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 is a lot like using performance enhancing drugs in the MLB. Any organization who is a known spammer has tainted their brand. And mailbox providers will suspend brands from sending emails to their account holders if they consistently send spam.

These suspended brands are on lists called email blacklists, 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.

However, not all blacklists are created equal. Some blacklists, like Spamhaus, are credible and widely trusted, so if a brand is on one of these blacklists, it’ll heavily impact their sender reputation. Other blacklists, like Lashback, NoSolicitado, and Spam Cannibal are less credible and trusted, so if a brand is on one of these blacklists, it won’t affect their sender reputation nearly as much.

In other words, when referencing blacklists 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 Blacklist

A wise email deliverability consultant at HubSpot named Jess Swazey once told me, “The easiest way to get off an email blacklist 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 blacklists.

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 blacklists 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 blacklist 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 blacklisted.

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 consider subscriber engagement the most influential determinant of your email program’s quality. So to decide if you’re actually a reputable sender and deserving of a high deliverability score, most mailbox providers convert their inactive email accounts into recycled spam traps after a year of disengagement and ding any IP address or domain that sends emails to them. In your database, any contact that hasn’t engaged with your email program or received one of your emails in a year could possibly be a recycled spam trap.

To avoid sending emails to recycled spam traps and getting blacklisted, 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.

Sometimes, salespeople and recruiters will collect business cards from prospects or candidates at industry events, manually plug each contact’s email address into their database, and send them a mass email.

This can also be a one way ticket to getting blacklisted.

These people might expect an email from one of your company’s salespeople or recruiters, but they never opted into receiving emails from your email program, so they’re likely to never open your emails or, even worse, flag them as spam, which will lower your deliverability and heighten your risk of getting blacklisted.

There’s also a chance you’ll 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 blacklisted.

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 blacklisted.

To avoid this subtle yet potent blacklisting trigger, use email address verification tools like Kickbox to validate each email address you collect from your subscription forms.

How to Check If You’re On an Email Blacklist

Sometimes, a pristine or recycled spam trap can slip through the cracks and get you blacklisted. 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 blacklist, use blacklist checking tools, like Sender Score or MX Toolbox.

How to Get Off an Email Blacklist

If you send emails through one of your email service provider’s shared IP addresses and it gets blacklisted, 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 blacklist the entire shared IP address, so if your actions blacklist your shared IP address, your email service provider has the right to cancel your subscription.

On the other hand, if your dedicated IP address or domain ends up on one or multiple email blacklists, 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 blacklist 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.

To get off most blacklists, you need to work directly with the blacklist 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.

Another way to delist your domain is running permission pass campaigns. When you get blacklisted, 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 blacklisting, 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. 

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