The first time I ate SPAM, I have to admit, opening the can was considerably more enjoyable than what was inside. Back then, the cans were opened with a key and a tin/zinc strip wrapped itself around the key. SPAM was invented here (in Minnesota) by Hormel Foods; I guess because hot dogs weren’t enough to consume the pork shoulder trimmings (that’s what SPAM is made from – pork shoulder).  Why do we have SPAM? Our soldiers ate it in World War II, and it was one of the few sources of “meat” on the battlefield. After the war, it was more of a peculiarity than something people really ate.

And then – mass email arrived – and the idea of SPAM took on a whole new meaning. It became synonymous with slimy sales email delivered with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer blow to the marbles and all the empathy of the tinniest ear one could imagine.

So, I’m not a big fan of SPAM the meat, or the email tactic.

However, in the land of COVID, cold email is a viable tactic when done properly, can increase your revenues in a single sales cycle. It can fill your pipeline with people who want to talk to you. It can make them book appointments. It can drive them to you irresistibly.

They key being, when done properly.

The vast majority of email that I see is spamming email. It’s absolutely and utterly worthless. That’s why most marketers conclude that cold email doesn’t work. It’s why I read all the time, “email is dead.” It’s why the vast majority of you spam and spam and spam away without ever getting any love for your efforts.

It’s about as useful as its namesake.

There is a better way. I promise you. Let me show you how.

When it comes to email list size – it really doesn’t matter (I’m not kidding)

Size matters, when it comes to email, right?


Would it shock you to find out I can get leads with emailing only 100 people?

It’s true. It’s also what I recommend you do.

When I talk to companies, I ask them “how big is your list?” Beaming with pride, they’ll tell me “Oh our list is 28 thousand!” or “Our list is 67 thousand!”

Those lists are not that big. I guarantee they’re not that big. If you have ten thousand people “on your list,” the reality is you have about two thousand people – really. At least half to three-quarters of those people are the wrong people. Of the roughly 500 or so that are left – you’ve probably beaten them unconscious with your messaging to the point that they wouldn’t cross the street to watch you burn if you were on fire.

Why do I say that?

Because what matters is not the size in sheer numbers. What matters is the following:

  1. Can you reach them? (What’s the real size of the list’s population?)
  2. Do they open and listen? (Do they care about what you have to say?)
  3. Can they take action? (Are you reaching the decision maker?)

That’s what matters. Not list size.

For years, I thought about this one thing totally the wrong way. I believed that bigger was better. It’s not.

Size doesn’t matter. If you have only 100 people on your list, but they’re the right 100 people, then trust me – you have the ability to double your revenue in a single sales cycle.

Delivery & Open rates matter – here’s how to improve it

You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make them open the email… or something like that.

But open rates are what matter the most in cold outreach. Whether it’s email, sales letters, direct mailings, etc., you don’t have a chance if they never get the message in the first place. For email, that means open rates.

The way marketers deal with this, and the reason why they’re always pining for bigger and bigger lists, is that if you can maintain an open rate of 20%, then more leads are just about getting more people on that list right?

Well up until about 2005, I’d have agreed with that strategy. Pile them on like it’s the Marines at Guadalcanal. More email by the bushel.

And then the world fought back.

Most people have heard of the “CAN-SPAM” act. What people don’t know is what that law’s name really is: “Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography And Marketing Act.” Controlling the assault of non-solicited marketing! Imagine just how much people hate unsolicited email that the federal law curtailing it is named that!

Mail servers took notice starting in 2004. Every mail server in the world has artificial intelligence scanning email as it flows in. Google in particular is exceptionally good at rooting out “assaulting non-solicited marketing,” and users don’t have to do a thing. Google has roughly a third of all email accounts in the world (almost 1.5 billion accounts). Microsoft Outlook is second with roughly half a million users. Last is Yahoo (acquired by Verizon) with roughly 200 million users. Thus, out of the roughly three billion monthly email accounts in the world, almost 70% of them are stewarded by services that are using sophisticated anti-spam artificial intelligence to stop your garbage from ever reaching an email account.

