How to Repair Your Business's Email Reputation


All it takes is one complaint from an overzealous anti-spam vigilante for your company's email newsletter to mistakenly wind up on a blacklist. An email blacklist essentially blocks all messages from a particular server, which could prove very costly to a company's bottom line. After all, today's major ISPs subscribe to blacklist databases in an effort to filter out spam that is sent across their networks or to their customers. In fact, AOL LLC blocks a reported 80 percent of messages sent to its subscribers via blacklisting technology.

But if your company's legitimate email newsletter is flagged as spam, it could create a devastating loss in advertising dollars and a considerable slump in sales. What's more, an ISP that suspects a company of spamming may just terminate its service altogether. Blocked legitimate email, or false positives, will cost U.S. businesses roughly $3.5 billion in 2008, according to a study from San Francisco-based Ferris Research.

The good news is that there are ways to restore your company's email reputation if it has been unjustly pegged as a spammer. Here are expert-recommended methods for making amends with the blacklist authorities that have unfairly targeted your company.


1. Take the easy way out. In some instances, getting removed from a blacklist is as easy as submitting a Web-based form explaining why your company should be removed. So before you overreact to all of those emails that are bouncing back, keep an eye out for an easy resolution. Unfortunately, there are times when getting back into an ISP's good graces will take some heavy lifting. Just ask Ted Roberts, director of deliverability and ISP relationships at Silverpop, a provider of permission-based email-marketing solutions, strategies and services. According to Roberts, some blacklist owners "simply don't care if you're legitimate or not. They want to know what actions you have put in place to stop the behavior that caused the listing in the first place." However, no matter how much of the burden of proof is placed on your company, find out the blacklisting service's own procedures for adding and removing IP addresses and act accordingly.

2. Start a conversation. You may want to scream at the blacklist owner who is responsible for inundating your inbox with undeliverable messages, but that's no way to rectify the situation. Instead, said Roberts, "If you can get into a conversation with the maintainer of a blacklist, it's always a good thing."

3. Get to the root of the problem. There are countless ways that an email newsletter might be miscategorized as spam. That's why "the most important thing is for companies to diagnose what problem landed them on that blacklist in the first place," advised Ray Everett-Church, director of policy and advisory services at Habeas Inc., a company that specializes in online-reputation-management services. Inheriting old IP addresses from known spammers, including links to other sites, switching email-service providers, refreshing a database and contacting customers after a long absence are all perfectly innocent activities that can launch an IP address to the top of a blacklist.

4. Determine the criteria. Find out a blacklist service's specific criteria for separating spammers from legitimate senders. Each blacklist has its own definition of a spammer; thus, it is sometimes just as easy for small businesses that send email newsletters from a residential connection to land on a blacklist as it is for sites with high ISP complaint rates.

5. Consider the source. Not all blacklists are created equal. In fact, there are more than 300 email blacklists actively tracking perpetrators, and they range from the well-known (The Spamhaus Project, SpamCop, MAPS and SPEWS, for example) to independent blacklists that are owned and operated by self-ordained industry watchdogs. The trick, said Roberts, is "evaluating how prevalent a blacklist is and what effect it's having on your mailings. The good news is a lot of these lower-echelon blacklists are not very prevalent. Not a lot of people are using them."

Everett-Church agrees. "You should prioritize [removal from a blacklist] based upon where the size of your delivery problems are," he said. Everett-Church added that if your company sends one-third of its email newsletters to Hotmail addresses, and Hotmail has flagged it as a spammer, then the company should devote time and attention to restoring its reputation with that particular email service.

However, there are blacklist authorities with questionable agendas. "The more credible blacklists tend to be more public and transparent organizations like Spamhaus," said Josh Aberant, a privacy and standards manager at marketing-technology vendor Lyris Inc. "But there are literally hundreds of blacklists, and some of these are just run by guys out of their bedroom." In fact, stories abound of blacklist owners holding companies' IP addresses hostage unless they agree to retain their services. Said Aberant, "There's no point in even communicating with them. Besides, the minor blacklists don't have a lot of deliverability effect today."

But what if your company has been blacklisted by a service with strong industry credentials but somewhat outlandish criteria? It happens, admitted Aberant. But rather than appealing to the service itself, Aberant recommends contacting customers that have been affected by the blacklist on an individual basis.

6. Seek third-party assistance. Unfortunately, restoring your business's email reputation in the aftermath of a blacklisting is a time-consuming process that can pose a significant drain on IT resources. Turning to a third-party marketing-technology company, however, can help ease the burden. Said Roberts, "For the most part, we have contacts at these blacklist services, so if something happens and you get on a blacklist, we can negotiate a way off on our client's behalf."

Habeas' team of experts is also willing to step in where many organizations fear to tread. Said Everett-Church, "We'll work with you and the ISPs to mediate and resolve delivery problems that can arise, even if everyone is doing the right thing." But an ounce of prevention is also key to rectifying a tarnished online reputation. For this reason, Habeas offers tools that scan countless blacklists in search of a client's IP address before an email newsletter makes its way into the wrong inbox. "You can track and monitor any problems you might run into before you start seeing undeliverable mail," stated Everett-Church.

Next Steps

Sometimes, no matter what your efforts, you need to turn to a vendor to restore you email reputation. Here are just a handful of vendors that offer solutions to help a company falsely accused of spamming:

Vendor: Lyris
Tool: Blacklist Monitor
How It Works: A component of EmailAdvisor, this tool tells you if any of the major blacklist organizations have targeted the domains that are referenced in your email campaigns, allowing your business to take the appropriate steps to resolve blockages. When you conduct an EmailAdvisor audit, you'll receive a Blacklist Monitor report in just a few minutes; that way, you can review it and take corrective actions immediately.

Vendor: Habeas
Tool: SafeList for Senders
How It Works: An Internet whitelisting service, SafeList for Senders requires customers to pass Habeas' strict reputation requirements in order to qualify. In turn, senders receive significant delivery uplift to more than 5 million email systems at partner ISPs and enterprises, resulting in faster delivery times and expert assistance with dispute resolution.

Vendor: Silverpop
Tool: Bounced Email Management
How It Works: This complex engine rapidly analyzes each email bounce against hundreds of rules in order to classify it and immediately take the appropriate action, including whether to opt out of, retry or suspend message delivery. Many of the tool's settings can even be tailored to each customer's unique needs.