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Ken Magill

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The Dreaded DNSBL Listing: What to Do

By Ken Magill
[Part one of two]
It’s every email marketer’s worst nightmare: Getting blocklisted by Spamhaus or one or more of the other significant operators of DNS-based Blackhole Lists.
DNSBL’s, also known as blacklists and blocklists, are lists of IP addresses deemed by the lists’ maintainers to be sources of spam.
Email inbox providers reference these lists against incoming email as part of their formula to reject or flag as spam messages from senders whose IP addresses are on one or more of them.
The most well-known blocklist operator is Spamhaus. A listing there reportedly results in massive email delivery troubles.
So how should a supposedly permission-based email marketer handle a blocklisting? And just as importantly, how should a supposedly permission-based email marketer not handle a blocklisting?
Christine Borgia, senior director, certified compliance for email intelligence firm Return Path, gave a presentation at last week’s Email Sender and Provider Coalition’s annual meeting in Washington on the dos and don’ts of handling an DNSBL listing.
In part one, she presents the dos. Next week in part two, she presents the don’ts.
According to Borgia, senders of commercial email and the folks who run DNSBL’s have different goals and, as a result, speak different languages.
For example, where the sender aims to get as much email delivered and opened as possible, a DNSBL’s goal is to minimize abuse of their subscribers’ email systems and limit—eliminate if possible—spam complaints from inbox holders.
“Senders and receivers use the same words to mean different things and sometimes they use different words to mean the same thing and it makes understanding each other unnecessarily complicated,” said Borgia.
For example, often a blacklisted marketer will claim their list is 100 percent opted in when the DNSBL operator has irrefutable evidence in the form of spam traps that it’s not. 
When dealing with DNSBL operators, according to Borgia, it is best to remember the adage: “You have two ears and one mouth for a reason.” Unfortunately, she added, people also have 10 fingers and they tend to use them when they shouldn’t.
“You have two ears and one mouth because you’re supposed to listen more than you talk,” she said. “People tend to write really lengthy emails [to DNSBL operators] with unnecessary information and, I joke, that’s because they have 10 fingers.
“The initial approach to reach out to the blacklist tends to be to tell them all of the reasons you shouldn’t be listed and all of the things you do well,” she said. “What I ask people instead to do is in their initial communication with the blacklist ask them what they are seeing. Find out what data they have that they may be willing to share with you and be open to the fact that they’re seeing something different than you’re seeing and that you are on that list for a reason.
“I’ve seen people say: ‘Delist me. My list is all opted in,’ and they say: ‘Really? My spam traps opted in?’” she said. “It starts things out on the wrong foot.”
It is also important for the sender to prove their identity to the blocklist operator, according to Borgia.
She recommends providing the blocklist operator all the IP addresses involved and any error messages received.
“Blacklists receive a lot of delisting requests that may not be coming from the person who is listed,” she said. “A lot of times, people will reach out digging for information on listings that are not their own. It could be a competitor. It could be a criminal. It could be someone interested in some kind of sabotage.”
Borgia also recommends the sender divulge where they see a listing and where they are being blocked.
“They want to know what evidence you have that there is a block,” she said. “What ISP are you having trouble delivering to or what is the impact you’re seeing?”
She added: “Some blacklist providers have three or four different lists you might be on and they’re curious as to what you’re seeing. It just sets the tone that you’ve done your homework.”
Borgia also recommends senders arm themselves with as much data as possible, such as complaint rates and reputation scores. She also urges senders to be prepared to share email-address-acquisition and list-maintenance practices.
“Have everything,” she said. “Because if they ask you the question, you need to have the answers. If you take half a day or two days to dig up the data, you’re just drawing out your listing.”
However, Borgia warns against sharing everything right away.
“Don’t do a gigantic information dump,” she said. “Listen to them. Find out what they’re seeing. And then you can share with them the helpful and relevant information that you already collected.
“Don’t answer questions that haven’t been asked,” Borgia said.
She also recommends transparency and truthfulness.
“When you’ve made a mistake it can be really hard to admit it,” she said. “It’s really best to just fess up and explain what happened. The most important thing is that you’ve identified what went wrong and you’re committed to not letting it happen again.
“If you don’t tell the truth up front, their data may tell a different story than the one you’re telling, and at that point trust is lost,” she said.
Borgia also recommends using a translator such as an email service provider’s deliverability specialist or an email deliverability consultant.
“Unless you’re really good at it [communicating with blocklist operators], find someone who is,” she said. “Find somebody who can speak both languages and who has a lot of experience navigating through the delisting process.”
Borgia also contends that sometimes blocklist operators are open to compromise on solving the issue that resulted in the listing. As long as the compromise is reasonable and offered respectfully, she said, it generally doesn’t hurt to try.
“You don’t want to be too demanding and say: ‘I refuse to do what you’re saying, but I’ll do this,’” she said. “But to ask: ‘Hey is it okay if I take these actions as a first step?’ You might get a really good response if you’ve already established that you’re a good guy who they can trust.”
Next week, we learn how not to handle a DNSBL listing.

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