David Fowler_Digital Insights

Recently my daughter was completing a school project about regulation and the Internet. She quoted the CAN-SPAM act of 2003 as a reference, and that got me looking back and reflecting on the deliverability and email channel and how we got here.

Those of us relics – sorry, “experienced digital marketers”– who have been in the channel since the inception of CAN-SPAM can recall the days when there was no digital regulation and very little communication between the receivers and senders of mail.

Most of the people involved in making decisions about this promising new channel were technologists building a brave new world, who didn’t give enough thought to who was gong to live in that world and what they would do there.

The Internet (transport layer) was composed of companies laying large amounts of fiber to build the networks and doing so in a way that was independent of established rules of the telecom markets. Internaps, colocation facilities, fiber swaps, and voodoo accounting all led to the laying of thousands of miles of fiber with little or no oversight at that time. Eventually, the habits and practices of those crazy times caught up with many of the senior players who are now enjoying the hospitality and leisurely benefits of our federal prison systems.

Q: What does this have to do with the current state of affairs in the digital channel?

A: A lot. The marketer was never invited to participate in the conversation of what was going to ride all those miles of digital highways. If marketing had been asked for input then, we would be in a different place today in our digital marketing efforts.

So with that in mind, let’s review some of the highlights from the past 13 years:


This was really the line in the sand here in the United States. The CAN-SPAM act provided a legal framework for marketers to adopt pertaining to permission-based email.

Follow the rules and you get in the inbox, right?

Wrong, you can (and many companies do) continue to send legally compliant email to folks who don’t want to receive the message, essentially sending legal spam. As the U.S. operates in an “opt-out” mode, this behavior can exist legally. Perhaps an opt-in pivot is needed?

There are many other issues that require a compliance rethink here in the U.S., so the appetite to tackle an in-depth CAN-SPAM revamp is probably very weak.

The good news: All countries do have compliance responsibilities; you just need to know what they are.

The bad news: Following the law doesn’t (nor should it) guarantee access to the inbox.

Email Authentication

Ahhh yes, the old SPF vs. Sender ID vs. DKIM vs. DMARC debate is in full force, and rightly so.

The authentication evolution was (IMO) the first time that senders and receivers really began communicating together to solve a problem and protect our channel.

Options, people, options. As a sender you now can authenticate your mail stream (choose your preferred method), which is good for you and certainly good for the receiver. Not authenticating your emails is essentially like driving down the freeway (motorway, autobahn, autostrada, etc.) at night with the lights off. Not the best of ideas and you probably can imagine the outcome.

The good news: Authenticating email demonstrates your commitment to adopting best practices.

The bad news: Spammers authenticate their email as well.

Industry Evolution

A lot, I repeat, a lot of work has been done within the industry to address the issues in our channel and provide solutions that marketers can embrace. There are many opinions as to the viability of certain services, but at the end of the day you must adopt any and all services and best practices that will enhance your marketing efforts.

ESPs and ISPs have come and gone; bought, sold, and merged. Services companies have also been acquired and others have established themselves as replacements. Industry organizations have survived the test of time and are still flourishing, so our industry still has a voice globally. If you are reading this, I assume that you are in the digital channel. Get involved within the industry and have your voice heard – your future depends on it.

The good news: All forms of messaging are in the marketing mix and represented within the industry.

The bad news: The lines between operators and marketers still exist, we need to work harder to establish continuity between the parties.

technology evolution

The Channel

Where do we start when discussing the evolution of the digital channel? The evolution has dominated consumer options, giving rise to social networking, SMS, big data, CRM tools, and apps, which are just a few of the digital solutions available now.

In 2003 we weren’t thinking about social media, but we certainly are now, and we’ve also got a welter of new tools to work with new channels. Marketing automation is a reality today where marketers can manage many of those tools in one dashboard, and leverage all their respective digital assets to proactively reach out and provide and insights and options for their prospects and clients alike. The next step, the ability to manage leads and customer on an account basis, is already here.

The groundwork has been laid to establish a fully functional digital marketing product that places the management of the outreach directly into the marketer’s digital toolkit. To survive in this new normal marketers, both large and small, will need to understand, embrace and implement into their programs all the necessary initiatives that exist, so they can reach their intended recipients at every stage of the lifecycle, from dawning awareness to the advocacy of a satisfied customer.

The good news: You have options and should adopt multiple marketing outreach strategies to connect with your customer when and wherever he or she may be. Transactions that begin on a laptop may be finalized on a mobile device; make sure your communications are consistent across all channels.

The bad news: The pace of change is daunting and could create confusion for the user.

Evolution of the Inbox

The inbox has evolved to where YOU can control (with a little help from the receiver) what goes where. User engagement is a major factor for continued successful delivery and mailing reputation. Oh and by the way the inbox is now probably on your client’s mobile device, so if you are not designing your mail for mobile users, you’re certainly missing out on the action (aka revenue).

The ISP receivers are really doing us a favor by establishing new digital rules of the road to allow users to file communications according to their preferences. I would expect to see more folder management tools to be introduced so the recipient can ever more proactively manage their user experience. That makes it utterly imperative for you to send relevant, interesting content to ensure that your recipients continue to mark your communications as “wanted.”

The good news: More options are available for you to control the delivery and placement of the mail.

The bad news: The “inbox” is now fluid, mobile delivery is becoming ever more important and the mobile market and services become mainstream.

You the Marketer

When I reflect back, this is the most prominent change we have seen. You the marketer have more information and insight available to establish permission-based marketing programs than ever before. Add marketing automation, data insights, beacon technologies, geolocation solutions, and personalized targeting options to mention just a few next-gen services and you can get a realistic 360-degree view of your prospect or client.

Despite the fact that the road was developed without consideration of cargo or what the rules of that road would need to be, the rules are changing to make life better for both buyers and sellers. There should be no excuses now not to implement consent-based marketing outreach; anyone not adopting these practices is falling behind in the digital land grab.

The good news: The channel has evolved tremendously we can now do more than ever with our marketing spend. And what protects our customers should be good for us, too.

The bad news: Your best efforts to implement a permission-based one to one marketing campaign may go un-delivered as deliverability decision-making relies heavily on computational-based road blocks.

Summing Up

Those of you who remember a company called Goodmail (essentially a pay to deliver email solution focused on major ISPs) which was way ahead of its time – perhaps a rethink of the concept of a delivery fee would be in order to meet the demands of today’s crowded messaging and digital ecosystem.

The battle for the inbox real estate (pick your folder) is becoming more than ever a mighty task. Perhaps the next baker’s dozen years will solve that problem for us all.

Remember: The speed of innovation won’t change; change will speed up innovation.

The art of successful email marketing depends first and last upon proactive deliverability management. This eBook, Best Practices in Email Deliverability, will help you manage the critical factors that affect the deliverability of your email messages.