No false-starts, do-overs, or mulligans for Email

Guest post by Neil Schwartzman. Reposted from the Word to the Wise blog with the permission of the author and publisher.

Josh Baer, former VP of Datran Media and current CEO of has been floating an idea at the DMA’s Email Experience Council and a few other places, and recently got some traction in Ken Magill’s Magill Report.

What Josh is proposing is to create the technical means by which a Sender can decide when email ‘expires’ and is automatically removed from a recipient’s inbox, either by deletion, or perhaps archiving (in the case of Gmail). This would supposedly help the end-user, by removing marketing offers that are no longer available.

Why this Idea Shouldn’t Happen

Email users’ rights trump everything. We get to decide what comes into our inbox, and what doesn’t. Just as fundamentally, we get to decide what is removed from the inbox, too. I no more want a marketer to decide for me to remove email they have sent, than I do deciding to add me to their list without permission.

Adding the ‘expires’ header, and having an email provider complicity remove an email from my inbox borders on 1984-like creepy. I want to know what has been sent to me, and not have Big Brother, or Big Business, remove stuff they decide is no longer relevant. Perhaps my goal in life is to create a complete archive of every Groupon offer ever sent to me – this would put an end to my dreams.

Beyond users’ rights, this scheme will confound receiving systems’ and reputation systems’ ability to determine the complaint rate of a given email campaign, which will be quite dynamic under this plan.

Email providers use complaint rates (and bounces, and myriad other data-points) during a campaign to determine if they should continue accepting email (some campaigns can take hours to complete their run, depending upon the size). If I send 10,000,000 emails over the course of a couple of hours, and set half of them to expire in say, 3 hours, the receiving system sees leading-edge complaints are taken with a number eventually reaching 10MM as the denominator, and so the actual complaint percentage may be kept artificially small, at the end of the day.

Why This Idea (Probably) Won’t Happen

Some folks are dismissing this out-of-hand, saying it would “never” get traction at any of the big receivers, like Hotmail, Gmail, and Yahoo! But I’m not entirely sold on that argument. It seems to me that when marketing, sales and a receiver come into close contact, it would be natural to treat a source of revenue with kid gloves, and as receiver revenues ebb, there may be a temptation to consider an idea such as this one with more gravitas than it merits. One need only look at Goodmail’s long-term attempts at revenue sharing with Receivers like AOL, Yahoo! And Comcast (apparently the revenue was never more than a trickle, if anything) to realize not everything is always rosy in that regard. Marketers may hold disproportionate sway in an uncertain email provider economy.

That aside, this is asking a lot of the email providers in terms of infrastructure change on behalf of a small slice of the area of their concern. Marketing email accounts for a reported 10% of the legitimate email load (in other words, everything a typical user gets that isn’t spam, rejected at the router, or by other filtering means).

As an official of a very large American ISP said to a group of marketers at a conference some years ago, “On my list of 10 things to do today, you are number 11”.

There would have to be a compelling groundswell of user desire and need for this idea to be considered, and I don’t see that happening, particularly at this point in time. There is a very large technical need to implement domain—based reputation systems looming, and the deployment of DKIM on inbound and outbound email is a pressing concern for both Senders and email providers. Their technical docket is very full, and will be for the foreseeable future as IPv6 deployment, the replacement for depleted IPv4 IP addresses pushes this agenda ever-higher.

Expiring email is a distraction that benefits only a few people in the community, and offers a tempting manner to game reputation systems and complaint rates. And, it ignores the right of end-users to determine what shows up, and stays, in our inboxes.

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