The truth about cold leads

A friend recently shared a link to a spammer’s blog post bragging about how what they’re doing isn’t illegal. Weird flex, but OK. Going on your blog and defend your business model that way? "We’re not actually breaking the law! We promise! Cold lead emails are totally legal!" You do what you gotta do, I guess. But remember, farts are not illegal either, and they’re just about as broadly unloved as cold lead email campaigns.

So, yeah, duh. Spam is not illegal. I’ve been pointing that out for years – here’s me mentioning back in 2010 that CAN-SPAM does not actually prohibit spam. It’s legal, flat out. But, as an argument to defend bad practices, "this is legal" is a red herring. What you should be asking is: how does CAN-SPAM regulate spam and what does it say about mail filtering and blocking? As I wrote about just a couple of weeks ago, and back in 2010, CAN-SPAM effectively enables and allows mailbox providers to set policy as far as what mail they want to allow or disallow, and just about every mailbox provider has a policy that prohibits unsolicited email. The mail is legal, and the blocking of the mail is legal, too.

That means that the practical problem with cold leads isn’t a legal one. The real, practical problem with cold lead mail is that it’s unwanted by most recipients, and unwanted by most mailbox providers. Sending cold lead email damages domain reputation and causes spam folder placement, especially at Gmail, because engagement rates are really low. Few people engage with it, few people want it, so Google denotes that interactions are lacking, and that tells Google that mail like this deserves spam folder placement.

Bonus thoughts: The add-on argument “but we’ve helped lots of people send lots of spam” is a tricky, slick attempt at justification. It is technically true, but lacking context and detail. The implication is that mailbox providers must not really be against this because they’ve never gotten shut down for it.

Mailbox providers do hate it, but they’re sometimes slow to catch on to it. Google and Microsoft can be sleeping bears sometimes. Sometimes you don’t get noticed…but do something uncool enough times and you’ll get noticed, and then you REALLY won’t appreciate that notice.

I get approached regularly by people looking for deliverability help because their domain reputation and ability to get mail to the inbox ended up trashed thanks to cold leads. Bad domain reputation can end up being an email marketing death penalty. It’ll make your own corporate (non-spam) emails start going to spam, and it can last for months even after the unwanted mail stops. It've seen it hit well-meaning but not-savvy smaller marketers particularly hard. They got duped into thinking cold leads were the way to grow their business. Now they've got an email reputation history that involves sending lots and lots of unwanted mail and only have a tiny, legit opt-in list that they can't even nurture because they can't climb out of the spam folder. It's fixable, but it can be a bitter pill of a process.

And those folks who facilitate this kind of thing? Do they ever get noticed by mailbox providers? YEP. Just about a month ago, Google actually told one “cold leads warmup tool” to knock it off, to stop using the Gmail API, for violating Google’s published policies. They don’t always take notice quickly…but they do take notice. It turns out that “doing things Gmail doesn’t like at low volumes and hope you don’t get noticed” might not be a great long-term business model.

If you’ve got a business email address, you probably receive cold lead spam. I know I do. Just about all of it goes to the spam folder. Why? See above. Low engagement; generally wanted. But yeah, it’s a business model. Some people make a buck or two at it. It’s just not a great business model, especially if you plan to be in it for the long run, and if you like seeing your mail delivered to the inbox.

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