Practical Ecommerce

Email Blacklists “Kind Of A Crazy Thing”

Bob Frady is making his mark as vice president of direct marketing for LiveNation.com, a concert ticket mega-site based in Beverly Hills, Calif. With 26 million members, LiveNation’s emailed notices and newsletters bring in millions in ticket, CD and T-shirt sales. It’s Frady’s job to ensure those emails get through.

“Sometimes I feel like the Internet service providers are playing a game of ‘What am I thinking?’ and responding with ‘You should know,’” Frady said. “Whatever the rules are, we’ll follow them. We just want to know what the rules are.”

Frady already follows CAN-SPAM. And he employs double opt-ins for non-customer subscriptions and single opt-ins for customers. He keeps his list fresh with weekly emails to everyone, capping at three emails per week for those members that say they want more. He uses a one-click newsletter opt-out, and runs email tests for word-filter triggers. He centralized all mailings; bounce-backs, unsubscribes and Internet provider feedback loops have only one place to go, where all are tracked and acted upon immediately. He even segments mailings by member interests so “if you bought tickets for Cher,” Frady said, “we’re not going to send you info on tickets to Marilyn Manson.”

Despite these rigorous controls, LiveNation’s IP address and domain name have landed on a number of blacklists over the years, temporarily blocking thousands of its carefully crafted communiqués. It has been blacklisted for including links to other sites — sites that were having trouble with their own email communication — in its newsletter. It’s been blacklisted for switching from in-house mailings to an email service provider, where ISPs didn’t immediately recognize the sender. And it’s been blacklisted for cleaning up its database, a move that freed up 2 million old newsletter sign-ups. “Because we hadn’t communicated with these people in such a long time we had spam complaints that went right to our ISP,” Frady said. “We were in danger of being shut down by our own ISP, and that’s a very bad situation.”

In each case, Frady immediately went to work to get removed. And, like many other web publishers these days, he won.

“Almost every legitimate marketer has gotten onto a blacklist at one point in time,” said Jeanniey Mullen, founder and chair of the Email Executive Council in New York City. “It’s really kind of a crazy thing: You can get put on a blacklist for so many reasons, and some aren’t even within your control.”

When “Permission-based” Turns Into Spam

Of email recipients who click the “Report as Spam” button, 80 percent do so while an email is still in preview mode. That’s according to a 2007 survey of 2,252 Internet users conducted by the Email Sender and Provider Coalition.

To mitigate this, top the page with a line about where recipients signed up or how you got their email address. Also top the page with your unsubscribe link, and add the link into the coding for your email header. The latter step allows sites like Hotmail to automatically generate an “Unsubscribe” button.

“The reality is that the people you lose by putting your unsubscribe link at the top are the people that would have clicked ‘This is spam,’” said Joshua Baer, CTO of Datran Media and founder of CAN-SPAM compliancy tool UnsubCentral. “That would have hurt you a lot more.”

Additionally, nearly half of consumers in DoubleClick’s most recent Consumer Email Study indicate they’ll report a permission-based email as spam if it’s 1) sent more often then they opted in for, 2) off-topic or 3) devoted to partner messages or ad-space instead of regular content.

Choose Your Words

Many words will flag a message when scanned by Spam Assassin, open-source word-filter software used by 100 million worldwide. Spam Assassin looks for multiple uses of single words in quotes, multiple blank lines, words like free and express, words in all capital letters, multiple exclamation points, and the use of any of these seemingly innocent phrases: millions of dollars; lowest price; as seen; dollar amount; your bills; your family; and — the email standard — click here. Subject lines starting with buy, buying or test are filtered, as are recipient lists sorted by address rather than name.

Meanwhile, even the appearance of text gets a Spam Assassin scan. Fonts in red, yellow or colors similar to the background are filtered, as are exorbitantly large fonts or images comprising most of the message.

Getting Off the Blacklists

There are around 160 email blacklists actively tracking recent offenders. Widely checked ones are Spamhaus, SpamCop and MAPS, each with look-up wizards and removal procedures. MXToolbox has a free tool for checking most of the blacklists at once.

“Most of the people that end up on MXToolbox.com are there because they’re having a specific issue,” said Steve Harper, MXToolbox.com’s vice president of customer operations. “It could be a 50-member church, but it doesn’t take much for someone to say, ‘You know, I’m getting tired of receiving the Sunday bulletin.’”

You’ll know you’ve been hit if there’s “either a huge increase in your bounce-back messages,” Mullin says, “or a huge decrease in your open rates.”

The key is to respond immediately. Each blacklist has its own criteria for including an IP address, ranging from unsecured servers vulnerable to spammer attacks to sites with high ISP complaint rates. Many of the lists automatically remove listings for anyone but known spammers after two weeks.

