‘Graymail’: How It Will Affect Your Email Program

Many marketers have been asking about Hotmail’s new “graymail” filter and how it will affect their email programs. My most frequent answer is “It depends,” because many factors affect whether graymail filters will improve or hurt your email efforts.

Essentially, if you send email that your subscribers find valuable, graymail filtering should improve your email response. If you don’t send engaging content, graymail filtering could mean death to email response as you know it.

What Is “Graymail”?

In an earlier column (“5 Steps to Cook the ‘Bacn'”), I addressed graymail as “bacn,” the email industry’s term for spam’s legitimate cousin (pronounced like “bacon” but spelled differently to avoid confusion with the popular pork product).

Unlike spam, a “bacn” email is one recipients actually requested, such as Facebook and Twitter notifications, Google News updates, and Groupon daily deals. However, those recipients no longer read those emails regularly. Maybe they don’t think the content is interesting, or they no longer use the products or services advertised, or the sending frequency is too high.

Dick Craddock, Hotmail group program manager, recently posted on the Inside Windows Live blog that only 14 percent of the messages we receive are true person-to-person messages that we highly value. In contrast, 75 percent are graymail that we may or may not value.

How Graymail Filtering Works

Hotmail developed new tools to help subscribers manage that graymail. I expect ISPs and other email clients will follow suit.

The Schedule Cleanup tool allows users to automate message deletion. They can choose to keep only the latest newsletter, delete messages after a week, or move messages from a specific sender to a folder after a set time.

More changes from Hotmail:

  • Emails you flag get pinned to the top of your inbox and stay there.
  • You can create custom categories for messages you want to keep.
  • Advanced folder management tools will let you organize your messages en masse, such as by moving all messages from a sender into the new folder.

Many of these features already exist in Microsoft’s Outlook client.

Make Graymail Filtering Work for Your Email Program

The best strategy to avoid any ill effects from graymail filtering is to deliver relevant and value-filled messages to your subscribers.

It all begins with permission. B2B marketers often assume email permission from customers and prospects that have a previous business relationship with their firms, but many recipients see it differently.

They might not understand why they are receiving email from you. Worse, they could think you are invading their privacy when you send an email newsletter that they didn’t request.

Assuming opt-in is the lowest level of permission you can receive. Your legal counsel might deem it legal under your country’s regulations of promotional email, but your subscribers usually expect more.

I prefer focusing on quality (recipients who actively choose to receive marketing email) over quantity (a large number of subscribers who may or may not want to receive your marketing email).

The gold-standard approach is to allow recipients to check a box and then confirm via a response to an email that they want to receive your marketing messages (known as closed-loop confirmation or double opt-in).

At minimum, I recommend setting the proper expectations for what the subscriber will receive from you via email and using a checked box opt-in online. Also, confirm all opt-in requests promptly (whether generated online or offline) with a welcome message that allows subscribers to unsubscribe easily if they joined by mistake.

Ongoing engagement is the key. ISPs track a host of positive activities to determine a subscriber’s engagement with your email. Among them are the following:

  • Opening the message
  • Clicking through links
  • Scrolling through the message
  • Enabling images
  • Adding your sender email address to an online address book

What are negative traits to an ISP?

  • Deleting the message
  • Reporting the message as spam
  • Marking messages as read without opening
  • Ignoring messages
  • Moving the message to the trash

Training your recipient to delete your unwanted messages is the last thing you want to do. When that happens, your important email messages also become effectively invisible to your subscribers.

Don’t blast irrelevant content. Have a clear goal in mind for your message. Be sure your recipient shares this goal.

Decide whether your email’s purpose is to educate, inform, start a conversation, or drive a sale before you start writing. Knowing the goal will help you stay on track and deliver value to your recipients.

Make certain your subject lines and email creative effectively answer the recipient’s question “What’s in it for me?” Segment your subscriber base according to their interests, and write clear, engaging copy that addresses those interests.

The Last Word

Graymail filtering should not be scary if you are running an effective and optimized email marketing program. Continue to segment, develop relevant content, and continually test and improve your program.

If you build it the right way, they will not filter.

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