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Graymail: What It Is and What To Do About It

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When it comes to email marketing, there’s a range of analytics — from sends to clicks to bounces, that senders tend to focus on.

Then there’s the lesser known and checked statistic referred to in the industry as “graymail.”

Don’t know what this is? Graymail is the portion of email sent repeatedly by a company that is never opened by recipients. This signals out which contacts are likely still viable but aren’t being engaged by your content.

As a marketer, I’m sure you’re thinking, “So what? Every company has contacts in their database who don’t open their emails.” But paying attention to these inactive contacts can have big implications to your email marketing efforts.

Say you’re six months into your monthly enewsletter campaign to 10,000 people, when you discover that overall, about 20% of your contacts are engaging with your content. This is within the industry standard, so you go about your day, and prepare the next send to those 10,000 names. What you don’t know is that by continuing to send out emails to unengaged people, aka sending graymail, you are silently signalling to your email service provider (ESP) that you’re somewhat of a spammer.

You may be thinking, “Wait a second. I have followed all CANSPAM laws and all of these people opted in. I’m no spammer!” But put yourself in your ESP’s shoes. Their data is telling them that 80% of the contacts you are sending to are not being engaged. Which means, what you are sending is not relevant to them and therefore is a form of spam. Continued results like this will slowly weaken your sending reputation, which could negatively impact deliverability to those contacts who have engaged with your content in the past. It can also impact the chances of making it into new contacts inboxes.

What’s a marketer to do? You certainly don’t want to stop messaging those hard-fought-for names. Or do you? The answer, in many cases, might be yes, at least in the short term.

We know this is hard to hear. In fact, here are some of the common objections we hear when we tell marketers to stop sending graymail:

  • What if they’re just one email away from engaging?: Trust us, they aren’t. If they haven’t opened any of your last several emails, there’s a very good chance they aren’t interested in what you’re sending them. This does not mean you stop talking to them all together, but you may need to shift how and what messages you’re using. We’ll come back to this later.
  • Won’t shifting to “engaged only” mess up reporting? Not really the actual number of opens and clicks will not shift, so when comparing metrics over the next few months, pay attention to the real number, not the percentage.
  • My boss isn’t going to like going from 10,000 to 2,000 names overnight. We hate to say it this way, but unfortunately, those 10,000 names were a facade. Yes, of course you had them, they had opted in afterall, but only 20% engaged. If you reduce your list to those 2,000, you’re not losing  much because those folks will continue to engage. The sad truth is, the 8,000 who didn’t engage aren’t missing the content they didn’t read anyway.

Now that I’ve convinced you that graymail is bad, let’s talk about the benefits of discontinuing it:

  • You look authoritative to your ESP. Now, rather than 80% of your contacts not engaging regularly, most of them ARE engaging regularly. You now start to look like the content you’re providing is authoritative, helpful and legitimate. This can strengthen your sending reputation, which can make it easier to get into new inboxes in the future.
  • It’s easier to see trends. In a list of 10,000 contacts, if 100 people stopped opening, it’s hard to see that. If you’re now using a list of 2,000, and 100 people stop opening, you can detect and diagnose the problem and hopefully fix it.
  • Reduce your chance of unsubscribes. People who routinely engage aren’t generally going to unsubscribe from your emails, unless something unexpected happens with your messaging. You know who does unsubscribe? Those who are sick of getting email from you. Yep, we’re talking about your unengaged contacts. By removing them from your send list, you reduce the chance that they will opt out of your database, since you’re no longer hitting their inbox every month. This will give you time to think about how you re-engage them.

Speaking of re-engaging them, let’s go back to those 8,000 names and think through some ways to do just that:

  • Look at their contact record. See what first got them to join your database. Did they download a case study or whitepaper? If you can identify what piqued their interest in the past, send them another, more targeted email on the same topic. Better yet, send them an email that delves even deeper into their topic of interest.
  • People love “Top 5” lists. So send them an email highlighting the “Top 5 Blog Posts” people in their industry found helpful.
  • Incentivize them to act. Ask your contacts to take a survey, provide feedback on your site, whatever you think is relevant to them. Just make sure what you are asking them to do matches the  incentive you’re giving them.

Sadly, there will be people who, after all your efforts, won’t engage. Don’t take it personally. For whatever reason your content just isn’t what they are looking for and it’s time to remove them from your send lists all together. Maybe they’ll come back on their own and re-engage, so make sure you build out workflows that can monitor and track this behavior so you can add them back on your list, if and when the time presents itself.

With the right re-engagement campaign, you will get some response for your contacts. If you can get 12.5% of your 8,000 names to re-engage, you just successfully grew your engaged list by 50%. — And that is a success no matter how you look at it.

Interested in learning how best to handle and improve your email marketing? Contact Point To Point for a consultation.

Topics: General