August 28, 2003, 12:00 AM

Challenge and Response

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Further, some filters seem to be more time-consuming than time-saving. For example, Mailblocks Inc. advertises what it calls a “challenge-response” technology. Subscribers get five e-mail in-boxes. Messages get a “challenge.” Those who don’t respond properly go into a “Pending Box” and are deleted after two weeks. When a folder gets substantial spam, the subscriber closes it and opens another.

Another example: EarthLink Inc. has introduced “Challenge and Response” anti-spam. The program sends an automated reply asking the sender to copy a code phrase. To get the e-mail through, the sender’s message has to include that code.

The appropriate action

Active State Corp. has more sophisticated spam filtration: The system, called PureMessage, uses what it calls “Pattern matching,” that is, describing a message in terms of its content. The SpamCheck Module examines layout and organization to identify the common characteristics of spam. A pattern matching engine applies thousands of algorithms. The results determine a probability rating and assigns the appropriate action. Patterns are updated regularly to identify new tactics.

PureMessage also promotes its “Real Time Blackhole List”-a compilation of networks that either allow spammers to use their systems to send spam or haven’t prevented spammers from abusing their systems. And a SpamCheck Module checks the IP address of each machine sending e-mail against the Blackhole List. If a match is found, the incoming e-mail is rejected. Added to this is a heuristic analysis employing internal tests to determine the likelihood that a message is spam. Each test is weighted with a point value to reduce false positives. The total probability of spam is examined to determine an overall score, and a mapping function assigns the appropriate action. Actions include: rejecting, redirecting, logging, or annotating offending messages. Mail that can’t automatically be identified is called “gray mail.”

Stick to basics

So how do you bypass these blocks?

You have two logical options. The first is to ignore them. Just assume that a percentage of your e-mails won’t get through, whether because of spam filters or because the recipient isn’t your logical target.

The second is to make your message as personal and convivial as you can. Adding the individual’s first name to the subject line or first sentence of text can de-fang some filters. The ancient “You asked for this” and “In reply to your inquiry” ploys confound other filters. Ethical? That’s a question you’ll have to answer for yourself.

Consider, too, the growing “Filter Disgust Syndrome.” Except for AOL’s and EarthLink’s built-in primitive filters, users have to pay for these protectors. Is the investment worthwhile? Well, maybe. Or maybe not. An anti-filter backlash already is under way, spurred in part by intervention of state and federal government bureaus who want a piece of the spam filter action.

So retailers may want to sit tight for now, making certain only that e-mails to customers have 1) relevance, 2) brevity, and 3) benefit. For that matter, aren’t relevance, brevity, and benefit generic to any successful sales pitch?

Herschell Gordon Lewis is the principal of Lewis Enterprises in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., writing copy for and consulting with clients worldwide, and the author of Effective E-Mail Marketing. He can be reached at or 954-565-0009.

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