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The loathsome state of my inbox

There’s only one way cold email works for B2B, and it’s not what you think

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Author photo: Carrie Shaw

Carrie Shaw

Chief Marketing Officer

In this waning-pandemic era, my morning routine has been optimized to the hilt. I wake, scrunch my hair into a bun, throw on leggings and a t-shirt, and grab some coffee. It takes about five minutes — and that includes 2.5 minutes for the pour-over. (My daughter doesn’t even move from her prone position in bed; she just grabs her laptop from her night table and starts her day. My husband is a huge fan of the “hide-the-bottoms” strategy and lives in jogging pants paired with nice-ish shirts. We’re all Olympians here).

It’s a good thing too, because all that time I’ve saved preening gets frittered away once I open my email. I gingerly take my post-surgery carpal tunnel hand and click-click-click-click-click my way down the inbox to delete all the cold emails that have come in overnight. By the time I’m done, I have about four emails that actually need my attention. And that’s how my morning starts.

It goes without saying that this is my primary inbox, and I’m only dealing with the cold emails that have slipped through Google’s fingers and avoided the graveyard of the Promotions folder.

What’s become of B2B email? Like the boy who cried wolf, repeated requests for meetings and responses have become meaningless and the end result is simply a form of cognitive load that’s useful to no one.

In Copper’s recent Shifting Relationships survey, we identified that during the pandemic the number of cold emails sent increased substantially, while the response rate got worse or stayed the same. The cold email response rate is — and has been for some time — one percent, and is only showing signs of getting worse. Yet marketers continue to throw repeated missives everyone’s way, not because they think they’ll drive fantastic response rates, but because email is cheap and they’ll continue to play for the one percent. And that one percent will only yield more responses by sending out more emails, so we continue down this silly path that bloats our inboxes. At best, it’s annoying and a waste of time; at worst, it does the opposite of what was intended and damages the way we perceive brands.

The most objectionable part of the cold-email barrage is the phony personalization that’s become the tactic de rigeur. First of all, the data is wrong more often than it’s right. Second of all, the inauthenticity of faking a relationship with someone you’ve never met is extremely off-putting. Some growth marketers had a taste of success with this strategy 10 years ago; brands now wage a constant battle with one another to come up with new ways of pretending to actually know someone.

You’re getting it all wrong … and it’s embarrassing

More than half the time we’re showing ads to someone other than the advertiser’s intended audience,” said a Facebook product manager in 2016. If Facebook can’t figure out personalization with their troves of first-party data, I highly doubt that smaller brand marketers, who are typically buying lead lists and attempting to enrich them with third-party data, are doing any better in their cold email attempts.

Julia from Ju***tor* recently emailed me multiple times with this winner:

“Hey Carrie — I know you’re busy, so I thought I’d reach out to you as well as Jason D. & Brooke H. again…”

Jason is not and has never been an employee of Copper. He’s the founder of Copper LLC — a totally different company. Brooke left the organization in March. Well done Julia. (PS: saying “I know you’re busy” is like saying “I know you breathe air.” But at least you spelled “you’re” correctly.)

I received an Inmail this morning with the salutation: Hi Kelley… The sender followed it up with another Inmail a few minutes later apologizing for the “typo” and saying he wasn’t sure quite how it happened. I could forgive him if I didn’t know that the sender had nothing to do with the composition of either the note or the correction. The mistake was on the part of the marketer who forgot to insert the firstname merge field.

One of my all-time favourite fails was a cold email addressed to “Dennis Dennis.” The copy indicated that the sender knew Dennis Dennis didn’t have the decision-making power in the organization, but hopefully he could forward it to someone who did? Dennis (last name not Dennis) is Copper’s CEO. And the sender? None other than the supposed “top” prospect-enrichment database.

You don’t know me. Stop pretending you do.

The worst offenders are the ones who pretend that we already have a relationship. The falsehood achieves two things: 1) it makes them think it’s ok to email me repeatedly even though I never respond and 2) it makes them think I owe them something.

