Graymail: Stop Sending It and Spend Less Time Clearing Your Inbox

avoiding graymail small business email

Graymail. It’s not spam—but it’s not exactly email you’re excited to receive. Graymail is also bulk email you or your organization sends that might be inadvertently hurting your business—unless it’s kept in check.

Let’s dive into the gray waters of graymail: break down what it is, why it’s a problem, and how your company can deal with graymail better, both in your own inbox and in the emails your company is sending.

Graymail: What is it?

Bacn. Ham. Spam’s less annoying cousin. Online or around the office, there are all sorts of terms you may have heard used to describe graymail, and the term has been in use since 2007.

Graymail is a gray area of email, not in the technical or legal sense, but in the personal, subjective one. Graymail is tedious mail. That’s not only for the emails crowding your inbox, but for the outbound messages your own company may be sending.

Where spam is unsolicited, malicious email, graymail is email you signed up to receive, such as via a website’s subscription box or while making a purchase at a store. It’s email that’s benign—but annoying. You aren’t interested in every message anymore, but you don’t want to unsubscribe.

Here are four common examples of graymail:

  1. Promoting a product or service
  2. Shopping, such as coupons, new releases, or special sales or promotions
  3. Newsletters
  4. Social network updates

These may also be emails that you need to monitor, such as for leads or marketing ideas, or brands you occasionally shop, but you don’t need to engage with each and every new release, promotion, or other message. Now and again you do have to go through those emails, maybe read them, maybe delete them unread. All this can quickly add up to graymail becoming a time-sucking nuisance that’s always lurking in your inbox.

However, sometimes graymail can be useful. For example, a news company may be signed up for the lists of various local organizations. They need to keep an eye on those emails, but they’re not often relevant. They can’t unsubscribe, as sometimes those messages can lead to stories. For a consumer, graymail can be a brand that you want to receive updates from, but you shop that brand only when you have a specific need or are waiting for a particular sale or offer.

One quick note: Graymail isn’t the same thing as graylisting. They both just happen to have names that start with gray.

Why is graymail a problem?

Graymail is a two-fold problem:

  1. The graymail you receive in your inbox requires time to process, act on, and archive or delete. That’s time and energy that could have been dedicated to other work.
  2. The graymail your company sends could be annoying or alienating customers, and it may actually be hurting your company’s reputation as an email sender.

However, you can both reduce the amount of graymail coming into your business—and decrease the time you take dealing with it. Your organization can also take a few steps to cut down on the amount of sent email that might be perceived as graymail.

How to deal with graymail in your business inboxes

The first part of solving your graymail problem is reducing the amount of graymail you have to deal with in your own inbox. Luckily, many of the steps you need to take are the sort of thing you can do once and be in a much better place with graymail—as long as now and again you also take some time to do some reviewing, acting, and removing.


We’ll start with the most obvious: Unsubscribe from the lists you really don’t need to be on.

Can’t remember why you signed up for a list? Just purchased from that place once and won’t again? Do you have a personal contact in an organization you can reach out to one-on-one, instead of relying on information in a newsletter?

Go ahead and unsubscribe. After all, if it’s commercial email that complies with a relevant anti-spam law, that message will have an unsubscribe link. Odds are the link is at the bottom of the email and in teeny-tiny type, but it should be there. So use it.

Assert your preferences

Ever notice the “update your preferences” link that’s in some emails? It’s usually at the bottom, near that tiny unsubscribe link. Some email senders will allow you to tweak all sorts of things about the email you receive.

Don’t want a daily email? See if there’s a weekly or monthly option. Have more narrow interests than what you’ve been receiving? Some senders will list out topics that you can check to receive emails only on that topic or category.

Filter graymail to a dedicated space

Graymail does not need to be front-and-center in your primary inbox. Graymail does not deserve to flash or ding a notification on your phone. It should not be crowding out the emails that relate to the high-priority tasks in your life and work.

So don’t let graymail dominate your main inbox.

