Mar 4, 2019
Email Product Manager Gurbir Singh and the Deliverability Godfather himself Andrew Barrett sit down to talk ISPs (Internet Service Providers), ESPs (Email Service Providers, and how they factor in to your emails making their way into the inbox.
PJ Bruno: Hi there, this is PJ Bruno. Welcome back to Braze for Impact. I'm very, very excited to have with me today, two of my very good friends, special guests. One, Gurbir Singh, who's a product manager here at Braze, and he owns email. Hello, Gurbir.
Gurbir Singh: Hey, PJ. How's it going?
PJ Bruno: Pretty good, man. Also with us, Andrew Barrett, our director of email deliverability in the house. How's it going, buddy?
Andrew Barrett: It's going well. It's going great. I'm so happy to be here in the same room with you guys for a change.
PJ Bruno: I know. Andrew's usually in D.C. Doing the remote thing, but we see them all the time on Slack, the deliverability dojo. He is the Sensei. He's there answering all the questions. Today, I wanted to get these two email champs in the room. Just talk a little bit about deliverability, but also more specifically ISPs and ESPs. What are they? What are they responsible for? Let's pretend I know nothing except a small amount of information. Right now, that is, correct me if I'm wrong, ISPs, they provide the internet, they can leverage spam filters and blacklists to protect people from unwanted mail. Examples, I guess would be Comcast, AT&T, Verizon. Is that accurate so far?
Andrew Barrett: Absolutely.
PJ Bruno: Okay. Jump in and stop me as soon as it's inaccurate information.
Andrew Barrett: No. Everything you said right there is absolutely true, but you take it one step higher. What they really are are businesses. They're businesses that are in the game to make money. Same as anybody who's actually sending mail to users of the inboxes that they provide. One of the big questions out there in deliverability land is, how do you make money off of an inbox that you're not charging anybody to use? Right? It turns out that everything we say about delivering email has everything to do with, not just the business model that we're in as marketers and senators, but also what's the ISP's business model here? Once you understand how the ISPs are making their money, all kinds of light bulbs start going off in your head around deliverability. What you find is that when you align your email sending program to the ISP's revenue requirements, what their business model is, all of a sudden, bang, deliverability happens.
PJ Bruno: It's magic.
Andrew Barrett: It is magic. You can't avoid it. It is an inevitable outcome of aligning your business model with the ISP. The great news is, is that everybody wants the same thing. Right?
PJ Bruno: Right.
Andrew Barrett: Email recipients want email that they love to read. ISPs want to be able to put that content in front of their users of the free inboxes. That's because the more often those recipients can engage with the email, the more and better opportunities the ISPs have on making money, because their customer is not the inbox user, their customer is the advertiser that's putting contextually relevant advertising alongside the email that we're sending. If we're sending mail that users want to read, the recipients are happy, the ISPs are happy, we're happy, everybody's happy.
PJ Bruno: I mean, and that's the dream state is making everything happy. But I guess does it mean that traditionally, ISPs look out for the email receiver, while ESPs prioritize the email sender? Is that, not at all?
Gurbir Singh: No, I mean I think ISPs definitely do look out for the users, but as Andrew said, they definitely look out for their own business model as well. Then, ESPs are really focused on working with the brands. Right? These guys are the delivery agents. They're the ones sending out massive amounts of emails on behalf of various brands around the world. Their goal is to say, I want to get you in an inbox. I want to make sure you're successful. It's kind of hand in hand a little bit. The circle of life is really, if you make the ISPs money, you're going to be good.
Andrew Barrett: That's right. I mean, anytime our business model is in conflict with the ISP's business model, we lose. All right?
PJ Bruno: Gotcha.
Andrew Barrett: It's important to understand that the users of those free inboxes are not the ISP's customers. Right? The users of the inbox are the inventory, and it's an inventory with a super short shelf life. The ISPs, their job is to create a pleasant and curated email experience for the users for their inventory, so that they'll last long enough to show them some advertising.
PJ Bruno: Right.
Gurbir Singh: That's a good point.
Andrew Barrett: If you can just keep that in mind, that relationship between those three parties in this little love triangle that is email-
PJ Bruno: Email is a love triangle. Don't kid yourself.
Andrew Barrett: That's right. It's very tightly interwoven.
