Cold Emails: Can They Work, Or Are They Just Spam?

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Cold emails are unsolicited emails sent to previously uncontacted recipients.

The term has a bad reputation. To many, cold emails are synonymous with spam and a nuisance—one reason why U.S. workers spend 3.2 hours checking their work email each day.

Why would anyone want to use cold email? Because, when done well, it can work. Cold email is not a replacement for inbound methods but a supplement—a way to drive near-term growth while inbound campaigns gain traction.

Additionally, cold emails are often part of account-based marketing strategies. For example, cold emails can deliver company-specific case studies directly to prospects’ inboxes.

Still, it’s easy to get cold emails wrong. Here’s how to increase the chances of success with cold email.

The potential advantages of cold email

Compared to other outbound communications, cold emails have three potential advantages, especially when compared to cold calls:

  1. Cold emails reach users where they spend the most time—their inbox. For many, the inbox is the core of their day. As Jason Lemkin notes, “Senior folks are super-engaged with their inbox [. . .] Sometimes, senior execs do little more in a crowded day than attend meetings—and monitor their inboxes.”
  2. Cold emails are persistent. A sales pitch on Twitter or Facebook has the potential to be seen by thousands of people, but anyone who isn’t checking their timeline right then will likely miss it. An email waits on the recipient.
  3. Cold emails are scalable. You can only knock on so many doors or make so many cold calls each day. Cold email can potentially reach thousands with the click of a button—which also happens to be the big problem with cold email.

But isn’t cold email just another name for spam?

The features that make cold email so powerful also make it a tool of choice for scammers and spammers. If you want to use cold email for your business, you need to address two challenges:

  1. Cold emails that are defined as spam (legislation, CAN-SPAM);
  2. Cold emails that are perceived as spam (nuisance, irrelevant).

With the usual proviso that I’m not a lawyer and nothing in this post constitutes legal advice, laws regarding unsolicited email vary depending on where you send emails. Review the laws for where you plan to send cold emails.

The most well-known piece of legislation on commercial email is the U.S. CAN-SPAM Act. The act bars deceptive header information or subject lines. As your inbox likely makes clear to you daily, it’s not a perfect solution. Plenty of spammy emails are legal.

Few legitimate businesses will struggle to resolve the first challenge. The second is more complex. To send emails that people not only open but are happy to receive requires work, which I’ve detailed below in an eight-step process.

8 steps to make cold email successful

There is no perfect cold email. Often, “successful” cold email strategies end up in a blog post, which leads thousands to replicate it, destroying its effectiveness in the process.

The good news is that—since we’ve all been on the receiving end of cold emails—we bring insight into what we hate and what we don’t mind (or even appreciate). It all starts with research.

1. Research

The most important thing you can do for your cold email campaign is to send relevant messages. One of my pet peeves is when people describe good salespeople as being able to “sell sand in the desert.” Sure, that takes skill, but doesn’t it make more sense to sell water?

It’s the same for your emails. We’re all in our personal desert. But most emails offer more sand. If you want to send relevant emails—to sell water—you need to create an Ideal Customer Profile (ICP).

While knowing basic company information (such as size and location) is useful for finding the right targets, go deeper:

  • Details like sales team size and structure can help strategy and targeting. For example, Is the person who uses your product/service the decision-maker, or is there someone higher up?
  • Demographic information such as average age and education level can influence the tone of your content. Your audience of qualified computer scientists may respond positively to technical terms; a conversational tone with that same audience may undermine credibility.
  • Psychographics can provide insight on the “why”—what problem consumers need to solve and their concerns or opinions that relate to your product. Those insights help make cold email content more relevant, rather than a vague pitch for your product.

It’s easy to get carried away and add pointless (or imaginary) details to your ICP. Base your ICP on hard data—surveys or interviews with your existing customers or target audience.

When you have an ICP, there are three important questions to ask:

  • Are these people who could potentially be successful clients?
  • Are these people that could benefit from using our product/service?
  • Would these people buy our product/service?

If you’ve answered yes to all three questions, you’re ready to move on to the next step.

This research will feed every other component of your cold email, so avoid any temptation to skip it.

2. Recipients

Knowing what your ideal customers look like is great, but now you need to find them. There are two ways to do this:

  • Buy a list.
  • Build a list.

Plenty of companies will sell you a list of names and email addresses. Many sellers have poor reputations—and poor data. Lists are often untargeted, and the addresses are unverified or out of date.

There are some reputable sellers with high-quality lists, but it’s easy to throw your money away. My recommendation is to build your own list of prospects.

Using the criteria from your ICP, find the ideal company where your customers work. An easy method is to use a company database like Crunchbase.

