NYT check in on Goodmail debate (or “We are keeping the White List so Fred and Brad are happy”)

Saul Hansell of the New York Times picks up on the Goodmail spam solution that we are adopting (we being AOL). Yahoo is also testing Goodmail’s spam solution.

However , Saul leaves out one of most important pieces of the story:


Say it with me everyone: AOL IS KEEPING THE WHITE LIST.


Now, this is not the key point to the story, the fact that marketers will have a pay solution for marketing is and Saul does a solid job of explaining this (he doesn’t say HAVE TO pay, he is correct in saying folks have the OPTION to pay–thanks for getting that right).

I understand why Saul–given his audience–didn’t spend three paragraphs explaining the White List. However, I should take the time to explain it since Brad and Fred were most concerned about the white list going away and they have since both said they are cool with what AOL is doing with Goodmail *provided* we maintain the white list.

In other words: FRED and BRAD are now statisfied (I wish they would spend a blog post saying that since they did spend a blog post with sensational headlines of an AOL TAX for email–that would be fair guys!).

Let me break it down for everyone.

Operating Philosphy: AOL wants to reduce spam for users while allowing the good email marketers to get through (I assume Yahoo feels the same way).

As a marketer you can now get to AOL email addresses three ways:

1. RETURN RECEIPT MAIL: You can pay a fraction of a penny per message to ensure that your *opt-in* email message gets to your user’s inbox with images and links intact (i.e. they won’t get caught by the spam filters). However, this option is only available if you can prove to us that a) you have permission and b) you don’t have a bunch of complaints against you. This is not available to anyone, and certainly not spammers since they can’t prove they have opt-in permission.

2. WHITE LIST APPROVAL: We maintain a white list of opt-in email marketers. If you have a low number of complaints against than your email will get through. You have a lot of complaints you don’t make it onto the list. So, this is purely based on *your* performance as an email marketer. People complain about you too much and you lose.

3. TAKE YOUR CHANCES: Everyone else trying to market (or spam) our users has to face the spam filters. Sorry, that’s just the way it is in a world where 90 out of 100 email messages sent to users are spam. If you’re a real Viagra vendor, you might not make it in–too bad, protecting our users is job one.

Now, Return Path has a program that is similar to our White List. Their “delivery assurance solution” is almost exactly the same as our GoodMail program. To find the difference you simple need to follow the money–lets do that, shall we?

a) Goodmail splits the per email fee charged to marketers with the ISP (i.e. Yahoo and AOL). This seems very fair with me because we, the ISP, are incurring huge costs in terms of bandwidth, technology, staffing, and storage to deal with commercial messages (opt-in messages and spam).

b) Return Path charges email markets subscription fees (thousand to tens of thousands of dollars) and keeps all the money to themselves–the ISPs who incur the charges get nothing. So, for the trouble of maintaining a global white list–if you will–Return Path makes a ton of money and we the ISPs who are taking the huge hit get a free White List from them. Gee, thanks guys!

Which sounds like a better solution to you?

Frankly, I think a tax on commercial email is not the worst thing in the world. If you ask users if they felt that all the merchants they do business should have to pay a nominal fee to email them they would probably say “hell yes!”


Because right now there is no incentive for a merchant to even think when they email you because there is NO COST. That is why I get a Harry and David gift basket email every week or two. If they had to pay .01 for each email that would be $10,000 to reach one million people they would actually start to think if this was worth it.

Let’s look at the “analog analog” Print mailings require the commercial sender to think about what they send. Should I kill a dozen trees and spend $1M sending this catalogue to 1M people? Maybe once a year, or even twice a year–but not every freaking week!

This makes marketers think, and the good email marketers will embrace this solution since it will kill the noise. The people hurt by this are the abusive marketers who email you every two weeks for four years even though you’ve never responded (not to mention the spammers–who this system really hurts).

Matt Blumberg, the CEO of Return Path (and an old friend of mine) said this in the NYT story:

“… it’s bad for the industry and bad for consumers. A lot of e-mailers won’t be able to afford it.”

Please God let Matt be right! Please let 90% of mailers not be able to afford it–that’s a sign that it is working!

You see, Matt’s business is based on all aspects of email marketing. If email marketing gets cut by 90% Matt’s business is seriously screwed. People are not going to spend as much for list management, email acquisition and the host of other business solutions Return Path offers if there is a higher cost to sending emails. Or will they? I think there is an argument to be made that the size of their business might go down, but the profitability might go up for “good” email marketers who would have less noise to compete with. There was a time when email was the most effective marketing on the planet–as opposed to the most hated.

Truth be told, users don’t care about Matt’s business (sorry Matt, Fred, and Brad).

We want our inboxes clean and we want there to be a barrier to marketing to us. The only person who doesn’t want this are the bad marketers and the people who make money off of all marketing (I’m not saying that Matt or Return Path makes money off of bad email marketers–they are a quality operation in fact).

But this is about *users* and what they want.

One solution that I haven’t heard is for users to be able to OPT-OUT of AOL and Yahoo’s protection programs. I’m going to push my AOL people to put a check box on people’s setup screens that says “Do not charge marketers to reach me.”

I wonder how many people would click that box?! Want to make a bet for some Nobu sushi and courtside Knicks tickets Fred? 🙂

In closing, from where I sit we should use every single weapon we have against these slimebucket spammers. I would welcome the concept of using Return Path’s solution as part of our White List. That is, in fact, part of my proposal to my AOL peoples and to my VC peeps.

I don’t have a problem with Return Path making money for their service and I consider them, and GOODMAIL, the good guys in this. Anyone who is trying to solve this problem is a winner in my book.

Great debate guys, but let’s all get back to work and protect the users!

PS – I’ll make it my mission to setup a meeting between Return Path and AOL in the coming weeks–and I’ll come to that meeting–if you’re open to that.

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