PJ Bruno: Okay. Let's take a step back. In the beginning, ISPs showed up materializing out of basically nothing. Right?
Gurbir Singh: Well, I mean a lot of the original ISPs were just the people who provided the internet. Right? Like AOL. They allowed you to connect to the internet, and then they were like, look, there's this thing called email and you can get it. We'll provide you an inbox where you can receive all your email. Same with Yahoo.
PJ Bruno: At some point along the way, there were abusers. Is that right? Because this has got to be kind of, I'm talking about-
Gurbir Singh: Anywhere there's volume, there's to be people looking to game the system. Right? There's going to be abusers, there's going to be people who are going to say, "Click here and get 10 free and ringtones," and you know that takes you somewhere else where you don't actually think you're supposed to be going. There's always going to be people gaming the system, and the ISPs, that does not jive with their business models, so they created a spam folder, and they put these guys in the spam folder, and they got really sophisticated at tracking who is a spammer, who's not. That distinction is really where ESPs, I think, really help along with keeping marketers honest and saying, look, if you put this subject line in, that's spammy, don't do that. Here's some best practices. Here's how you should create your content. Here are the people you should target. Things like that.
PJ Bruno: Right. It doesn't stop at best practices. Right? We got here, the Gmail Promo Tab, which launched I guess, 2013, when Gmail announced the creation of different inbox tabs, including the promotions tab. Now, initially, it was said that Gmail is killing email marketing. Was this the notion that was kind of felt across the board by marketers that this was a tough pill to swallow?
Andrew Barrett: Well, marketers definitely felt that way. In fact, we saw a lot of ... A couple of guys I remember back at that time were proposing a class action suit against Gmail, forgetting for the moment that Gmail, at the same time was also providing them for use of this infrastructure that they could use to reach their intended recipients. Nevermind that. Right? They're putting us in the fake inbox. I can understand the frustration. It's hard to have something taken away that you had for so long. But the other side of the coin is that way of thinking that, oh, you're putting me in the promotion set. I think that's wrong thinking on behalf of marketers. I think that that assumes a model of advertising that is more interruptive. Right? Like TV and radio, which is very linear. You're watching your story, and wait a second, wouldn't you like to buy some soap? No? Okay, well let's get on with the story then, and so on like that. Right? Email and other digital channels are not linear. Right? I think that marketers are best served when they can get their message in front of the recipients when they are their most receptive to it, and they are most receptive to marketing messages, not when they're reading email from grandma in upper Poughkeepsie. If you interrupt that, right, you're way more likely to get exactly the wrong kind of attention from the recipient in the form of a spam complaint. On the other hand, if you're enjoying strong placement in the promotions tab, people will turn to that tab when they are ready to see the promotions. I'm not a regular guy because I like email, but I like to see what winds up in there, mostly because I'm curious about the content and-
Gurbir Singh: Right. It's research for you at that point.
Andrew Barrett: But I do a lot of buying out of that promotions tab.
PJ Bruno: The most relevant things are pushed to the top of the promotions tab. That's pretty much how it works. Right?
Andrew Barrett: It can be, especially with some of this newer stuff that Gmail is rolling out, especially on the mobile side.
Gurbir Singh: Yeah. It's like the new Gmail promotion tab does that. It groups up your messages based on industries, based on relevant, for when the offer is expiring, things like that. There's a number of variables that Gmail has introduced, but the traditional promotion tab was just if you got there and it's at the top of your inbox, it's there. Right? I think that's what was frustrating for marketers is that they spent all this time learning to get into the primary tab and now they're being asked to say, by the way, we redid the promotions tab and we give you all these new levers to pull and play with. Now, go back into the promotions tab, and people are rightfully so, kind of upset because it's just being thrown at them.
Andrew Barrett: Well, they're are only upset if they don't remember what marketing was like before.
Gurbir Singh: Yeah.
Andrew Barrett: Right? They have this beautiful one-to-one direct channel to ostensibly engaged recipients that never existed before in the history of the planet, and nobody writes a check to Gmail to send email to Gmail's users. It's a gift horse. To get angry about that seems a little disingenuous to me.
PJ Bruno: It feels very human.
Andrew Barrett: Well, okay fine. They're human beings.
