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Please Stop Crapping on Marketers, Part II

03/22/11

By Ken Magill

ISP abuse-desk employees’ professional lives primarily involve dealing with spam.

Replace the word “spam” in the previous sentence with “clueless, abusive assholes and criminals” and you’ve pretty much got a second accurate job description for abuse-desk workers-or those whose jobs it is to prevent spam from entering and leaving their networks.

As a result, marketers—and at least one reporter, this one—who take issue with abuse-desk folks’ dismissive, and sometimes hostile, attitudes toward commercial email might want to walk a mile in an abuse-desk employee’s shoes before opening their yaps.

This was the message a number of professionals had in reaction to last week’s column criticizing what I still believe is an inappropriate reflexive hostility to all things marketing-related among too many Internet service provider executives.

However, while the attitude may be inappropriate, it is also understandable. The only time abuse-desk employees deal with marketers is when the marketers are being, well, abusive in some fashion—hence the name “abuse desk.”

“Ken has no idea what these folks running the filters and keeping your email alive deal with on a regular basis,” wrote Laura Atkins on her Word to the Wise blog, in response to last week’s column.”They deal with the utter dregs and horrors of society. They are the people dealing with unrelenting spam and virus and phishing attacks bad enough to threaten to take down their networks and the networks of everyone else,” she continued.

“They also end up dealing with law enforcement to deal with criminals. Some of what they do is deal with is unspeakable, abuse and mistreatment of children and animals. These are the folks who stand in front of the rest of us, and make the world better for all of us,” Atkins wrote. “They should be thanked for doing their job, not chastised because they’re doing what the people who pay them expect them to be doing.”

Email consultant Neil Schwartzman—who is also the executive director of the Coalition Against Unsolicited Commercial Email—added in an interview with The Magill Report that abuse desks are almost always understaffed.

“Abuse desks are cost centers,” he said. “You can’t attribute revenue to them, so they are always as thinly staffed as possible.”

Schwartzman is in day-to-day contact with dozens of abuse-desk employees, including those of the major ISPs.

“First and foremost, their responsibility is to deal with abusive clients of that [their employer] ISP,” he said. “ISPs also offer connectivity to businesses. … So what you have is basically a crew of one or two people that are initially and primarily dealing with abuse [spam] coming out of their own network.”

A typical abuse-desk employee is also pulled in a slew of different directions, Schwartzman said.

“There are some hugely competing priorities for someone working an abuse desk,” he said. “They may be asked on any given day to pull the log files of a pedophile who has infected their systems, to reconstitute some hardware that has fallen apart, then all of a sudden there are a bunch of infected nodes on their system, or law enforcement is knocking on the door and they’re being called on to freeze all data on 10,000 accounts due to a poorly worded court order.”

He added: “What you have [at abuse desks] are bosses demanding unrealistic amounts of work in minor amounts of time. … You’re [the abuse desk employee is] seeing spam complaints from outside, you’re seeing spam complaints from your own users, you’re seeing your boss complain about how much work you’re getting done and you need to do more: ‘And by the way, you need to come to this meeting for the next four hours.’

“And then you have someone [a marketer] who hasn’t done their homework, is hitting a bunch of spam traps, is ignoring bounces, hasn’t looked at their engagement [metrics and noticed] people haven’t opened up an email from them in a decade, and they’re wondering why they’re getting blocked [as a spammer] and they write in demanding that you drop that block immediately because it’s unfair: ‘Oh, and by the way my lawyer’s copied in on this.’

“As a human being, your response is ‘fuck you.’”

Point taken.

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Terms: Feel free to be as big a jerk as you want, but don't attack anyone other than me personally. And don't criticize people or companies other than me anonymously. Got something crappy to say? Say it under your real name. Anonymous potshots and personal attacks aimed at me, however, are fine.

Posted by: Phil Schott
Date: 2011-03-30 23:47:46
Subject:

Kelly Molloy writes, "Marketers do not subsidize my service in any way." You sure about that? You don't have any marketing companies or ESPs as clients? What about all of your clients who have marketing departments that do email marketing? What happens when they call you and say, "Hey, I'm a client. I'm sending to another client of yours and you're filtering my mail."

Kelly, I appreciate the counterpoint. I hope that senders do read your comments and that your comments help positively change their behavior.

Maybe the ultimate solution is that senders need to be as focused on their customers and subscribers as you and other filterers and receivers are.
Posted by: Phil Schott
Date: 2011-03-30 23:32:37
Subject:

David, I hear what you're saying. There's lots of crappy senders out there who will tell you whatever they think you want to hear to get to the inbox. You guys get lied to every day.

Did you ever stop and think that when some senders reach out to let you know that you inadvertantly blocked wanted mail that not only are we doing so for the benefit of the sender, but maybe we're also trying to help you get it right?

I don't know that it always works the way you're thinking it does. In the case of the bank alerts that you block, I don't call you. The "TINS" button is easy to spot, but there's no easy reporting mechanism that I'm aware of for telling you that you're blocking mail I want. In fact, I don't know that you're blocking the mail, but I do know that my bank is trying to send it. So, I call my bank and yell at them. They then call their ESP and yell at them. The ESP then reaches out to you and you're too busy helping your users to respond.

The hard part, I'm sure, is telling the good guys from the bad guys. Which senders are legit? Which senders don't lie to you? I don't have a solution there and obviously the best solution right now may be to ignore senders, but it just seems like there's got to be a better way.

Maybe that's where third-party accreditation like Return Path comes in.

