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Cold Outreach 101: How to Send Better Cold Emails

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Like cold calls, no one likes getting cold emails. But when it’s done right, cold email works. In fact, it’s one of the highest ROI activities for growing your business. 

Good cold emails get response rates between 2% and 10%—and even better ones get rates above 40%. 

And cold email doesn’t require much capital—only time. So when you’re strapped for cash, focusing on cold email can land you sales and create the cash flow you need to get off the ground.

With an average response rate of around 1%, though, the challenge is making cold emails work.

At Demand Curve, we see hundreds of cold email on the regular—because we receive them and because we teach marketers how to write them as part of our Growth Program. So we know what works and what doesn’t.

To be clear, there’s no silver bullet to creating a successful cold email campaign. 

But there are best practices that can help you avoid wasting your time and resources. We’ll dive into these below and teach you how to create an effective cold email campaign for better results.

Here’s what we’ll cover in this article:

What’s a cold email? And what makes it different from spam? 

Cold emailing is a prospecting tactic that involves reaching out to a stranger with the goal of building a relationship—one that eventually leads to action, like a sale or a partnership. You can apply this tactic to other outreach channels like LinkedIn, Twitter, and direct mail. But in our experience, cold emailing often outperforms all of them.

Here are a few examples of how different businesses use cold email:

  • B2B SaaS startups cold email enterprise businesses to sell their products.
  • B2C companies reach out to high-profile influencers for affiliate partnerships.
  • Freelancers email business owners to offer their services and get contract work.
  • Entrepreneurs contact investors to pitch their business ideas. 

What’s the difference between sending cold emails and spam? Spam refers to unsolicited, often poorly written messages that are sent in bulk. So some cold outreach is spam—but not all. 

Euler diagram showing that cold outreach includes spam, but is not limited to it
Cold outreach is unsolicited, but that doesn't mean all cold outreach is spam.

Imagine if a stranger emailed you about a pre-approved car loan despite the fact you have no interest in buying a car. Now compare that to another email also from a stranger but that offers a sneak peak at your favorite director’s new, upcoming movie. 

Although both messages are technically unsolicited, the first feels a lot more spammy than the second. Why? The second email offers value because it’s something you might actually be interested in. 

It’s the value a message brings that separates spam from cold email. Any message that doesn’t offer clear value, whether because it’s dishonest or simply targets the wrong person, is spam.

What does this mean for your outreach efforts? 

To prevent your cold emails from being sent to the spam folder, you need to:

  • Target the right people. Only reach out to those who fit the profile of your ideal customer.
  • Deliver relevant value. Offer something that they’ll actually benefit from. 

We’ll show you how to accomplish both of these when we get into crafting effective campaigns below.

Cold emailing vs. email marketing

One more distinction before we dive in: Cold emailing isn’t the same as traditional email marketing

The kind of emailing most people associate with email marketing is inbound marketing, where interested users opt into receiving emails. SEO and content marketing are other examples of inbound marketing.

Cold emailing falls under the outbound marketing category, where it’s the company that reaches out to users who have never opted in. Think sales emails from someone you’ve never met.

Because of this, you need different email software for your cold outreach. In fact, many email service providers (ESPs) and CRMs that companies use for email marketing don’t allow cold emailing on their platforms—that includes Customer.io, Mailchimp, and HubSpot. 

Instead, you’ll need specialized outreach software that can support Gmail or any other email client you plan on sending your cold emails from. Some well-known options include:

There are also tools for looking up your prospects’ contact info, like Clearbit and Hunter. Using these, you can easily find email addresses through LinkedIn and other sources.

Why use cold email outreach?

We mentioned earlier that when it comes to cold outreach, email generally outperforms all other channels. What makes it so great? 

  • Targeting: Emails let you target exactly who you want. Even better, you can personalize messages down to the individual. Ads can’t do this because they cast a wider net, meaning you’ll always end up hitting people who’ll never buy from you. 
  • Access: Most decision makers still manage their own email inboxes. So as long as you have the correct email address, your message will land right in front of these important stakeholders.
  • Low capital investment: There are plenty of email software tools that can automate your outreach, but all you actually need is an email account. That means you can start asap—and avoid burning cash before generating any revenue.

