The Email Locker: 8 Years In The Spam Trenches | Part 1

Annalivia Ford recently joined Unica’s Email Operations team. She brings with her almost a decade of ISP experience. During the past 5-6 years, she’s been the voice of AOL, a beacon of hope to deliverability foot soldiers around the world, who have relied on her to give them the “straight talk” and help them help themselves. Anna brings the straight talk and her no nonsense attitude to Unica and promises to continue the battle. To find out what made her so successful for so many years at one of the world’s largest ISP Anna and I sat down and did a little Q&A. If any of you have read Anna’s blog you know she’s prolific and verbose—what follows is part 1 of a 2 part Q&A of the past, present and future of one of the industry’s most respected voices, anti-spammer and deliverability guru.

L.S.Tell me a little bit about what you did at AOL over the past 8 years.

A.F. – What didn’t I do? I started out doing front-line spam fighting, which was a high tension, time-sensitive and critical job. A mistake could cause huge problems, both in terms of blocking email from sources that shouldn’t be blocked, and from a PR standpoint. Getting AOL into the Washington Post was not something that was desired. At the time we were getting millions of complaints a day and reducing that number significantly was crucial.

After a couple years I started reaching out to various sending entities – ISPs, Hosting companies, and ESPs – to try and help solve the problems before they became mutual. This was well received, and my efforts grew until I’d basically created a whole new job, at which point it was made official and I was given the role that I occupied until coming to Unica.

Over the span of 6 years or so, the job mutated a lot as AOL’s strategies changed. I spent a lot of time working on best practices with bulkmailers, working with my peer ISPs to find bad mail, and chasing snowshoers. I participated in the evolution of AOL’s spam fighting tactics and policies, and took that work to MAAWG as well.

As reputation was born and grew, my focus shifted from helping individual mailers to a more global approach – for example, re-writing the AOL Postmaster website to be as inclusive and helpful as possible to as many people as possible, and I also spent a lot of time explaining reputation/bulkmail and how to re-align business strategies to account for it.

In my …spare time…I helped out with the ticket queues to assist both the people who were requesting help and to fine-tune the reputation system, since the queues were an excellent place to find patterns evolving.

L.S.What brought you to Unica?

A.F. – The only constant in life is change. After 8 years I felt it was time to make one, so I started looking for a new challenge. I chose Unica because it offered me a chance to put my skills to the test doing something quite different from what I’d been doing before, in an environment that suits my personality and career path. The position I have been hired for is dynamic and will change as Unica’s email offering grows; the opportunity to be part of building something from the ground up is exciting.

L.S.You’ve been called “the angry lady at AOL” what did you do to get that title?

A.F. – It was mostly – I hope, a joke that grew of out of a Twitter stream by an unknown entity named “ISPRelations”. This person indicated that he’d called AOL to get help with his email and reached “an angry lady at AOL” who didn’t want to hear about his business model. The latter part is true enough – I never did want to hear about business models, as they were not relevant to the situation, and after many years of “but let me tell you about my business model!” it became something of a catch phrase. I suspect the title also grew out of the fact that while I was always polite, I was also unfailingly direct with people. I’m not one to mince words and waste time on sashaying around a point. If a given mailer’s mail was horrible, I’d say so. This tended to take people aback a little, but I think they came to appreciate and rely on it.

L.S.What are you hoping to accomplish now that you’ll be working with senders on the sending side?

A.F. – Having spent years on trying to help people correct issues with existing email strategies, I am looking forward to using all that insight on what doesn’t work to help Unica build theirs right, from the start, and to be a driving force for improvement in email, in general. I don’t really see myself as changing sides; I’m just changing approaches. I’ve always worked to make the email eco-system better. Now I have an opportunity to continue that work from a different angle.

L.S.Are there resources you can recommend to help marketers differentiate themselves from spammers?

A.F. – Don’t do what spammers do! There are a lot of resources available – there are many industry blogs written by knowledgeable people,  I’ve written at least one post that broadly addresses this question.

  • Laura Atkins has a series of posts tagged “That’s What Spammers Do
  • The AOL Postmaster page has an excellent overview of best practices and a high level explanation of IP reputation at AOL and what it means to mailers.
  • The MAAWG published a Best Practices whitepaper.

Other resources I’d recommend include:

There are many resources for those who need them, including consultants that can be hired to help sort out a broken mail system. However, the bottom line really is simple, if not easy: to succeed, marketers must send timely, relevant and desired email to an engaged audience. I promise that spammers are not doing that.

To be continued…


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