Why cold email fails

Would you eat at a mediocre restaurant because they sent you a cold email?

As someone who has had “success” with cold email, I now view it as the channel of last resort.

Why?

Paid advertising is a tax for being unremarkable; cold emails are an attempt to make your customer pay your taxes.

The remarkability spectrum

Perhaps the most remarkable product is Wikipedia, where an average 8,836 people visit every day, for just one page about dogs.

But remarkability isn’t a luxury reserved for unicorns and early internet success stories: to be remarkable is to solve a want or need better than the next company, in a way that is worth sharing.

I write this from St. Oberholz, a coworking cafe in Berlin. They started coworking in 2005, far ahead of the curve, and today they’re evangelizing a network of coworking spaces around the world.

If you ask the average Berliner about this cafe, they probably won’t even know it exists. But ask a startup in Copenhagen or Madrid, and they’ll gush with enthusiasm.

Remarkability is on a spectrum and specific to your audience. There are plenty of remarkable companies in the world: you don’t notice them because they aren’t for you.

Many large multinational law firms grew without paid advertising: they know clients and other lawyers are the best source of referrals.

Many software agencies grow to dozens of employees and as many clients without paid advertising: their projects lead to more projects.

When is the last time you ate at a restaurant because they sent you a cold email or paid for ads to interrupt your day?

When was the last time you trusted a dentist because they cold called you?

Yet many restaurants grow into chains without advertising; many dentists thrive without advertising.

In Barcelona, there is an excellent Argentinean Parilla named La Malandrina. They list their Facebook page as their website; without reservations available, you can wait an hour to eat there. Across the street is another Parilla, and it is often empty.

In this corner of Barcelona, for lovers of Argentinean steak, La Malandrina is remarkable.

If you saw an ad from the other one, would it persuade you to eat there?

Who pays your growth tax?

Many companies make the mistake of throwing money into interruption advertising without doing the hard work of becoming remarkable to someone.

This isn’t new: annoying advertising has thrived for at least a century. It is a tax, and companies can grow and even thrive while paying the tax.

With cold email, however, you effectively ask your future customers to pay your tax, in time and attention.

There’s nothing inherently wrong about this, but it creates an adversarial relationship with the people you want to serve.

Selling services goes two ways: you need a partnership to succeed. How will you turn this adversarial relationship into one where you can work from the same side of the table? More likely you’re going to face strong negotiations and slow payments.

The clients you deserve

As a business owner, your clients will reflect who you are.

When you commit to growing without becoming remarkable, and you insist on others paying your growth tax, you will end up with worse clients.

In 2011 I presented a talk on how to rank higher on Yelp. Even with a broken call to action, I began to receive many inbound inquiries. This presentation was remarkable; unfortunately, it attracted the worst possible customers: Chiropractors fighting their patients, basic real estate agents, lawyers ready to sue anyone and everyone.

By offering to solve a problem plaguing mediocre businesses, I attracted mediocre clients.

In 2012 I started outbound email and phone campaigns to anyone with a hint of needing my services (Marketo consulting at the time.) I acquired some clients, but they were some of the worst: a startup wanting to pay below market rates; a manager who had gained a job by lying about her experience and needed some tutoring; an agency who had over-promised and needed warm bodies.

It wasn’t until I did the hard work to establish remarkability that my clients changed.


Many B2B entrepreneurs I know come from a PUA, affiliate marketing, online poker ethos.

If you’re the type of person who loves the thrill of chasing women for phone numbers, the alchemy of selling Cialis by email, then you might find outbound is a great channel for you. But, you’ll get the clients you deserve.

If you want clients who value their time, why would you start the relationship by stealing their time?

If you want clients who value relationships, why would you start your relationship cold?

Selling products is similar to sleeping with as many people as possible: once you acquire a customer, you win.

Selling services is more like a marriage: once you acquire the client, the story begins.

This is the other reason your productized service will fail: you’re covering your failures in client partnerships by trying to limit your obligations, and focusing instead on the acquisition game.

Why you’ll still send cold emails

Becoming remarkable, even to a small audience, is hard work. Not hard work like sweating, but hard work like empathy and letting go of ego.

This gets harder still when you sell marketing software. Hubspot came close: with precision inbound, and keyword data, they helped small businesses find better channels than cold email. Then Google killed their data source, and they started building cold email software: now the most remarkable thing about them is their conference about the thing they no longer provide.

Without finding a niche where your work is remarkable, you’ll always face an uphill battle to find customers.

Perhaps you like uphill battles: your outbound tactics work for you. If so, I recommend you double down on them: everyone is moving away from email, where you can intrude without their permission, to walled gardens like Slack and Facebook, where your permission to access them can be revoked. Enjoy your game while it lasts.

Perhaps you sell outbound email: in this case, you can probably grow by using it as your channel, because the clients you want will be the ones who reply.

But don’t drink too much of your own kool-aid: just because someone believed in your interruptions enough to buy from you, doesn’t mean it will work on their audience.

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