I believe in ESPs


Categories: GeekStuff Spam

So, there’s a category of business which I am by default not much inclined to like, which is businesses which do pretty much nothing that isn’t focused on sending email. You might call such businesses “spammers”. But there’s a subset of these businesses which, I am now forced to grudgingly admit, reduce the amount of spam I get.

Over time, the “we send spam for you” industry has been infiltrated by people who have an interesting theory; it’s that being more confident of successful delivery is more important than number of messages sent. These companies like to call themselves “email service providers”, or ESPs. Now, not all of them are legit, but… A lot are.

Here’s the thing. These people send a lot of email. In fact, if my conversions from imperial units are correct, they send at least a metric fuckton of email. And some of it is promotional stuff and newsletters, and some of it is transaction confirmations. Some of it is email that really, really, has to go through. And as a result, they care whether it goes through.

This means that, if something they are sending might cause people to stop accepting their mail, that’s important to them. They care. They care a lot, and because it affects their entire business, they care even more than the specific people whose mail they’re sending. And that means that they try harder than their customers would to avoid sending mail that people think is spam.

A while back, I signed up for a discount thing with GameStop. Their signup process asks whether you want promotions via email or not, and says that you can’t completely opt out of email because it’s used for account status. In fact, they send promotional spam. So I cancelled the account. They sent back a note saying to allow “up to two weeks” for the spam to stop. Now, that’s already offensively stupid; it doesn’t take two weeks to stop sending mail. If their procedures can’t do it faster, tough; even the very loose laws we have don’t give a two week grace period on opt-outs. But it hardly matters, because a full month later they sent more mail anyway.

GameStop doesn’t care. They’re huge. They have retail stores. They have a web store which you can use to buy stuff even if you don’t get their email. It doesn’t matter to them whether you accept their mail or not. It’s not a priority to them.

So even though ESPs send a ton more messages than GameStop does, I personally get more spam from GameStop than I do from ESPs.

When I first formed my negative view of ESPs, I assumed that they would do a shoddy job and thus send a ton of spam to me. I was sort of right, early on. They weren’t always very careful. They tended to fall for lying customers. But… What I hadn’t taken into account was how much shoddier everyone else would be. I assumed that ESPs would send the bulk of the non-botnet spam I got. I was wrong. Of (non-botnet) spam I’ve gotten so far this year, the breakdown is roughly:

Real ESPs, all of them, put together: About 1%
Crappy ESPs: About 5%
Specific companies that got an address list somewhere: About 9%
Spam from the Yahoo account of “Melvin Whorms”: About 20%
Other broken webmail accounts: About 65%

(numbers fictitious, but roughly to scale)

That’s right, a single compromised Yahoo account, which has been reported to them many times, is sending me about 20x as much spam as all the ESPs put together.

There’s more to it. As I noted, when I got spammed by GameStop, they were unable to figure out how to stop spamming me. Similarly, when SpringSource picked up an old mailing list, they were unable to figure out how to stop sending me junk, despite many complaints. Roxio sent me weekly announcements, finally stopped, then started up again… More than once.

By contrast, if I get a mailing from an ESP like MessageLabs or MailChimp, and I complain… It stops. They care. They have reason to develop the competence it takes to make this happen. I got an unwanted mailing via Exact Target, and they made it stop quickly. Furthermore, ESPs seem to educate customers who are at all willing to be educated. I’ve seen people hopping from one to another spamming bogus lists, but I’ve also seen people stick with an ESP and fix their spam problem.

So it turns out my dismissal of these people as spam sources was just plain wrong. Now, that’s not to say there’s no exceptions; I get tons of spam from EmailRail, who are apparently uninterested in whether their mail gets delivered. Given that it’s all spammy gift certificates, sometimes sent to the same account three times in a day, I guess I wouldn’t care either.

Comments [archived]

From: Ken Magill
Date: 2011-07-14 10:34:14 -0500

Too few people have the guts to admit it when they’re wrong.

Good on you.

From: Nathan Dyck
Date: 2011-07-14 13:03:40 -0500

After years of trying to get yahoo to reliably accept large quantities of email, I gave up and started using SendGrid.

It’s worked out quite well.
In my research into choosing a ESP, most were very upfront with the fact that they were going to be very strict about playing by the rules and provided lots of resources to educate users.
This is a good thing.

From: somercet
Date: 2011-09-21 17:42:08 -0500

Awesome story. Thanks for posting. I work at a Web hosting company and I will check out ESPs and try recommending them to customers not… capable… of understanding the how and why of SMTP.