February 24, 2006, 12:00 AM

AOL goes on the offensive to clear up the ‘paid e-mail’ confusion

In an effort to clear up mass confusion, AOL spells out the details of its new certified e-mail offering—including the fact that it is optional and that it is considering using more than one e-mail reputation company.

It’s too late to nip it in the bud. But ISP giant America Online Inc. is attempting to quell rising industry concern and confusion over its new CertifiedEmail service being offered to Internet retailers and online marketing firms.

The service, from e-mail reputation vendor Goodmail Systems, ensures delivery of intact marketing e-mails to AOL subscriber inboxes through a certification process that costs a quarter cent per e-mail. Announcement of the service in October 2005 lit the fuse of what became an explosion of industry questions and confusion. Is this the end of free e-mail? Is AOL dropping its standard and enhanced whitelists in favor of certified e-mail? Why is Goodmail the only “online post office” to send certified e-mail to AOL subscribers? The list goes on.

To address the uncertainty, AOL and e-mail delivery service provider Pivotal Veracity, which delivers and reports on messages sent to myriad ISPs, including AOL, held a webinar that detailed AOL’s new e-mail product offering as well as stated the processes that would not be changing. During the webinar, “How to Successfully Communicate with AOL Subscribers,” intended to clarify what AOL and Goodmail Systems previously announced, the two companies stressed the following:

  • The e-mail certification service is optional.
  • AOL will continue to operate its standard and enhanced whitelists.
  • Links and images in e-mail will or will not manifest as they have been. Some examples: Links and images do not appear by default for AOL software 8.0 and higher; users can change that setting. AOL’s enhanced whitelist ensures the delivery of intact links and images. Links and images defaults vary by ISP and e-mail software.
  • And, in this case contrary to previous company statements, AOL now is investigating the use of e-mail reputation companies other than Goodmail Systems.

 

Where the confusion came from is difficult to say. A press release on the Goodmail Systems site does not mention anything about AOL continuing or discontinuing whitelists. In the release, an AOL executive refers to the Goodmail CertifiedEmail service as an optional and “new layer of protection.” An exhaustive search of the AOL corporate web site, however, did not turn up any press releases related to this subject. AOL could not be reached for comment.

Some industry observers believe the confusion stemmed from the fact that certified e-mail is indeed a new line of revenue.

“There is much cynicism that this is simply about money,” says Donna L. Hoffman, professor and co-director of The Sloan Center for Internet Retailing at Vanderbilt University. “Regarding Goodmail, it’s reasonable to think AOL is having second thoughts that lean toward being more prudent. So the easiest thing they can do is offer the certified e-mail option but open it up so other firms have a shot.”

 

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