I'm getting off into the weeds. Anyway, good discussion. Thanks for the response.
Posted by: Phil Schott
Date: 2011-03-30 23:13:37
Subject:

Kelly Molloy writes, "Any response you may get is a courtesy, not an entitlement."

I absolutely agree. As somebody who works with senders all I'm asking for is the courtesy of a response, which unfortunately not all receivers or filterers see fit to provide.

By your reasoning though, when somebody complains to our abuse desk that a client of ours is spamming them, I guess it's simply a courtesy that I investigate their claim, because, hey, they're not a paying customer or user of our platform, right? No! We follow up on all spam complaints because we're committed to ensuring that our clients don't send spam because spam is wrong and because it's in our interest to stop it.

How can something that's in your best interest to do be viewed as a courtesy to the sender? It should be viewed as a duty to your client.
Posted by: Kelly Molloy
Date: 2011-03-23 14:42:22
Subject:

I work for a filterer. Marketers do not subsidize my service in any way. My priorities are entirely customer-driven.

Once again, engagement is everything. Send mail that people want to receive and that they'll ask about if it's missed, and our joint customers will make it my priority. Saying "you'll be sorry when I take my ball and go home," holds no weight with me, though.
Posted by: David Romerstein
Date: 2011-03-23 12:48:06
Subject:

Kelly Lorenz writes "...when it's an issue where the marketer is in the right and the ISP refuses to work with them that I'm disputing". When the end-user recipient says "I didn't ask for/don't want this e-mail", *the marketer is never in the right*. But, I like the blackmail technique that you appear to be advocating - "this is a nice ISP you've got here... it would be a shame if something were to happen to its ad revenue".
Posted by: Kelly Lorenz
Date: 2011-03-23 12:04:15
Subject:

I see Neil's, Laura's and the Other Kelly's reasoning and completely understand that viewpoint, however, those same bosses that are expecting performance in a very short amount of time, will also put serious pressure on the abuse desk if those same marketers suddenly stop advertising with those ISPs based on the ISPs' practices. ISPs are able to keep marketers in line to the extent they are today because that's what both companies's customers want. If there's a conflict of interest, however, that's when it becomes ISPs concern to listen to what marketers are saying. They do pay for ISPs to stay in business - where do you think those free, web-based ISPs get their money to stay in business?
I'm not saying that the marketers should be abusive or that ISPs should allow bad practices, because again, that's not what either's end users want, but when it's an issue where the marketer is in the right and the ISP refuses to work with them that I'm disputing.

-Kelly
Posted by: Kelly Molloy
Date: 2011-03-22 19:08:18
Subject:

"In fact, don't receivers have more of a duty to respond since they're actually blocking mail? "

To their customers, yes, absolutely. But senders are generally not customers, and therefore, not entitled to the same consideration. Any response you may get is a courtesy, not an entitlement.
Posted by: David Romerstein
Date: 2011-03-22 18:32:21
Subject:

Phil,

You say "[i]t's disingenuous to state that you have your users' interests at heart then, in some cases, block mail and refuse to acknowledge or work with senders you're blocking and from whom the user has requested mail."

I agree completely - ISPs who are filtering spam should be doing everything in their power to deliver mail their customers want. That being said, the sender? Doesn't get to demand delivery by telling the ISP, "but, your customers asked for this". Abuse desks hear that ALL. THE. TIME. And, surprisingly, it's not always said honestly.

If end users are not receiving mail they've requested, or are seeing requested email go to the Junk folder, they should absolutely have a remediation path for that - a way to tell the ISP "hey, this is mail that I want". But, that's the ISP's customer demanding service for which they are paying, not a third party.

ISPs who do not listen to their customer do not long have those customers. ISPs who do not listen to marketers trying to send inbound bulk email end up having extra bandwidth for their customers.
Posted by: Phil Schott
Date: 2011-03-22 16:33:04
Subject:

Its concerning to me that, from what I'm reading here, and in Part I, that my ISP feels they have little obligation to help ensure the delivery of mail that I've asked for. I'm not disagreeing with Laura or Neil. I understand what they're saying. But, like the obligation to stop spam doesn't a receiver also have an obligation to do something if they're blocking the mail that I want? If not, why would anyone choose to use that provider?

It's disingenuous to state that you have your users' interests at heart then, in some cases, block mail and refuse to acknowledge or work with senders you're blocking and from whom the user has requested mail.

Consumers want the mail they've asked for and for unwanted mail to be blocked. In the end, the ISP that can best deliver on that is going to win. At least half that equation involves ensuring that wanted mail from senders is getting delivered.

Hey, I understand that working on an abuse desk is like drinking from a fire hose and that abuse desk folks are unsung heroes. However, if you're going to create filters to block mail (which we all know that those filters are imperfect) and you're in the business of getting wanted mail delivered, you need to have reciprocal systems in place to deal with senders. That's your responsibility as a receiver.

When questioned by a user who's not getting their wanted mail is it acceptable for an ISP to tell the user, "Sorry we're a cost center for Awesome ISP, so we really can't help you or support you. Even though we know that we get 5 billion emails a day and that our filters are imperfect we've only dedicated two people to respond to abuse issues and to ensure that you're getting the mail that you want."

I don't recall anyone cutting SORBS any slack for being inaccurate or non-responsive and as far as I know they don't actually block any mail. That being the case, what makes any receiver special enough to get a free pass for acting like SORBS? In fact, don't receivers have more of a duty to respond since they're actually blocking mail?