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Commercial Emailers Lead in Complaints, Spam Traps: Return Path

11/27/12

By Ken Magill

Though their messages account for less than 1 percent of all email traffic, commercial emailers draw vastly more spam complaints and hit far more spam traps than other types of mailers, according to a just-released report from Return Path.

In a study of more than 2 million email boxes, commercial emailers drew 70 percent of the spam-complaints reported, according to the email intelligence firm.

In contrast, bots were responsible for just 3 percent of spam complaints, according to Return Path.

“To see commercial emailers accounting for 70 percent was a little bit surprising,” said Tom Sather, senior director of email research for Return Path.

However, these figures are probably a testament to spam filters’ success, he said.

People don’t mark email that has been placed into their spam folders as spam. And they can’t complain about email they don’t see.

As a result, the disparity is probably the result of commercial mailers’ and bots’ respective inbox-placement rates.

And while drawing the most complaints, commercial emailers’ domains accounted for just 0.03 percent of the unique domains in the study, according to Sather.

“Commercial emailers are in the crosshairs, they’re front and center, so they’re probably going to receive the brunt of complaints,” said Sather.

The stat that doesn’t offer such a charitable explanation is the percentage of commercial emailers hitting spam traps.

Commercial messages accounted for 60 percent of spam traps hit in the study, according to Return Path.

In comparison, bots accounted for 11 percent, according to Return Path.

The number of spam traps a marketer hits is one of the key metrics ISPs use to determine whether or not incoming email is spam.

There are two types of spam traps: recycled addresses, or those that have been abandoned and turned into traps by ISPs; and honey pots, or addresses that have been published on the Internet but never subscribed to anything.

Hitting recycled spam traps indicates a lack of list hygiene.

Honey pot addresses, or pristine traps as Return Path has taken to calling them, are used by anti-spam activists to catch emailers who have either been scraping email addresses off the Internet or buying lists from someone or some company that has been harvesting addresses.

Though some commercial emailers are certainly buying email lists—how would Indian list firms exist otherwise?—and hitting honey pots, common sense says that more are probably hitting recycled spam traps as a result of questionable list hygiene.

Commercial emailers are understandably hesitant to remove inactive names from their files. In fact, there is great disagreement in the industry over just when an address should be deemed toxic and removed.

As a result, many commercial emailers are probably mailing to a lot of old addresses, the segment of their file most likely to contain recycled spam traps.

Another explanation is the anecdotally common occurrence where the email manager of a company leaves, someone new takes their place, finds a bunch of addresses the company hasn’t been mailing to and adds them to the file not knowing the addresses were deemed bad by the previous manager.

“Then they mail to them and ‘boom,’ they start hitting spam traps,” said Sather.

In other news, Return Path has confirmed what some business-to-business emailers have been apparently contending for quite some time: Postini stinks as a spam filter.

According to Return Path, Google-owned Postini delivered just 23 percent of email into its enterprise users’ inboxes and blocked 44 percent during the study.

“Postini is one of the most largely used enterprise spam filters,” said Sather. Part of the problem with Postini is it is practically impossible for a marketer who believes they’ve been unfairly blocked to resolve the issue.

“They offer no centralized support,” said Sather.

However, Google announced in August it is retiring Postini and shifting its users over to Google Apps sometime next year.

Google said it has spent the previous 12 months building some of Postini’s features into Google Apps.

Google Apps delivered 91 percent of the email it processed into its enterprise users’ inboxes, according to Return Path.

What this development means for b-to-b emailers is unclear. However, Sather said: “I would guess that Google has been looking at Postini’s 23 percent placement rate and saying: ‘We need to retire this.”

Access the full report here.

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