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Make E-Mailing Easier

January 1, 2005

More associations that rely on e-mail communication with members are finding that their messages are being blocked, bounced, or filtered as spam.

As associations begin eliminating paper communications and moving important functions such as voting, education, and meetings to an online environment, the problem with blocked e-mails is causing great concern. After all, how can Realtors® and consumers make the move toward online transactions when they can’t even ensure that e-mail is being delivered?

While there’s no sure-fire way to know that the e-mail you send will actually make it to your members’ in-box, there are new steps you can take to boost your chances. Best of all, you don’t have to be a technol­ogy whiz to use them.

Why is E-mail Blocked?
In two words: spam and viruses.
We know that viruses are disruptive, and potentially disastrous, but what’s the problem with spam? Unsolicited, junk e-mail chews up bandwidth, steals the time of those who must sort through it, and creates storage problems for Internet service providers (ISPs).

As horrendous as the spam problem has been in recent years, it is getting noticeably worse. This is partly because some solutions prescribed to fix the problem are actually making it worse.

At first glance, the “junk” button is a great solution to the spam problem. A new feature on many programs, it puts the e-mail recipient in charge of determining what’s spam and what’s not. Recipients can simultaneously delete an e-mail and report it as spam to their Internet service provider. Problem solved, right? Not exactly. Many recipients are using this button as a way of opting out of e-mail they had once subscribed to, or are simply using it as a catch-all delete key. This is where legitimate e-mail gets labeled as spam. For example, if 10 members who use AOL decide to delete your association’s weekly newsletter from their in-box using the junk button, AOL blacklists you. That means that any e-mail coming from your association to any AOL subscriber is now blocked. It’s that easy.

The only way to prevent this is to educate your members on how to use the junk button judiciously. Also, provide them with a clear and easy way to opt out of your communications.

Of course, ISPs block e-mail for many other reasons, and there’s no industry standard that defines what gets blocked. ISPs set up filters and gateways to block anything they think has the slightest appearance of spam. These filters mutate daily to keep up with new viruses and spam, so e-mail that makes it through today may be blocked tomorrow.

Although an ISP won’t tell consumers what sets off their filters, if your e-mail fits any of the criteria below your message is very likely to be blocked as spam.

E-mail usually gets blocked if:

  • The message being sent exceeds size ­limits set by the recipients’ ISP.
  • The message being sent has too many addressees in the address fields (To, Cc, Bcc). [Tip: use a program that automatically sends out your mass e-mails to small groups at a time.]
  • The message being sent includes filter-triggering words and phrases such as: “for free,” “winner,” “bonus,” “satisfaction guarantee,” and “removal instructions.”
  • The message being sent contains words in all caps or uses exclamation points.

Of course, the content that triggers spam filters is not always obvious, a fact that has spawned a market for content analyzing. These com­panies, such as lyris.com, test your e-mail for filter triggers and provide suggestions for rewording or restructuring.

Yet, even if your e-mail is perfectly composed, certain ISPs accept e-mail only from servers that comply with certain standards.

These ISPs and mail handlers are using new tests to attempt to verify e-mail senders. One test is a reverse lookup of the sender’s e-mail server to see if it matches the e-mail. This stops spammers from spoofing senders’ addresses, which is what most of them attempt to do. The hurdle of this test is that your e-mail server setup has to be very accurately programmed, and many associations who are their own ISPs do not know how to do that. If you suspect your e-mail servers are failing the reverse lookup test, see the “Unblocking Tips” on Page 20 or contact a qualified consultant.

Spam-Blocking Software
There are many different applications that promise to limit spam. Problem is, none of them are perfect. These spam blockers often block legitimate e-mail or categorize spam as legitimate e-mail.

Associations must weigh the benefits of spam-blocking software against the drawbacks and make the decision that makes the most sense for them.

The first and easiest solution is to get familiar with the delete key and simply delete the spam. Also, never respond to solicitations or make purchases from an unsolicited e-mail.

What You Can Do Now
In addition to educating members, cleaning up your e-mail server programming, and removing filter triggers from your e-mail, associations should consider becoming white-listed by the major ISPs. Becoming white-listed means that you qualify for the ISP to accept e-mail from your server regardless of the appearance of the e-mail. Open a dialogue with your local ISPs to learn about how to achieve this standing.
These are just a few steps you can take to both eliminate large amounts of spam and have a greater assurance of delivery of your association’s e-mail. It all begins with education. Don’t be afraid to have frank conversations with vendors and ISPs when you feel your e-mail is not being delivered.

Unblocking Tips for Techies
Due to the onslaught of spam, mail servers today need to be configured differently than they did in the past.

Today, Internet service providers (ISPs) like AOL work harder to verify that e-mail is legitimate by looking up where it came from. Yet many associations and smaller ISPs do not have a verifiable identity record on their mail servers, which can lead to undelivered mail.

Here are some steps to take to ensure your e-mail will be delivered with the fewest difficulties.

Domain Name System (DNS)
DNS translates alphabetic domain names into numeric Internet protocol (IP) addresses. Every Web site has a cor­relating number. For example, the do­main name home.sbcglobal.net might translate into an IP address of 207.115.55.201.
Often associations find that their domain name and their IP address are not pointing to the same site on the Internet. This can be a problem with your (or your Web host’s) DNS configuration.

The next problem could be that your Web server doesn’t have fully qualified hostname, like www.domain.com which has a valid A record pointing to the IP adderess. DNS allows servers to have a true name (or CNAME), as well as an unlimited number of aliases, such as news.realtorassociation.com. Properly configured DNS makes sure all of your Web site’s aliases point to the correct IP address.

Lastly, make sure your mail servers have a pointer record (or PTR); otherwise ISPs, that are attempting to verify that an e-mail was sent from you (and not from a spoofer), may not deliver your mail. Pointer records were not an Internet protocol in the days before mass spam, so make sure your mail server now has one.

What to tell members who are not getting your e-mail
Your members may be blocking association e-mail and not even realize it. Here are some tips for members on how to unblock your association e-mails.

  1. Add the association’s e-mail address and IP address to your e-mail address book.
  2. Look for association e-mail in your spam folder and click the “not spam” button.
  3. Move your e-mail filter level from high to medium.
  4. Make sure your filters is not blocking HTML e-mail or e-mail sent to more than one recipient.
  5. Provide your Internet service provider with the association’s e-mail and IP address and request that it not be blocked.