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Return Path Morphs Into 'Email Intelligence' Firm

9/18/12

By Ken Magill

Return Path is reinventing itself.

Long known as an email deliverability and security firm, the company today unveiled a series of services in a bid to become primarily known for email intelligence.

The new services are an outgrowth of OtherInbox, a startup Return Path acquired in January that enables people to more efficiently manage their email communications with bulk senders.

OtherInbox takes email messages from users’ Gmail, Yahoo! and AOL accounts and automatically sorts them into folders according to inbox holders’ wishes.

According to Return Path, OtherInbox offers unprecedented insight into how people handle—or don’t handle—email from specific commercial senders.

Two of the new products, Inbox Monitor and Inbox Insight, use data from a panel of nearly 2 million OtherInbox email recipients, according to Return Path.

Inbox Monitor is an enhanced version of what Return Path has long been known for: inbox placement optimization. It includes both the seed-list technology—dummy addresses used to monitor email activity and deliverability—that Return Path has long offered coupled with panel data from OtherInbox.

The big news, however, appears to be Inbox Insight, a competitive intelligence tool that offers information previously available only to ISPs or inbox providers.

Among the metrics Return Path claims it can now offer are the so-called read rate, or the percentage of messages that get opened and read; the delete-without-open rate, which should be self explanatory; the ignore rate, or the percentage of messages that just sit in the inbox; the percentage flagged as spam by recipients, the percentage flagged as not spam by recipients, the percentage delivered into recipients’ inboxes and the percentage sent to recipients’ spam folders.

“We can give you those metrics not just for your messages, but your competitors’ messages, as well,” said Tami Forman, senior director, global corporate communications for Return Path. “And you can define your competitive set however you want.”

According to an old-school direct marketing tenet, if a competitor does something repeatedly, it’s working.

Email, however, is so inexpensive to deploy that a marketer can do it badly and still profit.

As a result, just because another sender is doing something over and over again with email doesn’t necessarily mean it should be imitated.

“[Inbox Insight] gives marketers the power to say: ‘Hey, this thing my competitor is doing is really working for them,’ but it also gives you the ability to go back to your boss and say: ‘You know how you wanted me to up our frequency by 2X like our competitors are doing? Well I just checked their score and they’re getting blocked,’” said Forman. “You can say: “Yeah, they’re sending more than we are and they’re paying a price for it.’”

Inbox Insight can also show if a competitor is segmenting and if so, what they’re sending to their various segments, according to Forman.

“When you sign up for a competitor’s messages you’re not necessarily seeing all the streams,” said Forman. “You’re not necessarily seeing what they send to buyers, for example. If they’re doing segmentation we can show you all that.”

As opposed to seed lists where dummy addresses are set up to monitor email delivery, Inbox Monitor uses information from real subscribers’ inboxes, according to Forman.

“When consumers sign up for [OtherInbox] one of the things they do is give us permission to monitor them anonymously,” said Forman. “So it doesn’t go down to the subscriber level, but the data you’re getting is: ‘Of the panel members who are on your list, X percent read the messages or X percent deleted without opening.’

“The data we’re showing you is data from your actual customers,” she said. “If you’ve got 100,000 names on your file, you don’t need 50,000 in the panel. A few thousand is actually statistically relevant. We only show you the data if it’s statistically relevant.”

Obviously, Inbox Monitor and Inbox Insight can’t deliver revenue metrics. They also cannot deliver direct insight into Microsoft Outlook or Hotmail inbox holders’ behavior.

But they can deliver a statistically valid sample of subscribers representing how a specific mailer’s messages are being treated, according to Return Path.

“What's most important for the kind of data Inbox Insight collects is not which ISP is covered (since this isn't an inbox placement product) but what kind of people are in the panel and are they representative of how users typically interact with email,” wrote Forman in an email answer to a follow-up question. “And the answer is yes, the people in the panel are almost an exact match for what the US online consumer population looks like.”

Jack Hogan, chief technology officer at women’s-health-issues publisher Lifescript, said of Inbox Insight: “Yes, it’s only three of the four majors and it’s none of the smaller ISPs, but it gives enough of the picture to let you know what’s going on. This gives you competitive insights on real users.”

Return Path’s other new offering is Email Brand Monitor, which, according to the company, provides analysis of outbound email activity to combat fraudulent email and domain spoofing.

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