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Why Nobody’s Opening Your Cold Emails

As lead generation tools go, a cold email campaign is really effective.

In fact, Ascend2’s 2016 Lead Generation Survey found that, of all popular online lead generation tactics, email marketing was the most effective tool at our disposal:

Of course, in order to be effective, it’s got to be, well, good. You can’t send any old email and expect to get results. You need to know how to write a sales email that converts.

And that’s not all.

For a sales email to convert, it has to get opened and be read. That can be easier said than done. According to, the average cold email campaign has an open rate of between 15% and 30%. If less than 15% of your cold emails get opened, chances are you’re doing something wrong.

This could be (but isn’t limited to):

  • Your subject line sends the wrong signals.
  • You’re targeting the wrong recipients.
  • Your name or company isn’t recognizable.
  • The content of your emails contain words that are flagging spam filters.

If these sound like problems you might be facing, stick with me. I’ll show you how to tackle each one head on, and offer up some other tips and tricks for increasing open rates.

Your subject line sends the wrong signals

Whether your subject line is too casual, too formal, too boring or just plain spammy, get it wrong and you’ll tank your chances of success.

Think of it like the title of an article. It has to entice the viewer to want to learn more by clicking through and reading the article’s contents. If it doesn’t do enough to capture the viewer’s interest, it won’t work – plain and simple.

“The subject line is the most important part of any email, especially if you’re sending cold sales emails. If your subject line fails to get the recipient to open the email, everything else you do doesn’t matter. If an email isn’t opened, it didn’t exist.” Steli Efti,

So what does the subject line of a great cold email look like?

According to HubSpot it should be:

  1. Creative
  2. Clear
  3. Personalized
  4. Concise
  5. Human
  6. Accurate
  7. Contextual

In other words it should:

  1. Be original enough to stand out from your competition (the other emails in your recipient’s inbox)
  2. Highlight the contents of the email
  3. Be personalized to the recipient
  4. Be short and sweet
  5. Sound like it’s written by a real, live person
  6. Accurately describe the contents of the email – it should not mislead
  7. Work alongside the email itself – avoid repeating your subject line in the body of the email

Unfortunately, meeting all of these criteria in a single subject line is difficult, if not impossible. It’s also not always necessary. A personalized, human subject line that captures a prospect’s interest can work well even if it doesn’t effectively highlight the contents of the email.

Similarly, if the email itself contains something genuinely interesting and the subject line makes that clear, it might not be necessary to personalize the subject as well.

According to data from Yesware you can also increase the odds of your emails being opened by including words like “account”, “campaign” and “next” in the subject line.

Interestingly, Yesware also found that, despite what marketers widely believe, the length of your subject line doesn’t matter.

You’re targeting the wrong recipients

Cold emailing is, to an extent, a numbers game. The more emails you send, the greater your chances of getting the response (or responses) you want. But to look at a cold email campaign as purely a numbers game is to overlook another key element of any email marketing campaign’s success:

The quality of your leads.

One popular cold email marketing tactic is to buy a list of emails. This is always a bad idea.

Not only are you unable to vouch for the relevancy of those leads, purchasing emails puts you on shaky ground. Any reputable email marketing provider will prevent you from using email lists you’ve bought; even if you can get past your email marketing provider, you risk being flagged as a spammer, and the reputation of your IP address could be damaged. This results in a lower Sender Score which can significantly increase the odds of your emails being sent straight to spam folders.

While it may be more time consuming, you’ll get far, far better results if you’re targeting relevant recipients by sourcing leads and building an email list yourself. This allows you to locate companies that may have a genuine need for your product or services, and the best person at that company for you to contact.

Your name or company isn’t recognizable

This one’s tough. There’s not much you can do, in the short term at least, if your recipients don’t know who you or your company are. What you can do is check how your name appears next to your subject lines (as seen below in “Rand Fishkin’s” inbox), and change it accordingly (if necessary).

Including your company name here could be beneficial if your company is well known, or if your email is going out to people that have explicitly signed up to receive emails from you (which wouldn’t be a cold email so is irrelevant to the article here, anyway).

In a cold email from a largely unknown company, this can be off-putting to recipients and can feel spammy. If you’re in this situation, I recommend ensuring it’s only the name of the sender that appears next to your subject line.

The content of your emails contain words that are flagging spam filters

This is a problem that’s often overlooked, I guess in part because it’s so hard to pick out red flags. Sure, if you put the word “viagra” in your headline, you’re going straight into spam, but there are many less obvious and more innocent “mistakes” that can get spam filters fired up too.

In fact, I’d go as far as to say it’s impossible to be certain whether an email might trigger spam filters, simply because every filter has its own set of criteria.

As a general rule, however, it pays to avoid using words and phrases that are known red flags. You can find a comprehensive list of them here.

