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Email marketing: 3 tips for steering clear of blacklists

It's every email marketer’s worst nightmare: Getting branded a spammer and put on any one of hundreds of vigilante email blacklists that Internet service providers use to automatically block messages to subscriber inboxes. When that happens, even the best-intentioned email marketing campaigns are doomed.

The problem could plague any  company, big or small. ISPs filter up to 80 percent of incoming emails, which can result in as much as 60 percent of a sender’s email being undeliverable. They do this partly with the help of blacklists generated and maintained by Spamhaus, one of the most widely referenced blocking services.

The price of getting blacklisted

The stakes are high — and getting higher. In the past, companies at high risk of getting blacklisted were those that bought or leased massive lists of random email addresses either via append or list rental. Blacklisting services like Spamhaus (a nonprofit) or SpamCop (a division of Cisco Systems) have long set "pristine" traps, which are essentially fabricated email addresses that have never been used to sign up for any email.

If a brand was caught sending emails to one of these pristine traps that had never signed up for email, the black list maintainer would know the marketer was acquiring emails without permission and would black list the sending IP. Any ISPs referencing that black list would then block emails coming from that IP address.

Today, however, we're seeing companies land on a blacklist for seemingly minor infractions — like delivering mail to an address that is wrong because of a typo or a missing underscore, both of which can be either the fault of the customer or a sales clerk at checkout.

This new standard  has significantly increased the odds of any company getting blacklisted. A review of blocked corporate email accounts on the most widely-used blacklists shows that, in the second quarter this year, 10 percent of Fortune 500 companies landed on a blacklist (also known as a block list). The punishment is swift and costly. Once a consumer marketer's IP address is added to a block list, up to 80 percent of its email list can then be blocked due to the size and number of ISP’s referencing that black list.

One major apparel retailer was added to a blacklist late last year and saw its entire holiday shopping campaign blocked for the month of December. Getting off a blacklist is no easy feat either, requiring direct negotiations between the marketer and the blacklist service, not to mention significant database clean-up using source tracking, sending re-confirmation campaigns, implementing new business rules for email address collection and proper permission capture. In the end, one mistake can cost a marketer millions of dollars in lost revenues.

How to beat the big bad blacklist

Now for some good news: there are some fairly simple steps that marketers can be taking to beat the blacklist. While these measures are known to most marketers, too few of them are actually implementing them.

1. Audit email lists for inactive subscribers

Spamhaus and its peers typically don’t open or click emails being sent to their spam traps, so one way to avoid landing on a blacklist is to consistently audit email lists for long term inactive subscribers. In light of the increased focus on recipient open and click activity at the ISPs, this strategy can also help mitigate junk folder placement. Consider limiting the amount of time new registrants that have not yet opened or clicked your emails are allowed to stay in your database. As it’s possible that misspelled addresses and other innocuous mistakes are coming into your program and are actually traps. Allowing these to accumulate and not removing them after a short time can increase chances of a black listing.

2. Inventory and rank top email acquisition channels 

Monitor the different methods used to collect email addresses (such point of sale or online registration) and estimate the percentage of total email addresses collected at each one respectively. Then use this list to find out which channels contain the most inaccurate email addresses.  Then decide on the business implications to implementing a confirmation process. This way, companies can pinpoint their vulnerabilities and develop a proactive approach to minimizing inaccurate email collection and ensure permission.

3. Ask customers for email confirmation 

The only definitive way to uncover inaccurate addresses or avoid inadvertently opting-in the wrong email addresses is to require a customer to confirm the email address via email. This can be done by sending a confirmation link to the email address. To encourage customers to complete the subscription process, companies should use clever subject lines and offer an incentive for them to click and follow through on their registration. An effective subject line might read “One more click! Please confirm and receive your special offer!”

Operationally, taking these steps takes effort and while it may seem that the short term loss is steep in losing net new subscribers, the risk mitigation is well worth the revenue savings in the long term.

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