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7 minutes

Cold Email Outreach Doesn't Work: The Story of Sending 1,000,000 Emails

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If you're a business owner, you've likely thought about using cold email outbound to get customers. I'm here to tell you that cold email sucks. We've sent over 1,000,000 emails. I'll tell you what works, what doesn't, and why we've stopped sending cold emails.

Results:

We've sent emails for four different products/services including lead generation, consulting, consumer software, and B2B software. Some worked and some didn't. Here is a brief breakdown of each industry and the results:

Lead Generation

Target: Small consulting firms and marketing agencies with 1-20 employees in the United States, United Kingdom, and Canada

Competition Level: Extremely high

Positive Response Rate: <1%

Open Rate: 40-60%

Everyone hates getting lead generation emails in their inbox. If you've ever changed your LinkedIn title to include 'CEO' or 'Founder,' you've been spammed with hundreds of emails offering to fill your calendar with 'interested' leads. Most of those emails are garbage and are immediately sent to spam or the trash. Perhaps you even received one from me back in 2021.

There are few things more soul-crushing than receiving multiple messages/day telling you to 'go **** yourself.' This happens most frequently when offering lead generation services.

Lead generation is a red ocean of agencies competing for the same subset of clients. It's hard, but works if you have enough grit to get through the rejections and pain of the early years.

Consulting

Target: Software companies with 11-50 employees in the United States

Competition Level: Extremely high

Positive Response Rate: 1-2%

Open Rate: 35-55%

Offering consulting services is another extremely common cold email offering. It's incredibly hard to differentiate yourself because everyone is trying to do just that. Because consulting is high-ticket, you only need a few emails to land for it to be successful. This is why everyone does it. However, the process itself is time-consuming, expensive, and grueling (for many reasons) and there are plenty of hidden costs which is why we don't do it anymore. More on that later.

Consumer Software

Target: Unemployed people in the United States

Competition Level: Low

Positive Response Rate: 3-5%

Open Rate: Unknown

Our previous company, Spigot, helped unemployed people automate getting interviews by sending cold emails on their behalf to prospective employers. Finding emails of unemployed individuals is difficult, so we resorted to emailing companies that had recently laid off a large percentage of their teams. People were super excited to receive these emails if they were unemployed because the offering was so good. Zero work and as many interviews as you'd like. We didn't receive too many hate emails because it was a differentiated offer in a space that people could empathize with. Acquiring high-quality leads was by far the hardest piece.

B2B Software

Target: Small businesses with 5-50 employees in the United States

Competition Level: Varies

Positive Response Rate: Varies (<1-2%)

Open Rate: 30-60%

The results of cold email for B2B software are heavily dependent on your targeting, your offer, and the email itself. All three factors dramatically impact your results. Great targeting and a great email with a below-average offer will never work. Even at scale.

Why cold email sucks

Cold email is expensive, soul-crushing, and rarely works.

Price

To get results, you must pay for them. Whether you set up your cold email infrastructure yourself, or you pay someone else to do it, it's going to cost you time and/or money. Google email addresses cost $7.20/email/month. You need a lot of Google email addresses to see any results. You also have to pay for leads, setup, and sending software. That's not to mention the time it takes to learn how to do all these things properly or the premium you have to pay to get someone to do it for you. Learning how to set up all these systems properly takes tons of time (and you have to watch a bunch of YouTube tutorials of gurus to get it right.) Yikes.

Inconsistency

Due to the nature of email outbound, your results are going to be inconsistent and ever evolving. One month your campaigns might crush it, then, after Google makes a small tweak in its algorithm, all your emails might start going to spam. Even after two years and 1,000,000 emails, we sometimes make mistakes and end up having to delete a domain and rebuild it.

Hate Mail

Have you ever received an email like this? Probably not unless you've engaged in cold email. If you have done cold email, this is all too common. You receive these types of emails daily or weekly depending on your outbound volume. Some people really hate receiving unsolicited emails and they'll let you know about it.

When does cold email work?

Cold email works when you:

  1. Have a valuable, differentiated offer
  2. Are targeting individuals who value your offer
  3. Propose your offer in a respectful, concise manner
  4. Send enough emails

It's really that simple. There are hundreds of minutiae that you can optimize for, but it all boils down to the core four requirements. When you've met those requirements, cold email is worth it.

However, each one of those criteria is difficult to fulfill. It's also difficult to tell when you have (or haven't) fulfilled each criterion. You may have a great offer and be targeting the correct people, but you're not sending enough emails. You also may be sending enough emails with a perfect offer, but your targeting could be off. In both cases, the results will be mediocre at best if you get any at all. It's nearly impossible to decipher which piece of the puzzle is missing or if it's even possible to fulfill all the criteria without loads of A/B testing.

That being said, cold email does work. Thousands of companies rely on it to drive the majority of their marketing and sales.

Helpful Tips:

Lead Sources

Apollo.io - by far the best lead source. This is where nearly all lead generation companies get their leads. They recently changed their contact export limit, so you may not be able to get as great of a price as before.

ZoomInfo - terrible price for value. Their plans are ridiculously expensive—10-20x more expensive than competitors.

Lusha - similar to Apollo, but more expensive.

Seamless AI - far too expensive to even be considered.

Clay - best tool for enriching contact information.

LinkedIn Sales Navigator - decent lead source, but not scalable past 10K contacts/month.

Pricing

For the unit economics of cold email to work, your product/service needs to be expensive. This number differs from company to company, so it's hard to give you a concrete number, but we require an LTV of $5,000 or greater for it to make sense for our B2B SaaS companies. The factors that play into it are the direct cost, the time cost of nurturing leads, and the time cost of setting up the systems. All things considered, the ROI didn't make sense in most cases.

Sending Software

I've tried tons of email warm-up and email-sending software. Instantly.ai is by far the best. It has all the features you'd need, scales easily, and isn't too expensive. I'd highly recommend it as a starting point if you're getting into cold email.

Takeaways

Cold email isn't all bad, but the results are hard to achieve and take their toll on your conscience. If you meet the four criteria, it might be a ludicrous avenue to pursue. Otherwise, I'd stay away from it.

If you decide to try it, send us an email and we'd be happy to help you out!

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