ISPs basing reputation scores on engagement – how will this affect my deliverability?

“I have heard that ISPs are beginning to base reputation scores on engagement – how will this affect my deliverability?”

The first response I give to anyone who asks me this question is: Says Who? Swiftly followed by: You have nothing to worry about.    

Before anyone gets too excited, I am not saying you shouldn’t worry or care about engaging your subscribers. What I am saying is you should focus on engaging your subscribers because you want to promote your company and/or sell more product and not because it might damage your reputation as a sender.

We first started getting asked this question in December of 2009, no matter how hard we searched we found very little hard evidence that engagement based reputation scoring is becoming widespread, or that ‘engagement’ necessarily means open and click rates.

All we found were the following statements neither of which are particularly controversial:

  • Yahoo is looking at any action a subscriber might take when interacting with email: opens, turning on images, immediate deletions, reporting spam, clicking links, moving a message out of the spam folder. The feature is in place today, but the system is still “learning.” The score is not linear, but rather a factor over time: Mark Risher Spam Czar at Yahoo! August 2009
  • “Taking this into consideration, we have modified our Enhanced White Listing (EWL) process to benefit IPs with our highest internal reputation score…..This means that IPs being added to the EWL have consistently maintained a low complaint level as well as high user engagement: Christine Borgia of the Postmaster team at AOL in November 2009

Given how imprecise both of those statements are about the meaning of engagement and the fact that there are hundreds if not thousands of ISPs in the US and Europe who have never gone on the record about measuring engagement, let alone opens and clicks, it is hard to see what all the fuss is about.

In our opinion there is very little if any evidence that “People who don’t interact are becoming as dangerous as those who explicitly, negatively interact.” as some experts have been quoted as saying recently.

Now for something that you should be concerned about: ISPs are considering wholesale blocking of ESPs!

While researching this issue we came across an article by deliverability expert Laura Atkins on her blog Word to the Wise. According to Laura in the same way that spammers trying to mask their activities use web based email accounts like Hotmail, Yahoo or Gmail to deliver their spam; some less scrupulous companies are using their ESP accounts to send out unwanted and unrequested email in other words spamming.

The ISP’s are seeing more and more spam coming from the ESP space and are threatening to block all email from any ESP that fails to adequately police the activities of their clients. Laura says and we agree “Many ESPs do have proactive monitoring in place, but these strategies are failing. Spam is coming off some networks, and the whole network is at risk of blocking, not just the bad customers.”

This shouldn’t really come as a surprise to the ESP’s; The ISP’s have been making their displeasure felt through soft bounces for quite a while now, which is why you should take soft bounces very seriously indeed.

What does this mean to email marketers?

In the same way that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link then an ESP will only be as good as its worst client! So if the ISPs do decide to implement this strategy choosing the right ESP as your partner will be more important than ever. As Laura puts it “There is a clear opportunity here for smart ESPs to stand out from their peers and competitors”. Make sure your ESP is one of the smart ones.