Answers to Common Questions about Whitelisting

A lot of email senders are concerned with whitelisting and spam complaints.

A lot of email senders are concerned with whitelisting and spam complaints.

They’ll ask questions like:

  • Are you whitelisted? How do I get whitelisted?
  • So if you’re/I’m whitelisted, I won’t ever go to the spam folder?
  • How do you make sure I don’t get spam complaints?
  • How do I know who marked my email as spam?

If you’ve ever been concerned about your email deliverability, you’ve probably wondered the same sorts of things.

All of these questions can lead to useful discussions about getting your email delivered. But a lot of times, those discussions require more than a simple one-word or one-sentence answer.

I recently came across a handy resource on ISP whitelisting and feedback loops that gives us an opportunity to clear up some misconceptions and uncertainties that many people (perhaps even you) have had about email deliverability.

Fact: Not All ISPs Offer Whitelisting or Feedback Loops

The problem with asking a question like “are you whitelisted?” is that it assumes that whitelisting is an everybody-or-nobody proposition.

Even if you’re whitelisted (as AWeber is) with the ISPs who do offer it, there are other ISPs who simply don’t offer whitelisting.

The same goes for Feedback Loops – not all ISPs will tell you when a subscriber marks an email as spam.

For a handy list of ISPs that do and do not offer whitelisting and/or feedback loops, see this blog post at Word to the Wise.

Keep in mind, if you’re using AWeber, you don’t need to get whitelisted separately for your email campaigns through us.

What Does It Mean to be Whitelisted?

What’s interesting about this question is that I cannot recall anyone ever asking me this in my 4+ years at AWeber. People will ask if we’re whitelisted, but they don’t ask what that means or what the implications of being whitelisted are.

Here’s something that a lot of people don’t know about whitelisting…

  • Whitelisting does not in any way guarantee that your emails will all end up in the inbox.

It doesn’t. That’s not why it exists.

Being whitelisted at an ISP is not a “free pass” to send whatever you want, whenever you want, without any potential deliverability repercussions.

I think of it this way…

Being whitelisted is like taking a pledge – by providing information about your mailing practices to an ISP, you’re saying “I practice responsible email marketing, and I’m willing to prove it by letting you keep a close eye on me and how recipients treat my email.”

After all, one of the effects of getting whitelisted is that you make it easier for an ISP to identify email coming from you – and potentially block it.

This doesn’t mean whitelisting is bad. It’s a good thing to do, and whitelisted senders have an advantage over those who are not whitelisted. But don’t think it’s a free pass to send unsolicited or irrelevant emails to people.

What About Feedback Loops? What Do They Mean to You?

Here’s the lowdown on feedback loops:

  • When an ISP offers a feedback loop, it means that they will tell us when one of your subscribers marks your email as spam.The feedback loops are what enables us to show you complaint rates within your account.
  • If your complaint rates get too high, an ISP may not deliver your email campaigns to the inbox.What is an Acceptable Complaint Rate?Being on a feedback loop is kind of like being whitelisted – you’re taking responsibility for your email practices, and their consequences.
  • Whenever someone marks your email as spam, we immediately unsubscribe them from your list.As a couple of us were discussing on Twitter earlier today, this is just common sense, and it also helps prevent future emails from being blocked.If you run any email campaigns outside of AWeber, you should regularly export your unsubscribes (this will include people who marked one of your emails as spam) so you can make sure that they’re not on those other campaigns.

What Other Questions Do You Have?

Is there anything else you’ve wondered about email deliverability, but not asked about before?

Share your thoughts and questions below!


  1. Karin H.

    1/30/2009 5:49 am

    "one of the effects of getting whitelisted is that you make it easier for an ISP to identify email coming from you"

    IMHO there is another confusing bit on who exactly is whitelisted when using AWeber as your delivery vehicle for your email marketing.

    Most of your campaigns show the email (From) your own email-address, so that’s one email address to get ‘whitelisted’.

    However, the original sender (in the blablabla details of every email) is an "email address" from the AWeber server, that’s another address and it is known to happen that while your own (From/Reply) email address is whitelisted, the original sender can get a delivery delay or worse can get blocked nonetheless.

    Hope this makes sense?

