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Six Steps for Email Optimization

Six Steps for Email Optimization Wendy Roth

Your customers want your email; otherwise, they wouldn't have signed up to receive it in the first place. So what can you do when your permission-based emails are being blocked by an ISP?  How can you persuade them to let it through?

Don't panic! Blocks happen to the best and most reputable organizations. Here are six steps to get your email delivered again.

1. Make sure there really is a block

Check to make sure you're not having technical problems before trying to contact the ISP. Believe it or not, the biggest problem isn't convincing ISPs you're not a spammer, but convincing them that you're not wasting their time troubleshooting a technical problem on your side. 

It'd be nice if the ISP could simply look at the records of what mail they've blocked, and what mail they just haven't gotten, but they don't have time, don't care, or don't keep those kinds of records.

To determine whether your mail is really getting blocked, you'll need to examine the SMTP transaction records. These transaction records are human-readable "conversations" between the sending and receiving mail servers that should tell you why email messages were undeliverable. 

In some cases, it's easy to see that your mail is being blocked as spam because the transaction will say "denied by policy." But frequently, the ISP will simply reject all suspicious connections outright without explanation, or give deceptive reasons.  

The ISP could simply be having technical problems of their own, too. Do your homework, and if you are in fact being blocked you'll be more likely to get a positive reply.

2.  Find the right person to talk to

Many ISPs have pages on their website that explain how to communicate with them about delivery issues, and steps they expect you to take before contacting them. To find these pages, search for "postmaster," "policy," "spam," or "abuse."  Some ISPs such as AOL have detailed pages explaining what their policies are, what tests to perform, and how to contact them. 

If the website has no technical contact listed, try finding the technical contact for the domain. When a person or business registers a domain, they typically provide technical contact information, which may be found using a WHOIS lookup. Many domain registrars have a WHOIS lookup utility that allows you to see that information (www.dnsstuff.com is one place you can look).

If you are unable to find the contact on the website or by checking WHOIS, you can try sending a message to [email protected] or [email protected]'re-having-problems-with.com as a last resort. 

3. Set the right tone

When you do contact the ISP, don't be accusatory or complain that they're blocking your mail. Show that you've made a good-faith effort to see if there are any problems on your side, and provide the necessary information for the ISP to investigate what the problem might be.

In your email message, you should provide the following:

  • A brief explanation of the problem.

  • A sample transaction error you're receiving.

  • The IP address and domain your email comes from.

  •  An explanation of how your recipients came to be on your list.

  • Links to your privacy policy and other references.

Here's an example:


Some of my subscribers at your ISP have recently complained to me that they haven't been receiving my organization's email.  When I examined the transaction logs, I saw the following:

554 Transaction Failed Listed in Deny List

Can you let me know what steps I need to take in order to make sure my subscribers can receive my email? My IP address range is, and my domain is example.com. All of our email comes from [email protected]

You can see our signup form here at http://example.com/sigunup.html, and our privacy policy at http://example.com/privacy.html.

Joe Marketer

4.  Be prepared to answer questions

If the ISP has received complaints about your email, you'll need to account for how these recipients came to be on the list. You may need to provide information about the date and manner that recipients have opted-in to receive the mail. 

Of course, the ISP may have stricter definitions for what constitutes "opt-in" than your organization has had. If that's the case you'll have a tough time convincing the ISP that your email isn't spam because, by their definition, it is spam.  

If the ISP considers the provenance of the addresses to be dubious, it may ask you to reconfirm your entire list--to send a message asking recipients to respond in order to continue receiving the messages. Although successful reconfirmation rates are quite low, some marketers would rather take one hit when reworking their email policies rather than having to answer to hundreds of ISPs and blacklists in order to get their mail delivered.

5.  Enlist your recipients.

Let's face it: an ISP doesn't care if they anger email senders because senders don't pay the bills. But if the email recipients--their customers--get upset, the ISP is more likely to be responsive. The best evidence an ISP can have that email isn't spam is that the recipients complain about missing it. 

Tell any recipients who contact you directly about missing your email how they can raise the issue with the ISP. If you have a case number, or the name of a technical representative in charge of your case, pass it along. 

6. Be patient, but persistent

Although it might be critically important to you that your mail gets there now, unless the ISP's own customers are complaining your block is unlikely to be a top issue for them.   Resist the urge to pester, but do follow up.  

And keep checking deliverability at that ISP, even after the issue has ostensibly been resolved. Staff changes or even miscommunications at the ISP may cause your mail to get blocked again.

But don't think of your contacts at an ISP as your enemies -- consider them partners. They, like you, are working hard to make sure their customers get the email they want. And the less spam people receive, the less likely they'll overlook your important messages.

Wendy Roth is the training manager for Lyris Technologies, a pioneer in email marketing solutions since 1994. She works closely with enterprise-level marketing and advertising professionals to help them achieve their email-related objectives, and collaborates with engineering teams to ensure Lyris' products continue to be based on marketers' changing needs.


Wendy Roth is senior manager of training services for Lyris, Inc., a pioneer in email marketing and other online marketing solutions since 1994. She works closely with marketing and advertising professionals to help them understand how Lyris'...

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