PJ Bruno: You get something you want and then you get it taken away, you get pissed off. But no, I mean, they've been optimizing that promotions tab. Right? It's card based. It's like, you know what? We know you want to be in the inbox, but let's create something great in the promotions box that actually optimizes for what you're trying to do.
Gurbir Singh: Yeah. I think it's a really good push by Gmail. One, they're going to collect way more data around what the message really is. Two, they're going to collect, are people actually interested in these offers, or are we going to push people down? You can see the business opportunities there for Gmail to say, similar to ad, you can pay to be at the top or you can pay to be at the top of your own industry bundle. If I'm Nike and Adidas, I could theoretically page email and say, "Put me always above Adidas." Right?
PJ Bruno: Wow.
Gurbir Singh: I don't know if they're actually thinking things like that, but I just see a bunch of different opportunities that they kind of opened, that other ISPs don't even have the luxury to even think about right now.
Andrew Barrett: Yeah, they could do that, but I think they have a longer game in mind. Right? If they do something that appears to inhibit, in any way, the user's engagement with the inbox in its totality, I think they're not doing themselves any favors. What I think that we'll continue to see, and I'm guessing here, too, is that the kinds of changes we'll see in the promotions tab are those that award senders who are doing a better job at sending content that appears to be more engaging to a preponderance of recipients. That is awarded a better placement in the inbox.
Gurbir Singh: That's true. I think they also, or actually the first ESP in my opinion that's actually adopted a mobile phone. This update to the promotion tab is directly for people who use the Gmail application. Right? They've acknowledged desktops are going out of time and we are getting switched to a mobile only world, and they're one of the first that are actually adopting. It's like this card that's coming out, it's a static image, but future iterations allow you to scroll and tell different cards and have different images and different links.
PJ Bruno: Right. That's what AMP is, right?
Gurbir Singh: No. AMP is completely something that's just interactive email.
PJ Bruno: But within the email you can actually kind of scroll and click in and see different.
Gurbir Singh: Yeah. It's like having a website right in your inbox so you don't have to leave, which is another pain point I think for marketers because the behavior is always been, I want to drive traffic to my website, and now all of a sudden, when this thing comes out, it's still in beta, but when it does come out, you're basically telling your customers you're living within the Google ecosystem. Right? You're browsing within the Google ecosystem, they're going to do some actions. You have no insight, no way of knowing what they're doing outside of the parameters you provided them. That's it. You can't dynamically change the workflow on your website as you typically do. This is a bigger change than people think it is, in my opinion.
PJ Bruno: Gurbir, you're a big part of what we do here with our email at Braze. Obviously, you helped push our content blocks live, email preference center, all this stuff, optimizing the crafting and sending of emails, a big part of what you do. How do you overcome that resistance to change? Do you guys give a lot of thought to that when you're like-
Gurbir Singh: Yeah. First of all, I mean, I work with a really talented engineering and design team that kind of put all these things together.
PJ Bruno: Shout out.
Gurbir Singh: Yeah, shout out. I might be at the face of it when it comes down to external, but there are some true heroes back there. But yeah, I mean, we do a lot of research when we're looking into new features. The content blocks is a great example, right? Content blocks, typically known as the email only feature, with other industries. When we looked at it we said, well, wouldn't it be cool if you could use it in Push, if you can use it on web? The same exact offer being tied to a user across every channel you want. You can have that consistency easily as a marketer, without having to replicate and create these over and over again. That operational cost is what we looked at a lot. Right? The cost of a marketer sending up four separate messages, setting up four different channels, and then ensuring, is the QA right on all four of them? Testing that and then sending it out. Right? If we can reduce the time for you to create all of that, those are the things we look at.
PJ Bruno: Right.
Gurbir Singh: But yeah.
PJ Bruno: Andrew?
Andrew Barrett: Gurbir is the expert there. Every day, I will defer to his expertise there. I like to keep my head down in the inbox. That's where I'm most comfortable.
PJ Bruno: That's where he belongs.
Andrew Barrett: Right.
PJ Bruno: That's good. I'm trying to get all these things straight in my head. Do we see, traditionally, ISPs, they do want to protect the receivers of mail, right? I mean, obviously they want to protect their bottom line, but will be under the guise of this?
Andrew Barrett: Well, no, I mean it aligns very well at times perfectly with their own business model because if they're putting their own customers at risk to third parties, they're not going to keep coming back to their inboxes just to get shot at again.
