What is Cold Email? (And is it GDPR Compliant?)

Email Marketing Article
20 mins

Depending on who you ask, cold email is either a personal and persuasive sales tool, or it’s a spammy tactic that should be consigned to the Trash folder of email history.

In our opinion, both viewpoints can be true: it depends on how the cold email is planned, put together and delivered.

This guide will teach you how to run cold email campaigns that are sophisticated, not spammy. We’ll discuss a range of cold email techniques and tools, and we’ll also clarify how the practice is affected by the GDPR. You can expect to leave here with the knowledge you need to achieve success with cold email.

What is cold email?

Cold email is the practice of sending unsolicited email with the intention of starting a business conversation. It’s the email equivalent of cold calling.

The goal of cold email is often one of the following:

  • Sell a service to a fellow business or sole trader
  • Initiate a business partnership or collaboration
  • Networking

According to Drift’s 2020 State of Conversational Marketing report, email is the communication channel most commonly used by businesses for talking to other businesses or organisations.

In the 12 months leading up to Drift’s survey, email had been used in this way by 65% of respondents – a higher share than social media (28%), face-to-face (31%), website (42%) and telephone (55%). For B2B sellers, cold email is big business. 

How to put together a cold email outreach list

Let’s get stuck into how the cold email process works.

The most important step in a cold emailing campaign is the very first one – and it has nothing to do with writing emails.

Cold email can only be successful if it is sent to the right people (who are referred to as ‘leads’). The more relevant your offering is to the leads you target, the greater the potential for success.

With this in mind, you should aim to compile a highly relevant list of contacts to send cold emails to. You should try to bring together at least the following details on each contact:

  • Name
  • Email address
  • Personal reason why the lead could benefit from your offering

Many marketers do this research via online platforms such as Google and LinkedIn. You search for relevant companies, then find the relevant contacts at those companies. This process is known as ‘prospecting’

There are some great tools available to help with prospecting (and with other aspects of outreach). For example, the Buzzmarker browser extension from BuzzStream lets you bookmark promising leads with the click of a button, and can automatically populate a connected BuzzStream account with contact information associated with the lead’s website. Another excellent option to consider is HubSpot Prospects.

All the leads you identify through prospecting can be added to your cold email list. This should be a live list that you can edit and update continually, as this will make it suitable for ongoing use in all of your cold email campaigns. Whenever one of your emails bounces, you should think about removing that contact from your list, as a high bounce rate may cause your email provider to apply sanctions to your account.

Writing cold emails: pain points and personalisation

There are all sorts of ways to approach writing cold emails.

If you have a talented writer on your team, we suggest you tap into their creativity to produce some really distinctive cold email copy, as this will set your emails apart from everything else in the lead’s inbox. HubSpot’s 11 Funny but Effective Sales Email Templates is a great source of inspiration.

With all that said, most businesses prefer a simpler approach to writing cold emails. If that sounds like you, we suggest using the following formula:

  1. Introduction
  2. Address the lead’s pain point
  3. Suggest a way you can solve the pain point
  4. CTA

Let’s go through each of these components in detail.

Step 1: introduce yourself. In just a few sentences, say who you are, and tell the lead something positive you’ve noticed about their work. Put plenty of thought and care into how you personalise the introduction.

Step 2: address the lead’s pain point. Identify something that might be causing the lead a problem or holding them back, then address that point in your email copy.

Step 3: suggest a way you can solve the pain point. Tell the lead how your business can address the problem you have mentioned in step 2, and be sure to let them know about how you have helped similar clients deal with the same issue.

Step 4: CTA. End your email copy with a clear call-to-action. For example, you might ask the lead whether they’d like to arrange a meeting via your online calendar.

We’re about to give you an example of how these four pieces can fit together in a cold email. Look out for the structure: introduction ––> pain point ––> solution ––> CTA.

Cold email copy example

Hi, pleased to meet you!

My name’s Joe Bloggs, and I’m an account manager here at Joe Bloggs Blogging Inc.. I recently noticed your brand has launched some beautiful new products, so I made a note to remind myself to get in touch.

If you’re anything like the other fashion retailers I’ve spoken to recently, you might be facing some challenges raising awareness of your new garments. High street footfall has been down this year, as you know, and the cancellation of London Fashion Week has ruled out a usually reliable source of press coverage.

I’d like to propose a solution that could help you improve public awareness of your new products in this challenging year. Joe Bloggs Blogging Inc. runs a high-performing sponsored content operation across a network of widely-followed, high-authority blogs. In the last month, we’ve helped fashion brands including House of Livorno and Belle Cherie reach an audience of over 100,000 weekly readers.

Our sales team would love the chance to discuss this with you further – whether you want to dig into our historic campaign data, or you simply fancy a chat. Just click the button and fill in your preferences to arrange a virtual meeting:


Thanks for your time,

Joe Bloggs


Whatever your business sells, this industry-standard cold email formula should give you a good starting point to build from.

Over time, you may want to tweak the formula a little bit – an extra section here, a different order there. Every business has a slightly different target audience, and the only way to learn which tactics work best in your specific circumstances is through ongoing experimentation.


Cold email success metrics

Cold email has a unique set of success metrics. These are the things we can look at to measure the performance of a cold email campaign.

Commonly monitored cold email success metrics include:

  • Open rate: the percentage of delivered emails that were opened.
  • Click rate: the percentage of delivered emails that registered at least one click.
  • Hard bounce rate: the percentage of emails that could not be delivered for a permanent reason, e.g. the recipient’s email address or domain is not real.
  • Soft bounce rate: the percentage of emails that could not be delivered for a temporary reason, e.g. the recipient’s inbox is full.
  • Unsubscribe rate: the percentage of recipients who unsubscribed from your mailing list after opening the email.
  • Conversion rate: the percentage of recipients who completed a targeted action, such as clicking a CTA button.

