I originally wrote this for my internship on July 1. You can find the original blog post here. I wanted to share this here because the topic recently came up again at my job and I was reminded of how hard I had worked on this.

Ding. An email rolls in; it reads “Final Fourth of July Opportunities!” as the subject line. Ding. Another one. This one titled “Newsletter: July 2016”.

These emails slip through your spam filter and into your email because you specifically signed up for them. They are a slight nuisance, but not enough of one to take the time to unsubscribe or send them to the black-hole known as your spam inbox (just yet). They are about things you might have an interest in purchasing or reading later, but not at this moment. They are graymail, or, in keeping with the meat-themed emails, bacon (spelled bacn).

So what is graymail?

Graymail, coined by Hotmail, is a term used to describe solicited emails that don’t fit the definition of spam emails. In other words, they’re those annoying emails you get from that online store you bought your niece’s Christmas gifts from when you had to put your email in to finally checkout. Most people just pass over them when checking their email. They’re usually characterized by a waning interest over time until finally, out of sheer annoyance, you mark them as spam. It’s been estimated that 82 percent of emails in your inbox rights now are graymail and 75 percent of all spam identified by Hotmail users is actually unwanted graymail.

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HubSpot recently published an article on Medium about what happened when they unsubscribed 250,000 people from their new-content emails – without asking. “Although it’s not considered spam,” HubSpot wrote, “sending graymail is problematic because it can hurt the deliverability of your email overall.”

The first thing they did was to set up a system to unsubscribe subscribers once they became unengaged with the content. After six months of not clicking on the email, the subscribers become unsubscribed.

“If you think we didn’t have anxiety about unsubscribing 45% of our list, you’re dead wrong. But once we got over the sticker shock, we realized there wasn’t really anything to be worried about,” HubSpot wrote, “the people we were unsubscribing hadn’t clicked through to our blog from any of the emails we’d sent them over the course of the last 6 months, so we weren’t at risk of losing any email traffic.”

After cutting down the list by 45 percent, HubSpot removed the “instant” subscription option. Instead of sending users an email every time their blog was updated, these users now received a daily email with an aggregate of the day’s best posts. Subscribers were made aware of this decision with HubSpot noting “their inboxes would be a little lighter for it”.

But why does eliminating dormant subscribers and removing graymail from users’ inboxes matter?

It matters because your email server is smart. Gmail, Yahoo, AOL, Hotmail, they’re actively studying their users’ habits. They learn what kind of things you like to read, what you’re interested in and what things you don’t pay attention to.

If you have 10 people all receiving the same email but eight of them don’t engage any further than opening the welcome email, the servers learn that this is something that’s of little interest and will start hiding these emails from consumers. Even actively engaged subscribers, the ones who want to see what you have created, will have their emails hidden because the majority view the content as graymail. By having a majority subscriber population that’s inactive, you’re actually allowing the servers to see your emails as irrelevant and unimportant.

Graymail isn’t spam; however, it is content that’s perceived to be spam-like by the receiver. It’s important to keep an eye on post-send engagement data. But don’t worry – lower engagement numbers aren’t a death sentence. Sometimes, like HubSpot learned, it’s important to rework your system to better blanket your consumers. Graymail and unengaged users are simply an opportunity to learn more about your target consumers and what messages work. Learning from your graymail, as HubSpot wrote, “[is] a better experience for the recipient and, thus, a better result for the marketer.”

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