All posts by Annalivia Ford

Interview with a Vampi^H^H Spamfighter, part 2

The second half of my Unica interview with Len Shneyder is now up. It was fun to do, and I hope that y’all enjoy it and maybe find something useful in it. If you missed the first part you can still read that on the Unica Blog.

Thanks for the intervention with the weather gods, people! It’s stopped raining, for which I’m certain my Bostonian friends are grateful. That chugging noise you hear is the sound of many sump pumps running at full capacity.

..that exploding noise you heard was my head, trying to get Excel and SQL stuffed into it. Anyone know if there’s a better book than Excel for Dummies out there?

New Day, New Job…New Blog?

I was busy doing something unprecedented: relaxing! Then a couple weeks ago I started at my new job as Email Service Manager at Unica, the specifics of which is still somewhat undefined. I’ll be working on the new Unica email service offering, helping grow it from the ground, on up. It’s an exciting opportunity and I’m working with people I like a lot. The team is not completely staffed yet, so I’m waiting with bated breath to see who is hired next. Len Shneyder did an introductory interview with me, the first part of which was published today.

I’m not really sure what I’m going to do with the blog at this point. Lots of things are changing in my life and everything is a bit upside down still. I imagine it will struggle a bit to regain some sort of identity as I settle into harness in this new world I’m in, but I do intend to keep it alive in some fashion! At the moment I am in soggy Boston, learning the ropes. I doubt y’all would be interested in basic SQL, so I will post something when I get home where my notes are, next week.

See you then!

Closing a Chapter: saying goodbye

It is with very mixed feelings that I am announcing my imminent departure from AOL: my last day with the company will be this Friday, March 5. It’s been 8 years, a long wild ride that has been a great deal of fun, but all good things must come to an end sooner or later, and the time has come for me to move on to something different.

What this means to you: escalation paths and such are still being worked out, but the India Postmaster team and I have spent a lot of time working together in the last couple months; they’ll take care of you. The AOL postmaster website and reputation tool should also be useful. I’ll provide any further information as I get it.

I’ve worked very closely with Laura Atkins from Word To The Wise over the years, and she knows her AOL stuff backward and forward – if you need consulting for AOL help, she can provide it. She’s also written a solid reference to AOL processes (as well as many other ISPs), which I’d encourage people to make use of.

It’s been wonderful working with you all, and I’m going to miss it, and you. I will continue writing here once the madness dies down; for the rest…I am going to spend next week re-reading Anne McCaffrey’s Dragons of Pern series – doesn’t everyone wish they had their own dragon? and then begin my new job at the end of this month. The particular detail of “where” is not yet public, though it will be soon.

I’ll be around. Mazel Tov, people! So long, and thanks for all the fish.

It’s not paranoia if they’re really out to get you.

The Internets are dangerous (note the date on that article!). Complacency costs money, and the more people take it seriously and move to prevent compromises of their machines, the better for everyone.

Don’t use Internet Explorer. Forget you ever had IE. *droid gesture* Use Firefox. Let it update itself. Along with Firefox, get the Adblock and NoScript plug-ins and let them update themselves too. An enormous percentage of infestations happen from browsing pages with infected ad networks (hello, social networking sites!), and this array of software will help prevent a lot. NoScript does up the annoyance factor in web-browsing a bit, but if you run NoScript and simply tell it to allow every page it complains about, there isn’t much point in using it. And you do get used to it.

Disabling JavaScript and the Adobe Reader plug-in in your browser is also a good idea. It does up the annoyance factor for me again, because I have to download any PDF I want to read, scan it, and then open it in Foxit, but eh. I’d rather take an extra 5 seconds to do that than deal with cleaning up an infestation. I actually dumped Adobe entirely and went to Foxit after the zero-day exploit reported last year, and it appears to have been a good idea, considering what happened just recently.

Here’s a fun thought. Infected USB drives. Just let that one roll around in your mind for a moment. Tiny, portable, and perfectly designed for the “easiest possible way” mentality which is part of human nature. People take them everywhere. It’s a virus-maker’s Lotto hit. Firewalls do nothing to keep out the bogeys if people walk them in on their bodies and voluntarily connect them to a network. An infected USB flash drive contains the malicious software paired with a malicious autorun.inf file. The autorun.inf file is used to trick the user into running the malware on the flash drive. Panda Security offers an easy to use utility that gives the user the option to either vaccinate the PC or a specific USB drive. I took the easy road and vaccinated my PC. This can always be reversed if needed.

This is the basic stuff; I’m ignoring the need for a hardware firewall, and tricks that can be done with NAT, routing, etc. Windows is here to stay. I use it myself for a variety of reasons.

It sucks. It’s a lot of work to do, all this patching and updating and disabling and and and! It makes me tired just reading my own posts. But it’s the price we pay for having this incredibly complex cool thing we call the Internet, which brings people closer together in variety of unprecedented ways. The downside, as always, is that the bad guys get closer too – and they have way more money and lots less ethics than the good guys, so let’s not make it easy for them.

