Today knowledgeable sources inside AOL confirmed to MarketingSherpa that the rumors of a new so-called "super-whitelist" are correct. It's not just planned - it's already in operation.
The new whitelist - formally called the Enhanced White List (EWL) - was developed late last fall to help permission emailers get HTML email delivered properly despite the restrictions of AOL 9.0.
As we've detailed previously - link below - AOL 9.0 was designed to strip HTML images and stop the effectiveness of clickable HTML links for all mail received from senders that an individual recipient has not pro-actively placed in his or her own "address book" of buddies.
This caused an uproar in the email community. Permission-based e-retailers were among the most concerned because HTML product images can have a profound impact on clicks and sales.
An AOL official admitted, during a BigFoot Interactive client webinar in November, that a super whitelist was under development to cope with this problem. However, AOL never publicly announced a launch date. Here's what we've learned about the new whitelist:
First, your IP address (the specific server address that your email is sent from) must already be on AOL's general white list. This white list gets your mail past the standard gateway filters for the AOL email system as a whole, however your mail still be automatically filtered or HTML-stripped at the individual recipient-level for 9.0 users.
(Most reputable email broadcast firms are AOL whitelisted on behalf of their clients - some that allow opt-out and riskier mailings are only partially whitelisted. Safer clients are on whitelisted servers, and riskier-clients are segregated onto other IP addressed servers.)
AOL's new EWL automatically watches the email coming from those servers on the general whitelist. If an IP address has a "pristine track record for complaints and bounces for >30 days", the IP address is automatically added to the EWL for AOL 9.0 whitelisting.
Our source at AOL noted, "We aim to be constantly promoting the top performers on the normal whitelist to EWL using objective criteria like complaints/million recipients and bounces/million recipients and bounce acceptance percentage."
But, we wondered, does a system like this discriminate against smaller mailers who may not be sending millions?
Our source assured us, "We apply the threshold to everyone. There are certain limits in accuracy when you get down to very small lists (under 1,000 recipients per day for example) but otherwise the ratios seem to show good vs bad behavior."
What if you share an IP address with another mailer? This is extremely common for smaller-volume mailers for reasons of cost or just because it never occurred to them to demand a unique IP address from their broadcast service firm. (Link below to an article on that topic.)
Turns out sharing an IP address could definitely stop you from getting on the EWL even if you are a "pristinely pure mailer."
Our AOL source says, "We don't do EWL by company or domain. We do it by IP address."
No email broadcast firm's set of clients are uniformly on the EWL, so if a vendor claims to you "you are guaranteed to be covered by the EWL if you use us", they are wrong. (In fact, one strictly permission-based broadcast firm we spoke with late last night indicated that about 30% of their clients appear to be on the EWL.) EWL's existence explains significant variations in AOL 9.0's effect on email marketing metrics
MarketingSherpa discovered the EWL's existence while our reporters were poking around trying to find an explanation for recent response discrepancies between mailers sending to heavy AOL lists.
Executives from broadcast firms including EmailLabs, e-Dialog, and Digital Impact, all confirmed that some of their clients' results have been much more significantly hurt by AOL 9.0 changes than others -- and this difference doesn't seem to have much to do with the amount of HTML or number of AOL users on the list.
Instead it appears to have to do with the type of mailing. Lists and/or campaign-types that typically generate a higher-than-average percent of complaints -- such as affiliate mailings, CPA mailings, rented list mailings, etc - have seen typical results plummet by as much as 50% since AOL 9.0 was introduced in August.
Other mailers' response rates have held fairly steady, with anecdotally-reported response decreases in the 10-20% range (if at all.)
One other fact is worth noting: Although we contacted more than 50 client-side emailers with questions for this story, only one, Shawn Collins of ClubMom.com, was pro-actively tracking AOL response rates vs his general list responses.
So many services firms were aware of variances, but clients were not. Marketers and publishers: it's time to get your act in order -- if a significant part of your list is AOL, you should be reviewing metrics reports specifically on those names on a regular basis.
According to sources outside of AOL, a reported 50% of AOL users are now on 9.0. We rest our case. -- Staff editors Jill Keogh, Jennifer Nastu, and Anne Holland contributed to this story.Useful links related to this story:
AOL's freshly posted guidelines on the EWL:
Samples of creative tactics mailers such as Olive Garden and Cheap Tickets are using to get AOL users to add them to address-book lists (Free):
Ouch -- AOL 9.0 is bad news for emailers. Here are some solutions… (Small Cost)
Why Every Mass Emailer Should Get Their Own IP Address: Call Your Broadcast Firm Today (Small Cost)
Why Your FROM: Email Address & Name Should Never Change: 7 Rules plus AOL 9.0 & Outlook 2003 (Small Cost)
How-to Kit: Get Your Permission Email Past Filters - Marketer's Handbook + Audio CDs (Small Cost)