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Bringing order to e-mail marketing

By David Kirkpatrick

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(FORTUNE.COM) -- I generally dislike Clear Channel for their too-tight control of live entertainment, but I nonetheless like to get e-mails from the company because they tell me about concerts I may want to attend.

Lately, though, Yahoo Mail has begun putting Clear Channel's messages in my "bulk" mail box, even though I have been receiving them for years. For some reason, Yahoo incorrectly thinks they're spam.

Meanwhile, my inbox continues to be cluttered by messages like the one I got yesterday entitled "Fw: I'll take a minute to check it out. see more get info nuqrwkyqkxis." I would have loved that one to go right to trash. (It promoted "work from home" opportunities.) And in my supposedly well-monitored work e-mail, I received a compelling communication with the subject line "Nasty girls loving kinky action!"

E-mail is getting out of control, despite antispam legislation that went into effect January 1 and the growing use of antispam software. Yet e-mail is not something that we can afford to sacrifice. We've come to rely on it for too much.

Which brings me to Return Path, a unique company that aims to bring order to the chaotic world of e-mail. It has several businesses, all devoted to helping the good guys in marketing and helping consumers get the messages they want.

Return Path's business is focused on e-mail marketing that is sent with the permission --and, ideally, enthusiasm -- of the recipient. Says CEO Matt Blumberg: "It's a very tough time to be a marketer. They are used to being in control, but between legislation and spam filters they're losing control."

Blumberg doesn't hold out the promise that those marketers will ever regain control, but he sees that as no tragedy. "The opportunity for marketers who really embrace permission are tremendous," he says. "The people who will win are the ones doing communications that are relevant and anticipated."

Return Path offers what it calls "assurance services" that help marketers like eBay, Orbitz, IBM and American Express figure out what's happening with their messages.

If Clear Channel were a Return Path client, they would get a report indicating that messages to Yahoo users are going into the "bulk" folder. They would also get suggestions for how to reconfigure the e-mails so they end up where they belong.

Messages get pegged as spam for many reasons. Perhaps the word "free" is too prominent in the header. Perhaps the mailer sent too much mail in one session to the receiving ISP, making it suspicious. The best e-mail lists encounter 5 percent or so of these so-called "false positives," says Blumberg. The problem has reached as high as 46 percent of messages sent for some clients.

In order to monitor the delivery of mail, Return Path maintains hundreds of e-mail addresses with 20 ISPs. It even maintains cable modem accounts with different cable companies in various regions. It asks clients to include these addresses in their commercial mailings, and then reports back on where those messages go. Return Path also monitors blacklists maintained by ISPs and spam-filter companies to insure its customers are not improperly considered to be spammers.

Without such services, says Blumberg, "all you know as a mailer is who clicked on an e-mail and what bounced back to you." Privately held Return Path says it is the only company that offers such services.

Return Path has another, more visible business, also unique -- an e-mail address -- changing and forwarding service. So far 15 million people have used it to help change their e-mail address. The company will forward your e-mail to a new account free for a week, or up to a year if you pay $50.

While this service has genuine utility to consumers, it's also the platform on which Return Path has built a big part of its business -- verifying e-mail addresses for marketers. Any commercial e-mail list contains lots of useless, old, addresses.

Return Path charges clients to match their addresses against the company's database. If it finds that the e-mailer's list includes addresses that have been changed, it sends the hoped-for recipient a message, asking for permission to give this marketer their correct new address.

Return Path never shares e-mail addresses without permission. It typically corrects 20 to 25 percent of the bad addresses on a mailer's list, it claims.

Return Path only works with marketers who sign warranties that all the addresses they have were properly gathered, meaning recipients affirmatively opted to receive e-mail. "We have both refused clients and fired clients who didn't abide by that," says Blumberg.

We all feel strongly about spam, so it's nice that there's a company like this one whose CEO can say, "Our guiding principles are transparency and trust." Blumberg believes the consumer is more and more in control anyway, so it makes more sense for marketers not to fight it but get with the program.

New York-based Return Path is still small, less than $10 million in revenues, but it expects to break even this year, its fifth in operation.

I suspect this is a business that will thrive. I hope so. Anything that brings order to e-mail is OK in my book. Hey Clear Channel -- hire these guys.

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