September 13, 2018

The Secret Lives of Postmasters: What do Postmasters see daily?


Some common questions Postmasters field from senders are, “What happens to all the Postmaster tickets we submit? Does anyone look at them? What’s even going on there?”

Before coming to 250ok, I worked as an AOL Postmaster. So in short, I know some stuff, and I’m happy to share what I can. So, we could go straight to the short answer, but… what’s the fun in that? Instead, let’s go on a journey together. Let’s start by getting a better understanding of what’s going on at the Postmaster.

Even though underlying anti-abuse systems are changing daily, many Postmaster sites have…well…not changed very much at all. So what keeps them so busy, causing notoriously long response times?

Spammers. The highest ticket-driver at an ISP is [un]surprisingly spammers themselves. Spammers try to overwhelm the Postmaster website with an avalanche of tickets. If that doesn’t work, they’ll even try to hack them. Postmaster pages are in the line of fire from spammers more than any other web form, as they would like to have the anti-spam folks extinguish smaller fires rather than pursue the bigger ones.

Rookies. The runners-up for highest volume are improperly warmed (i.e., not warmed at all) IP addresses. Even though warm-up is a top suggestion in quite a few deliverability guides, Postmasters quite often need to reiterate its importance to rookie senders. Few legitimate email service providers (ESPs) are guilty of this, as they would not have enrolled for Feedback Loop (FBL) or Whitelist before reaching out for help.

Experts. There are quite a few tickets pretty much asking ISPs to get their act together. Sure, these submitters are always sending CAN-SPAM compliant mail and following all the best practices listed on Postmaster sites…But lo and behold, they would have bad list acquisition practices, zero engagement overview, and poorly designed emails (i.e., spammy-looking mail).

Invalid Tickets. The Postmaster forms don’t mess around when it comes to information collection. They’re nearly obtrusive in getting as much information available on a ticket. You would be surprised to see how many tickets have either incorrect domain/IP information or not enough information. Postmasters spend time troubleshooting an issue only to realize they are down a rabbit hole. Most of the times, a message ID along with date/time stamp would suffice.

Top Two Questions

Now that you have a basic idea of what Postmasters see on any given day, let’s get back to some of the other questions you might have. It is no surprise genuine issues get lost in the deluge of tickets. Today’s filters are in constant flux with anti-abuse systems moving from traditional filters to more complex algorithms based on user engagement. It’s understandable email teams would love more feedback, but there is too much noise for Postmasters to relay the right information. And don’t forget, a substantial amount of time is spent on housekeeping activities like GDPR, migrations, et al.

Another interesting pattern is most of the tickets warrant similar suggestions. A majority of issues can be resolved by the sender if they follow deliverability best practices. Here are the top two tickets and their corresponding, best-practice-related answers:

  1. Why am I getting throttled? With most of the anti-spam systems moving from hard blocks to IP and domain reputation, temporary failing or throttling is the “new hard block.” Currently, there is a thin line between 4xx and 5xx errors. At a high level, an IP/domain might be throttled if the receiving mail system is overloaded and needs some air to breathe, or if the sending IP/domain has a poor reputation and is sending in high volume. The most ideal solution for this is to back off and let the anti-spam system re-evaluate your reputation. The most common folly is a spike of two- or three-times volume within the first few weeks of mailing, which comes back to a point we made earlier: Do not neglect to do a warm-up. You’ll see wonders in your mail delivery if you space out your mailing, look at engagement data and adjust appropriately, and do proper warm-up procedures.
  2. Why am I landing in junk? Most of the decision-making at filters are based on user feedback, so it’s surprising senders do not spend enough time to gain visibility into their user engagement. Senders are still chasing the primary tab, while algorithms have moved on to provide a personalized experience for users. There are great tools like 250ok Inbox, which provides excellent visibility into your mail placement which can then be leveraged to ensure a great delivery experience.

Anyway. The answer to the initial question is Postmasters roll up their sleeves and wade through the muck of tickets, getting to each one of them, even if it has to be at a slower pace. Tickets are usually prioritized and sorted before being assigned, and new rule or algorithm changes would result in unusual spikes in tickets. Not all tickets warrant a response and, most of the time, a rule update would result in resolving the underlying issue. Most of the resolution steps involve extensive deep-dives into SMTP logs, which makes the process of troubleshooting that much slower. On the other side, senders spend very little time looking at logs to provide the right information to Postmasters.

If your ticket is not answered, there is a high possibility it was answered previously in an earlier ticket from you or your organization.

We are at an interesting phase of change for anti-abuse systems and it is inevitable the work of Postmasters would change too. Most of the tickets would be handled by automated systems and there would be very few escalation paths for resolution. Whether or not that is ideal is highly debatable, but the onus on mail delivery always remains with the sender. Intelligent tools built around deliverability are our best bet in reaching the elusive inbox.

If you do still feel your ticket was not answered, please feel free to read this again. Just kidding. We’ll look at some best practices for how to feel more fulfilled by your interactions with Postmaster tools in an upcoming blog, so check back soon.

Author: Sridhar Chandran

Sridhar (Sri) is a self-confessed #spambuster, having spent over a decade at AOL part of the Postmaster team. He is a Solutions Architect at 250ok trying to bridge the gap between senders and receivers by building the next generation suite of products.

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