  2. Sam

    1/30/2009 6:55 am

    Someone asked what is whitelisting, you havn’t been asked that in 4 years. So you answer. I still don’t know what whitelisting is. Can you give a simple answer? Is it blocking someone from sending you e-mail any hey who. Thanks

  3. David Rabideau

    2/2/2009 9:46 pm

    will this email be published

  4. Tim Linden

    2/3/2009 8:31 am

    Karin – The whitelisting is done on the sender IP level for the majority of the ISPs. Yahoo is the only one I remember doing it based on domain.

  5. Karin H.

    2/3/2009 9:00 am

    Tim, don’t forget all the mail servers on ‘private’ networks (mine had this problem).

  6. Carrie Pierce

    2/3/2009 4:03 pm

    It’s always great to read info-even when you THINK you have a handle on the subject…
    The expression ‘You learn something new every day’ is so very accurate– especially when I take the time to read your blog postings, Justin.
    Thanks a zillion for making so much so very clear!

  7. Tim Linden

    2/3/2009 9:40 pm

    Karin – Using Aweber your mail server being private or not wouldn’t matter. The ISP sees the mail coming from Aweber’s mail server, and that’s the reputation they are going off of.

    Sam – Whitelisting is basically making a list of the good guys, whereas blacklisting is making a list of the bad guys. With ISPs its not like a personal whitelist where it guarantees your in, but it is something that helps.

  8. Karin H.

    2/4/2009 9:06 am

    And that’s where most of the confusion comes from.

    I know many how ask their subscribers in the 1st Thank You Page or in further messages to ‘white-list’ them. i.e. the so-called From email address, not the AWeber server.
    In most email programs you can create a white-list (good guys always send through) and a black-list (bad guys always blocked), hence the request to white list the ‘sender’

    You have two types of white-listing: as ISP and as individual emailer.

  9. Tim Linden

    2/4/2009 10:09 am

    Oh I see what you are saying. Yes, that’s a personal preference. I was talking on the ISP level. LOL I think your point was proven just in our conversation and we know what we are talking about!

  10. Joe Breunig

    2/8/2009 8:53 am

    Great article; really appreciated the definition of "whitelisted"; thanks for sharing this.

  11. Sharon

    2/12/2009 8:16 am

    I’ve just had a relatively high level of complaints about my last newsletter – I rarely get any. I can see from this article that I can view who the complainent was through ‘unscubscribes’ – however, these are not showing… most of them are unsubscribes from 2-3 months ago.

    I don’t know what I’ve done wrong – the beginning of my newsletter ALWAYS reminds people they signed up – to get a freebie basically – and points them to unsubscribe at the end if it’s an error.

    I’m not a big, fat internet marketeer trying to make money out of dubious ‘products’….

  12. Justin Premick

    2/12/2009 9:30 am

    Hi Sharon,

    If you contact our Customer Solutions Team they should be able to help you locate your recent unsubscribes.

    As for the question of why complaints would occur – there’s not a single reason. Subscribers may find many different reasons to mark an email as spam, and reasons may vary among subscribers.

    A couple possible causes of spam complaints:

    – Too many emails in a short period of time
    – Too much time has passed between emails (perhaps subscribers have forgotten you)
    – The content is different from what subscribers wanted or expected, or has changed notably from previous emails
    – Too much promotion vs. valuable content
    – People who signed up only to get the freebie electing to stop getting email by clicking "spam"
    – People unsure how to unsubscribe so they’re using the "spam" button to do it (in which case you might consider putting an unsubscribe link/instructions higher up in your email)

    Those are just a few reasons. You might also ask yourself what causes you to unsubscribe from an email list or mark a message as spam, and see if any of those elements are present in the newsletter issue you mentioned.

  13. Ben Aidoo

    2/14/2009 5:03 pm

    I have an unsubscribe link at the top of each email I send out, yet I received a spam complaint. How do I handle subscribers who choose to use the spam complaint bottom, instead of the unsubscribe button?

  14. Keno Toriello

    2/18/2009 8:26 am

    As my list is growing, now is about 100 subscribers, in my report in the home page I was notified of one of my subscribers send my email to Spam. So, it shows 1%, and it should be max 0.1%. I don`t think is fair to express this in percent, since my list is still so small.

  15. John C. A. Manley

    2/24/2009 9:58 am

    I appreciate the FAQ.

