How to deliver mail to AOL

Are you having problems delivering mail to AOL? Does it sound to you like AOL's engaged in extortion and racketeering? If so, it's time to do a bit of learning and a bit of listening. Like it or not, I suspect that you probably don't know a ton about how the email infrastructure of the Internet actually works, and you're quite possibly listening to the opinions of other folks who are similarly inexperienced in this realm. Instead of debating myths and questionable opinions on how AOL is party to some secret conspiracy to make you pay to deliver your mail, lets talk facts about what causes AOL delivery problems and how to fix them. I know what I'm talking about. I actively deal with this kind of stuff every day. Read on and I’ll set the record straight.

There are three primary things that cause delivery issues when sending mail to AOL:

  1. You're not whitelisted,
  2. Your bounce handling is broken, or you're not looking at bounces; or
  3. You're generating too many complaints or too many bounces.

Allow me to break them down below. This is a bit quick and high level, but hey, that's the kind of advice you're going to get for free from some random guy on some random website.

You're not whitelisted. Fix that! Go here. Read it. Agree to the terms. Fill out the form. Work through this simple process and AOL will respond with a yay or nay. If yay, you're on track to be exempted from some of their basic spam filtering. This will resolve some of your issues, potential or actual. If nay, see steps two and three below, as they're probably preventing you from getting whitelisted.

To get whitelisted, you need to make sure you're mailing from an IP address that is being used just for your mail. If you're small enough to share a sending IP address with other people sending mail, you’re not really a sender. You’re a customer of a sender. Whoever owns, maintains, or supports that IP address should be filling out the whitelist form on your behalf.

Look at it this way. If you’re Bob at AOL and you can't mail Tom at Yahoo, then Yahoo and AOL are the folks who have to work it out…not you. It's the same kind of deal if you're sending to a tiny list off of a shared resource. You should nudge your service provider to address the issue, but if you don’t have your own IP and domain, and you don't have your own mail server, then you’re Bob the customer, not Bob the sender. The people griping don’t get that, or don’t agree with it, but that is ultimately the way the world works. It's not new, and it's not AOL-specific, and it didn't just appear as part of AOL's rollout of the Goodmail program. Simply put, it's been that way for the entire time I've been active in the email realm, over ten years.

Your bounce handling is broken, or you’re not looking at bounces.
I say this because every email AOL bounces back to you (over this type of an issue) contains a URL linking you to more information. AOL always includes this. So if you don't know what's going on with your AOL delivery, you probably don't have access to this data, or aren't looking at it. Make it a priority to change that!

Here's an example of an informational URL contained in an AOL bounce message: http://postmaster.aol.com/errors/554rlyb2.html

These URLs lead to pages that give you clear information about what’s going on. If your message is incorrectly formatted, they tell you. If you have a weird URL specified in a way that only spammers use, they tell you. If you’re generating too many spam complaints, they tell you. It’s that simple. AOL's the good guy here; they give you a lot more information than most receiving sites do. AOL puts a lot of effort into this process; they try hard to correctly report back to you about why they're blocking your mail, and there are many ISPs who are far worse at it. AOL's actually one of the good guys here.

You’re generating too many complaints or too many bounces.
If you get whitelisted, and are reading bounces correctly, and are still having blocking issues, then the information provided in bounces probably indicates that your mail is causing too many bounces or too many spam complaints. AOL (and many other ISPs) can tell how much of your attempted mail is undeliverable, and how many of your recipients report it as spam. These are important measures used by AOL (and others) to decide which mail gets through, and which mail gets bounced.

How to reduce your bounce rate: Don't attempt to remail bounced names. They’re not going to magically go through next time, and your failed attempts will actively damage your email reputation. If you don’t filter out bounces, your bounce rate will grow with each mailing, and you will quickly exceed AOL's spam-measuring bounce threshold. (Spam mail bounces at a high rate; spammers generally have very poor bounce handling. ISPs consider it a valid measure.) If you're doing this and still having this problem, then your signup/opt-in practices are broken, and they are resulting in too many invalid addresses being added to your list. It's making you look like a spammer.

How to reduce your spam complaint rate: Don't send mail to people who don't want it. Don't obtain lists from third parties. The people on those lists didn't opt-in to mail from you, and don't know who you are. Many of them will report your mail as spam. It doesn't matter if it's legal; it's just as legal for AOL to notice the high number of complaints and choose to block your mail. The most useful thing you can do is fix this. The most useless thing you can do is complain about it to the world at large. Don't tell the world you're not spamming and everybody's out to get you. As far as the recipients and receiving ISPs are concerned, you are sending spam.

Also, it's very important that you sign up for a feedback loop from AOL. This will provide you with copies of spam complaints brought against you by AOL users. You can (and should) ensure that these people are unsubscribed from your list. If you don't, you're not going to reduce spam complaints. This isn't a secret trick that makes it okay to suddenly buy lists or do other bad things--if you buy lists or harvest addresses, no amount of opting-out is going to save you--but handling feedback loops properly is a necessary part of managing your mailing list.

In closing, I would ask that you don’t be fooled by the fear, uncertainty and doubt (FUD) being spread by sites like DearAOL.com. In particular, that site appears to be supported by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), whose out-of-touch spam policy is guided by folks like John Gilmore, whom I've talked about here previously. A quick review of some of the supporting groups reveals at least one where I know that they utilize email practices that inherently cause deliverability issues. Wipe away the supposed "email tax," and many of these groups are still going to have trouble sending email, because their practices run them afoul of spam filters. (Don't just take my word on the questionable facts put forth by the anti-email tax crusaders-- Snopes has a very level-headed overview as well.)

In the interest of full disclosure, keep in mind that I currently work for an ESP (email service provider). Dealing with email delivery issues is what I do all day, every day. One of the reasons people outsource their mail to ESPs is to get expert assistance with these kind of issues. Though, I'm not trying to sell you anything. ESPs can certainly help if you’re having problems, and some problems are more complex than what I've touched on here. But, AOL's one of the easiest ISPs to deal with. My experience in this industry, and with AOL in particular, clearly tells me that it's not anywhere near as bad as some folks would lead you to believe.

2 comments:

jimpop said...

Amen. 100% correct.

CRK said...

Great article!! I have had issues with several of our companies getting blacklisted from sending to yahoo, I have joined the feedback loop and thats helped a lot - I didn't realize about the white-listing though, I will look into that.

I have been actively trying to learn more about keeping our exchange servers off of blacklists - this site is a great resource!