In addition, I’d strongly advise against doing any of the following:

  • Writing subject lines in capital letters (this isn’t just a potential red flag, it’s just plain bad manners)
  • Sending HTML-only emails
  • Using flash, video or Javascript
  • Adding attachments to your email
  • Using exclamation points
  • Making spelling mistakes

Last but not least, don’t forget that Sender Score I mentioned earlier. Many email servers check a sender’s score before deciding what to do with an email. If yours is too low, you’re going straight into spam.

So how do you keep your score up?

It’s impacted by the volume, frequency and pattern of emails you send as well as user behavior. If more than 1 in 1,000 of your emails gets marked as spam, you’re at risk of running into problems.

That said, if you’re not “spamming” people, you should be okay. Just be natural. Don’t buy addresses – send targeted emails to recipients you’ve found and qualified by hand. Your Sender Score – and your emails – should be safe.

Tips and Tricks to Boost Email Open Rates

So far, we’ve looked at mistakes you might be making that could be negatively impacting the rate at which your cold emails get opened. Now, let’s look at some tips and tricks for boosting open rates even further.

Make cold emails less cold

I’m going to get into some more tactical suggestions below, but one tip I want to share with you is that cold emails don’t really have to be cold. Most of the people you’re reaching out to likely maintain some kind of public social media presence. Engage there before you email, and your message won’t come as such a surprise.

For example, you could:

  • Leave comments on their Facebook page updates
  • Retweet their Twitter messages
  • @ reply to their tweets
  • Heart and comment on their Instagram pics

A few casual engagements before sending your email can mean the difference between a cold message that gets ignored and lead that’s warm enough to capture attention.

A/B test subject lines

A/B testing is something I encourage most marketers to do, whenever possible. An A/B test is the simplest form of a split test – it just pits one variant against another. They’re invaluable when optimizing a website and when testing elements of a marketing strategy – including cold email campaigns.

In this case all you’re testing are two different subject lines – subject line A and subject line B. As with all A/B tests, it’s imperative that every other factor remains equal.

“For a subject line test, make sure you keep all other factors equal for best results. Send all of the emails at the same time of day and keep your messages uniform. You can customize these later, once you’ve determined which subject line works best.” Dan Steiner, Elite Legal Marketing, writing for Webs

When the test is complete, analyze your results and use your findings to improve your next round of emails. While your main focus will be open rate, consider response rate too. If subject line A was a clear winner in terms of open rates, but subject line B got more responses, clearly something – somewhere – went wrong with subject line A.

Let’s also talk about that “clear winner”.

The smaller your sample size, the less statistical significance your results will have. If you send 50 emails and subject line A was opened 15% of the time and subject line B 20% of the time, that’s not really enough to say “subject line B was the winner”.

The results would mean much more if subject line A of that same 50 email campaign was opened 5% of the time and subject line B was opened 30% of the time.

The bigger your sample set, the more reliable a small discrepancy in results becomes – a 5% lead in a 5,000-strong sample set means much more than a 5% lead in a sample set of 50, for example.

Change the first line of your email

Just above we spoke about how your company name is visible to recipients before they open your email, and so can affect open rates. The first line of your email has the power to affect this too – by up to 45%.

How much of your email recipients will see depends on the provider they use and the device they’re viewing their emails on. It’s safe to say however that at least the first few words of your email will be visible to the majority of recipients. This – and the fact the right preview text could significantly increase open rates – means it’s very important.

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Think of it like a meta description (and the subject line of your email like a meta title). The meta title (or subject line) is designed to capture someone’s attention. The meta description (or opening line of your email) is designed to persuade them to click through.

Follow up with a call

I guarantee this tactic will make you stand out, simply because so few marketers use it. Calling prospects takes guts, so it’s not something the masses are all that excited about adopting.

Don’t approach this tactic with a view of securing a sale. If that happens, then great, but make the focus of your call finding out why your contact didn’t respond. suggests saying something like this:

“I’d like to be respectful of your time. I sent you a cold email this morning and  you never replied. You probably don’t open or reply to most cold emails — I don’t either. This call’s purpose is not to sell you. From one professional to another, can I just ask why didn’t you like it? I know we have a really valuable product —  why wasn’t I successful in conveying that? I’d highly appreciate even the smallest bit of feedback.”

Remember that not everyone will respond favorably. Some people are probably going to be a little pissed that you chose to email and phone them. Chances are though, that the positive responses you get will make up for that – whether in sales or in feedback that you can use to improve future cold email campaigns.

Before launching your campaign, send a test email to yourself. Ideally do this to more than one account with different providers, and view it on more than one device (a desktop and smartphone should do the trick).

Try to read the email from a neutral POV (it might help to leave an hour or so between writing and sending your test email, and reading it). Ask yourself whether you would open this email if you received it from an unknown.

If you can’t honestly say “yes”, I’d urge you to go back to the drawing board and try again. After all, if you wouldn’t open your email, can you really expect anyone else to?

What open rates do your cold email campaigns tend to get? Are you likely to change anything you’re doing in light of my suggestions above? I’m always up for hearing your experiences, if you have a moment to share them below:







add section about: engage with them on social media before you email.