PJ Bruno: Gotcha.
Andrew Barrett: They want to keep them around. Keeping bad things, malware, spam, other types of things, out of that inbox, speaks directly to the longevity of their business model and the longevity of their inventory, the users.
PJ Bruno: Launched back last year, in 2018, you guys know about this, the BIMI. I don't know if they call it BIMI, or if it's just brand indicators for message identification? For those of you who don't know, it's a standardized way for brands to publish their brand logo online and lets logos be easily incorporated into messaging and social media applications. It does this with built in protections, which is building off of D-Mark.
Andrew Barrett: Right.
PJ Bruno: I mean, I guess we could say at this point D-Mark is starting to catch on more and people are using it more.
Andrew Barrett: Absolutely. Gmail has been kind of a kingmaker in that regard. I mean, if you ask Gmail, they would prefer that everybody use D-Mark for everything all time, which is fine. For the longest time, it was really a tool for high value targets like financial institutions, insurers, banks, things like that to keep bad guys from trying to spoof their brand in order to capture login credentials and things of that nature. D-Mark, at its roots though is an authentication protocol, or a platform standing, a reporting mechanism that stands on top of authentication. The timing is really kind of interesting because Google Plus business pages are going away. Right? That whole Google Plus social media experiment is going to get killed off here in a couple of weeks. That was how you got your logo or your picture in the inbox next to your subject line was through validating a business page and [crosstalk 00:18:25].
PJ Bruno: That was the only way to get it in there?
Gurbir Singh: Well, you could do it through their promotions tab now, too. You can just pass in a logo and it works. That's why I don't get why?
Andrew Barrett: Well, yeah, but I don't think they would pick up that logo unless they had some kind of assurance that you were using that logo, that you were an authorized user of that logo, which means-
Gurbir Singh: You can just pass in any logo when you use the promotions tab. We've tested. I can pass on anything, which is why I find it really funny where-
PJ Bruno: That's crazy. That's nuts.
Gurbir Singh: Right, but it's Google, right? Look how big Google is, how many teams did they have? Clearly somebody's not talking to somebody.
Andrew Barrett: Well, I think BIMI will replace that functionality.
Gurbir Singh: Probably.
Andrew Barrett: You've got this authentication standard backing up the presentation of this logo, and suddenly you don't have to rely on Google Plus anymore, and align in the header of your html to prove that you actually own the domain, so that the logo or the picture can turn up in the subject line. It comes at a good time and it helps to enhance this message around adoption of D-Mark.
PJ Bruno: You said Google is really a big advocate of D-Mark. Do they have a vested interest in D-Mark?
Andrew Barrett: I don't think that they do. I'm not sure why they're so hot and bothered over D-Mark above and beyond the other authentication protocols, SPF and DKIM, which are sort of prerequisites for D-Mark. D-Mark is just the reporting thing. The question I think that's on a lot of people's minds these days that pay attention to this kind of stuff is, does a more restrictive D-Mark policy get you better inbox? I mean, you can publish a D-Mark policy that says, if it fails, don't do anything. Right? Or you can have a D-Mark policy that says if it fails DKIM, reject it, or quarantine it, or do something with it. Do you get more inbox if you say, if it fails? Yeah, don't do anything.
PJ Bruno: Or if it passes, is there some sort of reporting? If it passes and D-Mark is present, then you could have some sort of reward?
Andrew Barrett: Maybe.
Gurbir Singh: Like positive effect, like a scoring system, goes up or down?
Andrew Barrett: Do not know. Don't know.
Gurbir Singh: Black box.
Andrew Barrett: I think it's still working itself out. I'm not at all sure why Gmail is championing D-Mark.
PJ Bruno: I mean, this thing, the BIMI thing, it was created by [Authenticators] Working Group, which was led by cybersecurity firm, Agari, and then also representatives from Comcast. Failmail, right? Microsoft.
Andrew Barrett: Well, Agari is in the D-Mark reporting business. Right? So that's their vested interest in participating, but I don't know what Gmail's is other than having a handy replacement for the death of Google Plus.
