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How is cold email different to spam?

The question of whether cold email is the same as spam comes up fairly regularly in start-up and growth-hacking circles, but the two are very different. Whilst everyone tries to avoid spam like the plague, cold email is arguably one of the most effective outreach methods around when its done right. So what’s the difference?

What is cold email?

A cold email is a message sent to a potential client or customer who has no prior contact with you in order in order to gain a benefit in terms of favour, sales, or opportunity. In essence, whenever you email someone directly who you don’t already have a relationship with then that is a cold email. The email is often for sales purposes, but it could also be students emailing potential internship opportunities, or new recruits emailing a potential mentor – there are many reasons why you might want to contact someone you don’t know, and if you email them then that will be a cold email.

Cold email should be personalised, clearly explain who you are and why you’re emailing, and under General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR) must be designed to “pursue legitimate interests”. The actual definition of a “legitimate interest” is somewhat vague, but if you have done your research on a person and believe you can offer them a opportunity that is specifically relevant to them or their business, then that could well tick the right boxes.

Good cold emails should also comply with the American CAN-SPAM Act, which states that all such commercial messaging should come with clear information about the sender and offer an easy way to opt out.

In reality, if you are sending a unique one-off email to a potential client then you are probably already fulfilling most of the guidelines, and the issues only start to arise when you start to send out emails to a larger pool of potential customers.

How is spam different?

Rather than create unique, customized messages for potential clients, spammers use a scattergun approach to send their messages to as many people as possible, no matter whether that person would have any interest in their product or service. Spammer will also write emails to avoid spam detection instead of creating rapport, and they will hide their identities as to avoid the various fines and other issues that come from being found out to be a spammer.

Spammers will also be trying to flog various low-value products or out-and-out scams and prey on those that may not understand digital technology too well. The economist authors of Freakanomics, Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, theorise that spammers will intentionally misspell words and phrases throughout their messages so that only the most gullible easy targets will reply, which means less of their time is wasted replying to people who are unlikely to fall for their trap.

How to make sure your emails are not spam?

If you are sending cold emails then you always run the risk that someone may not appreciate your approach. However, if you have made it clear from the outset who you are, what you are offering, why you have contacted the recipient in particular, and used language to build rapport then you have a far better chance of making a positive impression.


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