The top 10 e-mail trends of 2009

Margaret Farmakis, senior director at Return Path, looks at the lessons learnt in e-mail over the last financial year.

Margaret Farmakis
Margaret Farmakis

Contrary to many predictions, 2009 did not herald the beginning of the end for e-mail.

We’ve heard “experts” sound the death knell for e-mail so many times in the last few years that it’s becoming increasingly hard to take seriously each solemn pronouncement of the channel’s demise.

Spam, RSS and social media were all supposed to kill off e-mail. In fact, as Return Path’s review of e-mail trends in 2009 shows, far from succumbing to spam and Web 2.0, this channel is thriving as marketers continue to recognise e-mail as one of the most cost-effective marketing methods available.

In the case of social media – a phenomenon that was supposed to be one of the nails in e-mail’s coffin – marketers quickly realised that e-mail was integral to a successful Facebook or Twitter campaign.

Even the increase in spam – which now accounts for almost 19 of every 20 e-mails sent worldwide – has failed to ruin the e-mail channel for marketers. Instead, legitimate marketers are taking steps to distinguish their messages from spam, and are using tools that help them to improve their sender reputation and get their messages into subscribers’ inboxes and read.

Yet marketers must always be vigilant to the shifting currents of online marketing – so here’s Return Path’s review of the top ten e-mail trends of 2009.

1. Spam growth continues. It may be no surprise that spam is on the rise, but the sheer volume – and proportion – of unsolicited e-mails sent in 2009 is staggering. A report by All Spammed Up in July found that spam had increased 141% since that March, and that spam volumes are more than 117 billion e-mails a day. In the same month, MX Logic reported that spam accounted for 94.6% of all e-mail – its highest ever level.
Image spam also increased in 2009, causing problems for outdated e-mail defences that only scan plaintext e-mails.

2. False positives increase – “False positives” are when a legitimate, requested, and wanted e-mail is mistakenly blocked outright or delivered to a bulk folder by a spam filter. It is imperative for marketers to monitor where their messages delivered. Many systems are set up to only report on the number of messages that bounce without reporting whether messages are delivered to the inbox or not. Assuming that deployment is equivalent to delivery to a subscriber’s inbox is a big mistake.

3. Phishing hurts every sender – Criminal enterprises increased their phishing in 2009 – sending forged e-mails from banks, social networks, and brand marketers to gain account access. By damaging people’s trust in the e-mails that they receive, phishing harms every commercial sender, so it’s vital that senders participate at the highest levels in the conversations around phishing.

4. Rise of the social inbox – Communications from social networks are becoming entwined with traditional e-mail. A beta version of Outlook 2010 integrates social networking, and MySpace announced an integration of e-mail with the MySpace social network experience.

5. Complaint rate feedback loops gain greater prominence – Complaint rates, when an e-mail is marked as spam, continued to be a key reputation metric for e-mail senders in 2009. Commercial senders are making greater use of feedback loops, which enable them to monitor spam complaints in real time, enabling them to spot and correct problems before they begin to have a major impact on their sender reputation.

6. More transparency at ISPs – This was the year when ISPs began to make it easy for senders to get the information they need to troubleshoot deliverability problems. Most ISPs are now providing “postmaster pages” to improve transparency and provide key information about e-mail delivery into their network.

7. Mergers & Acquisitions – In 2009, many ISPs in North America and Europe were acquired or merged with other ISPs. Since each ISP has its own metrics and tools for determining legitimate e-mail from spam, mergers mean that marketers need to review their infrastructure to optimise inbox placement at the new ISP.

8. Gmail continues its growth – In 2009, Gmail surpassed AOL and became the third most popular Web-based e-mail application behind Yahoo! and Microsoft. Gmail aggressively blocks commercial mail, so it’s especially important to publish records with common authentication mechanisms (SPF, SenderID and DomainKeys) which verify that messages really originate from the domain they claim to come from.

9. Outbound abuse on the rise – In Return Path’s discussions with ISPs in 2009, the ISPs reported challenges with abusive e-mail sent from their own networks via compromised accounts, reputation hijacking, and botnet infections.
10. E-mail did not die – Despite the many headlines in both the mainstream media and blogosphere, e-mail’s demise was greatly exaggerated. E-mail marketing continues to have the highest ROI of all direct marketing channels, including search.

E-mail has proved itself one of the most robust and successful channels throughout the tumultuous history of the Internet. That success has come by evolving and adapting to trends, rather than ignoring or fighting them. By being aware of these trends, following best practice and continuing to create relevant messages, marketers have the best chance of engaging with subscribers and getting their messages delivered straight to the inbox.


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