ISPs Are Not to Blame for Delivery Challenges Faced by Marketers

Posted by Tom Bartel on

At Return Path we work hard to make email work better for everyone who has a stake in it. This includes marketers, as most people know, but it also includes ISPs and mailbox providers. It’s not easy for either party, but the problems for ISPs in particular are noteworthy. They are tasked with protecting their network and users from an unending onslaught of spam, scams, viruses and malware. It is a daunting task to handle inbound email accurately – getting the wanted mail to users’ inboxes while also protecting these customers from receiving dangerous and unwanted messages.

Our recent report on the deliverability landscape in Europe has caused some consternation in some corners, with one publication even dubbing it a “slam” on ISPs.

It is a shame that our report was skewed this way – and so to be blunt and clear, it’s flat out wrong. Our report made it very clear that the responsibility for marketing email not making it to the inbox ultimately falls to the marketers. That point was prominent in the quote from my Return Path colleague Guy Shelton in the press release.

But since it somehow didn’t seem to translate well in the resulting articles from the release, let us follow up for clarity’s sake on a few key points:
1. Many marketers around the world are lax with best practices. This is often a knowledge deficit – marketers haven’t yet learned the rules of the road. Other times it is intentional – marketers ride the edge of responsibility. In either case, the result is a poor sending reputation. That reputation is what ultimately causes their emails to be filtered or blocked.

2. In Europe, too many marketers’ fail to provide subscribers with an unsubscribe option at all or if they do, they are failing to act on the requests they do receive. This poor practice means subscribers complain – marking the incoming emails from those marketers as spam, which leads to ISPs diverting messages to the spam folder or blocking them altogether.

3. These loose unsubscribe processes are compounded by the fact that too many marketers are already overly presumptuous with their permission practices. Even in Europe where laws around permission are more conservative than in the U.S., there are enough loopholes and work-arounds that too many people end up on marketing lists they never intended to be on or aren’t aware of. Return Path did a study of U.S. marketers and found that a shocking 31% added buyers to their marketing list without permission.

The real call of action from this report is to marketers! Marketers must take responsibility for their reputation and the practices that drive that reputation. They should seek to understand the rules of the road, put those practices into effect, and monitor their results so that they understand where their email ends up. This is the only way they can understand how they are perceived amidst the flood of spam flowing into ISPs so they can make changes to get their messages successfully delivered to the inboxes of people who want to receive them. Now it may seem I’m being too harsh on marketers now, but I’m not. Many marketers are excellent practitioners. For those who aren’t, that is exactly how Return Path helps them! We provide tools and consulting to ensure they understand the rules of the road and can implement best practices.

ISPs are stuck in a no-win situation between spammers’ attacks and their users’ expectations. Marketers are simply making life harder for themselves by failing to follow best practices – all of which are designed to help differentiate legitimate marketing from the spam that the ISPs must fight against every day.

The comments posted on many of the stories written about our report were also really interesting. Many folks rightly complained that they get too much email they don’t want and that it’s too hard to unsubscribe from these messages. But others commented on their annoyance at not receiving messages – including newsletters, social media notifications and permission-based notifications of new products and services – that they actually wanted.

The ISPs are not to blame for this sorry state of affairs. They end up bearing great expense and burden to pick out the very small percentage of email messages that are not spam and deliver them to the inbox. Marketers who learn to work within the system – and, even better, lessen the burden on the ISPs – will win the game. Those who try to game the system will only lose.


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About Tom Bartel

Tom Bartel is Return Path’s Senior Vice President of ThreatWave Data. Tom has more than 20 years of email delivery, email data and privacy experience. He most recently joined Return Path through its acquisition of ThreatWave, where he served as CEO/Co-founder. Prior to that, he has held roles at Return Path, MessageMedia (acquired by DoubleClick), and founded several other startups. Tom is actively involved in key industry organizations, such as OTA and M3AAWG, and advises start-ups and non-profits. Tom has a Bachelor in Speech Communication from Colorado State University.

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