You can usually assess whether a cold email campaign has been successful by analysing some combination of these success metrics.

How to track email conversion rate in 2021

The most important metric in most cold email campaigns is the conversion rate. This metric tells you what percentage of recipients did the thing you were aiming to get them to do, which could be anything from visiting a page on your website to arranging a meeting with your sales team.

Back in the day, you could do email conversion tracking by using a unique generic shortened link, such as a bit.ly link, as the target URL of the CTA button in each email. Because each email had a unique shortened link, you could simply look at the analytics for the unique URL to see whether a specific user had clicked the link.

Although this technique was neat and simple, it was also controversial, partially due to the fact generic shortened links were popular not only with legitimate users, but also with hackers and scammers. In recent years, some of the most popular shortened link providers such as Bit.ly and TinyURL have been blacklisted by email service providers including MailChimp, AWeber and VerticalResponse, which means generic link shortening is no longer a workable solution for many marketers.

Thankfully, there are still ways for marketers to track email conversions – it might just take a little extra legwork. Popular solutions include:

  • Branded link shortening. This works similarly to the generic link shortening approach we just discussed, but the links are hosted on your own branded domain, and therefore are (most probably) not blacklisted. Read ClickMeter’s guide to email conversion tracking for more detail.
  • Recording conversions manually. Some marketers who use cold email might only expect to score a few conversions per campaign. This is especially true of cold email campaigns to see high-value services. If this sounds like it might be true of your cold emails, you may decide to log your conversions and calculate your conversion rate manually. Just be sure to record your findings somewhere where you’ll be able to refer back to them again in future.
  • Link your email service provider to Google Analytics. This approach can enable you to go into your Google Analytics account and see how many visitors reached a targeted webpage via an email campaign.

How to track other email success metrics

While conversions are usually the primary measure of cold email success, there are other metrics that can also provide valuable insight into how your cold emails are performing.

For example, if your emails have a high hard bounce rate, that could indicate you need to clear out inactive email addresses from your mailing list. Meanwhile, a low click rate might suggest your email content is not as compelling or relevant as it could be.

Many of the most useful email success metrics are included in the reporting features of email service providers like MailChimp and Campaign Monitor. (Before you commit to an email service provider, check whether they track the metrics you need for analysis).

Open, click, bounce and unsubscribe rates can vary greatly between industries, which is something to bear in mind when evaluating your own email campaigns. The following figures from MailChimp’s Email Marketing Benchmarks show the discrepancies in average email performance among the marketing, professional services and PR industries:

Industry Average open rate Average click rate Hard bounce Soft bounce Unsubscribe rate
Marketing and advertising 17.38% 2.04% 0.44% 0.68% 0.27%
Professional services 21.94% 2.55% 0.56% 0.83% 0.31%
Public relations 21.02% 1.98% 0.45% 0.71% 0.17%

Source: Email Marketing Benchmarks by Mailchimp

Tracking success metrics will be crucial to the long-term success of your cold email campaigns. Through comparing the metrics of different campaigns, you can draw conclusions about why certain campaigns achieved greater success than others. For example, perhaps one team member’s copywriting seems to attract more conversions than another person’s, or maybe one format of email subject attracts a higher open rate than others.

Analyse your email success metrics at the end of each cold email campaign, identify some insights to take away, then use what you’ve learnt to optimise the next campaign.

Is cold email GDPR compliant?

The good news for email marketers is that the GDPR does not affect cold emails, as the regulation applies specifically to how companies handle the data of individuals, not how they interact with other businesses and organisations.

One regulation that UK marketers do have to comply with is the Privacy and Electronic Communications Regulations of 2003 (PECR). This regulation is favourable towards the practice of cold emailing, as it specifies that business-to-business communications do not require opt-in consent.

The best cold emailing tools

If you’re going to make cold emailing an important part of your B2B marketing, it makes sense to use tools to optimise or expedite parts of the process. Here are some of the best cold email tools we’ve found for you to look into:

  • Milkshake: a sales engagement and automation software, with features including personalisation tools and automated followup emails. There’s also an integrated phone dialler, so you can mix cold email with cold calling.
  • Woodpecker: quite similar to Milkshake, Woodpecker provides a feature-packed platform for outreach to new leads. A particularly interesting feature of Woodpecker is the option to set up different follow-up emails to be triggered when the recipient responds in a certain way, e.g. when they have opened an email a certain number of times.
  • Hunter: this is a really useful tool for finding a lead’s email address. You can start a search by simply inputting their company’s web domain.

There are loads of other cold email tools out there that are worth investigating, so we recommend doing your own research to find the solutions that seem best suited to your business. There are more examples in P2P Marketing’s guide to the best cold email software.

The most important success factor in cold email

The great thing about cold email is that there are all sorts of ways to achieve success. The more your emails stand out, the better, so we would suggest that you gradually move towards your own optimised approach to cold email, after trying the methods we’ve talked about in this guide.

One thing that we believe you should always remember when sending cold email is the importance of personalisation. This is arguably the most crucial cold email success factor, proven through countless pieces of research to increase both open rate and reply rate.

Accurate personalisation tells the recipient you’ve done the legwork to understand whether the service you’re trying to sell can truly help them. If you can really empathise with the lead’s challenges in a meaningful way and talk to them in language that resonates, your cold emails might actually turn out surprisingly warm – which is exactly the sort of human connection that often marks the start of a successful business relationship

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