Graymail: Email Marketing’s New Albatross

As if list growth, subsequent fatigue, SPAM compliance and utilizing the proper testing procedures did not present enough challenges for email marketers, enter graymail. These are messages that are routed to the SPAM box despite the fact that senders received explicit permission from consumers and recipients. Hotmail made news last month with this declaration of war against graymail and their attempts to clean up inboxes without Hotmail users having to reduce clutter on their own.

What is graymail?


Graymail can be defined as messages that drop out of the inbox due to lack of activity from individual recipients. They can also be classified as once welcome email messages that have since fallen out of favor with their intended targets. Hotmail accounts for over 12% of the email client market share and they are of course owned by Microsoft, the developers of Outlook which sits atop the email client mountain.

However, this graymail phenomena is not unique to Microsoft email clients. For instance, I use Gmail for several of my own accounts. Here is a screenshot of my SPAM box. Please note that these are all messages that I agreed to receive. Due to my lack of response (opens and clicks), Gmail has automatically routed them to SPAM. No offense to any of the companies referenced below – I’ve just been a little busy.

Gmail Graymail Example

Why is graymail making email marketers sweat?

There are two primary reasons email marketers have cause for concern.

1. Graymail is difficult to discern from a marketer’s perspective. To my knowledge email service providers don’t really have a means of tracking what percentage of emails sent turn gray. They should appear as a successful delivery and most likely as a “did not open”. Thus, we really don’t know how many of our messages fall under this category, but open rate can be somewhat helpful.

2. Point of no return? Once something becomes classified as graymail, it can be very difficult to reverse that status in all likelihood. To use my Gmail example above, it has been months since emails from some of those senders referenced has made it to my personal inbox. To make it out again, the individual must denote that the message is not SPAM. This is not a very likely scenario and these kinds of relationships can be difficult to rekindle.

How can you combat graymail?

Unfortunately, there is no Just for Men email marketing solution to help you “keep your edge”. What this really requires is preemptive planning combined with guarded message scheduling of content-rich messages. As noted earlier, the jury is out on whether graymail can be fixed. You can only hope to avert it. Here are a few ideas to help you avoid the effects of graymail on your email marketing campaigns:

1. Setting Expectations
The first step in avoiding graymail actually starts with the first step in building a list. It is crucial to help potential recipients clearly identify what they will receive, when they will receive it and how to get more or less messages from your organization. By explicitly identifying the rules of your relationship with each individual subscriber at the time she signs up, you can improve your standing from the outset. Sometimes this process requires added steps in the sign-up process which can equate to a lower conversion rate. However, focus on getting quality contacts to Whom you can deliver quality messages.

2. Be Selective with Audience Selection
I’ve written previously about the merits of segmentation and the importance of delivering relevant messages to the right audience. Use individual messages to learn more about every member of your audience. Each recipient will have varying levels of loyalty and different offers will appeal to different motivations. As you build your list, break it down into sections to provide supreme quality in your email communique. Accept the fact that “batch and blast” is a one way trip to email list rigor mortis.

3. Guard Your List with Your Life
As an email marketer, you must also be a steward of your list. You may get pressure from your boss, company executives and other members of the marketing team to use your list in ways it should never be utilized. Warn them carefully to back away before someone gets hurt. Here are some situations to avoid:

  • Sending the same exact message twice to the same audience. Yes, this actually happens.
  • Sending for the sake of sending or to meet some mystical frequency quotient. This occurs often when promoting events and when someone utters, “but we only sent the invite to them once”.
  • Sending unexpected information to a house list. Remember, set expectations about the messages you plan to deliver, and keep your promises.
  • Making email a part of your full court press. Be careful about including an email message to loyalists as part of your marketing emergency.

4. Continuously Improve Upon Content Quality
Every time you send an email to your audience is an opportunity to make or break your relationship. The content of your messages is an extremely important factor in their decision to stay or go. Dedicate time and resources to developing amazing content that is consistent with your brand. I also suggest using other channels like social media and search to determine what kinds of content will resonate best with your audience. In some cases, you may be able to carefully test different kinds of content, offers and promotions with extreme loyalists to determine what will work with others who are less committed to your organization.

Ultimately, graymail is not the real problem. Lack of planning, forethought, respect for the list and content so good that you can’t afford not to forward it on to friends and colleagues will lead to lower inbox deliveries. Solve for those issues first and graymail will be less of a frightening concern.