Making Good With ISPs

Internet service providers like Yahoo, AOL and Comcast make their own decisions about who they’ll block. To be sure, they’ll use the blacklists as a starting point. After all, most ISPs have built-in the technology to automatically check these lists before each email is transferred. After that, their subscribers fill in the holes.

“Once a user reports something as spam, it goes into our in-house spam system to be counted,” explains Jay Opperman, director of privacy security at Comcast. “Then we use that email to build heuristic [i. e. predictive] signatures so that, if we see that kind of mail coming through again, we don’t deliver it to our customers.”

Many ISPs offer subscription-based feedback loops of spam reports for your site. At Comcast, “they’ll get a return message from us to tell them why they’re blocked, with an error code and a link in the return message that takes them to our site FAQ,” Opperman said. “Sometimes that FAQ has a link to a form to get themselves removed; other times they have to contact us.”

Either way, said Opperman, “if they clean up their mailing addresses, they’ll stay off the spam block if they remain clean.” However, since ISPs not only get data from the blacklists but also report to them, a listing may have spidered out to other ISPs. If so, there may be more work to do.

For Bob Frady at LiveNation, the end result made the blacklist fight worthwhile. “We now have a deliverability rate of 99 percent, an impressively low un-sub rate and great relationships with the ISPs,” he says. When all is said and done, “it’s really not that complicated. It’s about not wasting effort and not injuring yourself by having people that don’t want your message on your list.”

“Despite your best efforts, people are going to say you’re spamming them and will complain,” Frady said. “What we’ve been able to do now by being responsive is build up a good reputation. That will protect us against complaints down the road.”

Jennifer D. Meacham

Jennifer D. Meacham

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  1. Legacy User February 19, 2008 Reply

    Great article. As an ESP in Australia we have also had a few interesting experiences.

    Probably one of our experiences that stands out was one of the world's largest mobile phone companies that blacklisted a heap of our ips in their Australian office for no apparent reason, when queried about it they referred to the fact that as our website reflected our organisation is involved with email marketing we clearly had something to do with spam!!!

    Their unsophisticated and unknowledgeable approach was quite unsettling. Thankfully we did get it resolved.

    You mention Spam Assassin in your article – a great open source product.

    We have released a free an online spam analysis tool based on Spam Assassin for legitimate email marketers to use to avoid obvious false positives.
    http://www.melon.com.au/tools/spamcheck/

    — *Kevin Garber*

  2. Legacy User February 24, 2008 Reply

    Thank you for the additional spam analysis tool, Kevin. I'm delighted to hear that you enjoyed this piece.

    — *Jennifer D. Meacham*

  3. Legacy User March 19, 2008 Reply

    I have a friend that is constantly getting on CBL. They have a small business in Manhattan and run a small mailserver from their office. What would you suggest for protecting them? Every email they send out is valid, no spam whatsoever, but they keep getting hit almost every 4 weeks.
    I will forward this to them and have them add the "unsubscribe" suggestion above. I really have to agree with the fact that this really seems unfair sometimes. I just got off the phone before I read this and ended the conversation with "Man, this is like blackmail!"
    Any other suggestions would be appreciated.

    — *Sergio Morales*

  4. Legacy User March 31, 2008 Reply

    As Jeanniey Mullen at the Email Executive Council says, “You can get put on a blacklist for so many reasons, and some aren’t even within your control.” Tell your friends to keep up the good fight.

    They may want to look into the security of their mail server first. Someone else could be hijacking it to send out spam.

    Second, if they don't want their regular business e-mails to be impacted by spam reports, the advice I received from those I interviewed was to outsource the newsletter/constant contact portion of communications to a secure site that specializes in e-mail distribution. If the newsletter gets marked as spam, it's the e-mail distribution site that will take the hit and deal with getting off the blacklists.

    I hope this information helps. Thanks for the comment Sergio.

    — *Jennifer D. Meacham*

  5. Legacy User April 29, 2008 Reply

    Great article -we've been going round and round with blacklisting since introducing our own eMarketing module in our website content management system.

    Frady's line of, "Sometimes I feel like the Internet service providers are playing a game of ‘What am I thinking?’ and responding with ‘You should know,’" is dead on.

    From a service provider standpoint the time and resources required to maintain blacklist 'blackmail' is definitely an issue that will continue to result in rising costs, which of course has to be reflected in our pricing structure.

    Thanks for letting me rant.

    — *Fred Lebhart – efelle media, seattle*

  6. Legacy User July 15, 2008 Reply

    RE: Thanks for letting me rant.

    No problem Fred. Believe me, you're not the only one.

    — *Jennifer D. Meacham*