splat chat episode one title card

Splat Chat Episode 01: The Story Behind the First Report Spam Feature

Welcome to Email on Acid's very first episode of our video interview series, Splat Chat! We're talking all things email with some of the biggest "email geeks" in the world.

For our first interview, I spoke with Kate Nowrouzi. She is currently the VP of Deliverability and Product Strategy for Mailgun. But back in the early 2000s, she was on the team at AOL that worked to tackle the growing problem of email spam. That's a pretty significant event in the history of email.

This was around the same time CAN-SPAM became law, and AOL found a way to give some power to the people. After AOL's "report spam" feature was introduced, the company filed a federal lawsuit targeting spammers who'd sent 1-billion junk mail messages to AOL email users.

That's not all we cover in our inaugural episode. Kate and I also discuss the value of BIMI, send-time optimization, email's sexiness problem, and spinach that can apparently send emails.

Take a listen to this 20-minute chat and check out the show notes after the episode transcription!

Monica Hoyer:

Welcome to the first episode of Splat Chat as part of our 50th anniversary of email celebration that we're doing in 2021. I am the Director of Marketing at Email on Acid. I'm Monica Hoyer. And today we're talking to Kate Nowrouzi who is the VP of Deliverability at Mailgun. So welcome Kate, and thank you so much for being our first guest on our chat.

Kate Nowrouzi:

Thank you for having me. Hello everyone.


And so we're going to start things off with a lightning round of questions. And the first question is, do you text or talk?


I say most of the time I prefer texts, but it depends on the situation sometimes if it's a heated discussion, I probably use the phone. Yeah,


It's probably better so nothing gets lost in translation. What about coffee or tea?


Oh, tea all the way. I don't even have a coffee maker.


Oh my goodness. Don't even have a coffee maker. And then what are you reading or listening to?


The recent book that I'm reading is President Obama's recent book, A Promised Land, and I'm enjoying it, actually.


Nice! It's on my list as well. So you'll have to let me know how it is. So jumping right into some of our questions you were at AOL when the "report spam" feature was introduced into the industry back in, was it early 2000? Was that when that happened? Talk to me about what that was like, and how you've watched the evolution happen of spam reporting in the industry.


So I believe it's either 2000, early 2003 that I think AOL was the first ISP who reported spam. And a fun fact is it was supposed to be called "Notify AOL," but a journalist said, calling it "report spam" makes more sense. So they changed the name like very, very last minute. And this was basically, I was part of the anti-spam operation at AOL.

I was then part of the team of analysts that would monitor the incoming spam to the network and try to write different rules or regexes based on the common patterns we would find with the incoming traffic and incoming unwanted spam in order to protect mailboxes. Back in the day, I think AOL was the biggest. Like probably starting '90 to '95 household people. So there was AOL, probably there was Hotmail mailboxes and Yahoo, and there was no Gmail back then.

So the whole idea was it was hard for a bunch of engineers and analysts to decide, what is spam and what is not. So in my opinion, probably Viagra would have been spam. But maybe someone else was like, "No, I actually ordered it, Viagara is not spam in my opinion." Or, porn. It was very, very hard to draw the lines exactly what is a spam, what is not.

So we decided how about giving this power to the end-user? Let the end-users tell us. So that was actually one of the strongest signals that we looked at in order to block unwanted traffic to our network. So that's why before this spam was introduced to, to them, so power to the people. The people that are reading and receiving email had the opportunity to say "report a spam."


So were there thresholds? I think you had mentioned to me the first time we talked that it was you know, if a certain number of people said, no, I didn't ask for this message. Then that would become spam. Was it a percentage of the total number sent or total number delivered or how was that determined?


Yes, "report spam" became one of the major, probably the most most important factor we took into consideration in order to define whether or not to block the traffic. And the fact is, aside from like, if it was like a malware, that's a "no." If there was like any traffic coming from an IP that had malware, the IP would have gotten blocked. There was no domain reputation back then. So we would only look at the IPs. The domain did not mean much back in the day. So we observed that when sometimes people sign up, for example, for Gap.com, they actually do sign up, and the Gap.com team just sends way too much. Or people wake up on a bad day, they may report a spam, even on the piece of traffic or a marketing email that they have signed up for.

Or there was a missed typo of email addresses. That's why we thought, okay, maybe we should have this threshold that if the senders have exceeded that threshold, then it becomes very risky, bad, or then start blocking. Back in the day, out of 1 million emails sent, we would allow 1,000 complaints. Okay. So that would make it 0.1% complaint. It is still similar among the other ISPs right now. So Gmail now holds over 50% of each marketing mailing list then comes, I guess AOL, Yahoo, and then Microsoft domains. Although, none of the ISPs publish any numbers anymore. But I think it is still close to that threshold. It's not far off. So my recommendation to the brand is to try to keep your complaint rate below 0.1%.


