How To Avoid Getting E-mail Blocked as Spam, and What to do if it Happens

Jun 01, 2009 9:30 PM  By

Think complying with the U.S. Can Spam Act is enough to guarantee e-mail delivery? Think again.

Complying with Can Spam isn’t close to enough to get inbox providers to deliver e-mail to its intended recipients. What is more, the providers are not legally bound to deliver anyone’s e-mail. They own the networks. They make the rules.

Want proof? Last year, a judge in Illinois found that Comcast was not liable for mistakenly blocking even permission-based e-mail when it’s part of a good-faith effort to protect its subscribers from spam. The decision nullified a lawsuit brought by e-mail firm e360 Insight against the cable broadband provider, and solidified Internet service providers’ position in the driver’s seat of the relationship between bulk e-mailers and inbox providers.

Bottom line: Fair or unfair, inbox providers have every right to block messages from senders they determine are blasting unwanted messages into their systems.

Of course, e-mail inbox providers, such as Yahoo, Google and Microsoft, have a strong incentive to deliver wanted mail to their inbox holders. If they mistakenly block too much wanted mail — or generate too many false positives — their users will find another provider.

But if they let in too much spam, people will leave. And face it, not too many people are going to get all that worked up over missing commercial e-mail. Moreover, processing garbage costs inbox providers money. As a result, many entirely reasonable people argue that spamming is stealing.

What does this mean to multichannel merchants? It is incumbent upon them to maintain permission-based, clean e-mail lists. Unfortunately, the current state of retail e-mail — permission-wise, at least — is not good.

According to a recent report by e-mail deliverability firm Return Path, almost a third of 45 household-name retailers signed up first-time buyers for their e-mail marketing programs without asking permission.

Yes, what they’re doing is perfectly legal, but unacceptable by ISP standards. One of the top gauges many of the top inbox providers use to determine whether to treat incoming e-mail as spam or not is the percentage of “report spam” complaints the sender generates. If a mailer gets too many complaints — more than 0.5%, conventional wisdom has it — delivery troubles will ensue.

And when merchants’ messages get blocked, not only are merchants barred from communicating with people who don’t want to hear from them, they are also barred from reaching their best, most loyal customers’ inboxes. Sending non-permission-based e-mail is simply not worth the risk.

So the first order of business in avoiding getting blocked is to send e-mail only to people who have given permission to receive it.

Clean up your file

Another important factor in getting e-mail delivered is maintaining a clean list. Though most direct marketers are loath to do it, it is imperative that they clean non-responsive names from their files.

Why? Another important gauge inbox providers use when determining whether or not to treat incoming e-mail as spam is the number of spam traps a mailer hits.

There are two types of spam traps: honey-pot addresses (which have never been opted into anything and are set up specifically to catch spammers), and abandoned addresses, which inbox providers use to identify mailers who aren’t practicing good hygiene. Abandoned addresses mean the mailer isn’t cleaning old names from its house file.

Hitting honey-pot addresses means the marketer is harvesting addresses off the Internet or buying from a source that is doing so. They are the worst spam traps a marketer can hit.

Another key metric inbox providers use is how many nonexistent addresses, or “unknown users,” a mailer attempts to reach. Mailers with high unknown-user rates also risk getting blocked.

The good news is that avoiding getting e-mail blocked is completely in the mailer’s hands. It’s all about hygiene.

“If you’re meticulous about where you get your names, meticulous about keeping them in good shape, and if you’re meticulous about saying the right things to the right segments of your list, you’re never going to have an issue with blocking or blacklisting,” says Rick Buck, director of privacy and ISP relations for e-mail service provider eDialog.

Mail blocks happen at the ISP level. ISPs will block a mailer that they alone have determined is spamming. Or they will block a mailer because its servers have been placed on a blacklist they use. Blacklists are lists maintained by independent third parties of IP addresses they deem to be those of spammers. Many inbox providers check their incoming mail against one or more blacklists to help determine if it’s spam or not.

The most famous blacklist (or blocklist) maintainer is Spamhaus. It is estimated that a mailer listed by Spamhaus will see as much as 60% of its outbound mail blocked from reaching recipients. And so far, all attempts to sue Spamhaus have failed.

Spamhaus catches spammers solely by using honey-pot addresses. Spamhaus has been known to force mailers to re-opt-in their lists by using the so-called double opt-in, or confirmed opt-in, method where by recipients must respond to a confirmation e-mail to be added to the mailer’s file.

To avoid dealing with Spamhaus and other blacklist providers, take steps to avoid polluting your house files with bad names. For example, mailers who get names from third parties should not add those names to their files until they’re sure they’ve been obtained legitimately, says Buck. Instead, he says, mail them in small quantities separately on days when a lot of other mail regularly goes out to avoid raising red flags with the receiving ISPs.

“If you’re getting names from a new source, you want to be careful about how you introduce those new names into your database,” says Buck. “You should mail them in small quantities at a slow speed on a day when you mail lots of other things.”

For instance, say you’re a mailer with a good reputation who mails on Mondays. You send out your mail on Monday morning as usual. Then right after that mailing, test 5,000 of the 500,000 names you just obtained.

Next Page: Unblock and tackle

Previous Page: Clean up your file

“The ISP doesn’t know you mailed five different campaigns today,” Buck notes. “The ISP knows you mailed 1 million pieces today.”

Bottom line: To an ISP, aberrant e-mailing behavior is suspicious behavior. Avoid it.

“If you normally mail 500,000 pieces of mail a day, and tomorrow you mail 1.5 million, that’s going to raise all kinds of flags,” says Buck.

He adds that failing to introduce new e-mail addresses slowly and safely into the house file is the No. 1 deliverability mistake mailers make.

According to Buck, when mailers add new e-mail addresses, it’s important for them to keep hard-bounce rates — one cause of which is a mailer attempting to reach non-existent addresses — below 10%, and the spam-complaint rate below 0.5% throughout the process.

“So in reverse engineering that, the speed at which you introduce new names will differ for every mailer,” says Buck. An ISP blocking the mailer as a spammer will also result in hard bounces.

Unblock and tackle

What to do if you get blocked? First, you have to find out if you’ve been blocked by a particular inbox provider or if you’ve been blocked because you earned a listing from a blacklist maintainer such as Spamhaus.

Before contacting an ISP’s abuse desk or a blacklist maintainer to try to get a block lifted, make sure you’ve identified the problem and have an explanation as to how you will remedy it.

Chris Thompson, a Spamhaus volunteer, advises marketers who find themselves blocked to figure out what caused the problem, be prepared to explain what has been done to fix it — for example, you fired or educated an employee or partner at fault. Then follow established channels of communication set up by the blacklister or ISP.

“In general, for any delivery problems, my advice to the sender is to take things step by step and try to go through whatever channels are established to deal with the problem,” he says.