What Whitelisting’s Evolution Means for Marketers

Many e-mail marketers are, quite understandably, interested in whitelisting. Requests for proposals almost invariably insist on whitelisting at all the major providers. Marketers want to ensure that their e-mail is successfully delivered. To that end, they want to be whitelisted everywhere they can be.

Unfortunately, there’s a lot of confusion and misunderstanding of what whitelisting means, its effect, and how it’s done. As with many things in e-mail, the situation continues to evolve. Whitelisting is no exception.

The name whitelist comes from a simpler time when spam filtering was more black and white, and blocking was typically done manually on a site-by-site basis or through the use of DNS blacklists. A blacklist was a list of senders (network or e-mail addresses) that were barred from delivery.

A whitelist was the opposite — a list of senders that were granted a free pass. In general, whitelists weren’t as heavily utilized as the blacklists. They were only there to deal with exceptions and filtering failures, including the false positives of the DNS blacklists.

In the late ’90s, some ISPs started to utilize whitelisting for marketing e-mail. The large volume and marketing terminology of e-mail marketers were often caught by the relatively unsophisticated spam filtering systems of the day.

These whitelists were often kept secret for fear of spammers finding out about them. The first one we ever joined felt like joining “Fight Club.” We had to sign and fax an agreement that stated we could never mention being on the whitelist. These lists were very much under the radar, often run by individuals with little or no official support.

Today, whitelists are significantly more sophisticated and part of an ISP’s filtering infrastructure. They’re still lists of network or e-mail addresses, typically IP addresses or e-mail domains and some still require signed agreements. Almost without exception, though, they’re no longer a free pass for delivery. List members are typically given preferential treatment, though how preferential varies from ISP to ISP.

The AOL whitelist, for example, is in effect a bulk sender’s list. Membership provides absolutely no guarantee of delivery. Fail to meet AOL’s stated hygiene requirements and your e-mail will be just as blocked as if you weren’t on the whitelist.

Understand: not all ISPs operate whitelists. Of those that do, membership may have conditions. Some of the largest providers don’t run whitelists for senders. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve been asked if we’re whitelisted at Hotmail. I even came across an ESP claiming to be whitelisted at Hotmail, yet Hotmail and Gmail are two major providers that offer no whitelist. Some others, including Yahoo, view whitelisting as a last resort, Band-Aid solution, for filtering problems rather than a standard procedure for high volume senders.

Whitelisting is often reactive rather than proactive. As I’ve mentioned before, it’s increasingly common for ISPs to require a new IP address or sending domain to build a mailing history (read: reputation) before they’ll consider whitelisting. If you think this sounds a lot like a Catch-22 situation, you’re right. This leads to the need for gradual volume ramp-up on new infrastructure.

In short, whitelisting is a useful and important tool, it may even be a necessity in some cases. However, it’s not a substitute for good list hygiene and adherence to best practices and standards. It’s not a panacea. Being whitelisted will not make your old and tired list suddenly perform well.

Until next time,

Derek

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