Cold outreach, or the process of contacting prospects with whom you don’t have an existing relationship, has come to be regarded as something of an art form. Email content itself is critically important and can indeed make or break your efforts. Arguably more important, however, is deliverability, which represents the likelihood that your emails will land in a primary inbox — as opposed to a promotions folder or the dreaded spam folder, to use Gmail’s folder system as an example, if it delivers at all.
Before a recipient even reads your painstakingly crafted subject line, the location of your email colors their perception of both you as the sender and your message. Even an expertly written introduction, pitch, or solicitation is unlikely to win your recipient’s attention if it isn't delivered correctly.
In this article, we’ll talk about how to send cold emails that get delivered and responded to, but first, let’s lay a bit of groundwork for our understanding of cold email deliverability.
Why is email deliverability so important for cold outreach?
As the sender of an unsolicited email to a recipient who owes you nothing, your task is an uphill battle under the best delivery circumstances. If you don’t have the benefit of your recipient’s familiarity, and your email lands in their spam folder, they’ll almost certainly ignore or delete it. Making that connection is like hiking up that hill, barefoot, in the mud.
Alternatively, an email that lands in a main inbox lends you credibility that could grant you a few seconds of attention, which could make all the difference in making meaningful contact. Ensuring that your emails are delivered properly is like putting on hiking boots. You’ll still have to climb the hill — or deliver value and inspire action in the email itself, in this case — but it’ll be a whole lot easier.
How is deliverability determined?
Email service providers (ESPs) vet emails through filters to screen for suspicious content and ensure the trustworthiness of senders. Then, emails are categorized into folders. Landing in a spam folder indicates that your email was deemed untrustworthy. The more frequently your emails land in spam folders, or even promotions folders, the less likely ESPs are to deliver your content into primary inboxes in the future.
Percentage of emails delivered, percentage of emails landing in main inboxes, and percentage of bounced emails are three important factors to consider when determining your deliverability. Overall email deliverability below 95% can compromise your cold email efforts. That means that your bounce rate, or the percentage of your emails that aren’t delivered to any inboxes at all, should stay under 5%.
How can you maximize your deliverability potential?
Be intentional about email volume.
Using your email organically — or sending a moderate number of emails to recipients who regularly read and respond to them — helps to establish trustworthiness as a sender. Creating a brand new email address and immediately sending out hundreds of cold emails is a surefire way to be flagged as a spammer. Instead, gradually increase the volume of emails you send, starting with no more than 10-15 emails a day for the first several weeks and implementing incremental increases over the next several months. If your cold email strategy requires a more aggressive cadence, distribute that email volume across multiple sender addresses within your organization.
There are also automatic tools, like MailFlow, you can use for accelerating the establishment of your credibility as a sender, a process sometimes referred to as “warming up” an email address.
Vary your send times.
Varying send times doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to do everything manually. Major email platforms allow for fairly nuanced automation. Changing both the number of emails you send each day and the times at which you send them can help prevent being flagged as suspicious.
Create content that encourages and facilitates engagement.
The more valuable your content is to the recipient, the more likely they are to open your emails, click on links, reply to them, and mark them as important. All of these actions communicate trustworthiness and credibility to ESPs.
For this reason, it’s important that the targets of your outreach are likely to be interested in your content. Their engagement with your emails helps your sender reputation, and their lack of engagement has the opposite effect.
Also, compel recipients to reply by closing your emails with clear, simple questions that can be answered quickly and easily. For example, “Do you have time to chat this week?” or “Would you like more information?” A reply is a reply, and even a “no” still helps your email deliverability in the long run.
Avoid using spammy language.
Overuse of certain kinds of language can trigger spam filters. Here’s a list of spam trigger words that, when overused, have the potential to make your emails look like spam.
Avoid overusing images and gratuitous formatting.
Plain text emails are least likely to trigger spam filters while those chock-full of GIFs, for example, might look suspicious to ESPs.
Send personalized emails to individuals’ email addresses.
An email personalized for and sent to firstname.lastname@example.org is more likely to be opened, read, and engaged with. Emails that are ignored because they were sent to a general company address or perceived as spam because they’re generic and impersonal do more harm to your deliverability than good.
Maintain good list hygiene.
Audit your email list for misspellings, out-of-date addresses, addresses that bounce your emails, and recipients who never engage. These emails work against your deliverability.
Also, if your cold email involves content that a recipient can unsubscribe from if they should want to, make that option as easy to find and complete as possible. Recipients who don’t engage with your content — or worse, who are resentful of receiving it and might mark it as spam — can drag down your sender reputation and hurt your credibility.
Set up authentication verifications.
After setting up a new email address, set up these three technical tools to communicate your authenticity as a sender and protect your emails from landing in spam folders:
- Sender Policy Framework (SPF): SPF prevents bad actors from forging emails from your account, which ensures ESPs that you are the genuine sender of your emails.
- DomainKeys Identified Mail (DKIM): This communicates to ESPs that your email address is unmodified from its original form and that your email content was not altered between being sent and being received.
- Domain Message Authentication Reporting and Conformance DMARC: This affirms protection of your emails by SPF and DKIM to ESPs.
Google’s Check MX tool can verify that you’ve set these protections up correctly.
Monitor your Sender Score.
Return Path provides a metric called a Sender Score that indicates your reputation as a sender based on factors like engagement and recipient spam reports, and it can shed light on areas in which you have room for improvement.
Do test runs.
Mail Tester is a resource that can “test the spammyness” of your emails and reveal issues like overuse of images and lack of unsubscribe buttons.
More Best Practices for Cold Emailing
These additional tactics can spare you a world of hassle and many lessons learned the hard way by cold emailers.
Use a separate domain specifically dedicated to cold email.
Especially if you’re sending a high volume of cold emails, it’s worth protecting against the possibility that your email will be blacklisted. If, for whatever reason, your deliverability tanks, this precaution ensures that the reputation of your main domain doesn’t suffer as a result of failed cold outreach campaigns and could save you from the havoc that an unusable primary email domain could wreak on your operations.
Use software that is intended for cold email outreach.
Many email marketing softwares explicitly prohibit uploading prospects who haven’t opted in to receive content from you, and they will ban you from use if you’re reported. Cold email outreach software tends to facilitate outcomes that are relevant to cold outreach, like replies, for example. Email marketing software tends to facilitate outcomes that are less relevant to cold outreach, like clicks.
Check your ESP limits.
Some ESPs have clearly established daily limits for email senders. Some providers can be contacted directly regarding their limits. Here’s a list of ESP sending limits.
Summing Things Up
Admittedly, there’s a lot to be mindful of when it comes to cold email outreach. Much can go wrong, and overwhelm isn’t entirely unjustified, but mastering deliverability is easiest when you address the factors that give your emails their best shot at landing properly on an individual basis. Think of the best practices in this article like a checklist, cross them off one at a time, and you’ll be left with a sound approach to cold email outreach that won’t be hindered by technical missteps.