50 Shades of Graymail: Why Your Email Ends Up in the Spam Folder

Best Practices, Email Marketing

why email goes to spam

Your brand has been diligently collecting email addresses to ensure that each and every address you send to has opted in. You send your marketing messages at a consistent cadence. Your emails are compliant with CAN-SPAM and CASL, and you make sure to remove those folks who opt out or bounce.

And yet, you’ve heard from some subscribers that your messages are going to the spam folder. Even worse, you are noticing your overall open rates beginning to decline. But you aren’t a spammer! So, what gives?

It is highly likely your email is falling into the category we in the industry refer to as graymail. Graymail is email that is not exactly spam, but is not exactly wanted by recipients, either. At least, it is not always wanted.

Graymail is almost always sent from a legitimate sender to folks who have opted in, but it tends to generate low levels of engagement from recipients.

Send Wanted Email

It wasn’t so long ago that most inbox providers viewed email as either spam or not spam. If an email looked malicious or appeared to be completely unsolicited, it would be filtered to the spam folder. If an email appeared to be something that recipients opted into, it would be delivered to the inbox.

As the volume of email the average person receives continues to grow, inbox providers have found it necessary to stop viewing the world of spam as one that is black and white and widen their definition of what is and what is not spam. While their efforts do mean that more “legitimate” email is being filtered to the spam folder, the goal of these inbox providers is not to penalize marketers. Rather, their goal is to make sure that only wanted email makes the inbox so that their customers will continue using their product. This is an important point to keep in mind.

So, how do inbox providers determine what email is wanted and what email is not? Put simply, it’s all about engagement. Are the recipients of your email opening your messages or do they simply delete them from their inbox? Do recipients mark your messages as spam? Do they reply to your messages, or forward them to their friends, or move them to a folder in their inbox that’s not the spam folder? These are all things inbox providers such as Gmail and Yahoo are looking at to determine how engaged your recipients are with your messages.

The more positive engagement signals they see for your mailings, the more certain they will be that your email is wanted and the better your inbox placement will be. Conversely, negative engagement signals such as spam complaints or large amounts of emails going unopened are all factors that contribute to more of your messages being filtered to the spam folder.

With the above in mind, I’ve outlined the “ART” of navigating the world of Graymail below:

Amplify the positive

Are there things you are doing that are working great? Do certain types of emails you send generate higher open or click rates than others? Consistently monitoring your results is key to identifying tactics and strategies that are working well and those that are not. If something is working, do more of it. Some things to look for are:

  • Frequency/Cadence – Do you see better results when you send fewer campaigns in a given time? Or maybe you see better open rates and clicks when you send more? (Reference our 2017 Email Benchmark Report to see how your sending frequency stacks up with others in your industry.)
  • Content – Does the use of personalization in your subject lines or content seem to produce better results? Have you seen better results when sending shorter, more focused emails? Do your recipients react more positively when you utilize more images or less?
  • Strategy – Have you found tactics and strategies that have successfully encouraged more positive behavior from recipients such as asking folks to reply to your message with product feedback, asking recipients to forward your message to their friends, etc?

Reduce the negative

Along with identifying what is working well, it is just as (if not more) important to keep an eye on your results so that you can identify what is not working and could be causing your sending reputation damage. Continuing to send email that is not generating positive results will make it harder for you to get future emails to the inbox. Here are some negative signals to look out for:

  • Spam complaints – When your recipients report your message as spam to their inbox provider or actively move your message to their junk/spam folder, inbox providers see this a strong negative signal. Generally, when your email generates more than 1 spam complaint for every 1,000 emails you send, inbox providers will start filtering your message to the spam folder at a higher rate. The higher that spam complaint rate goes, the more likely it is your messages will land in the spam folder. If you see your spam complaint rates that are cresting that 0.1% mark, it’s a signal that your recipients are receiving email they either don’t feel like they requested from you or that the content they are receiving from you is not relevant.
  • Unengaged subscribers – Are you continuing to send to users who haven’t opened an email from you in the past month? 3 months? A year or more? Continuing to send to folks who never engage with your email is another strong, negative signal to inbox providers that you, as a sender, are not paying attention to your email list quality. We typically suggest stopping sending to, or at least greatly reducing frequency to, addresses that have not opened an email you’ve sent them in the past 3-6 months. You really, really don’t want to send to addresses that have gone a year without engaging.
  • Blocks due to “user over quota” –  Along with sending to unengaged users, another negative signal that inbox providers will certainly pick up on is continued sending to addresses that are full or “over quota.” If you see a large number of block reasons being returned that reference over quota or full inboxes, that’s a good sign that you are sending to unengaged addresses, as folks with full mailboxes are typically those who aren’t just not engaging with your email, but aren’t engaging with their own inbox at all.

Tune your program for success

When it comes to preventing your emails from sliding down the graymail spectrum and ending up in the spam folder, there are some key points of your email program that deserve regular review.

  • Sign up processSetting proper expectations at the point of address collection may just be the most important thing you can do to prevent your emails from falling into that graymail category. Are you letting your subscribers know what they can expect from you at the point they give you their email address? Do you tell them how often you will be sending to them? Do you provide your subscribers options for how often they want to hear from you or options for what types of content they want? Are you adding folks to your marketing email list without them actively asking to be added?
  • Welcome email/series – The moment a person signs up for your email list is the moment they are most engaged with your brand. Making sure to send a welcome email or series goes a long way toward building your recipients’ trust in your brand. Those welcome emails are a great place to reinforce why they signed up, what they can expect, and why they want to look forward to your emails.
  • Sunset policy – Making sure that you are continually reducing frequency to and removing those addresses that are not engaging with your emails is critical to getting to and staying in the inbox. Putting a policy in place that ensures unengaged folks don’t continue receiving your email in perpetuity helps automate this process and keep your email list healthy. As mentioned above, we typically suggest removing folks from your list who haven’t opened an email from you in the past 3-6 months. While the guidelines we provide come from information given to us by the major inbox providers, each sender has different circumstances and needs when it comes to a sunset policy. Continually testing what that proper point to sunset an address is for your situation and results is key to success. There’s rarely, however, a good case for sending to folks who have not opened in the last year.
  • Preferences page – Once a recipient begins receiving your email, do you offer them the ability to choose to receive fewer emails from you? Offering your subscribers the option to “opt-down” instead of opting out is a great way to keep subscribers you might otherwise lose while letting them tell you how much email they want. Remember, an opt-out is better than a spam complaint, and an “opt -own” is better than an opt-out. You might be surprised at how many folks might choose to receive a weekly digest rather than opting out from or stopping engaging with your daily email.

When it comes to sending wanted email, there’s no more powerful tool available to you as a sender than your own metrics. Continually monitoring those metrics with sending wanted email as the goal is key to getting as many emails to the inbox as possible. Those numbers will help you identify what’s working, find places for improvement, and fine tune your email program for maximum success.

If you want more information on looking at your delivery and engagement results, we have a great blog post titled “Why Your Email Delivery Metrics Change, and What to Do About It.” And for all the details email delivery, download SendGrid’s 2017 Deliverability Guide.


Will Boyd
More Posts by Will
Will has spent the last 5 years in the email delivery world helping senders get their messages to the folks that want them. Having spent most of his life in his home state of Tennessee, Will is loving the ‘real’ mountains of Colorado and lack of humidity. When he’s not thinking about email delivery, Will is an avid blues music fan and amateur blues historian. "