Gurbir Singh: Yeah. I mean, I could see if you can be a better inbox provider and essentially wipe out spam, which is the majority of volume that these guys ever see. Right? It's like 90% plus or something. That's a lot of storage costs. Right? ISPs have to keep every email around. They just do. Right? You can scroll back years and years of your Gmail inbox and you'll see, you can still find it, you can still click it. That's sitting somewhere. They're paying for that cost. If they can wipe away 90% of that somehow with a better authentication system, that's a lot of money for somebody. I can see that being a really big beneficial ad for them.
Andrew Barrett: I agree with you to an extent. There's a lot of spammers out there who are signing their stuff with a DKIM and SPF and that are publishing a D-Mark record.
Gurbir Singh: Well, I'm assuming with BIMI, it's another level, essentially. That's why they're working towards that one, and hopefully that one solves it. Like anything, there's always-
PJ Bruno: There's always counterfeiters out there, man.
Gurbir Singh: Yeah. Someone's going to break it.
PJ Bruno: Catch me if you can. Moving on, what's the future, what are the big things on the horizon that email senders should be looking for, as far as feature specific, as far as, I mean, legislation affecting anything?
Andrew Barrett: Well, I think we can call the legislation one absolutely dead and cold now. The Federal Trade Commission recently completed a two year review of the 16 year old CAN-SPAM federal law and decided it was all good, man. They spent two years looking at that sucker and decided, wow, it just can't get any better than how it is, which is really, really frustrating. I was at the Federal Trade Commission in the spring of 2003 for two days of testimony from a bunch of different groups, and there was five different versions of anti-spam language. It's five different competing versions pending in the lower house in Congress. They were trying to merge all those disparate versions of the language together in what would eventually become CAN-SPAM, and they were taking all this input from nonprofit anti-spam, watchdog groups, senders. They actually had a couple of spammers on the stage talking about why they do what they do, and that sort of thing.
PJ Bruno: Interesting.
Andrew Barrett: It was all in. Everybody scrubbed in on this thing. What came out in 2003 act, which was largely the [Burns Widen Act 00:24:14] was terrible. I mean, not only did it fail utterly to advance a definition of spam, which I don't blame them for because that is problematic on its face for a whole bunch of reasons, but where they really fell down is that they failed to advance a meaningful definition of email. Right?
Gurbir Singh: They left it as a digital communications?
Andrew Barrett: For the purposes of this statute, email means "an electronic message," period. Full stop.
PJ Bruno: Great.
Andrew Barrett: What? Really, really bad. Ideally, the definitive quality of email would have been transit via SMTP.
Gurbir Singh: Right.
Andrew Barrett: That's what was needed there. You can never look to lawmakers to predict the future. It's not the law we wanted, but it was probably the law we deserved. It was just that, and so I was really astounded when they decided that they weren't going to make any changes.
Gurbir Singh: Didn't California, or aren't they evaluating their own special law just for the state of California?
PJ Bruno: Leave it to California.
Andrew Barrett: Yeah. Well, they had one before 2003. California is great at passing really restrictive laws, only to have them be superseded by federal legislation months and years later. The California anti-spam law was very restrictive and it was in place for only a couple of months before the federal law came in and eviscerated it, superseded it.
PJ Bruno: All right, guys, we're at about time. Before we close up shop, any last words of advice to email sender's, email receivers? It can be simple to something you want to go out on. What's the big takeaway?
Andrew Barrett: Just remember that business relationship between those three parties, and if you can keep that in mind, that relationship will inform every decision you ever have to make as a sender. If I had to define deliverability in one sentence, it would be, how not to look like a spammer. That's it. But there's a whole lot underneath that that can keep folks talking for days, and hours, and careers.
PJ Bruno: And podcasts.
Andrew Barrett: And podcasts.
Gurbir Singh: Andrew's going to write a book.
Andrew Barrett: And career long podcasts.
PJ Bruno: I have to make this a whole series. Gurbir, you got some final thoughts?
Gurbir Singh: I mean, I circled back to Andrew. It is a business. Understanding the motivations of each of these guys will help you, and make you successful.
PJ Bruno: Absolutely. I'll say to spammers out there, if you're looking for alternative forms of revenue, check out the speaker circuit, because apparently, they'll be willing to have you on stage. Thank you guys so much for coming to hang out with us. This is PJ Bruno, Gurbir Singh, and Andrew Barrett. You guys take care.