The Age of Seed-Based Inbox Monitoring is Drawing to an End

Article by John Landsman CATEGORIES: Uncategorized TAGS: ,

More and more clients and prospects come to us questioning the validity of the seed-based monitoring they are paying for. These questions are driven by the fact that open rates are dropping, especially for Gmail accounts, and sales/conversions are markedly affected.  Meanwhile, seed-based monitoring services are reporting that it’s all sunshine and butterflies when it comes to delivering messages to the inbox.

Seeds don’t send, open, click, complain or unsubscribe

We have long known that the largest ISP’s (Gmail, Yahoo, Hotmail and AOL) have been moving away from a “one size fits all” type of spam filtering to a much more personalized system. This means that these ISP’s consider up to hundreds of different attributes in their clients’ behavior, to determine if certain senders should be allowed to deliver to the inbox of a particular subscriber. This decision-making does take into account basic sender setup and infrastructure from a reputation and authentication perspective, but weights that in relation to the individual’s propensity to engage or not with certain types of emails through actions such as spam button hits, opens, deleting without opening, moving to spam folder, filtering or forwarding.

A Shift to the Big 4 Inbox Providers

A large portion of smaller ISP’s are still using global reputation filters, the one-size-fits-all variant. What has changed is that consumers are moving their accounts from those ISP’s to the “Big 4,” because they get better features and less spam than they get through their cable company or other secondary ISP’s. And it’s less likely that important emails are mistakenly sent to the spam folder. Currently, close to 70% of all emails sent to consumers are going to the “Big 4”. The other 150-200 or so Inbox Providers around the globe share the remaining 30% of commercial traffic to consumers. This is a big and important change. It means that 70% of commercial email to consumers are going to Inbox Providers where seed based monitoring is not reliable and often directly misleading. Therefore, the seed-based inbox monitoring solutions that most people are paying for are only correctly measuring the success of about a 30% of your campaigns

An Expected Shift, Now Moving Faster Than Ever

As mentioned, we have seen this change coming for a while. George Bilbrey, President of Return Path, noted in his article, “Inbox Placement Monitoring: Past, Present, Future,” published by MediaPost’s Email Insider (March 2012), that Return Path was experiencing statistically significant variations between seed performance and performance of emails into consumer accounts. Since then, and particularly in the last 6-8 months, this progression has seriously worsened.

The Only Real Alternative is Monitoring Consumer Behavior

With our panel of over 2,000,000 consumers, we achieve a fully accurate view of inbox placement that seed-based inbox monitoring cannot generate.  This enhanced visibility also allows us to detect quickly very drastic sender behavior filters for certain industries or behavior clusters. Last year, for example, gifts and flower sales sites saw drastic spam filtering being used across their whole industry after aggressive mailing from most of them before Valentine’s Day. Those senders who were able to see what was going on cut down mailings to their least engaged subscribers and were successfully getting delivered through Mother’s Day, the industry’s most important selling period.  Those who relied on their seed-based monitoring are likely to have lost significant revenue, and may not have known at all what had happened.


Seed-based monitoring has two major flaws corrected by consumer monitoring panels.

  1. Seeds cannot represent human behavior and therefore cannot represent how deliverability filters interpret personal preferences.
  2. Seeds have no statistical significance. In most cases, no more than 15 seeds are delivered to each of the “Big 4” ISP’s, and 5-10 to each of the largest secondary ISP’s with 1-3 seeds to each of the tertiary inbox providers


Thus, with no statistical significance and no ability to reasonably reflect consumer behavior, seeds may not only be inadequate to detect and explain deliverability issues, they can also be directly misleading, risking serious revenue losses while leading email marketers to believe that everything is working correctly when it is not.