Silverpop - The Lessons of Microsoft’s “Graymail” Changes
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The Lessons of Microsoft’s “Graymail” Changes

by: Dave Walters (@_DaveWalters)
16 November 2011

Fresh off its effort to drive spam below 3 percent in the inbox, Microsoft’s Hotmail team has turned its attention to a newly minted villain: “graymail.” It defines this new class of email content as “legitimate newsletters, offers or notifications that you just don’t want anymore” and pegs it as 75 percent of what users were previously reporting as spam.

If you’re a serious emailer, that last sentence probably quantifies what we all know intuitively: Despite working hard to make opt-outs clear and simple, some users still find it easier to report email as spam. Keeping our lists fresh and the content relevant are still the top two strategies for successful mailers.

While new improvements in the ongoing fight against spam are always needed, you may be wondering what these changes mean to your deliverability strategy.

Three Key Areas
I won’t reiterate every detail from the Windows Team blog post on graymail, but its solutions break down into three macro categories: user tools, categorization and cleanup. From a sender’s perspective, the user tools are primarily centered on filing and flagging which are solid UI additions to the product.

Anything that allows recipients to more intelligently organize and manage messages is a good thing. The categorization effort is where things start to get interesting. First, Microsoft has (presumably) used existing data to determine that 50 percent of the non-spam content of any given inbox is “Newsletters & Deals.” The next tier by message volume is “Social Updates,” which it pegs at 17 percent. So, in essence, it’s now targeting this combined 67 percent of a user’s inbox with the new Sweep functionality. Microsoft claims it’s 95 percent accurate on its first-pass classification and should theoretically get better as the algorithm is enhanced by crowd-sourced data.

As a user, you may have a philosophical objection to an ISP treating content you’ve requested as a second-class category, but we’ll save that user-centered debate for another post. In fact, I’d contend the classification is great—it’s the cleanup features downstream that start to complicate life for legitimate marketers.

The issue is that new sender-specific rules are coming to town—rules like “delete everything but the most recent message” or “delete after 10 days if unread.” New filters like these should remind us of the importance of timely content sent to an audience that clearly understands its importance. This calls for an even deeper consideration of behavior-triggered messaging (which always feels timely versus blast communications) and renews the importance of A/B testing to optimize content. At the end of the day, these new rules make the first hour of inbox time more critical than ever.

Just the Beginning?
It’s easy to see how this type of content-level segmentation helps pull users out of an all-too-common email behavior: hoarding. While some users prefer to manage their email this way, my guess is the majority simply find it easier to chew up disk space than deleting a message. By accurately categorizing the messages, it opens the possibility for more user- and system-specific controls in the future—which likely reduces the cost-to-serve equation in Microsoft’s favor.

Solution: Less Blasting, Deeper Relationships
As an email marketer, one solution is to be actively moving toward longer-term relationships with your subscribers and thinking deeply about how that changes your tactics for the channel. And don’t limit your thinking to just message content—how you use Web analytics data and where your form data lives are critical issues to cover. The bottom line is that not every message requires a “Buy Now” link by which it’s judged—every so often, people simply like to be thanked or asked a question. Be human!


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