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Sep 24, 2003
How To

Ouch -- AOL 9.0 is bad news for emailers. Here are some solutions …

SUMMARY: AOL's version 9.0 launched recently, and our estimates are that 22 million email accounts at minimum will be using 9.0 by the end of the year. Unfortunately this is *not* good news for permission emailers. Our solutions article explains:

--New shared filters
--New personal filters
--What you need to know about "buddy lists"
--Disabled HTML and hotlinks
Reported by Lynda Partner

AOL launched version 9.0 to its current members on August 19th and started heavy promotions (including a million dollar sweeps) last Wednesday.

An AOL spokesperson told us they expect 30-50% of their current membership to upgrade between now and the end of 2003. Plus all new members (including new PC buyers who get AOL bundled with their purchase) will get 9.0 automatically as of Oct 15th.

So, you can expect that very soon, at minimum 12 million accounts with an unknown higher number of email addresses (accounts may have up to five email inboxes each) will be viewing your email with version 9.0.

This is *not* good news for permission emailers. Here's why:

a. New shared filters
b. New personal filters
c. What you need to know about "buddy lists"
d. Disabled HTML and hotlinks

-> a. New shared filters

AOL says unsolicited email is their members' number one
complaint. So now they've included an industry-strength shared filter in 9.0 users' mailboxes.

Unfortunately, AOL is using some worst practices in identifying what mail is "unsolicited." The shared filter, as they described it to us, relies heavily on stopping mail based on the words in the subject line and message.

Which is exactly how the false positive problem happens. Unless you know the context a word's being used in, you will surely stop a lot of innocent messages just because they happen to contain words that junk mailers also use. Can anyone say "Harvard admissions letter"?

Yes, 9.0 users can turn off the default - but let's face it, it's unlikely that many will.

Your defense: Get a 9.0 account, and if you consistently find your mail relegated to the junk folder, consider sending AOL names on your list a "lite" version of your messages with a link to read full-version elsewhere.

It used to be you had to send HTML-lite, now you may have to send words-lite.

-> b. New personal filters

When a 9.0 member uses their "Report as Spam" button, their personal filter will diagnose the message and "learn" what the member considers junk mail. These are called training events, and after 20-30 training events, the member's personal spam filter will be active.

Which sounds pretty cool until you consider how many mistakes personalization technology of this sort is still capable of, and the fact that some AOL members share their inboxes with other family members. (Yes, we know they don't have to, but they still do it.)

The good news is, if the member sees their own filter aking a mistake, they can correct it by flagging the message that was mistakenly filtered out.

The bad news is practically no one will ever catch filter
mistakes because the 9.0 default display doesn't show you a filtered mail folder, nor does it let you know in any way when stuff's been filtered. The only mail folder that's visible is "People I know."

Yes, people can change their default settings to show junk mail folders, but what's the chance of that happening on a mass scale?

Also, if members go on the Internet to to view mail (instead of the main AOL), they won't be able to ever see junk folders at all. Solution? See below…

-> c. What you need to know about "buddy lists"

Your solution: If a 9.0 user places you on their own "Person I know" buddy list, all mail you send will pass through all filters (including shared and personal) to reach them. So, your goal is to get folks to do that.

However, the buddy list remembers who you are by saving your "from" email address. (Note: that's not your "from" name, but the @ email address attached to the name.)

Many broadcast email systems change the "from" email address every time they send out a new message from you. So, your hard work to get on the buddy list is totally wasted. Check with your software vendor or service provider to make sure this is not a problem for you.

(We foresee a plethora of upgrades to deal with this soon.)

-> d. Disabled HTML and hotlinks

Oh dear. If your mail gets past filters but you're not on a 9.0 user's Person I Know buddy list, their default setting will blank out all your HTML images.

So instead of seeing your lovely logo or other graphics, users will just see blank space.

In addition, their default setting will display but disable all the hotlinks in your message. So AOL users can see the URL; but if they click, they go nowhere.

Solution: Watch your AOL-member response rates ultra-carefully for the next six months and consider sending text-only email to AOL users again if there's a drop. Yes, welcome to the year 1998.

Also, *always* include the full text of a hotlink in your messages. Don't assume hotlinks that are not spelled out work. If you say "Click here" you better darn well have something that says, "http://…" next to it.

This is critical for success in Hotmail (which kills hotlinks after a message has been open for four minutes) and Yahoo (which can redirect links through a confusing system) anyway. So consider spelling out links a best practice for everything you send out from now on.
See Also:

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