Luckily, more and more email providers, such as Google’s Gmail and G Suite email, can help you do this automatically. If your inbox has a folder, such as Promotions, you’ve got a built-in graymail repository. When graymail comes in, make sure you move that message to the promotions folder. (Some providers, such as Gmail, will also ask if you want all messages from this sender to go there, and it’s okay to say yes.)

If your email provider doesn’t have a built-in graymail area, set up your own “graymail” category, tags, or folder, and set up filters so that all that graymail automatically goes there. You don’t have to see graymail in your main inbox, but you know it’s in a place where you can find it—on your terms.

Review and clear your graymail regularly

Okay, the first three tips are mostly a do-once-and-don’t-worry-about-it thing. This last one, though, is the thing you have to do on an ongoing basis. You do actually have to go through your graymail and clear it out, preferably on a regular basis.

That doesn’t mean you have to read every single email. You don’t even have to open the message.

Pick a timeframe that you can commit to regularly, such as once a day or once a week. Then, commit to taking, say, up to 20 minutes to go through your graymail folder. If a subject line stands out to you, or there’s something in particular you’re looking for, open the email and take appropriate action to move forward with what’s in the message. Then archive the email so it’s cleared out of your graymail folder.

For all the other graymail? If there’s something you want to look at it, go for it. If not? Delete it unread, and delete any guilt, shame, or FOMO (fear of missing out) too.

Graymail doesn’t get to guilt you (besides, you’ll have more graymail soon enough). Clear it out, breathe a sigh of relief, and move on to your other priorities.

How to cut down on graymail you send out

There’s one other part of this graymail problem we do need to look, and that’s the graymail your organization is sending out to your own email list.

Yes, it’s true: Your company is sending graymail. You just might not know it.

The key is to make sure that your IT and marketing departments are reviewing your email metrics. (And remember, too, we’re not talking about one-on-one emails, we’re talking about opt-in emails that go out in bulk, such as newsletters or new product announcements.)

When your company sends, say, a newsletter or a promotional email, ask yourself (and your team): 

  • How many spam reports are you receiving? 
  • What percentage of subscribers are opening the email? 
  • What percentage of subscribers are clicking through from the into the desired call to action? 
  • Conversely, how many subscribers are deleting your emails unread? 
  • Or if they are opening the email, how many subscribers never or hardly ever engage beyond an open?

Those people who aren’t engaging? As far as they’re concerned, your company is sending them graymail.

The thing is, you can change that, and here are a few tips to try out:

Put your unsubscribe front and center

Hiding that unsubscribe link because you’re afraid someone might actually use it? Instead, put it at the top of the email, along with language that you only want the subscriber to get this email if they really want it.

Monitor your analytics and reports for subscribers who aren’t engaging

Maybe you’re looking for people who haven’t engaged with one of your emails for a month, six months, or even a year. Maybe you’re looking for people who open, but never click through. Whatever the metric is, review your email reports for the people who are not engaging.

And then?

Try to re-engage them

Put together a short series of emails for a re-engagement campaign. This usually takes the form of a special time exclusive offer, or perhaps some other sort of special incentive. For the people who become more engaged, you’ve reignited their interest in your brand and message.

And for those who don’t respond?

Let them go

It’s okay to unsubscribe people from your email list. After all, if a high percentage of your list isn’t engaging, email providers will notice that—and they may downgrade or penalize your messages. Or worse, start sending your emails to the black hole of the spam/junk folder.

On the other hand, a high percentage of engagement, even on a smaller overall list, means your organization is getting more for your marketing dollar, you’re not spending money on having a list that’s larger but less engaged, and you can more tightly cater your messaging to people who you know want to hear from you.

Graymail is here to stay, but it doesn’t have to stay annoying

Look, there’s no permanent cure for graymail. Graymail is subjective, and one’s person nuisance mail is going to be the email that makes someone else’s day.

However, how much graymail you send and receive is at least in part under your control. Put the tips above to work, and you can have less graymail—and more awesomemail.

Posted in: Email Productivity

Anthony St. Clair

Anthony St. Clair

Anthony St. Clair is a business copywriter, author of the Rucksack Universe travel fantasy series, and a craft beer writer specializing in Oregon. Learn more at

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