Do they or don’t they? Will they or won’t they?

Ah, Christmas time! and the eternal question arises again: Do ISPs deliberately throttle senders over the holidays?

I recently got an email asking me if I thought ISPs tighten the rules during the holidays to be more strict on senders. It’s a question I got quite often when I was at AOL, also.

So…do they??

In my opinion the answer is no, they don’t! There are a many reasons for this thought, but it all boils down to the fact that the holidays are a nightmare for ISP staff, and the last thing I can imagine them doing is making their workload higher on purpose. Consider that:

  • Malware infections jump during this season which means that help-center tickets increase dramatically as does inbound mail volume due to more computers being added to bot-nets.
  • Marketing mail volumes go up in response to the retail frenzy which means that mail volume increases exponentially.
  • All the additional strain on the inbound relays and spam-processing servers means things break more, which means that admins get no time to sleep because queueing mail causes more problems than it solves…
  • Queueing mail has a domino effect that causes problems for other ISPs, and also means delays in mail reaching end users, which means another increase in help-center tickets.
  • Along with all this, people get new technological toys over Christmas and want to get them online…
  • … all of which means that help-centers are flooded.
  • Help-center overload means tickets are not resolved in a timely fashion, which means that…ISP customers get angry, which is at minumum bad PR – folks complain on Twitter, Facebook, blogs, to their friends on the phone – and at worst means losing a customer (and possibly his friends!).
  • Changing how the spam systems work means that production code changes get stress tested real-time, which over the holidays with lots of staff on vacation is unlikely to have a good outcome.
  • ISP admins are people too. They want to have a nice holiday, eat a lot and drink more, and to relax and spend time with their loved ones just like everyone else. A relaxed holiday is a pipe-dream for most admins anyway, and making live changes to existing systems makes it even more unlikely to happen!

This is one big ugly stressball for ISP staff, who are thin on the ground and over-worked to begin with. I cannot imagine a scenario in which significant changes would be made to production anti-spam systems except in the case of dire emergency.

The perception that ISPs are deliberately throttling email or tightening things down over the holidays is entirely due to changes in the inbound mail stream – differences created by marketers who change their own behavior during the holidays. Anti-spam and reputation systems react to sudden spikes in volume, invalid users, and spam complaints, which are caused by the sender’s decisions to send to older segments, send more frequently, send across channels, send to purchased or rented lists. These are all things that many marketers typically do over the holidays. This spiky behavior is seen as outside the norm and treated accordingly – and rightly so! There is nothing unusual about this at all.

So…as I said in my previous post, the best thing marketers can do during the holidays is to follow best practices, to not make significant changes to their email programs that would result in additional poorly targeted mail being sent out, to treat their clients with the same respect they wish to get from companies they buy from themselves, and to be patient with the ISPs, who are doing the very best they can with ever-more-limited resources.

“Do unto others as you would wish they do unto you” is a very applicable idea, as well as “less is more”. Respect the email eco-system, keep the big picture in mind and it will pay off!