June 20, 2012, 2:46 PM

Retailers sidestep e-mail spam traps

But merchants still run the risk of having their marketing messages ignored.

Amy Dusto

Associate Editor

Lead Photo

More than 85% of e-mails sent to Internet service providers end up classified as spam, according to a new report by Return Path Inc., which certifies marketers’ e-mail as legitimate and monitors online reputation.  Of retailer e-mail that makes it past an e-mail provider’s filters to the inbox, 3% are still marked as spam by consumers—higher than the average 2% manual spam rate, also called a complaint rate, that Return Path measured among all industries.

Return Path’s first Sender Score Benchmark Report analyzed e-mails from some 130 million Internet addresses; the study aimed to determine which messages made their ways into consumer inboxes. Return Path used the data to gauge whether a particular Internet service provider, or ISP—in this case, Gmail, Yahoo or Hotmail—will block  e-mails or send them directly to spam folders, says Tom Sather, senior director of e-mail research at Return Path.

In its report Return Path measured complaint rates, spam traps and unknown users. Spam trap refers to the number of e-mails sent to decoy accounts that ISPs set up to capture spam.Unknown users looks at the percentage of messages sent to non-existent addresses; a high rate could indicate that the sender is not keeping its e-mail list up to date.

“Complaint rate is probably the main reputation point retailers should focus on,” Sather says.  “ISPs like to see 0.1% complaint rates, so retailers coming in at 3% is actually really high.” This puts their e-mail at risk of being blocked or marked as spam. Especially for the retail sector, e-mail volumes typically increase around the holiday season, Sather adds, so it is especially important for retailers to monitor  during that period.

The retail sector performed relatively well, though, in another area. Only 0.08% of the messages Return Path measured in 2011 went to spam traps. That is less than the 2% from the consumer products industry and 0.09% from third-party list vendors—and well below the 20.8% from social networking. That last rate stands so high in large part because social networks tend to send messages to individuals in the address books of their users, and those address books often contain out-of-date e-mail addresses, the report says. The net effect is that Internet service providers treat many of those messages as spam.

The relatively low spam-trap rate for retailers indicates that most merchants are doing a good job of keeping subscription lists clean and getting rid of inactive addresses, Sather says.

Retail tied with consumer services for the lowest rate of messages send to unknown users—non-existent addresses—at 1%. The gaming and social networking industries tied for the highest rate, 5%. “Again that goes back to the fact that a lot of retailers are practicing good list hygiene,” Sather says.

He adds that retailers that are scoring above 1% in this reputation metric should consider how they are obtaining e-mail addresses and be sure to clean out the deadweight periodically.

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