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Graymail vs. Spam: Protecting Your Business Inbox

Learn the differences between graymail vs. spam and how to prevent sending graymail messages that don’t reach your target audience.

Email is one of the most important aspects of running an online business. But if you're sending out bulk messages to hundreds or thousands of customers, you need to make sure those emails are reaching your intended target audience and not being marked as spam.

Graymail messages are one of the biggest potential issues with marketing emails — even if your messages aren't being marked as spam. Graymail can make it difficult to reach your customers with promotional offers, new product updates, and announcements about your business.

If you’re sending unwanted emails to customers, your business email may get blacklisted. A blacklisted email makes it harder to connect with your customers through email marketing, which means even less email marketing success for your business.

In this guide, we’ll talk about graymail messages and how they’re different from spam. We’ll also take an in-depth look at how graymail works and what you can do to avoid sending graymail to protect your business inbox.

Graymail refers to emails that customers opt in for but never open. While graymail isn’t considered spam, it does have a negative effect on your email marketing efforts. Graymail messages typically end up in a separate folder outside of your primary inbox, which makes it difficult to reach your audience with marketing emails.

How does graymail work

Internet services providers (ISPs) discover and categorize graymail messages based on whether the customer who receives the email engages with it. If someone signs up for your mailing list and decides they’re getting too many emails from you, those emails can become graymail as recipients stop engaging with them.

As ISPs categorize and filter out graymail messages, they learn more about graymail and how to detect it. Email service providers take messages that are flagged as graymail and move them outside of primary inboxes, hurting your email marketing efforts.

Differences between graymail and spam

Understanding the differences between graymail and spam is important for your business so you can be aware of how your marketing emails are being flagged.

There are several differences between graymail vs. spam, including:

Content and intent

While graymail messages are typically promotional, everything is above board, and the intent is to sell real products and services to customers.

In many cases, graymail starts with a recipient signing up for emails in exchange for discounts. After receiving dozens of emails, that customer may decide to stop opening emails from your business and allow them to be flagged as graymail.

Spam comes in several forms, but the intent is often to trick or scam people. Spam emails are commonly used in phishing scams and social engineering scams.

Opt-in vs. no consent

Consent is another key aspect of graymail. People consent to receive graymail at some point, while spam emails are sent with no consent from the recipient.

Every graymail message starts with an individual opting to receive marketing emails. Some people may opt-in accidentally, while others may sign up to receive sale announcements and special discounts. As people stop opening these marketing emails, they become graymail.

Spam is typically sent to hundreds or thousands of email addresses that didn’t opt-in for those messages.

Sender legitimacy

In most cases, graymail comes from honest businesses that are trying to build larger customer bases. Spam, on the other hand, usually comes from email addresses with a poor email sender reputation.

While having graymail messages flagged can have a negative effect on your email newsletters and promotional emails, your email isn't flagged for malicious activity. However, if you send an unsolicited email to a list of email addresses, your address may be flagged as spam, and your email address may be blacklisted.

People are getting smarter about spam and phishing scams every year, so having a positive sender reputation is a key part of conveying your marketing message.

Frequency and volume

Spam messages are sent with no regard for the recipient's inbox, while graymail is usually sent automatically on a schedule based on your email marketing plan.

If you have a personal inbox that receives a lot of spam emails, you know how frequent they can be. Some spammers send several emails in a single day with the hopes of luring people into scams. This high frequency and volume of emails makes it easier for ISPs to detect and flag spam.

Graymail isn't nearly as frequent as spam. Marketing emails should be spaced out a bit to make sure you're not overwhelming your customers. In fact, sending fewer marketing emails can be an effective way to stop graymail.

User engagement

Perhaps the biggest difference between spam and graymail is that graymail is flagged based on user engagement.

In order for a message to be flagged as graymail, the recipient has to ignore that message. This usually happens when someone signs up for marketing emails from your business but decides they're not interested after a few weeks or months.

Spam has little to do with user engagement and more to do with the content of the messages. ISPs have improved spam detection over the years, making it easier to separate legitimate messages from spam.


While graymail is filtered out of primary inboxes and sent to other folders, spam is filtered into its own unique folder. Graymail is more of an annoyance than a risk, but spam emails may contain malicious links, viruses, and other content that can be harmful to recipients.

If your emails are flagged as spam, ISPs and email service providers may blacklist or graylist your address. Avoiding spam and graymail filters is an essential part of email marketing for businesses of all sizes.

Both graymail and spam can pose serious risks to your business and damage your reputation. Some of the main risks of sending graymail and spam include:

Security threats

While graymail in itself is more of an annoyance than a threat, graymail can make it easier for security threats to slip through the cracks.

The biggest issue surrounding graymail and security is desensitization. If a recipient's inbox is filled with graymail, they're used to seeing their inbox filled with what essentially looks like spam. Over time, it may become harder for those recipients to tell the difference between advertisements and malicious emails.

Some spam senders even attempt to disguise their messages as graymail, encouraging people to click malicious links or get infected with malware.

Legal implications

An inbox full of graymail can be an annoyance for recipients, but that's about the extent of it. You won't get in trouble for sending graymail, and you typically don't have to worry about your email address getting blacklisted.

Spam is entirely different when it comes to legal implications. Email providers may blacklist your IP address if you're sending bulk messages that are flagged as spam. Under the CAN-SPAM Act, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) or state attorneys general can sue on behalf of spam recipients.

Reputation damage

Both graymail and spam can damage your reputation as a business over time. People prefer doing business with reputable companies, and your business doesn't look very reputable if your messages are being flagged as spam or sent to secondary inbox folders.

While graymail won't do as much damage to your reputation as spam, you don't want people to view your company as an annoyance.

Resource drain

Sending emails to your email list might seem easy enough, but every step you add to your email marketing campaign takes a toll.

If you're sending several newsletters or promotional emails each week and most of them are being ignored, you're wasting time and money. You're also spending more time and money on your email marketing campaign to get worse results.

As a result of your emails being flagged as graymail, you have to spend even more time fixing your email marketing campaign and preventing graymail in the future.

As a business owner, perfecting your email marketing campaign can be a lot of work. Fortunately, you can avoid spam filters and prevent graymail with a few simple steps.

Start by making it easy for recipients to unsubscribe from emails. Each email should include an unsubscribe link that allows people who recently opted to receive your emails to opt-out.

You can also look at your marketing emails to figure out what's working and what isn't. If your newsletters are being opened, but promotional emails get ignored, focus on crafting the best newsletter. You should also think about reducing the volume of promotional emails to make sure you're not overwhelming users.

Quality matters a lot in email marketing, so take the time to create valuable promotional content. Users expect value when they sign up for your mailing list, which means you need to focus on quality instead of churning out bulk mail.

Understand graymail to safeguard your business

Graymail and spam are serious issues for small and medium-sized businesses. Having your newsletters and transactional emails flagged as graymail can make it difficult to connect with your customers, and spam emails can even get your email address blacklisted.

Understanding how graymail works and how to prevent it can be tough, but Mailchimp is here to help. We have all the tools you need to create the best marketing content and avoid graymail and spam filters, including email marketing tools, content creation tools, and reporting and analytics. Contact Mailchimp to learn how our diverse set of marketing solutions can help you create the best marketing emails.

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