    Could you add more practical steps for dealing with complaints? I’m baffled by our 0.90% complaint rate. We are still in start up mode and not evening selling anything. Our emails are short two-paragraphers linking to a high-content blog post. Are list is entirely web-based sign ups. We are in the alternative health market — not selling get-rich schemes or anything like. We mail weekly, so it’s hardly too much or too little that they forgot who we were. What’s wrong with these people? Are they all drunk or over-medicated when they sign up and forget later?

    Anyway, I’m glad you automatically unsubscribe them.

  16. Karin H.

    2/24/2009 11:14 am

    "What’s wrong with these people? Are they all drunk or over-medicated when they sign up and forget later?"

    Don’t get disheartened by 0.90% (1 complaint I guess) rate.
    It happens to all of us and all – most – have the best intention at heart when mailing out our messages.

    Some email programs just places your – and mine – AWeber message in the junk box and if the subscriber fails to check his junk box the message is automagically deleted – and marked as spam in one go – after 30 days.
    (Or if he checks his junk box and selects all of the messages in there to be removed all at once he might overlook the ones innocently placed there – bad luck)

    Just rejoice in the fact it is only 0.90% – down to ignorance, not intentional most of the time. And keep up the way you are working 😉

  17. Justin Premick

    2/24/2009 11:40 am


    Thanks for sharing your comment and experience with spam complaints.

    I’d like to address this in more detail than is appropriate for a comment. I’m working on a blog post about this so we can all benefit from your comment.

    (For the record, after a quick look at your account, I think Karin’s got a point – volume has something to do with the rate you’re seeing.)


    Messages that end up in an email program’s bulk folder don’t get reported to ISPs as spam after X amount of days.

    It’s true that your email reputation can be affected by a subscriber marking the “not spam” button when a message goes to the bulk folder – but if they don’t do that, it doesn’t mean the message is treated like one that actually generates a spam complaint. It’s just deleted.

  18. Why Did That Email Get Marked As Spam? - Inbox Ideas: Email Marketing Tips by AWeber

    2/24/2009 4:41 pm

    […] the comments of our recent post on email whitelisting, John asked about how to deal with spam complaints and shared what his experience with them has […]

  19. Justin Premick

    2/24/2009 5:00 pm

    Update: the latest article addresses John’s comment in more detail and includes some tips that we can all use to minimize our complaint rates:

    Why Did That Email Get Marked As Spam?

  20. Kathy

    3/13/2009 10:18 am

    This was really helpful. I’m wondering about whitelisting as it related to non-ISPs. I am being told by my ESP that I need to contact non-ISP domains (such as an .edu domain) and get whitelisted with them. I’ve only ever heard of whitelisting when used in the context of ISPs.

    I was also told that if I mail to more than 3 addresses at an .edu or .gov address, they will block the mail unless I am whitelisted with them. I’ve done quite a bit of searching trying to confirm that info but I haven’t been able to find anything.


  21. Aden Buft0n

    7/28/2009 10:44 am

    Justin thanks for the info, very informative to someone as green as me

  22. How To Get Subscribers To Whitelist You

    2/9/2010 10:02 am

    […] emails from AWeber customers like you are already whitelisted on an ISP level through us, your emails may be filtered on an individual […]

  23. Olivier

    11/6/2012 4:59 pm

    Hi, I have seen many mailers send lines in their headers with a “mailto:” link with their own sender address (eg. Privalia, Jabong and many others).

    In my understanding, goal is that people either:

    1) reply to email and their emails service automatically adds recipient to contacts and whitelists (as Gmail used to do)

    2) copy/paste address into their contacts.

    Couple of questions – in your experience, does:

    1) sending an email add to contacts (and for which ISPs), and does this increase likelihood of getting to inbox? I hear GMail now adds recipients to “Suggested Contacts” and no longer just contacts – is this still effective for getting to inbox?

    2) What works better: going for a “mailto:” solution hoping that either 1) or 2) happens or providing full list of instructions on how to add to safe sender list etc.

    Dilemma for me seems to be that “mailto:” solution will have a higher response from interested recipients (much easier) but full instructions for adding to safe sender list will be much more effective and less adopted.

    Was thinking of doing a 2-step process (ie. offer both “mailto:” AND full instructions for each ISP), but am unsure about effectiveness of “mailto:”.

    Can anyone help?