No one likes spam. But every salesperson knows that cold outreach is part of the job. Chances are, they’ll need to send an unsolicited email at some point in their career.
So how do you differentiate between cold email vs. spam? The short answer is cold emails are relevant to the recipient, and spam emails are not. But that’s easier said than done.
In this article, you’ll learn everything you need to know about cold emails vs. spam, including key differences, how to avoid getting flagged, and what exactly the CAN-SPAM Act is.
Let’s explore this in more detail.
What are spam emails?
Spam emails, also known as junk mail, are unsolicited messages sent in bulk to large numbers of non-targeted recipients via email at the same time. Think get-rich-quick ads and link-exchange requests from black-hat websites.
Spam emails are annoying. But they can also be dangerous, ranging from unwanted commercial advertisements to phishing attacks from fraudsters.
In 2003, the United States Congress passed the CAN-SPAM Act to regulate email messaging and protect recipients.
What is the CAN-SPAM Act?
The Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing (CAN-SPAM) Act is a law that regulates commercial emails — both solicited and unsolicited — and allows authorities to enforce penalties if its regulations aren’t followed.
Based on the CAN-SPAM Act, sending unsolicited bulk emails in and of itself isn’t a crime, but there are certain rules you must follow. If you don’t follow CAN-SPAM regulations, you can be fined up to $46,517 for each email.
Here are some of the most important guidelines you need to be aware of:
- Use accurate header information: Your emails need to include an accurate domain name, email address, and name of the person or business sending the email.
- Use straightforward subject lines: Your subject line shouldn’t mislead the recipient about what the message contains.
- Include a valid physical location: For example, your office address, post office box, or private mailbox.
- Indicate the purpose of your email: Recipients should be able to easily understand whether it’s a commercial advertisement.
- Make it easy for recipients to opt-out of receiving emails: You need to provide options for opting out of your email communications. For example, while you can allow recipients to choose which types of emails to receive from you, you must also include an option to opt-out of all messages at once.
- All opt-out requests must be honored promptly: Don’t make your recipients jump through a lot of hoops before they can opt-out of messages. The CAN-SPAM Act says opt-out requests should be honored within ten business days.
- Businesses can be held responsible for outsourced email activities: If you outsource your email marketing or use a database, you must ensure that they abide by these guidelines. According to the CAN-SPAM Act, the business sender can be liable for defaults, even if their emails are being sent by a third party.
What are cold emails?
Cold emails are unsolicited emails sent to prospects without prior contact in the hopes of building a business relationship.
Cold emails are favored in B2B sales as a medium to start a relationship with prospects — salespeople consider it 40% more effective than social media in generating new customers. Plus, B2B buyers prefer to communicate with salespeople through direct email.
But if everyone loves them, then why do cold emails get such a bad rap?
Emails are cost-effective and can be an excellent revenue-generation channel. As a result, businesses often make the mistake of executing cold outreaches in the same way spam emails are sent. This includes:
- Buying contact lists without verifying sources
- Sending emails without qualifying your leads
- Sending emails that are irrelevant to the receiver
- Sending bulk emails with generic templates and unpersonalized messages
These are the kinds of emails prospects delete without even bothering to open them. So to get their attention, you need to understand the difference between direct emailing and spam.
Cold email vs. spam: 3 key differences
“The difference between cold outreach and spam is sort of in the eye of the beholder (i.e., the recipient),” explains Alex Birkett, co-founder at Omniscient Digital. “So the same message could be read two entirely different ways depending on the value and timing for the recipient.”
“Generally speaking, spam is sent via mass messaging and gives little to no value to the recipient,” Alex continues. “Good cold outreach is sent to an individual person and intrudes on their life politely (i.e., by giving something of actual value).”
So how do you differentiate cold email from spam?
1. Cold emails are intentional and provide value to the receiver
When comparing cold email vs. spam, a cold email is more thoughtful and caters to what the recipient needs rather than what you can get from them. In contrast, spam emails are generic and often irrelevant to the recipient.
“Cold emails are more customer-centric, and require researching the recipient to make sure the message actually is valuable to them,” explains Natalia Brzezinska, Marketing & Outreach Manager at PhotoAiD.
