I got a bounce! What do I do?

So you've seen a new bounce message and you're wondering how best to handle it. Where do you start? How do you troubleshoot it? I'd love to write a whole book on the topic, but alas, that'll take some time. In the meantime, here's what to do:

Here's the very short and abbreviated version of what you should do:

  1. READ THE BOUNCE MESSAGE. It'll contain text. That text will almost always contain an English language description of why the ISP rejected the email message. That message may be cryptic, but it's VERY insightful, if you can decode it.
  2. Trust the bounce message. Bounce messages should be considered correct until proven otherwise. For example: if you get a bounce message from Gmail that says your mail is bouncing because of a lack of email authentication -- lean hard into that. Investigate. Test. Prove that authentication is working. Because it's probably not. Yes, sometimes an ISP gives the wrong error message -- even Gmail! But that's the .001% case. Occam's razor, and years of experience, tell me to tell you to start from the assumption that the bounce message is correct. The chances that you are the unicorn are slim.
  3. Look for a link in the bounce message. Apple, Google, Microsoft, Comcast, Yahoo and many others include helpful links in their bounces that will lead to more detailed information about how and why they reject email messages. Read, read, read. And learn.

Then -- what's next? Next up, check out these excellent "where do I start" bounce handling guides: 

And finally, as Faisal points out in his great guide, you'll want to check out the SMTP Field Manual, hosted by Postmark and compiled by them with help from many of us in the email deliverability community. It is chock full of example bounces, often with additional information with them.

And once more before we go: Read the bounce! The bounce has info you need. It's not just a long line of code -- it has words in there, and those words can help you understand what happened and what to do next.

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