Still, there’s no denying that cold email is hard. One misconception that makes it feel even harder is the idea that a successful email should convert users right away. 

A better way of approaching cold email is that you’re trying to build a relationship with someone. The end goal may be a sale, but that rarely ever happens after just one message. Expect to send a follow-up email or exchange some messages back and forth. Cold email is a way to start a conversation—so be attentive and considerate, not pushy. 

What kinds of companies should prioritize cold email? 

From our experience working with hundreds of startups, cold email works best for:

  • High-margin products. The most effective outreach is highly personalized, which means more labor and relatively higher acquisition costs. So to actually benefit from cold email, companies generally need to be able to afford a sales team. Otherwise, cold email tends to be less profitable.
  • Early-stage startups that need to generate some revenue for a low cost. Cold email can be expensive because of the labor involved, but it’s still cheap in the sense that you don’t need to budget for design or distribution like with ads. You just need an email address. So for scrappy founders just starting out, cold email is a great DIY launchpad for growth before you have the means to test other channels.

Here are more specific types of companies that we’ve seen it work well for:

  • B2B SaaS companies
  • Products that people aren’t actively searching for (if people are searching for your product, search ads and content might be more effective)
  • Agencies that charge thousands per month per client
  • Companies selling expensive physical goods, like gym equipment or medical devices

If you’re unsure whether you should test cold outreach, here’s a simple framework we’ve used to help companies decide. Try cold outreach if you meet one or both of the following criteria:

  1. Your profit margins are greater than $500 per closed deal and your payback period is less than two months.
  2. You’re at the traction stage—seeking traction often necessitates selling at low margins to get off the ground. The goal here is to do things that don’t scale until you can afford to test channels that do.

How to create an effective cold email campaign

To get more from your cold email campaigns, follow these five steps:

  1. Create a compelling first impression for your email.
  2. Write a good email.
  3. Test your emails.
  4. Send your emails and follow-ups.
  5. Measure your results. 

As a bonus, we also touch on an advanced tactic that companies with larger budgets can use to drive better results.

1. Create a compelling first impression for your email

A lot of cold emails never get opened. That’s because they don’t make it past their first impression—the moment readers scan through their inboxes to see what messages are worth actually clicking on and reading.

Which of these cold emails do you think creates a good first impression?

Your email’s first impression is made up of three important elements:

  • From name: Laws on data protection, like the CAN-SPAM Act, require that your sender name accurately represent you or your company—so you can’t lie about who’s sending your cold email. We recommend using a real person’s name, whether that’s a founder or a sales rep. It’ll increase the chances of your email getting opened because it feels more human. Try “[First name] + [Last Name]” or “[First name] from [Company Name]”.
  • Subject line: Since the subject line is the most prominent part of your email’s first impression, it needs to grab attention—but in a non-spammy way. Avoid using false prefixes or writing clickbait. Instead, try to pique curiosity about something relevant to your prospect. Our post about cold email subject lines gives more detailed guidelines and examples.
  • Preview text: This is the short snippet that recipients see in their inbox next to your message’s subject line. As the preview of your email, it’s often the first line or two of your email—your opening line. Use it to hook readers. For instance, try asking a specific question or giving a genuine compliment. Personalize it—this shows your prospects that you’ve done your homework and gives them more incentive to read your message.

You need to optimize each of these to get your cold email read. Otherwise, recipients will reflexively ignore your email or send it to their spam folder. 

2. Craft a good email

If your email makes a good first impression in the inbox, chances are your audience will open it. This is your email body copy’s time to shine.

Here’s a simple framework for crafting your email:

  • Opening line: Again, this important piece also appears as your email’s preview text in the inbox. The goal of this line is to intrigue readers enough to open your email. 
  • Context: Explain why you’re reaching out—for instance, because you noticed that the recipient is using a particular tool and might have a certain pain point. The more specific, the better. This is also a good place for a quick intro.
  • Value proposition: The context for why you’re reaching out usually provides a natural segue to this part—how you offer value. Don’t be salesy. Focus on describing your product’s benefits rather than its specific features.
  • Wrap-up: End with one clear call to action (CTA). And since it’s the first email, ask for someone’s interest instead of their time. “Think we might be a good fit?" works better than “Let’s book a call.” 

