Get Over Getting Blocked

When I talk to clients who have delivery challenges, I always have to bring up anti-spam blocklists: what they are and why they cause so many problems, even for the best e-mail marketers.

Most marketers don’t understand what a blocklist is, how they ended up on it, and, most important, how to get off it. They view the group running the list as the enemy. Tempting as that impression might be, it’s simply wrong.

In this column, I’ll explain how to address an issue, resolve it, and restore both your sender reputation and delivery rates.

What’s a Blocklist, and Who’s Behind It?

A blocklist is a list of IP addresses or domains identified as spam sources. The cause of the listing is generally e-mail sent to a spamtrap or honeypot (define) address. These traps are e-mail addresses used for no purpose other than to catch spam. They’re never used to sign up for e-mail programs. They’re often publicly posted addresses that have been harvested, or, in some cases, they’re old, expired e-mail addresses that have been closed and hard-bouncing e-mail for years that are now reactivated. If they suddenly start receiving e-mail, it’s most likely spam.

This is why regular list maintenance and hygiene are so important. I’m always dismayed when I work with clients whose lists include e-mail domains that have been shut down for years.

These lists are run by individuals who feel strongly about protecting the Internet from true spam. The most reputable ones don’t want to falsely identify legitimate marketers as spammers or to sully a good marketer’s reputation. They go to great lengths to ensure they list actual sources of true spam, not just consumer or feedback-loop complaints about junk or unwanted e-mail.

E-mail marketers often swap blocklist horror stories. The reality is if you ask for proof, the blocklist will provide it, after removing the spamtrap address to avoid detection. In most cases, you can get delisted when you stop the flow of e-mail to the trap address.

Many companies and ISPs use these lists to keep spam from flowing into recipients’ inboxes. Third-party reputation and accreditation services also use these lists to gauge a sender’s reputation.

How Do I Know If I’m on a Blocklist?

The fastest way is to use a blocklist checker that queries multiple lists at once. Many e-mail service providers (ESPs) give their clients tools, sometimes through partnerships with reputation companies, to check if they’re currently listed. These include EmailAdvisor’s Blacklist Monitor, Return Path’s Sender Score, and Habeas’ RepCheck.

These two free sources offer domain or IP look-up services: SURBL and DNSstuff.

If you find your sending IPs or domains listed, you should also find a link to the blocklist, where you can look for evidence for the listing. Monitoring your bounce logs can also turn up block messages, which often provide the blocklist name and URL.

I’m Listed! Now What?

First, don’t panic. If you’ve been sending commercial e-mail for awhile, you’ll probably show up on at least one blocklist. It might be heart-stopping for you, but in truth many blocklists are small projects not consulted by major ISPs or corporations. However, act immediately if you are listed by any of these major blocklists:

Once you’ve identified the blocklist causing your delivery problems, visit the Web site and look for the evidence page. Most blocklists tell you exactly how to contact them and request removal. You must be able to demonstrate that you don’t spam.

Be polite! Blocklists aren’t the receivers. They simply report sources of spam and let receivers decide whether to receive or block your e-mail. Attempts to strong-arm a site into removing your listing through lawsuits or malicious behavior is legally and ethically questionable. You’ll create more problems than you’ll solve.

Be candid and honest with the blocklist. Provide contact details so it can keep communications open. Let it know you take reports of abuse seriously and truly want to correct the problems. Often, you’ll learn a lot from this experience about how you acquire e-mail addresses. The blocklist’s recommendations will help improve your list quality.

But there’s still work to be done. The blocklist will usually ask you to stop sending e-mail to the spamtrap address. It won’t identify which address it is, however.

It sounds like a Catch-22, but it means you need to determine if you sent directly to the trap, or if the address came from an affiliate or partner. If it came from an affiliate, you must terminate the relationship and notify the blocklist you’ve done so.

If you sent the e-mail, you may have acquired the address from a lead-acquisition partner or had one on your list for a long time thanks to poor list maintenance. Using double opt-in helps to prevent this. If you don’t use it, you’ll need to identify which list it came from, and either discard it or reconfirm the list to purge the spamtrap.

Segment your list, beginning with your least-active recipients. Spamtraps don’t click through on e-mail. Good list hygiene recommends periodic reconfirmation to purge inactive addresses anyway.

Remember, the blocklist only wants you to stop sending e-mail to the spamtrap. This should be your goal. Once achieved, your delivery rates will improve.

Next, I’ll focus on another type of block that marketers face: ISP blocklists based on complaints from their subscribers.

Until then, keep on deliverin’!

Want more e-mail marketing information? ClickZ E-Mail Reference is an archive of all our e-mail columns, organized by topic.

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