You can apply filters for all sorts of useful criteria, such as multiple business categories, location, funding status, number of employees, and plenty more:

crunchbase filtering

Another method—a personal favorite for larger customers—is to monitor industry news outlets. If your ideal customer is in the technology sector, monitor TechCrunch or TechRepublic for headlines on new and growing companies.

Alternatively, set up a Google Alert based on your chosen criteria. If a target company has just announced a new initiative, product, or round of funding, referencing these details can help your email stand out.  

Once you’ve identified the company, it’s time to find the right person, along with their contact details. I prefer LinkedIn for this. It’s also a great opportunity to gather info to personalize your cold email.

If you’ve found your ideal customer but can’t find their email address, there are several options.

  • Our own Name2Email extension can quickly suggest possible addresses;
  • Tools like Hunter.io or ContactOut let you know publicly available emails (as well as the most common address pattern) for a given domain.
name2email extension

A third option is to go offline and start networking at conferences and events for people who match your buyer persona.

Undoubtedly, this takes more effort and costs more. However, by meeting your potential prospects face to face, you start a conversation before you ever write an email. You can skip the “cold email” phase entirely.

The more highly-targeted your list, the better the results will be. Account-based marketers, in particular, work with carefully tailored lists:

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3. Subject lines

Subject lines are one of the first things a prospect will see and largely determine if your recipients open your message.

In desperation, some email marketers resort to misleading subject lines. You’ve seen them: Adding ‘’RE:” or “‘FWD:” to the start of the subject line makes it look like the emails come from an existing contact. Even worse: Using “URGENT:” when the email is anything but.

Not only do misleading subject lines break the CAN-SPAM regulations, but they also annoy your recipients. Sure, it may get the message opened—but it won’t get you any closer to a sale. And if recipients mark your messages as spam, it will hurt your domain rating and future delivery rates.

So what makes a good subject line?

Clarity over cleverness.People will likely decide whether they’ll open your email in just a couple of seconds, maybe less. If they have to spend time decoding your subject line, you’re reducing the chance they’ll open the email.

Questions and curiosity. The human brain hates open loops. If there’s a question, we want to know the answer.  It’s why that cliffhanger in your favorite TV series pulls you through the entire season.

You can get the same effect with your subject lines. It may be as simple as a straightforward question, or you can raise curiosity about the exact content of your email. Again, just make sure you don’t sacrifice clarity.

Use this tactic with caution. It may be better for your warm email list.

Short and concise. According to research by Mailchimp, there’s no statistical link between subject line length and open rates. However, in our experience, we’ve found that 3–5 words is a sweet spot.

Why? Short messages are quicker to read and respect readers’ time. Additionally, with more messages being read on mobile devices, long subject lines are likely to be cut off.

4. Content

After you’ve persuaded recipients to open your email, you need to deliver high-quality content to differentiate your email from everything else in their inbox.

Offer value to the recipient. Recipients should feel like reading your email has in some small way improved their day. This could be as simple as making them smile.

For example, Jon Buchan of Charm Offensive is known for his humorous B2B emails, usually with pictures of cute animals included as attachments. Here’s an excerpt from one of his successful campaigns:

(Image source)

Another way to stand out is to offer a tangible way to reduce a pain point. Remember your research and your ICP? Use this to demonstrate how you can reduce a specific problem or fill a need.

  • If they’re worried about filling a sales position in their organization, send them a link to your whitepaper on recruitment.
  • If they need to upgrade their ancient computer hardware, send them a 20% discount for their first purchase.
  • If they want to reduce their telephone bills, send them a summary of the best VoIP solutions available.

Don’t make them jump through any unnecessary hoops. If you’ve sent them a link to a whitepaper, don’t make them fill in all their details to download it.

Timing can play a critical role in message relevance, something Lemkin discovered in his first cold email campaign:

In my first start-up, I cold emailed the VP Engineering of a Fortune 100 company.  He called me back the next day. I thought I was a genius! My second cold email, I got a Top 3 prospect to call me back in 24 hours!

Well, later I learned why.  He was running a $500m+ initiative, and a critical vendor who was our competitor was failing.  They were 18 months behind, and they’d just increased pricing 30%. He was desperate for another vendor.  And I emailed him at just the right time. With just the right, crisp, clear message. Personalized to him (I spent hours working on the email) and his exact needs and problems.

Summarizing the experience in another article, Lemkin argues that “Everyone needs solutions to their top 1 or 2 biggest problems.  Everyone.” And, “if you have a solution to a true real and important headache,” you can earn someone’s attention as well as, potentially, their business.

Personalize your cold emails. Personalization has become a buzzword. However, most people only go as far as a {first.name} merge tag. Meaningful personalization is a lot more. The whole message should be tailored to the individual, not just the odd word here and there. That all comes from the research you did at the very beginning of the process.

