In the MLB, or Major League Baseball, players who have used performance enhancing drugs have also tainted their careers. Even if they slugged the most home runs in the history of the game, like Barry Bonds did, or won the most Cy Young Awards ever, like Roger Clemens did, their accusations of steroid abuse will most likely block their path to the Baseball Hall of Fame.
For years, many baseball players abused steroids, and it sparked an aggressive campaign to eliminate performance enhancing drugs from the game.
In 2006, the MLB set up a drug policy that suspends first time drug violators for half a season, second time drug violators for an entire season, and third time drug violators for their entire lives -- three strikes and you're literally out.
In the email marketing industry, sending spam, or unsolicited bulk messaging, is a lot like using performance enhancing drugs in the MLB. Any organization who is a known spammer has tainted their brand. And, similar to a suspension, mailbox providers will filter their messages to the spam folder or block them altogether.
These "suspended" brands are on lists called email blocklists, and they can tarnish your sender reputation in the eyes of mailbox providers worse than steroid use can taint a once-presumed Hall-of-Famer's career in the eyes of the Baseball Hall of Fame voters.
What is an email blacklist?
An email blacklist is a list of IP addresses or domains a blacklist operator has caught sending emails to accounts that didn’t willingly subscribe to their email program. Put simply, a blacklist is a list of IP addresses or domains that are known spammers. Most mailbox providers reference multiple email blacklists to determine a brand’s sender reputation and decide whether they’ll let them send emails to their account holders.
However, not all blocklists are created equal. Some blocklists, like Spamhaus, are credible and widely trusted, so if a brand is on one of these blocklists, it’ll heavily impact their sender reputation. Other blocklists, like Lashback, NoSolicitado, and Spam Cannibal are less credible and trusted, so if a brand is on one of these blocklists, it won’t affect their sender reputation nearly as much.
In other words, when referencing blocklists to determine a brand’s deliverability, mailbox providers weigh their influence by credibility -- and not just if they’re listed on them.
How to Avoid an Email Blocklist
A wise email deliverability consultant at HubSpot named Jess Swazey once told me, “The easiest way to get off an email blocklist is to never get on it in the first place." In light of this Yoda-esque wisdom, here are four best practices for avoiding email blocklists.
1. Only email contacts who have subscribed to your email program -- and never email contacts scraped from websites, third-party sources, or purchased contact lists.
It seems obvious, but the easiest and most crucial step you can take to avoid email blocklists and getting a Scarlet “S” slapped on your brand’s breast pocket is emailing people who actually subscribed to your emails. Because in a world where only 4% of the public believes marketers practice integrity, the best way to build a contact database is the hard and honest way -- collecting email addresses organically.
Plus, if you decide to scrape contacts from old, expired, or abandoned websites, third-party sources, or purchased contact lists, most blocklist operators have already placed pristine spam traps, which are email addresses created solely to catch spammers red-handed, in all three of these locations. So collecting and emailing contacts who never subscribed to your email program in the first place is a one-way ticket to getting blocklisted.
2. Clean your email lists on a regular basis.
Building a hefty email list might make you feel accomplished and proud, but if it’s filled with dead weight, or unengaged contacts, it’s better to trim the fat than to stick with your pride.
Most mailbox providers decide if you’re actually a reputable sender and deserving of a high deliverability score by keeping an eye any inactive email addresses that have been converted into recycled spam traps and dinging any IP address or domain that sends emails to them. In your database, any contact that hasn’t engaged with your email program or opened one of your emails in a year could possibly be a recycled spam trap.
To avoid sending emails to recycled spam traps and getting blocklisted, run one-off reengagement campaigns with your inactive contacts. It’s up to you to decide how long a contact’s disengagement with your email program deems them an inactive contact, but if they don’t open your reengagement email, it’s probably a sign to scrub them off your list.
3. Never manually enter email addresses into your database or mass email these types of contacts.
After industry events, some sales team collect business cards from prospects, manually plug each contact’s email address into their database, and send them a mass marketing email.
This can also be a one way ticket to getting blocklisted.
These people might expect an email from one of your company’s salespeople, but they never opted into receiving messages from your email program, so they're likely to never open them or, even worse, flag them as spam, which will lower your deliverability and heighten your risk of getting blocklisted.
There’s also a chance your sales team could make a typo while manually entering email addresses into your database and, in turn, send emails to addresses that don’t exist. This will increase your email bounce rate, which will also lower your deliverability and heighten your risk of getting blocklisted.
If you want to plug these contacts into your database, tell your sales team to connect with each of these prospects through their personal inbox and direct them to an offer, landing page, or form where they can opt themselves into your email marketing list.
4. Validate your new subscribers’ email addresses.
Sometimes, people will try to subscribe to your email program but make a typo when entering their contact information in your form. Other times, if your business model requires people to manually enter their email address into a device, they can make typos too.
Unfortunately, mailbox providers will bounce any email sent to addresses that don't exist. So even if the people who own similarly spelled email addresses actually want to receive your emails, emailing these addresses will still lower your deliverability and heighten your risk of getting blocklisted.
How to Check If You're On an Email Blocklist
Sometimes, a pristine or recycled spam trap can slip through the cracks and get you blocklisted. Fortunately, your email service provider will usually notify you when this happens, but if you want to be absolutely sure that your IP address or domain isn’t on a blocklist, use blocklist checking tools, like Sender Score or MX Toolbox.
How to Get Off an Email Blocklist
If you send emails through one of your email service provider’s shared IP addresses and it gets blocklisted, it’s your email service provider’s job to delist the shared IP address. However, one domain that sends spam from a shared IP address can blocklist the entire shared IP address, so if your actions blocklist your shared IP address, your email service provider has the right to cancel your subscription or require remediation.
On the other hand, if your dedicated IP address or domain ends up on one or multiple email blocklists, it’s your job to get it off them. Unfortunately, there’s no silver bullet for getting your domain delisted -- you need to follow a different protocol for each blocklist you’re on in order to get off of it. However, there are two general best practices for delisting that are great starting points for any email program.
1. Spam Rehab
To get off most blocklists, you need to work directly with the blocklist operators and prove to them that you’re actually a trustworthy sender. You can do this by following email best practices for a certain period of time, which is kind of like entering a spam rehab program.
2. Permission Pass Campaigns
Another way to delist your domain is running permission pass campaigns. When you get blocklisted, your email service provider will pinpoint the campaign that triggered it, allowing you to identify the email list in your database that has spam traps. Once you find this list, you can run a permission pass campaign, where you send a one-off reengagement email to the list’s contacts who haven’t interacted with your emails in a long time.
These contacts are most likely the spam traps that triggered your blocklisting, so make sure you weed out all the accounts that don’t engage with your permission pass campaign. Otherwise, an emotional attachment to a large yet unengaged email list might never let you delist.