Graymail: Navigating Email Purgatory


With the vast amount of email marketing taking place these days, it can be more challenging than ever to get yourself noticed. Even with all your best efforts – great copywriting, smart images, thrilling subject lines – customers can lose interest and stop engaging with you. (Maybe they bought another solution and it’s working fine. Maybe they bought a lifetime supply. Maybe they moved to a whole different department with different issues. ) However, there is a tricky area that should be addressed when you see this start to happen – that is the issue of graymail.

So what is graymail? In simple terms, it’s email that your customer opted-in to receive … but doesn’t actually want. It ‘s also email that falls somewhere between a welcome email message and an unwelcome bit of spam (hence the purgatory reference).

Graymail differs from spam in a few different ways; the mail:

  • Was opted into, which indicates that the recipient wants the email
  • Is legitimate
  • Provides valuable content that is targeted at the recipient
  • Is sent from a reputable source

Nevertheless, some recipients may treat them as junk mail, while others might interpret them as emails that they may not want, but don’t warrant the SPAM tag.

Some examples of graymail can include: Newsletters, updates from websites/social networks, etc. Imagine that you belong to a trade group, and happily receive all the trade group’s communications. Now imagine that you change industries. While you may have been interested in that trade group’s information previously, their communications are no longer relevant or applicable to you. Not quite spam, but most certainly not wanted email.

Here’s an even more common scenario: Let’s say you opt in to receive email from a business that you’re mildly interested in. You open the first few, but gradually lose interest over time. ISPs will gradually pick up on your actions, and begin to filter the email as not-wanted. This is why if a message you sent is identified as graymail, it will most likely get routed to an alternate folder (Promotions tab in GMAIL for example). So in essence, the message did in fact get delivered, but may not be seen.

Now, how can we get those emails from purgatory into the email “promised land” (the inbox)? Here are a few suggestions:

  • You want to give your recipients the chance to manage what they receive from you. If you are sending out correspondence from different departments, etc., then it may be coming too frequently, making it more likely the recipients will tire of your mail quickly. By giving them a chance to decide what exactly they want from you (say, via a preference center), the risk of fatigue is lessened and the chances for spam complaints are reduced.
  • Make unsubscribing easy! Many complaints can come from recipients who have a hard time finding the unsubscribe link, and therefore are more inclined to lodge a complaint. By putting language in the header and/or footer, it will be easier for recipients to back out from your offerings if they so choose – without the risk of ruining your email reputation, which plays a big part in your emails getting delivered and engaged with.
  • Quit mailing to unsubscribers as soon as possible. You may have a little time, legally, but not in the mind of your recipient. If someone unsubscribes and the next day gets an email from you, you think they might get irritated and mark your mail as junk? You bet.
  • Segment your lists, and run re-engagement campaigns every so often to try and reel in those customers who are on the fence. List validations and cleanses are also a good idea here as then can keep your data hygiene high.
  • Content goes a long way. By continually creating valuable content, you are letting recipients know that your email is worth opening – something that can make a difference in the long run.

Try these suggestions. In catering your marketing more to your recipients, you’re much more likely to get more engagement, which will earn you better placement of your emails.

… Not to mention more customers.

The art of successful email marketing depends first and last upon proactive deliverability management. Download, Best Practices in Email Deliverability, to learn how to manage the critical factors that affect the deliverability of your email messages.