The bar for effective personalization has been raised significantly. For example, the opening line of “I just wanted to say I saw your latest news on {news.subject} and wanted to say congratulations!” was once very effective. However, it has become a victim of its own popularity, and now this kind of personalization is almost as common as a {first.name} merge tag.

To build a truly personalized email, you need to demonstrate that you’ve spent more than five seconds looking at their site.

Include a link to a custom video. Introduce yourself and refer to the company/prospect by name. As it’s impossible to mass-produce these kinds of videos (for now), showing you’ve taken the time and effort to produce a video can be extremely powerful. Yes, it’s time-consuming, but for that very reason, your competition isn’t doing it, giving you a chance to stand out.

Kyle Racki at Proposify wrote about the best cold email he ever received. The sender included a 30-second video interacting with his website:

The custom, pre-recorded demo in this email won praise—and a response. Offering to send a pre-recorded demo in an initial email (rather than sending it at first contact) can preserve resources for interested recipients. (Image source)

In that video, he demonstrated how their service could help him with a specific challenge. Not only was this obviously personalized, but it also gave a clear idea of the value the service offered.

Use segmentation as a stand-in for personalization. If personalization sounds like a lot of work, segmenting your email list will make it easier. For example, if you’re building a list of U.S. recruiters, you may have significant segments by location, team size, budget, and existing software solutions. By segmenting, you can tailor your email and offer to their specific needs.

It’s possible to go overboard and segment for every minor detail, but the principle is to segment to a level where your audience believes your email was written specifically for them.

5. Length

Cold emails should be as short as possible while still giving the reader what they need to make an informed decision about whether to respond.

How short is that? Dan Muscatello, a former Hubspot enterprise sales rep, kept all his prospecting emails to two sentences or less. For Brendan Burnett, CEO of Pipestry, some of the initial emails he sends are just one sentence.

Optimizing cold emails for mobile devices requires even greater brevity. (Image source)

We typically aim for between 80 and 100 words, but it’s wise to avoid hard rules. Your email should be long enough to sew the seeds of a relationship between you and your prospect and accomplish the goals you have for the email (more on that next).

At the same time, don’t fool yourself into thinking your recipient needs a detailed history of the company or a comprehensive list of every award you’ve ever won.

One easy way to shorten your email: Get rid of the opening and closing greetings:

video

6. Call-to-action

There should be a clear goal for every message you send. A common mistake is to make that goal the hard sell. After all, if you’ve managed to get them to read your email, doesn’t it make sense to ask for the sale? Who knows when you’ll get another chance, right?

No customer wants a hard sell. While hard sells may be persuasive in person or on the phone, it’s a lot easier to delete a cold email. Avoid selling—or even asking for a meeting—in the first email. Instead, use it as an introduction and to build a relationship.

That doesn’t mean you should neglect the CTA. Instead, aim for an easy step for your recipient to take. I’ve found that five types of CTAs are effective:

  1. The helpful guide. Link to existing content that the prospect would find useful. Examples: Read the blog post; Check out the guide.
  2. The generous gift. Rather than linking to existing content, offer something with tangible value that they can’t get anywhere else. Examples: Download your ebook.
  3. The neutral question. Encourage the prospect to reply without making a commitment or being aggressively sales focused. Examples: How do you do {process} at {prospect.company}? Have you tried {service} before?
  4. The request to send more info. Ask a prospect if you can send them additional, sales-related information. Examples: Can I send you a one-pager? Or a pre-recorded demo?
  5. The next step. If you’ve conveyed enough value in the initial email, let them know how to move the process along. Examples: Sign up for a demo, Learn more.

7. Follow-up

The only thing more annoying than a bad, spammy cold email is a series of bad, spammy follow-ups. The reason you get so many follow-ups is that they work. Most responses come from a follow-up rather than the original message.

Follow-ups are so powerful that some outbound strategies suggest that every campaign should have at least 8 emails (shudder). We’ve found that 3–4 follow-ups strike the right balance between getting positive responses and not annoying recipients.

More important than the number of follow-ups is the content of those follow-ups. Gently remind those who forgot to respond—don’t pester them into responding.

Try different CTAs. If your first email asked for a meeting but you didn’t get a reply, use your follow-up to offer a helpful resource, or ask if there’s someone else in the organization you should be emailing instead.

For example, here’s one of the follow-ups we’ve use, which received a 10% reply rate:

*Hi {FirstName},*

*As {Standardized Job Title}, I thought you would find value with this {Content Type}, {Content Description}.*

*We see ourselves as an effective sales acceleration platform for {Industry} related companies like {Company} to scale email outreach while keeping communication warm and personal. I’d be happy to explain how it works.

8. Review and Optimize

Your work isn’t done once the email is sent. One advantage of using software for email outreach is the ability to see how your sent email performed. That way, you can tweak your email to optimize its performance.