Spy vs. Spy, as one commenter said.

Polly wants a cracker!

Parrots repeat things over and over again, and so do deliverability consultants. They repeat themselves in the hope that someone will listen. Parrots want crackers, but consultants want people to hear what they’re saying. Laura Atkins’ post from yesterday is very relevant. Folks, listen to her. She knows what she’s talking about. Al Iverson, too. There are many good articles being published these days that address this problem:

The days of “what do I tell the ISP?” are long gone. The ISPs care about what bulk mailers do, not what they say. Reputation systems are a different paradigm from the old days of whitelisting and blocking.

It used to be that you could call up someone at an ISP, and if you were either honest enough or clever enough, it was possible to convince them to whitelist your IP, and then the IP in question had a free ride until someone noticed a Bad Thing and revoked the whitelisting. Hard blocking was done mostly by hand, which meant there was (relatively) not that much of it going on. A mailer had to do something pretty awful to catch the attention of a person and get blocked. The bad guys, predictably, ruined it; staying under the radar let mailers get away with very poor practices, and a great many of them did just that. The paradigm stopped working. The ISPs had to come up with a better way before their networks died and all their customers went elsewhere.

Reputation was born.

The wonderful thing about reputation systems from an ISP point of view is that once they are functional and right, they catch an awful lot more bad mail than mere people could. They’re catching goodly portions of the enormous quantities of marginal mail that no-one really seems to want: pummeling the ISPs and their subscriber bases with huge quantities of “blah” mail won’t work any more – they don’t want to transport billions of emails that their members don’t care about: it’s expensive, both in overhead costs and in losing members to fatigue.

And here’s where I’m repeating myself: reputation systems don’t care about business models, protestations of opt-in, legitimacy, or urgency. They care about the response generated by a given stream of bulk mail. Whitelisting no longer provides bullet-proof protection from blocks; whitelisting is mostly dynamic and dependent on reputation. Spam-foldering is also now largely driven by reputation. It’s a much more fluid environment, wherein how mail is treated can change by the moment, and in which is it much, much easier to drive reputation down than it is to bring it back up.

Don’t worry about what to tell the ISPs. If your mail isn’t being treated the way you want it to be, look at the mail! Figure out what is causing the issue, and fix it. If you can’t figure it out, hire someone that can; there are ESPs and consultants who do it for a living and are very good at it.

Mirror, mirror, on the wall….

Ah, the joys of reputation systems!

Businesses that have relied for years on staying under the radar are quite visible these days. Those masses of marginal email that flow in, hiding behind the worse streams that draw off human attention? We can see you now. Hi!

I believe that the general receiver focus is shifting to eliminating the above class of mail. It costs a lot of money to transport, filter and store it, and most of that cost is borne by the receivers. My speculation is that across the board, at all major ISPs, the historical tolerance for marginal mail will rapidly evaporate. ISPs are tightening things down. Anti-spam vendors are stepping up and offering new products that I hope will prove very effective. I expect this trend to accelerate dramatically.

Engagement and relevance will be increasingly critical in getting mail delivered – not just to the inbox, but at all. That translates not just to well thought-out marketing and excellent targeting, but also to list hygiene and client vetting. The particulars of reputation systems do vary from ISP to ISP but fundamentally, the successful mailers in the long term will be the ones who do the most thorough and best due diligence before letting (desired, relevant, and targeted to an engaged audience) email leave their network. This isn’t news, really. It has always been true, but it now more crucial than ever. I was telling people to Get Ready, that Reputation Was Coming and would change everything…at least 2 years before it started to roll out. It’s gathering momentum rapidly now. The paradigm is changing very quickly, and those who don’t change with it will be left behind.

It’s evolution in action. Darwin would have been thrilled.

URGENT! …or not.

wrote a post shortly before Christmas that discussed my irritation with a business that was sending me emails that were telling me to hurry, Hurry, HURRY because I had a very limited time to save, Save, SAVE! Bad enough that I got these shrieking subject lines delivered to me once a day for weeks. When the frequency rose to three emails in one morning, I got so annoyed I unsubscribed (and haven’t resubscribed since). I had regularly bought items from them, and had been on their mailing lists for several years. I even recommended them to other people. That company lost a client, and also lost my word of mouth advertising. I now use them as a poster child for how not to do a Christmas campaign.

Mark Brownlow recently wrote an article about the topic of urgency. My take-away from his post is that the strategy of “getting the immediate sales and we’ll worry about the rest later” is not sustainable. I agree. I also believe that the current methods some senders use to get around the system instead of changing with it will not work much longer and will in fact have very negative repercussions. This will be a very interesting and challenging year in the email marketing scene. We are, I think, at a tipping point.

Which side will your email operation come down on?

Polly wants a cracker!

