emails and it wasn’t checked. With DKIM, return addresses are checked against the authentication signature that is sent in the email header. Scam-mail that imitates commercial sites (phishers) will be identified as not originating at the site listed in the email. And mail that doesn’t have an authentication signature will be scrutinized more closely for spam characteristics.

Why should pay attention to this?

If you are sending legitimate email you shouldn’t have to worry, right? Wrong.

Because the filtering is at the domain level, if you inadvertently fall afoul of a mail service provider your whole domain can get labeled as spam generating and excluded. You would find your and marketing materials blocked from legit recipients.

This can happen in a variety of ways:

  • If you buy a bad list, a list that contains dead mailboxes, your emails might get noticed by the provider bouncing them and tag you as a spammer.
  • If you buy or rent a list that has ‘trap’ email addresses on it you will look ‘spammy’.
  • If you use a stale list (more than 6 months out of date), you might get tagged when your emails are bounced back.
  • If a recipient is just having a bad day and marks your mail as spam, and it happens enough times, your domain might get the ‘do not accept, spam’ identifier.
  • If someone you give permission to uses your domain for an inappropriate mailing, your whole domain name can be smeared as a source of spam.

What does the future hold?

You don’t have to go far to see the trend. Legislation to prevent cold calling has been in effect for a few years. The Do Not Call list was an attempt to reduce ‘telephone spam’. (Interestingly, charities and political parties soliciting donations are exempted from the law.) There is similar legislation meant to prevent the use of fax machines for unsolicited marketing.

These laws try to circumvent mass marketing techniques by requiring an existing business relationship before allowing phone calls or faxes. No such legislation exists for direct mail through the post office. But with DKIM, the ability to legislate the Internet now exists.

It wouldn’t take much to regulate email. By requiring a digital signature, the actual ‘from’ address would be known to the recipient and whatever mail server they use. This allows enforcement of any new standards that are enacted. And there is a push from users to get just such a policy into law. The popularity of the Do Not Call list is immense. Watch out in the next couple of years for a version of a Do Not Email list to emerge.
What can you do about it?

By keeping abreast of the latest developments, you can be prepared for whatever comes down the road. Of special interest is whatever mechanism goes into effect to let legitimate emails through. If it is a business relationship standard (like the one for telephones), then you ought to be able to show that your email list is one that meets that requirement.

If you are using a mail service, make sure they have DKIM capability and that you use it. If you do self-mailings, make sure you use DKIM too. And don’t buy stale or overworked lists.

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