Okay. Can we talk a little bit more about recent trends in inbox, placement and delivery? So now we're fast-forwarding 20 years. How do you think those will continue to adapt and in 2021 and beyond?


So a lot has changed. Before, email was the only communication channel for marketers, for our close friends, for my mom sending pictures. But then, all of these other channels, were introduced in the past 10, 15 years. Facebook, a lot of marketers are doing a lot of their advertisements on social media, whether it is Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram. So the advertisement part of email -- sorry --promotional traffic has moved out of email. Email has become more of a one-on-one communication channel.

So let's say you go book a flight to Hawaii. As soon as you have made a reservation on United.com, you go to your email to see if you have received a confirmation. And if you haven't, then you panic and you start calling United. Does United spend a lot of time sending marketing emails to your mailbox? It's probably no. I see more of United advertisements on my Facebook and Instagram feeds.

So this has evolved. Email as a channel has evolved. And actually, it has become a more important channel for consumers and brands to have one-on-one communication. So that the idea of batch-and-blast, let's say, Oh, this is Mother's Day weekend for Macy's. Let's send like 20% off emails to everyone. That has stopped. Now Macy's is sending me, based on my previous history, they are sending me very targeted traffic. So targeted traffic. We have moved from batch-and-blast to more targeted traffic. So more one-on-one traffic. That, that is probably one of the major shifts that I have seen in the past 20 years.


And then, and talk to me a little bit about BIMI and AMP emails this year and where you see those trends going.


So AMP created a lot of noise two or three years ago. I do not hear many of our customers asking for AMP. Although, Mailgun was one of the early adopters of AMP. And if anyone wants to send AMP-enabled traffic, our platform is fully capable of doing so.

What I see that is probably more happening in 2021 is encouraging senders to authenticate their traffic. Believe it or not, I still get on calls with our prospects or we look at headers and there is no DKIM signature. I have seen financial organizations that they have either lack of DKIM signature, or a lack of DMARC. So I believe that BIMI is, is going to play a major role in 2021 and beyond. And BIMI is just a tool to encourage brands, to not only authenticate, but to publish a DMARC record. And that DMARC record cannot be P equals none.

It has to be quarantine or reject. Meaning, if you have a p=none at the beginning, maybe the first week that you are testing, that's fine. But beyond the first week or two, definitely I highly recommend to publish a more restrictive policy quarantine. And actually, I'm a huge advocate for P equals reject. One of my coworkers was saying that we are going to get you a t-shirt. Because every single call I join, I tell our customers, why is it still quarantine? Are you testing? It has to be reject. Because it doesn't matter if you are a financial organization or if you're just a social network or just a mom and pop shop, you need to protect your brand. You need to protect your domain. Any, any brand can be a victim of phishing attacks.

So BIMI is a tool to encourage senders to do authentication properly. It may sound like, "Oh, do BIMI so your logos are going to be displayed in the clients that you are opening." So when I open, for example, Bank of America emails in my Gmail, the email would just show the logo. And I say, "Okay, so this is coming in fact from Bank of America. It's not efficient, but that is just that was just some kind of like a reward system to encourage brands to move forward, to do a more restrictive DMARC policy.


Got it. Interesting. Okay, so moving on from that, what do you think, or why do you think that email doesn't always get the street cred that it deserves? As a top marketing channel, it's been around for 50 years you know. Social media hasn't been around nearly that long, but people rely on social media channels much more. And email just doesn't get the credit. And people don't realize, even though there's, you know, reports of $44 per dollar spent as your ROI and probably last year, it was even higher, given the quarantine and the pandemic. So why do you think it's not, it's not as people aren't as interested. Is it not sexy anymore? Like, what's the problem there?


I think the rise of all of these different channels, such as Instagram and Twitter probably reduces the sexiness of email. But at the end of the day, I believe the data shows email does bring the highest ROI for every brand. And the brands, they know it. So if you look at any other channels, first of all, there is a history. If you see something on your Twitter feed, or your Facebook feeds, if you don't click on it right away, it's gone. But if you see a valuable piece of email in your inbox, you can always refer to it. You can always come back to it. That is one major thing.

And also, as far as the receipt, as far as like your hotel reservation, if you forget the detail of the hotel document. Where do you go? That's email. And at the end of the day, every single morning that we wake up, what is the first thing that we check? For me, it's truly my email, my personal email then my work email. Do I check Facebook first? Probably not. I do check it later on.

And I don't know, did you hear this story this week that the scientists they have managed to to work on some sort of spinach? So it may sound like something out of your like a science fiction movie, but the scientists have managed to engineer these spinach plants that are capable of sending emails. So I was telling my coworkers email is definitely not dead. If this spinach can send email, email is here to stay,


I was trying to think of something like does that mean even when we're 50, we have to eat spinach? Like how does the 50 years and spinach go together? Popeye was ... I mean, there's gotta be some sort of joke in there. Someone much smarter than I am, can come up with something there. Awesome. So give me your top takeaway, working in the email industry for the past 20 plus years. What's the number one thing you've learned or that you'll always remember about email?


