A Cold Email is Not a Cold Call

One element of our work that has surprised me since we started Incendium is how much more frequently we work with marketing professionals compared to sales professionals (and to be honest, how much more they like us). Like most people, I initially assumed that cold outbound email was a sales tool. It probably used to be, but it’s interesting to highlight some key changes in the B2B marketplace over the last three years that have pushed good cold email out of sales and into marketing.

In other words, a cold outbound email is not a cold call. What it is today is a targeted advertisement.

At a basic level, a phone call is an opportunity for interaction (and in sales, persuasion) between two humans. At first, buyers treated cold emails the same way that they do phone calls: not necessarily as a welcome interruption, but as an interaction between two people suggesting engagement from both sides. But over the last 5 years especially, 2 main things have changed that make optimized cold outbound email much more like an ad than a phone call.

  • First, it became incredibly easy and cheap to identify prospects and their contact information. Networks like LinkedIn and then databases like ZoomInfo and Apollo have created a world in which almost anyone can find almost anyone else’s contact information and reach out to them (in the early days of email “hunter” plugins, emailing Mark Cuban became something of a party trick in the sales community). With public contact information available at low to no marginal cost, the volume of cold outbound emails increased drastically. This was especially at the onset of the pandemic.

With this increase in outbound email volume, there was a concomitant drop in email response rates (not to mention increased challenges in avoiding spam folders). Receiving one or two sincere-sounding “cold calls” in your inbox every day is tolerable and sometimes even appreciated, but dozens is just annoying. Buyers also got smart: More and more cold email recipients today know when an email they receive is a templated cold email. These buyers shifted to interacting passively with cold outbound emails like they do with ads they encounter elsewhere, but salespeople continue to try to actively engage as if they were cold calling.

  • Second, buyer behavior has changed over the last 10-20 years with more and more research being conducted independently of salespeople. Buyers now spend only about 5% of their time with a salesperson and typically prefer to conduct their own research. These buyers are not interested in being sold via a text version of a phone call in their inbox, but they are open to researching new solutions through cold advertisements that they receive.

These shifts have created a massive misalignment because salespeople are hired to be good at things like phone calls, not advertising. Good salespeople are consultative and persuasive, two characteristics that fail to translate in modern cold outbound email.

It is still possible to successfully execute cold outbound email to generate sales meetings (Incendium has set over 4,000 meetings this year alone), but only with a different orientation towards the activity. The real advantage of cold outbound email in an environment of lower responses is that it provides solid brand marketing value plus the upside of direct response ads.

In other words, cold outbound email is no longer an appropriate tool in the sales stack, but it is a marketer’s dream.

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