Here’s an example of a successful cold email that worked on us using this exact formula:

Screenshot of a cold email, with a breakdown of our writing framework
Notice that this four-part framework doesn't require writing long sentences for your body copy. Get to the point quickly.

If you’re reading to start creating your emails, check out our article on how to write an effective cold email.

One important note: It’s not enough to just write one cold email in the hopes of reaching your target audience. We recommend writing multiple versions—at least two or three. Why? 

The point is to test different hooks, offers, and so on to see which generate more opens, clicks, and responses. We’ll cover how to measure your results later—for now, create different versions to experiment with. It’s okay to break some rules. For instance, some people avoid writing a unique opening line and dive right into the context of why they’re reaching out.

3. Test your emails

One quick but important step after you’ve drafted your cold email(s): test it. 

Send your cold outreach to your personal email address. Then look at it on both desktop and mobile. You can also use this useful testing tool from Zurb to see how your cold email looks on other types of mobile devices.

A lot of marketers skip past this, and after sending their cold emails out to prospects, agonize over a broken link or typo discovered much later.

Some things to watch out for:

  • Big blocks of text
  • Broken links
  • Typos
  • Whether your subject line gets cut off on mobile devices

4. Send your cold outreach and follow-up emails

Once you’ve written, proofread, and tested your cold emails, it’s time to send them. If you’re sending emails to a large number, try one of the software tools we mentioned earlier, like Mailshake or Streak.

These tools make it easy to A/B test alternate subject lines and email body copy (some as many as 10 at once) by sending them to smaller segments of your email list. 

A/B testing using Mailshake
(Source: Mailshake)

We recommend testing each version by sending them to groups of 100-150 people before sending the winner to your larger list. 

We also advise creating a separate subdomain specifically for sending your cold outreach. Why? Email metrics like open rate and click-throughs affect your email deliverability. Since you’ll probably do some experimenting with your cold emails, it’s safer to use a separate subdomain so that your main domain’s email deliverability isn’t affected.

As for follow-up emails, some blogs suggest checking in with prospects 3-5 times after your first email. From our experience, that’s unnecessary—and crosses the line into spammer territory. 

If someone hasn’t responded to you after your first email, follow up twice: once after 3 days, and again after 7 days.

For more effective follow-ups, make sure they:

  • Add value to your original email. Avoid using any wording like “Just wanted to follow up on my last email”—it’s redundant and offers nothing new to prospects. Instead, provide a resource, like a recorded webinar about your tool or a case study about a well-known brand. 
  • End with a question, not a statement. This tends to open up more conversations. For example, ask “What’s holding you back from exploring this?” or “Are you still facing XYZ problem?”

The goal with follow-ups is to build credibility until your prospect can’t help but respond.

5. Measure your results

It’s rare to see incredible results from your very first cold email. The most successful campaigns develop over time as a result of testing and experimenting with different subject lines, body copy, CTAs, and even email signatures. 

In order to optimize your outreach campaign, you’ll need to look at your email metrics. Specifically:

  • Open rate: The percentage of emails that get opened by the recipient. The average open rate is 20-30%.
  • Click-through rate (CTR): The percentage of people who clicked on at least one link in your message. The average CTR is 3-5%.
  • Response/reply rate: The percentage of people who respond to your cold email. The average response rate is 5-10%.
  • Purchase rate: The percentage of people who eventually purchase. The average is 0.5-1%.

(The averages we’ve included are taken from our experience sending thousands of cold emails for 50+ startups. They vary based on industry, but you can use them at least as a rough benchmark.)

Pay attention to how long it takes to get a purchase through cold email—like the number of hours it takes to source email addresses, personalize emails, and so on. This’ll help determine your acquisition cost and the time spent per purchase. You can then use this info to figure out whether cold emailing is a growth strategy worth investing in for the long term with dedicated salespeople. 

Bonus: Pretargeting

Here’s one final tactic for improving your cold email strategy: pretargeting.

Pretargeting involves running ads to a specific list of email addresses—your target audience—before reaching out to them.

How does it help your cold outreach? It boosts open rates and response rates, especially when you’re reaching out to people who are cautious or skeptical about new brands. This attitude is more common in larger, older companies and slow-moving industries.‌

Think about every time you’ve seen an ad. When you see an ad, the product in it feels more “legitimate.” While irrational, we subconsciously believe that only companies of a certain caliber have the means to invest in an ad campaign.

