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FBLs in 2023: are they needed? How should you handle them?

As noted recently, Validity plans to start charging for ISP feedback loop complaint feeds. Free users will get some sort of aggregate dashboard that is perhaps similar to what one sees in Google Postmaster Tools, but it sounds as though there will be no individual complaints fed, and no opportunity to log or unsubscribe complaints or complainers.

If some number of sending platforms decide not to pay this fee, and thus stop receiving spam complaint feeds, this is likely to have an impact on the email ecosystem. How much of an impact? To understand that, we should start by identifying the potential beneficiaries of ISP feedback loop complaints:

  1. The end user. In most cases, a "report spam" complaint results in that end subscriber getting unsubscribed from a particular sender. The mail stops. Now, the mail will not stop, perhaps allowing the user to report spam again and again, possibly causing more negative data points to be lodged with regard to the sender.
  2. The sender or sending platform. A sending platform is able to use raw complaint feeds to roll complaints back up to segments, lists, and clients basically at whatever level they desire. Quite useful for identification of bad users and bad data. The sending platform's users (often marketing senders) benefit indirectly from the FBL feed, based on how this intelligence might be applies, and from the fact that complainers get unsubbed, reducing the amount of mail to people who don't want the mail.
  3. The receiving platform (ISP or MBP). The mailbox provider or internet service provider theoretically had to process less inbound mail than they would otherswise, if complainers are able to be unsubscribed. They're also more directly helping the email ecosystem by sending that raw feed back to sending platforms to allow for detailed identification of bad senders. In the new validity "aggregate dashboard model," this may still be doable to some degree, but likely without the same level of fidelity as previously.
  4. Validity. Validity is the third party who runs the servers in the middle of all of this; between the ISP/MBP feedback loop feeds (sending/forwarding complaints) and the ESP/CRM sending platforms (receiving the complaints back). Validity is possibly the least harmed here as they're still going to see every data point and can potentially monetize this data however they might choose to do so, subject to whatever contractual agreements they may have with mailbox providers. This is a bit unfortunate, in that a third party has the potential to be enriched at the expense of the greater email ecosystem. Others may lose access to data, but Validity likely will not.

This change is likely to affect the existing FBL/complaint loop model significantly. But I would argue that this model was already in decline; not every ISP or mailbox provider supports complaint feeds, and not all that do, do so via Validity. Consider Gmail. The number one mailbox provider in the B2C space (and large in B2B as well) has never offered this type of ISP feedback loop. Deliverability success at Gmail is contingent upon (among other things) driving positive engagement. Senders are able to do so (sometimes themselves, sometimes with consulting guidance) without those raw complaint feeds. If you can find Gmail inbox success this way, the theory goes, why can't you succeed similarly at other mailbox providers.

And consider the percentages. Looking at JWZ's quick domain snapshot (which I think is a typical B2C domain breakdown), 81% of his recipients are not connected to an ISP feedback loop. Of the remaining 19% that are connected to an ISP feedback loop, 18.2% of users (95% of that remainder) are connected to an ISP (Yahoo/Microsoft) whose feedback loop is not entangled with Validity. Meaning, while the ISP feedback loop deliverability benefit is lower than we'd like nowadays, you can still get almost as much benefit as possible by focusing on the free feedback loops.

So what should you do about FBLs, if you manage an email sending platform or email marketing platform, or you host your own servers, in 2023?

  1. Sign up for Yahoo's Complaint Feedback Loop (CFL). It's free and not connected to Validity.
  2. Sign up for Microsoft's Junk Mail Reporting Program (JMRP). It is similarly free and unconnected to Validity.
  3. Continue to use these signals to identify bad data, bad sends and bad senders.
  4. Focus on the positive (engagement) model instead of the historical "reduce the complaints" model. You still effectively get to the same place; better data, better targeting, better mail, means less complaints and a greater chance of inbox placement.

And don't feel compelled to sign up for the paid Validity "Universal Feedback Loop" feeds. The footprint is relatively small when measured by percentage of US B2C list data (YMMV; this could be different elsewhere and could drive you to a different conclusion, of course), and deliverability success methodology is evolving beyond "watch for complaints."

(Note: JWZ's data summary is high level enough that it misses a bit of coverage for Microsoft and a couple of other ISPs; but I think it's close enough to make the point here, and I really wanted to reference somebody else's data instead of just assuming that you'd take my word for it.)

And if you're not familiar with ISP feedback loops, here's a primer.

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