Twitter solves a tricky spam problem

Social media megastar Twitter generates a huge volume of email but was at risk of being labelled a spammer. As Return Path's Margaret Farmakis reveals,

It's fashionable in marketing circles to talk about the death of email, ushered in (at least this week) by the advent of social networking. What's amusing is that social networks, including Twitter, actually rely on email just as much as marketers selling jumpers or plane tickets.

How can that be? Well, think about it. In the case of Twitter, members can choose to be alerted to new followers and to new direct messages by email. They are able to invite friends and colleagues to join them on Twitter - all by email. And naturally Twitter also offers an email newsletter.

But Twitter's reliance on email to drive its extraordinary, explosive growth was also causing serious problems for its email deliverability. Twitter fast gained a reputation for generating spam because of the vast volumes of emails - such as updates and invitations - that it was sending.

These peer-initiated emails are ripe for abuse - both intentionally and unintentionally. Intentionally, spammers and other bad actors can hack these kinds of systems to spew spam. Most companies guard against this, but the harder nut to crack is the unintentional spam that comes from overzealous people who invite their entire email address book to join them on some new network. If that address book is filled with people they don't really know or haven't spoken to in years the results can be a huge spike in complaint rates.

Data from the Return Path ISP reputation network finds that social networks have much poorer reputation metrics than companies in financial services, media, retail and travel. In fact, social networks have complaint rates that are more than 100 per cent higher than other industries. This is a problem because spam complaints are a huge driver of deliverability failures (meaning, email being diverted to a bulk folders or being blocked outright).

And it was complaints from these types of emails, which Twitter relies on to expand their subscriber base, that was leading to 75% of their email ending up in the spam folders of Yahoo!, Hotmail and a number of other ISPs.

The huge volume of messages was hurting both Twitter's email reputation - the likelihood of messages being delivered successfully to inboxes and read - and its brand reputation. Twitter was at risk of becoming synonymous with spam.

For a social network looking to expand, abandoning their astonishingly successful viral strategy is not an option. But that doesn't mean that all hope is lost. Twitter found that reducing complaint rates came down to making the unsubscribe function more accessible and then quickly removing the people who do complain.

Steps that Twitter took:

1. They added a global unsubscribe function so people could choose to quickly stop getting any email from Twitter. This significantly reduced complaints at the ISPs where they were having blocking issues.

2. They implemented the list-unsubscribe header (used by Hotmail) that gives subscribers a trusted unsubscribe button, providing another option for subscribers to remove themselves from the list rather than choosing the this is spam button as a default mechanism.

3. They signed up for feedback loops at Microsoft, United Online and other ISPs so that they could be provided with information on the recipients who complained so that they could be removed from the list. They were also able to analyze the complaint data for information on which email messages and data sources were causing a disproportionate amount of complaints.

Of course this problem is not confined to social networks. Any company with an aggressive viral marketing strategy can find themselves at the mercy of the perceptions of friends of friends of friends.

Balancing those viral strategies against spam complaints and the inevitable deliverability failures they cause isn't necessarily easy. But when it is achieved the company can find high list growth rates coupled with consistently high inbox placement rates.

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