“Spam, on the other hand, is fully product-centric. It doesn’t matter who the recipient is. The email’s supposed to introduce a product or service and it does just that.”
2. Cold emails are personalized
Unlike spam, which is sent to as many people as possible, a cold email is sent to prospects who have been vetted and match your ideal customer profile (ICP). The messaging is targeted and created for one person instead of using the spray-and-pray approach.
With the tech stack options available to businesses today, it’s easy to learn about your customers and scale personalization for a large user base. Adding that extra touch shows you’ve researched your customer and considered how your product could be of value to them. This makes a huge difference in separating your cold emails from spam.
3. Cold emails follow the CAN-SPAM Act
Remember the CAN-SPAM Act guidelines we listed above? A cold email ticks all the boxes.
Spam emails are less likely to follow the CAN-SPAM guidelines, which means they’re often illegal.
In contrast, cold emails are sent to qualified leads, and senders are transparent about:
- Who it’s coming from and the business behind it — including your website, social media pages, and the LinkedIn page of the sales rep initiating contact
- Why they are getting in touch.
- And the option to quickly and easily opt-out of receiving cold emails from you.
How to keep your emails from getting flagged as spam
Since cold emails and spam emails are unsolicited, it’s easy for a cold email to be flagged as spam if it uses the same underhanded tactics as spam. But when done right, a cold email is an effective outbound sales tool.
Here are some ways to keep your emails from getting flagged as spam.
1. Build your email sender reputation (ESP)
Your ESP is a metric used by internet service providers to determine your email deliverability. In short, it regulates whether your email is automatically sent to the receivers' junk folder or not delivered at all.
Various factors determine your email sender's reputation. For example:
- Your domain reputation, like whether your domain has been flagged as spam or for suspicious activity in the past.
- The number of emails sent by your organization.
- How many recipients mark the organization’s emails as spam or otherwise complain to the ISP about the messages they receive.
- Your email bounce rates, including emails sent to unknown users or invalid email addresses.
- Your unsubscribe rate, link click rate, open rate, and how recipients engage with your emails.
If you want to protect or build your ESP, here are some tips from marketing experts:
Deniz Kuran, Head of Marketing at Idiomatic, advises starting with a small email list before scaling your cold outreaches.
“When you’re just starting out with your cold email strategy, one of the biggest mistakes you can make is sending out emails in bulk,” Deniz says.
“It’s important to spread out emails over time so that email service providers (ESPs) like Gmail don’t flag unusual activity, signaling that you might be sending spam. You want to “warm up” your inbox by sending the emails in regular intervals.”
Prune your email list regularly
Christiaan Huynen, the founder of Designbro, recommends pruning your email list regularly.
“Getting new leads that opt-in to your email list is as important as weeding out leads that have bad emails or are not opening your emails. This is because when your emails are ignored or are not delivered, your engagement rate declines, and email algorithms are more likely to classify you as a spammer,” Christiaan explains.
“Your goal is to connect with audiences who will find your content valuable. By letting go of leads you can't connect with and moving on to new ones, you'll be better positioned to foster new opportunities.”
Danny Trichter, a co-founder of Accessibility Checker, advises using a double opt-in process to validate email addresses on your list.
“Double opt-in means that recipients must confirm their subscription to your email list before they start receiving emails from you. This helps to ensure that only people who actually want to receive your emails are on your list, which can help avoid spam complaints.”
Follow direct emailing best practices
Besides the CAN-SPAM Act guidelines, following best practices can help keep your email from being flagged as spam by recipients and email service providers like Gmail. Dan of Accessibility Checker shares some tips:
- Avoid using excessive exclamation points
- Stick to plain text and a few images because too many images or HTML can flag your email as spam
- Avoid using deceptive subject lines
- Don’t buy lists!
2. Personalize your message
“Personalization is a key difference between spam and cold emails,” says Kenny Powell, Senior Account Development Representative, UserGems. “Personalizations means you NEED to make your outreach valuable to the person you're trying to engage with.”
