In the realm of email marketing, ensuring the authenticity of your emails is paramount. There are three core methods of email authentication: SPF, DKIM, and DMARC. These foundational methods can be built upon with newer, more nuanced technologies. Without employing DKIM and SPF, you cannot add the benefits of DMARC. This tiered and layered approach multiplies the security of your domains and, consequently, your brand.

1. SPF (Sender Policy Framework)

SPF is a basic authentication technology that is simpler to configure than several other steps you can take to authenticate your email messages. Plus, you’ll need a properly configured SPF record to allow the implementation of other, more complex technologies.

At its most basic level, SPF is used to prohibit email forgery. It involves code called an SPF record, which is placed in the sender’s Domain Name Server (DNS). Your DNS record is public, but only relevant to players in the email space. The record allows mail servers receiving the mail to verify the content is truly from the sender.

If the server does not confirm the records match or detect there was manipulation in transmission, the server can reject the message. However, SPF is a relatively simple trust indicator and works better in tandem with other, more secure protocols. It’s a can’t-skip step in building an effective email program.

2. DKIM (DomainKeys Identified Mail)

While SPF is a straightforward step toward security, DKIM is just as crucial but significantly more complex. DKIM requires a series of setup steps and, later, several checks during message transmission.

A major differentiator from SPF, DKIM uses encryption. This involves building encryption tokens for both the sent email and the receiving server. First, as a sender, you’ll need to identify which components of your emails you want to use for verification. This could be the entire message or just an element of the header. Once you determine this, you can encrypt those portions. This is what will be checked to ensure there was nothing manipulated in transmission from sender to receiver.

DKIM uses several “keys.” These keys include a pair of keys for encryption itself, a public key living on your DNS, and a private key residing on your mail servers.

The receiver sees the DKIM signature, then does a DNS lookup to find the public key. It then decrypts the key and creates its own hash of the information it sees. Finally, as the message arrives at the MBP, it will verify both keys match. If it does, nothing was changed in transmission as determined by the keypair match. At this point, the email message is considered valid and is an additional data point for MBPs to consider when choosing to deliver.

3. DMARC (Domain-based Message Authentication, Reporting & Conformance)

DMARC is the finishing touch on a well-authenticated email program. This validation system detects and prevents domain spoofing and phishing. Because DMARC leverages both SPF and DKIM, it directs MBPs what exactly to do when both authentication steps fail.

  • p=none: Take no action at all.
  • p=quarantine: Filter messages into a quarantine folder and do not deliver to the inbox.
  • p=reject: Do not accept the mail to any box.

Beyond setting up the standard for full protection, it’s imperative to analyze and understand the DMARC reports generated at each policy level. Additionally, you’ll need to have an implemented DMARC policy to qualify to use BIMI, a new authentication standard being adopted by some of the largest mailbox providers.

In conclusion, SPF, DKIM, and DMARC are the three pillars of email authentication. They provide a layered approach to security, making it more difficult for malicious actors to spoof or hijack your brand’s identity. By implementing these methods, you can ensure the authenticity of your emails, protect your brand, and provide a safer experience for your recipients.

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