Whitelisting: A Privilege Worth Earning

Smart e-mail marketers know how important it is to be on ISP whitelists. Messages are more likely to be delivered to the inbox rather than go to the bulk folder or be blocked. You may even learn about problems sooner if an ISP recognizes you as a whitelisted sender. Many provide valuable feedback about your sender reputation that you can use to guide your e-mail program’s development.

Because the trust level must be high (to prevent spammers from making their way onto ISP whitelists) ISPs don’t make getting on a whitelist easy. A lengthy application process is just the beginning. ISPs now take weeks to evaluate messages and how recipients respond to them before they process a whitelist request. By the time it’s over, you’ll feel as if the ISP has scrutinized every dark corner of your e-mail program. (Which it has.)

An ISP has the right to extend or revoke access to its customers’ inboxes according to its own rules. It’s not legally bound to let your messages pass, no matter how worthy you consider them. You either play by the rules, or you don’t play.

Many e-mail service providers (ESPs) apply for whitelising on their clients’ behalf. With strong ISP relations and because ESPs often require many of the same best practices as the ISPs, ESP clients have a greater chance of being accepted onto ISP whitelists. The ISP still controls the application process and decision. When an application is denied, ESPs often have professional service groups that can help their clients understand what changes are necessary before reapplying.

Caveats about whitelisting:

  • Because an ISP accepts you is no excuse for bad behavior. This includes resurrecting old customer files to build your list back up and reinserting files you’d removed because they bounced or were blocked. Such behavior could negatively affect delivery.

  • Whitelisting isn’t a permanent free pass to an ISP’s inboxes. An ISP can revoke whitelist status at any time for any infraction of its rules, and it most likely won’t tell you you were taken off the list. Even after you’re added to the whitelist, you must stay on top of delivery reports to see if trouble crops up.
  • An application doesn’t guarantee acceptance. It used to be you filled out an online form and waited for the ISP to process it. Today, ISPs take their time during an application process; it can take anywhere from a few days to several weeks. During that period, the ISP might monitor your mailings for invalid addresses, spam trap hits, and, most important, consumer complaints.

If you’re considering switching ESPs, first identify any current delivery problems and make sure you don’t take them with you to the new provider. You risk recreating the same problems or worse ones. Be prepared for initial delivery challenges, and expect to have to prove your reputation as a good sender to both your new ESP and the ISPs it’ll whitelist you with.

You must have a good reputation to even be considered for whitelisting. These five elements are the foundation of a good sender reputation:

  • Recipient feedback (spam complaints): How many do your campaigns generate, on average?

  • Traffic patterns: Do you follow a regular mailing schedule or do you batch and blast?
  • Domain/IP longevity: A new trend among some ISPs is to throttle back delivery on newer IP addresses or domains due to the concern they were created to spam.
  • Unsubscribe behavior: How long does it take you to remove an address?
  • Spam trap hits/blocklists: Do your mailings show up at the e-mail addresses ISPs and anti-spam groups maintain to catch spam?

Not Whitelisted? It’s Not Fatal

It’s better to be whitelisted than not, but if you’re turned down or removed, it’s not the end of the world. Usually, it’s because your reputation has taken a few hits, likely from excessive complaints. Make a few changes to bring complaint volumes down and clean up your reputation, then try again.

One advantage of being whitelisted is inclusion in the feedback loop (FBL), an e-mail channel that reports problems, particularly spam complaints. If you don’t currently get this feedback, you may be very alarmed when you suddenly learn why the ISPs won’t accept you on their whitelists. Some ISPs still offer FBLs to senders who aren’t on the whitelist or whose applications were denied.

If you fail the whitelist application, be sure to use the FBL data to remove complainers and clean up your list and reputation before you try again. Problems that caused you to fail your application highlight the changes you should make to improve your reputation.

If you don’t qualify for whitelisting, it doesn’t mean the ISP will automatically block your messages. It will, however, scrutinize them more closely, apply more filters, and limit the number of messages it will allow through its servers at one time. It could also mean your messages are delivered to recipients’ bulk folders more often if they haven’t already added you to their personal whitelist or contact list.

If you’re faced with these challenges, most ISPs will allow you to participate in their FBL programs so you can work toward improving your reputation. This is where it pays to have an ESP with demonstrated close relations with the major ISPs to help guide you through the changes required to get whitelisted.

Until next time, keep on deliverin’!

Meet Stefan at the ClickZ Specifics: E-mail Marketing seminar on May 14 in San Francisco.

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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