Facebook and LinkedIn are great because you can upload real lists of emails, and enough people use the site that a high percentage of them match. This way, you can serve ads to the exact people you plan on cold emailing. 

Are cold emails legal?

Some marketers get confused about whether cold emails are legal. In short, it is. But your emails must follow certain regulations depending on where you’re based and who you’re targeting.

According to the 2003 CAN-SPAM Act, cold emailing is legal in the U.S. so long as you follow these five guidelines:

  1. Give users the ability to opt out. This can be as simple as an unsubscribe link or a line like “Please let me know if you'd like to stop getting emails from me.”
  2. Remove opted-out recipients from your email list within 10 days of their opting out. Understandably, manual opt-outs get tricky with larger email lists, so we recommend using an outreach tool to help automate this.
  3. Don’t use misleading subject lines. For instance, it’s illegal to use a subject line like “Emergency in your neighborhood” when your email’s about something completely different. 
  4. Use an honest sender name. Just like with subject lines, your “From:” address must accurately represent you or your business.
  5. Include your company’s physical address. A few other acceptable alternatives: the address of a P.O. box you’ve registered, studio space you rent or own, a business manager or someone else who represents you professionally.

Similarly, the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) allows cold emails to people living in the EU as long as you:

  • Have an appropriate reason for reaching out.
  • Explain how you got the prospect’s email address.
  • Make it easy for recipients to unsubscribe.
  • Regularly clean out your contact database.

The bottom line: Be sure to look into and follow the regulations of where you and your prospects are based before sending any cold emails.

Cold email templates

A lot of cold outreach emails use templates, for better or worse. There’s a reason—they save time. But no template will work if you use very generic and predictable patterns with lines like:

  • “We haven’t met yet but I found [prospect’s company] online…”
  • “I love what you’re doing with [prospect’s company], and I believe my company can help make it better.”
  • “I recently read a few posts on [prospect’s site] and found them rather informative and interesting—great work!”

Marketers often create basic outreach templates that use only the default personalization options provided by their outreach software, like the recipient’s name and the name of their company. But to get good cold email results, you need to go a step further.

In fact, your goal should be to make your email not sound like a template. 

Here’s an example of a cold email template we used to grow a SaaS company that sold a WordPress plugin. 

Hey [First Name],

Can I ask how you’re [solving the problem we do]? It looks like you’re using [old solution].

I’m actually the founder of [Company]. Our [product] lets you [benefit]. I built [Company] to [advantage] after I realized [old solution] had [pain point].

Unlike [Competitor], [Company] [an explanation of how your product is different], which means [benefit #1]. This also means [benefit #2].

Other people like you, like [influencer #1] and [influencer #2], also switched to [Company] recently. Just like I helped them transition over from [Competitor], I’m happy to provide a concierge service to transfer your users over so you don’t have to do anything. This is what I do for our top users.

Within a couple of months, this email generated over $500,000 in sales, with more than 40% of recipients responding. 

The template above won’t work for everyone, though. That’s because the success of your cold outreach ultimately depends on who your audience is and what your goals are—is it to book a sales call? Collect feedback? Or something else? 

You’ll need to customize your cold outreach accordingly based on these factors. 

For some helpful inspiration, check out our article on successful cold email templates. It provides messaging for a variety of cold outreach goals, including booking sales calls, raising funds, and asking for a backlink.

Wrapping up

Personalized emails sent to a highly targeted audience can drive incredible results—that’s the beauty of cold emails. And though they’re generally thought of as a sales and prospecting strategy, the best cold emails ultimately don’t focus on selling. Instead, they start a conversation and offer value. 

As you go about creating your cold email strategy, remember to follow these five guiding principles:

  1. Follow the email regulations laid out by CAN-SPAM, GDPR, and any other similar legislation where your customers are based.
  2. Target only prospects who fit the profile of your ideal customer.
  3. Use cold outreach software to find prospects and automate your emails.
  4. Create and test variations of your cold email—different subject lines, opening lines, CTAs, and so on. 
  5. Measure your emails’ results. Then optimize them by choosing the versions that perform best.
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Content marketer and writer. Also illustrator, dog lover, and pun enthusiast.

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