This morning I got a blind LinkedIn connection request and the note read: “Putting a face to the name.” The strategy was to give me a photo of Nikki to match the dozens of cold emails she’s sent me over the last few weeks — none of which I’ve opened. Frankly I didn’t even recognize the name, just the tactic.

Kevin from Re***ze wrote me and said, “Hey Carrie, I hope everything is ok. I haven’t had any luck reaching you. So I’m going to assume one of three things:” He then went on to list three incorrect assumptions about me and had the audacity to ask me to take time out of my day to respond to which of the incorrect assumptions fit me most. Kevin hasn’t had any luck reaching me because he is as known to me as someone who lives 3000 miles away whom I’ve never seen in my life. Why would I respond? Why is he asking me for favors?

Monica tried to trick me and others on my team. Her subject line was “Weekly top lead: $56k budget, specialty contractor in California,” and the body of the email was designed to look just like the triggered notifications I get from our marketing automation platform. She called herself my account representative. But no, Monica, I’m not your customer and now I never will be.

Honestly. I could mark these as spam. I could “unsubscribe” from things I never subscribed to. I could respond and tell these people that no, I did not “get your voicemail,” and actually no, I am not going to “recommend the best person to talk to” and no, I don’t want a “box of chocolates in return for my time” (well, I do, but not from you). But why should I have to? Why should I spend precious minutes and flex regenerating wrist muscles to muck around with inbox settings and filters and spam reporting? Besides, I’d never be able to stay on top of it. No matter how many times I try to clean my inbox or put my promotions folder to work, it just fills with junk again — in half the time it took to sweep it.

The only way cold email works

Now, I’m a marketer by trade. And I’m a marketer with a large responsibility to drive top- and mid-funnel action for my organization. So I truly, truly understand where all these emails are coming from and why they all seem to be headed my way.

But they totally miss the mark. For years, no matter how many cold emails have been sent, the average response rate has never improved beyond one percent. And there’s a simple reason for that.

Cold email only works when two very specific criteria are met:

  • You have to already be feeling the pain being expressed by the sender
  • You have to be feeling the pain right now

Timing and pain.

The rare combination of those two conditions is what elicits a response. That’s it, that’s all. Here’s an example of an email to which I did respond:

Good Afternoon Carrie — Hope all is well!

I was checking out your LinkedIn and it looks like you are owning marketing over at Copper!

At In***ight, we are currently running demand gen programs with K***x and they are seeing some great results with us! In one quarter, K***x generated over $250K in pipeline opps with our program. (attached is the case study)

Any interest in connecting? I can show you what we are doing for our clients like K***x and how we can support your Q3 initiatives at Copper.

Kind Regards,


I could quibble with the excessive exclamation marks and the fact that K***x isn’t a brand I’m familiar with, nor is it relevant to me. But Jason caught me at a time when I was absolutely feeling the pain of slow pipeline and I was already thinking about potential third-party sources to beef up volume.

Ultimately I did connect with Jason, and while I didn’t become a customer, I at least became a legitimate, qualified lead.

I was feeling the pain, and I was feeling the pain right then.

This is what brands should be doing with cold email. Dispense with all the gimmicks and the guilt and the favors and the FOMO and the spurious personalization and just say: “Hey. Here is the pain point we solve. If you are feeling this pain we can help.” And that’s all they have to do. An email sequence is ok if it’s not too frequent, because all a sequence does is try to get the timing right. But after 3 emails, spaced out perhaps a couple of weeks or a month apart, it’s safe to scrub that person from your list if you haven’t received a response.

In fact, I kind of wish our friends at Google would create a digest of cold emails for me, once a week. They’d wrangle all the cold emails, parse the content, and send me a simple list of all of the brands that want to reach me, the pain points they’re solving, and a sentence or two about their solution. I could glance at this, hand pick the relevant ones, and follow up on my own.

Problem solved. No inbox bloat, no reputation damage, no risk of carpal tunnel recurrence.

I wonder if Dennis Dennis would agree.

*All names changed and brands redacted for privacy

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