TMW #156 | Gatekeeping email

Dec 17, 2023

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Gatekeeping email 

The original vision of Email as an open protocol is fading. It’s time to fix that. 

The email address was the last bastion of digital marketing.
A relic from the past that represented the promise of a free internet, where you could reach anyone with your message, your products, and your content without having to pay an advertiser or intermediatory. 

This is something I would probably write in the year 2030 as an eulogy for a modern miracle that is electronic mail. 

The reason I say this is that the email address, much like the third-party cookie, does not have much longer in this world as a viable data point to drive online marketing or even a consumer channel. In fact, I am pretty sure that email’s fate is already sealed. But we could probably fix it.

So what does that look like?

Cracking down 

Over the past few weeks, Google and Yahoo have announced new tools to block bulk emailing. This, on top of Gmail's already algorithmically defined experience of using email, will make it harder for marketers to get an email into people’s inboxes. And for good reason. 

For those who are Gmailers, you’ll notice that email has become easier to use over the years, but that your attention using it has also been diverted by Google algorithmically filtering your email into buckets. Google’s pre-defined categories for email mean that I already don’t see a lot of what enters my inbox anyway. What ends up in promotions is basically a death sentence for any email engagement. And any good email marketer knows that landing in Primary is the holy grail of deliverability. 

But it’s not only Google. Apple, in recent years, have introduced new measures to screen emails before they even land in your inbox. Mail Privacy Protection, an option available for the Apple Mail app, is an email privacy tool that hides users' IP addresses so that email marketing platforms cannot link email behaviors to location or identity. It also prevents senders from seeing if and when someone has opened an email, and it has nothing to do with your email address – the app screens emails for you. 

If you survey just the past three years of email clients, it does certainly seem like Apple, Google, and Yahoo have been cracking down in a big way against email. But it’s only just starting. 

Under the new rules, Gmail will now enforce fresh regulations for bulk email senders. If you’re sending more than 5,000 emails to Gmail addresses in a single day, you qualify for these new rules. Google and Yahoo are now enforcing the authentication of emails, determining the trustworthiness of email based on the spam rate and how easy it is to unsubscribe from email lists. 

Google says that a preliminary implementation of authentication practices has led to a significant reduction in spam email, claiming that the number of unauthenticated messages Gmail users receive has declined by 75%

Analyzing these new rules for authentication, suggests that there are three forces at play when it comes to breaking through Google’s firewall: 

“When it comes to email authentication, three mechanisms work together:

  • Sender Policy Framework (SPF) helps prevent domain spoofing by allowing senders to identify the email servers that are allowed to send emails from their domain.
  • DomainKeys Identified Mail (DKIM) adds a digital signature to outgoing email, which verifies the message was sent by an authorized sender and wasn’t tampered with along the way. 
  • Domain-based Message Authentication, Reporting and Conformance (DMARC) helps domain owners specify which actions to take when an email fails authentication. It also enables reporting on email authentication results.”

On the whole, these steps seem like a good thing for the internet and your inbox; unauthentic emails that are constantly tagged as spam and from which you can’t unsubscribe are something nobody wants.  

And yet, the trajectory of email appears to be towards more gatekeeping, and less freely-given access for marketers. Email in its current form is roughly 30 years old now, and it’s been through multiple iterations over the years. So, why implement these changes now? What happened? 

There are two reasons: spam, and the changing incentives of free content. 

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Juan Mendoza

Juan Mendoza is an expert in researching global media, marketing, data, and technology trends. He is the CEO of The Martech Weekly, a media and research brand with subscribers in over 65 countries.

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