Personalized cold outreach is value-driven, centered on what the customer needs rather than what you can get from them. When a cold outreach is personalized, the sender understands that the cold email is the beginning of a conversation that could lead to a business relationship.
As a result, you think about how your product benefits the prospect. For example, if someone just moved to a new role, they’ll appreciate a case study on achieving success in their industry over a discount.
So how do you personalize your emails to ensure they’re relevant to your prospects?
Know your customer
Kenny of UserGems advises using pre-call/email research to create relevant outreaches.
Your research will save you time and improve your chances of getting a response from the prospect. It also helps to determine if the prospect matches your ICP and makes finding a context that triggers a customer's interest easier.
Write for a person
Writing for one person allows you to create email messaging prospects can relate to.
“Most research around email marketing shows that people who get lots of emails are overwhelmed by their impersonality and low-quality content,” says Deniz of Idiomatic.
“It’s essential to develop a high-quality and personal pitch that doesn’t come off as sales-y. Before you introduce your product or service, just introduce yourself. When you write the email, write it for a person, not a customer.”
Be careful with email templates
Though templates are created to make sending emails easier, they can be flagged as spam by the ESP algorithm when they have been used in bulk emails or contain words that are often used in junk email, such as: free, act now, discount, and guaranteed.
In the B2B space, your sales email is going to someone who receives a lot of pitches. So instead of sending out generic messages, create custom sales emails relevant to the recipient.
Use data enrichment tools
Another way to ensure your email is relevant is by using data enrichment tools to enhance your raw data. The right data enrichment tools provide deeper customer insights for timely and relevant outreach.
For example, a tool like UserGems can tell you if a prospect was a past customer or just changed jobs. This provides context for you to craft an engaging email that triggers a response.
It also offers insights on those with buying power in organizations so you can target key players and influencers, improving the ROI of your marketing efforts.
“Enriched emails surfaced with UserGems have a less than 5% bounce rate,” explains Kenny Powell of UserGems. “With UserGems’ Account Tracking, we have full visibility into the buying committees' at target accounts. And because marketing is so targeted, we can ensure that we're hitting the right person, at the right account, at the right time, with all the accurate and important information to convert at a high percentage.”
3. Maintain clean and accurate data
Rising data concerns have led to tighter data security laws. Besides the CAN-SPAM Act, there are also GDPR laws to consider when building a database and launching a cold outreach strategy.
The good news is that sending cold emails is not illegal. You just have to ensure:
- Your reason for reaching out is clear
- You explain how your product is relevant to the prospect and their business
- You provide options for recipients to opt-out of receiving emails
On top of that, you’ll need to make sure your data providers are compliant with the laws and policies in your region.
And, clean and update your data regularly to reach the right email addresses and reduce your bounce rate, since this can impact your ESP and have you flagged as spam.
4. Target warm prospects
Cold email prospecting may be unpopular and dreaded by sales reps. But studies have shown that it’s still the preferred method of communication for B2B buyers.
Instead of shying away from contacting cold leads, improve your cold outbound by targeting warm prospects like your past customers, prospects, and champions. There are so many benefits to this strategy, including:
- Generating qualified pipeline easily and ridding your sales team of pipeline anxiety
- Accelerating sales deals (because prospects know your product already)
- Creating a warm path into accounts
Wondering how to find these warm prospects? UserGems can help you track them on autopilot.
UserGems surfaces the hottest contacts in your CRM — like people who have either already used your solution or engaged with your team in the past. As a result, you generate a steady stream of warm leads who are interested in talking to you, increasing your cold outbound success rates.
Final thoughts on cold email vs. spam
Really, the only thing cold emails and spam emails have in common is that they’re both unsolicited messages. But the similarities should stop there.
By using clean and accurate data, personalizing your emails, building your email sender reputation, and targeting warm prospects, it’s easy to create a value-driven and relevant email that’s welcomed in your prospect’s inbox.
With UserGems, you can generate a steady stream of warm leads on autopilot by tracking the job changes of your past customers and prospects and surfacing them as warm leads in your CRM with their current contact information and context for a personalized outreach sequence.
Learn more about how UserGems can improve your cold outbound by requesting a free demo below👇