Graymail refers to emails sent in bulk by a legitimate company to people who opted to receive them. It differs from spam in that graymail is solicited while spam is unsolicited. Examples of graymail include newsletters, announcements, or ads.

Think of graymail as the marketing flyers you opted to take from roving marketers in a grocery store. In such a case, its spam equivalent would be the same flyers left on your parked car’s windshield.


Read More about “Graymail

We briefly discussed how graymail differs from spam in the definition. But there are more reasons for the distinction.

How Does Graymail Differ from Spam?

Graymail and spam are comparable on three fronts—permission, legitimacy, and content.

Graymail, as mentioned earlier, is sent only to subscribers who opt to get them. Spam, meanwhile, gets sent even to people who don’t wish to receive them.

Graymail comes from legitimate companies that rely on subscription forms users fill up with their contact details. Spam, on the other hand, typically comes from threat actors who use a list of stolen email addresses in hopes of luring their owners to visit specially crafted malicious pages, primarily phishing sites.

Finally, graymail provides valuable content, while spam doesn’t. What you see in graymail is something you are interested in, like a sale specific to the sender’s products. Spam usually contains information that you probably don’t need or want.

The following chart shows these distinctions.

graymail vs spam

When Was the Term “Graymail” Coined?

Microsoft Research first described the term “graymail” in 2007 and 2008 in a report researchers wrote to improve spam filtering. Specifically, “gray” refers to varying user perceptions of the same message. While some may think it’s bad (black), some may think it’s good (white).

Why Should Companies That Rely on Email Marketing Care about Graymail?

While graymail isn’t spam, it may be considered so even by users who opted to receive it over time. Why is that so? The recipients may have lost interest in the company’s products. As a result, they may do one of two things—unsubscribe if the option is available or mark the messages as spam.

Both actions would affect the organization’s email marketing results. Unsubscribing would result in a lower subscriber volume. Marking messages as spam, meanwhile, would have a more disastrous consequence—a poorer sender reputation.

What Does a Poor Sender Reputation Mean for Companies?

Internet service providers (ISPs) regularly evaluate your sender reputation so they can inform users if they can trust your messages or not. The sender reputation score determines how spam-like your messages are. The more times your emails get marked as spam or junk mail, the lower your sender reputation score gets. 

How Can Marketers Address Graymail?

Instead of viewing being marked as graymail as a negative, marketers can opt instead to take it as a sign that they need to focus on segmentation, personalization, and engagement.

Marketers should consider changing the segment a user falls under. They can do that by observing which messages resounded with that recipient in the past. Here, buyer personas can help with better customer segmentation.

Marketers should then customize the content to fit each persona better. Most people appreciate it when companies pay attention to their preferences.

Finally, marketers should find ways to re-engage customers. They can offer special discounts, for instance, to pique their interest.

Specific Steps Marketers Can Do to Address Graymail

Marketers can take these specific actions to lessen their graymail volume.

  • Clean your database regularly. That way, you’ll no longer send possibly unwanted mail to recipients who may have lost interest.
  • Use post-send engagement data to develop strategies to prevent recipients from routing your messages into other folders.
  • Test your email send frequency. You may need to lessen it.
  • Develop re-engagement campaigns for contacts who may have lost interest.
  • Improve your segmentation rules to send more personalized, relevant content that recipients will read.

Should Companies Block Graymail?

We’ve established that graymail isn’t spam, so the quick answer is no. Also, while some users in the organization may find such messages spammy, others may need to see them. A much better option, therefore, for the entire network is to let individual employees determine if they need to block the content.

But should graymail prove actually malicious, it would be best for companies to block it throughout the network.

As we’ve seen, graymail isn’t spam but may sometimes be considered spammy by recipients who’ve lost interest in its content.

Key Takeaways

  • Graymail refers to emails sent in bulk by a legitimate company to people who opted to receive them.
  • Graymail and spam differ in terms of permission, legitimacy, and content.
  • Microsoft Research first used the term “graymail” in 2007 and 2008, while researchers sought to improve spam filtering.
  • Marketers should look at their content being tagged as graymail as a sign that they need to improve their customer segmentation, personalization, and engagement.

Other interesting terms…