Ultimately, the only metric that matters is the positive reply rate. That figure lets you if your cold email campaign is leading to revenue-generating success (not just improvements in vanity metrics).

Note that the type of reply matters. A 50% reply rate may look good, but if that’s all people asking you to remove them from future campaigns, it’s not so good. (Another benefit of reply rate: Link tracking to measure CTR can reduce deliverability.)

If your email isn’t getting a good reply rate, you can look at the following metrics to work out what’s going wrong. Those metrics include:

  1. Delivery rate. A low delivery rate could mean your recipient list is out of date, your sender domain has been blacklisted, or your message is triggering spam filters.
  2. Open rate. A low open rate suggests that your subject line isn’t working, your header information looks spammy, or your first line (often shown in email clients before the email is opened) is turning people away.
  3. Click-through rate (CTR). A low CTR suggests your message isn’t compelling enough to get a response from the recipient. This could be down to emailing the wrong person, the message not matching the subject line, or not demonstrating the value of responding.

Measuring CTR as a percentage of your open rate gives you a better idea of the strength of the copy. A 1% reply rate may sound low, but if that’s from a 3% open rate, you know you have exceptionally strong copy, and you need to focus on getting that open rate up.

Pitfalls to avoid

Marketers and sales teams make plenty of mistakes when it comes to cold email. Here are five big ones.

1. Reliance on templates

I like a good template as much as the next person. But if your idea of cold email marketing is finding the best template and nothing more, you’ll always be at a disadvantage.

No matter how good the template, it will never make up for understanding your audience. No blog post (including this one) can tell you what will work best for the people on your list.

If a template is successful for others, you won’t be the only one using it for long. You’ll quickly sound like everyone else in their inbox, increasing the chances that you’re ignored or marked as spam.

Use templates as a guide—a way to kickstart your own efforts—but always tailor them to your audience.

2. “Tricking” recipients into opening your email

Never fool recipients into opening your email. You may spike open rates, but you’ll also increase the number of people who will never buy from you as a result of the deception.

Piquing curiosity is okay, but clarity and transparency are hallmarks of successful cold emails.

3. Sending emails to everyone

With the ease and scalability of cold emailing, the temptation is to email anyone for whom you have an address. It’s what spammers do, and it works—if you’re happy burning through every possible contact with minimal success.

A study by the University of California, Berkeley, the University of California, San Diego, found that just 1 of every 12.5 million spam emails converts to a sale, a rate of less than 0.00001%. But, for spammers, that’s enough to turn a profit.

For those of us without a botnet, those numbers are impossible to match. Even if you could, the damage it would do to your domain—and your brand—would be devastating.

4. Sending cold emails from your company domain

Even with the best of intentions and the most relevant email, someone will take exception to your cold outreach and mark your email as spam. If you make a mistake, the damage to your domain could be catastrophic.

Send cold emails from a separate domain to your main company. Otherwise, you may end up unintentionally getting your normal business emails blacklisted.

While sending a handful of cold emails is unlikely to have any negative effects, if you’re sending cold emails at any kind of scale (i.e. at a level where you need to use automation), then it’s time to consider your domain’s reputation.

Generally, the advice is to keep your spam complaints below 0.1%. That means that if you send 500 emails per day (the GSuite maximum), just a few complaints could tank your sender score. Your sender score ranges from 0 to 100, and a sender score below 90 can negatively impact email deliverability.

The process can be as simple (and cheap) as buying another top-level domain (yourcompany.info or yourcompany.co). Alternatively, you can add to your existing name; popular examples include the prefix “get” or postfix “app” to the domain (such as getyourcompany.com or yourcompanyapp.com).

This helps maintain your brand, without unnecessarily confusing your prospects.

5. Not proof-reading your email

Obviously, you want to look for spelling and grammar mistakes, but it’s even more important to check issues like incorrect merge tags. Nothing reminds your recipients an email is automated quite like opening with “Hi F{irst.name}.

Not only do these mistakes make your email look unprofessional, they also increase the chances your email will be marked as spam, hurting your overall deliverability.

Ideally, get a second pair of eyes to look through your email for mistakes. It’s also worth sending a test email to yourself, to see how it appears in the inbox.

Conclusion

There’s a massive difference between bad cold email and good cold email. While bad cold email annoys and frustrates the reader, a good cold email can add value and, eventually, generate revenue.

Successful cold email shares several characteristics:

  1. Based on data-driven consumer research.
  2. Tailored to recipients.
  3. Focused on delivering value.

As a supplement to inbound methods, cold email supports highly targeted account-based marketing campaigns and can also help scale growth with larger efforts that rely on automation.

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Cold Emails: Can They Work, Or Are They Just Spam?