I would say send the right email to the right person at the right time. That is the key, the right time, for me. I'm a huge fan of Nordstrom, the right frequency for me might be once a week. That could be different for my sister. For my sister, it could be every day. So that relies on the brand to have preference centers, to ask their subscribers how often they want to hear from them. So that's number one, frequency.

Number two, be relevant. If my favorite brand does not send valuable information to my inbox, I eventually either report it as spam or unsubscribe. And again, time really, really matters and be targeted and read all of these different channels. Whether it is social or whether it is SMS, marketers at the end of the day, they probably know more about me than my mom. So based on the information that they have. They have access to lots of information. So they need to tailor and target their audience way better than they used to in the past. And if they don't, they are going to lose it to their competing brands.


Yeah. I remember in the early days how it was just like, just send it to everybody. And again, that goes back to your batch and blast comment earlier. We can't do that anymore. Because it just isn't effective. So closing things up here. What do you have? What, what information do you want to share about Mailgun? Let's wrap things up and say goodbye to our audience, our virtual audience here. And what, what do you want to talk to us about and leave us with?


I think one of the two major things that go back to my previous comments: Send the right email to the right people at the right time. The people, how would you define [them]? And my first recommendation to any marketer is make sure you clean your list at least once a quarter. So that means two things. Number one, to remove the people who are not engaging, opening, or clicking your traffic. If someone hasn't engaged in 12 months, the chance they are gonna do it in 16 months is zero. Even if it is not zero, it isn't worth the risk. The other part that you can do as far as cleaning the list is use Mailgun. One of Mailgun's most powerful tools, I think is our email validation. So marketers do not even need to send traffic through Mailgun to be able to utilize this tool.

This is a standalone product. The email validation is one of the most powerful tools in the market. We have so many brands that they are actually using our competitor source. But they use Mailgun's email validation. And the second thing that I would love to mention is the STO send-time optimization. I had mixed feelings when the whole STO thing with the engineering team was starting it off. And I was like, I'm not sure if we are going to have invalid data. But to be honest with you, I was caught off guard. I was very, very surprised by seeing the results because we were able to increase opens by three-X. And the send-time optimization, I think you can go to mailgun.com/send-time-optimization, or just Google Mailgun send-time optimization.

For that one, you need to be a Mailgun customer. We have algorithms that they look at, for example, when does Kate usually 80% of the time open her [email]? She is opening and clicking that email. And given we are sending traffic for hundreds-of-thousands of different brands from Starbucks to Lyft or Credit Karma, all of these brands. We have knowledge, which we do not share with the other brands. Everything is like hash. That by average kate@yahoo.com or kate@gmail.com is opening and clicking between 6:30 to 7:30 AM. And at 10:00 to 11:30. So we can maximize the send time. So if a marketer sends us their traffic at 8:00 for Kate, we hold onto that. And then we try to send that traffic at 10:30. Which 85% of the time, we have seen kate@gmail.com opens and clicks. So that would be the two top things that I would recommend for marketers to give it a try.

We actually went through a rebranding this week. So we are now called Pathwire. Pathwire is an umbrella for both Mailgun and Mailjet, and hopefully in the future for more brands that we are bringing under this umbrella. So it's a very exciting week for the Mailgun family for the whole rebranding. And yes, if you have any questions, feel free to contact me at kate@mailgun.com. And I would be more than happy to help our marketers or any person who does email to answer any questions.


Awesome. Thank you. That's super exciting for the Mailgun and Mailjet families. I'm pumped to see everything that you guys do. So thank you again, Kate. Thanks for watching our first episode of Splat Chat everyone out there. And thank you again for being our first guest.

If you're looking for more email marketing insights, head over to EmailonAcid.com. Check out our blog for articles, infographics, and more. Email on Acid, if you don't know, is an email readiness platform for email teams of all sizes. We are on a mission to make the complexities of email marketing simpler.

With Email on Acid, you get end-to-end content checks, inbox, display optimization, deliverability insights, and plenty of other amazing features. It's all designed to give email teams more flexibility and give you confidence when hitting that send button, which we all know. And I think you can attest to, this is a scary, scary thing even today. So try us out with a free seven-day trial or request, a custom demo. Head on over to EmailonAcid.com. Head on over to Mailgun.com and check out all of their features as well. We will see you next time on Splat Chat. Thanks again for joining us.

Splat Chat Episode 01 Show Notes


A lot can happen on the way to your customers’ inboxes. Wondering if your emails will land in spam, why a major mailbox provider is rejecting messages, or why bounce rates are climbing? Mailgun Optimize can get you those answers. It’s a complete email deliverability suite that helps you stop wondering and start improving.