Mar 09

It can’t be assumed it will reach its intended recipient.

It’s not actually a new phenomenon but it seems the deliverability of application-generated email has fallen to a point where a letter sent via the US Postal Service is more likely to reach its intended recipient. Let me explain.

Many services (including our own) use email as an integral part of the service itself. Account activation, critical system notifications, trial key issuance, software update alerts, billing-related communications: email is the transport mechanism we rely upon because it’s realtime and it’s the lowest common denominator for reaching a user. The recent preponderance of SPAM however and (consequent aggressiveness of spam filters) has rendered email unreliable for this purpose.

Person-generated emails still seem to make it 99% of the time but I’d guess the deliverability of our automated emails is maybe 85%. In scenarios of account activation it’s merely an annoyance but in scenarios of proactive notifications of important events this is a real issue. Failing to receive those communications can have real material impact to the customer.

How are folks dealing with the unreliability of email in their apps? Are you staying within the realm of email and seeking better ways to ensure delivery? Exploring alternate communication mediums like SMS or IM’s? Offering personalized, protected RSS feeds of account activity? Or has someone developed a web service that can launch carrier pigeons?

3 Responses to “Email now suffers the problem of carrier pigeons”

  1. Glen says:

    Designing a service where people want to, and expect to, receive emails is important. If people don't give a monkey''s about your email, then they won't care if it does not arrive. The other point is that your emails should have a high signal-to-noise ratio – the amount of forums and support sites I have to sign up for just to get some help with software or a product is ridiculous – half the time I use these sites so rarely, that there is no point in making me jump through 6-million hoops just to post a question.

    Crapplications have caused half the problem – it's not just about spam. Make something worthwhile that sends me worthwhile information and 1 I will be happy to get emails from it, 2 I might even consider paying for, or donating to, it

    Most people's inboxes are so full of spam you need to stand out!

    • Sean says:

      fair points but I'm already assuming that the email is important, quality content and desired by the customer. Think of things like getting an email from your bank before your account is about to be overdrawn or getting an overdue notice from the water company if your payment was late and they're about to shut your water off. There's definitely a severity gradient to the types of emails one cares about but if your app is generating it I'm taking it as given that you're already addressing that. For the purpose of what I'm asking assume the communication is justified and desired- how do you best ensure that it reaches the recipient? And is staying within the realm of email the answer. It may be simply an issue of properly educating the recipient on whitelisting you as a sender. Or it may involve turning to alternate mediums. I'm just curious how people are handling it.

      Agreed spam has created this situation. There is clearly a problem here- it may very well be an opportunity for some startup to fix too. Solve this effectively and sell it as a service and it's something we'd probably buy.


  2. @sfioritto says:

    Of course I ran into this problem while working on Postosaurus. If you're a good email citizen, I bet you can get over 80% delivered. I had a group of people using Postosaurus over yahoo groups because the email was delivered more reliably. This is a pretty good list:

    I also recommend (this is what I did) for smtp, or set up your own box.

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