Parrots repeat things over and over again, and so do deliverability consultants. They repeat themselves in the hope that someone will listen. Parrots want crackers, but consultants want people to hear what they’re saying. Laura Atkins’ post from yesterday is very relevant. Folks, listen to her. She knows what she’s talking about. Al Iverson, too. There are many good articles being published these days that address this problem:

The days of “what do I tell the ISP?” are long gone. The ISPs care about what bulk mailers do, not what they say. Reputation systems are a different paradigm from the old days of whitelisting and blocking.

It used to be that you could call up someone at an ISP, and if you were either honest enough or clever enough, it was possible to convince them to whitelist your IP, and then the IP in question had a free ride until someone noticed a Bad Thing and revoked the whitelisting. Hard blocking was done mostly by hand, which meant there was (relatively) not that much of it going on. A mailer had to do something pretty awful to catch the attention of a person and get blocked. The bad guys, predictably, ruined it; staying under the radar let mailers get away with very poor practices, and a great many of them did just that. The paradigm stopped working. The ISPs had to come up with a better way before their networks died and all their customers went elsewhere.

Reputation was born.

The wonderful thing about reputation systems from an ISP point of view is that once they are functional and right, they catch an awful lot more bad mail than mere people could. They’re catching goodly portions of the enormous quantities of marginal mail that no-one really seems to want: pummeling the ISPs and their subscriber bases with huge quantities of “blah” mail won’t work any more – they don’t want to transport billions of emails that their members don’t care about: it’s expensive, both in overhead costs and in losing members to fatigue.

And here’s where I’m repeating myself: reputation systems don’t care about business models, protestations of opt-in, legitimacy, or urgency. They care about the response generated by a given stream of bulk mail. Whitelisting no longer provides bullet-proof protection from blocks; whitelisting is mostly dynamic and dependent on reputation. Spam-foldering is also now largely driven by reputation. It’s a much more fluid environment, wherein how mail is treated can change by the moment, and in which is it much, much easier to drive reputation down than it is to bring it back up.

Don’t worry about what to tell the ISPs. If your mail isn’t being treated the way you want it to be, look at the mail! Figure out what is causing the issue, and fix it. If you can’t figure it out, hire someone that can; there are ESPs and consultants who do it for a living and are very good at it.

How could I not? I am the hoopiest frood that ever lived.

Oh, what was happening?! I even used my other laptop to download the latest wireless card driver for this laptop, stuck it on a thumb drive, and updated the driver. Nothing. It obviously was my laptop at fault and not my network…but guess what I did next?

Right. I tore my LAN apart and rebuilt it. By then it was about 2AM, and I was completely freaked out: my precious laptop – my connection to everything outside my house – my work, my friends, my parents, the news, television, access to web-search…wasn’t connecting. Oh, my God. I was really upset! I was swearing like a drill sergeant. I had yelled at my dogs and nearly kicked my cat, and I’m pretty sure I flung a shoe at the wall in a fit of enraged frustration.

4 hours had passed, and I had done everything I could think of that made sense, and a number of things that clearly did not, and I was no further along than when I opened the lid the first time. While I was sitting there pondering the problem – and panicking – I told myself to slow down and think. Think. THINK. What was the last thing I had done with the laptop prior to the problem? Why, I’d set it down, of course….but! It had caught on my sleeve! Then my eyes registered what I should have seen immediately: the little green WiFi light on the top part of my keyboard was not lit. …O, RLY? I looked at the side of the laptop, and what do you know? Yeah. There’s a nearly invisible slider bar on it that turns the wireless on and off. I flicked it back on, and everything worked just as it should.

“…”

Panic over, I sat there feeling incredibly stupid. All that, over a tiny little slider bar I didn’t even know existed *and* when I had another, perfectly useful laptop? Really? Yes. Really.

Moral of the story: Techpanic is utterly irrational and can happen to anyone.

If you’re still with me, here’s the point of my post: Be nice to people who are caught in it. They’re going to feel plenty stupid and embarrassed enough when it’s over, without any help from anyone else. In fact, it is what makes a lot of those angry people in support queues…angry. They *know* they’re doing something stupid or ignorant, and asking for help in that situation puts people – especially people who are specialists in computers in some way, or in some other field – on the angry defensive right out of the gate. I know perfectly well that if I had called support during that little episode I would have been aggressive and very unpleasant, primarily because I was really embarrassed.

Being familiar with the pathology of this particular emotional cycle can be really valuable when trying to defuse someone in that mood: in order to actually fix a problem, you need a cooperative user, and angry people just plain don’t cooperate very well. Getting them past the fear, rage and humiliation into a functional mode is the key to getting them off your phone, out of your inbox, and out of your queue.

Final thought: The above is impossible if you, too, are perceptibly angry.

Truly final thought: Never trust a telephone’s mute button. 😉


P.S. For those that did not get the references, the titles of this post and the previous one are riffs on the immortal Hitchhicker’s Guide To The Universe. Douglas Adams, you are greatly missed.