Skip to main content

What is Graymail?

by Adestra

Aug 22nd 2013


Between 2004 and 2010 some of the biggest ISPs (Internet Service Providers) held a conference called CEAS, the Collaboration, Electronic messaging, Anti-Abuse and Spam conference. Sponsored by Microsoft, its purpose was to share research and insights on the technological aspects of dealing with email services and, in particular, spam.

An illustration of a full inbox

At the 2007 conference a paper was presented by Microsoft researchers called “Improving Spam Filtering by Detecting Gray Mail”. It really established the concept of graymail:

“We address the problem of gray mail – messages that could reasonably be considered either spam or good.”

(Note we’ve since dropped the space between words, I don’t know whose idea that was)

They essentially described a third type of email.

  1. Spam is email you haven’t given permission to receive and don’t want. ISPs already have mechanisms for dealing with this; blacklisting, blocking and filtering. They can stop over 90% of spam reaching your inbox.
  2. Good email is messages you do want to receive; emails from friends, colleagues, or promotional emails you did sign-up for.
  3. Graymail sits between these two; mainly newsletters or notifications you did sign-up for or give permission to receive, but no longer want.

There is also another term to describe this type of mail: Bacn. The term was coined around the same time, but at PodCamp Pittsburgh 2 by some people who, I imagine, were trying to have a bit more fun. You get to say that your inbox is full of spam and bacn. Lucky you.

The way to deal graymail or bacn seems obvious, if it’s email you don’t want any more you simply unsubscribe. However, Microsoft’s research shows that:

“”¦75% of the email messages that people reported as spam are really legitimate newsletters.”

So clearly a gap exists between what is technically considered spam, and what is perceived as spam by email users.

To tackle this issue, ISPs have been introducing a number of tools over the last few years to allow users to manage their inboxes, and their graymail, more effectively. Gmail’s tabbed inbox is the latest example of these.

In future posts we’ll take a closer look at the tools introduced by Hotmail (now rebranded Outlook) and Gmail to deal with graymail, and consider what these mean for the ISPs, users and marketers.

In my next post, however, I’d like to discuss why the ISPs feel they need to tackle this issue at all.

Please feel free to add any thoughts or questions in the comments section below.