One of the most commonly-envisioned solutions to spam is to charge senders a fee for every message delivered. The thought behind this idea is that raising the price of email undermines the profits of spamming. Bill Gates popularized this idea a few years ago as part of his "Penny Black" proposal. (Here's an article on it).
The idea jumped from theory to reality yesterday when Goodmail and AOL jointly announced AOL's new CertifiedEmail program. (See the article.) AOL will be phasing out the more powerful of its white lists, the Enhanced Whitelist, and replacing it with a pay-per-message-delivered program run by Goodmail.
This announcement has created quite a stir in the email community. ReturnPath CEO, Matt Blumberg, is particularly vocal about it in his blog post, saying that good senders who today are reaching the inbox through the Enhanced Whitelist, will soon find their messages in spam filters unless they begin paying a fee. That fee, he adds, may well be beyond what some emailers can afford.
I'm actually pretty neutral on this. Silverpop has been working with Goodmail for some time and has always planned to support CertifiedEmail. For certain kinds of messages, particularly electronic bills, alerts and transactions, the value of assured delivery can sometimes outweigh the extra fees. That being said, the AOL announcement was disappointing in several key respects.
First, the absence of any pricing information means that marketers can't begin to judge the impact this will have on them. No dates for pricing have been provided, but in "unofficial" discussions, Goodmail and AOL suggest that the pricing may be as high as double or triple the current high-volume delivery costs. Obviously, this could be a problem, and not knowing is the biggest problem of all. Second, AOL was quoted as saying it is phasing out the Enhanced Whitelist. Frankly, I don't understand why, and am hopeful it will cancel this plan after hearing the feedback from partners and customers.
The Enhanced Whitelist is important because it encourages the very best practices in marketers -- Clean your lists and be relevant, and you'll get your messages delivered intact. Alternatively, pay-for-delivery takes money away from design and targeting resources and redirects it toward delivery. Marketers have limited budgets at best, and the increase in delivery costs could well translate into reduced budget for testing, targeting and promotions.
The irony of this is that AOL's customers are the ones that will suffer most from canceling the Enhanced Whitelist. It's like the proverbial rich kid vs. the guy who worked his way to the top. With AOL's old system, marketers had earn their way into the inbox. Best practices were rewarded, and AOL's customers got better, more targeted emails. CertifiedEmail changes the rules to benefit the people with money over the people with relevant messages.
The good news is that the right approach is the one we all thought we'd have originally -- enhanced white lists AND pay-for-delivery. If you are advertiser or partner with AOL, let the company know that CertifiedEmail is a fine idea and it has its place -- side by side with its highly successful Enhanced Whitelist program.