Is it any wonder why delivery rates have been dropping like a meteor? From 2008 to 2020, the amount of email ever delivered to the inbox has fallen from roughly 70% to perhaps 50%. The reason why it’s fallen – better machine learning, better spam filters, better point of delivery filtering by the major providers and a concerted effort to route out unsolicited email.

And given the state of play, everyone is excited about open rates barely breaking one in five.

And everyone is super excited about having only 2% of people even click on a link.

Pounding away like a lunatic with a frontal assault is absolutely futile. It’s also a bit suicidal.

If you send mass emails without knowing what you’re doing, the following will probably happen:

  1. All of the majors will instantly recognize your domain as “Mr. Spam.” This can have long term consequences for your business.
  2. Once #1 happens, your email rates are going to drop to about 20% deliverability – you just won’t know it. It will look like emails are “being delivered” but they will never be opened.
  3. Some percentage of the ones who do open your email will be pissed – and thus – this creates even more problems for you as they report to their mail service that you’re spam.

Smashing on the safe with a hammer isn’t the way to go. You have to increase delivery rates and you have to increase open rates. How do you do that?

Pretty simple – stop sending spam.

At the broadest level, deliverability and open rates are influenced by the following “meta factors” from the AI’s perspective:

  1. Is this an email that I suspect my user would be interested in? (That’s determined looking at what the user normally talks about and what the user is doing.)
  2. Is the sender someone who is reputable, trustworthy, and not out spamming the crap out of everyone?

The first issue is one of targeting (which is the next section). The second issue is one of having this properly set up (SPF, DMARC, etc., those are things I’m not going to discuss in this post), but it’s also one of actually sending an email that on its face doesn’t appear to be spamming.

Let me give you some examples of what I’m talking about.

Targeting is critical

The first mistake that people make is that they don’t understand who they actually sell to. They think that “everyone” in a market sector has need for whatever it is they do. That belief is mistaken.

Take my business – I market primarily to three types of individuals: the CEO (or President), the sales director, and the operations director.

Notice what’s missing? The marketing guy. Want to know why? Because marketing people think they know everything, typically don’t know what to do to solve business problems, actually worry that a good agency could show them up, and are bombarded by agencies all day long and so they ignore the messages.

But in the end, the people who decide to hire me, even when there is a marketing director, is the CEO, the head of sales, or the head of ops, or some combination of those three. Thus, that’s who I market to in my emails. I don’t need 10,000 of these people to make a decent funnel – I just need 30 to 50 of them. The CEO and the Sales head are usually the guys who are most focused on what would drive more revenue. Thus, not only do I need to target my recipient, I need to know what is his biggest problem in presenting myself to that person. Thus, I talk about how to increase revenues and I send out emails like this one (emails to demonstrate my competence in generating revenue.)

What’s the result of that? Every time I send out an email to my list – even the ones that are a “soft sell” just showing something we’re doing – we generate 30 leads a week from businesses all over the world.

That’s what good targeting is going to do for you. In another post, I’ll talk about how to refine targeting through email testing, but for now, I implore you to really think about who you’re trying to talk to. I guarantee that the targeting isn’t “the entire world” on a given topic.

Stop talking like a complete sales-crazed douchebag

Consider this email, it’s one I got today:

Hey, I’m Seth,

I landed on your website, theaviationagency․com, while searching for Aerospaces in Minnetonka Minnesota.

Who are you targeting and what do they care about? What is the main way you currently reach their target audience? These are some of the core questions we’ll answer to achieve success in your business.

Keeping things simple and logical is a core philosophy we operate on.
We specialize in using product launches and brand building to achieve success in your business.

A brand is more than just a logo. It is a feeling, lifestyle, and state of mind. We know how to use product launches and brand building to achieve success in your business.

In this time, everyone is online more than ever. It is essential to have a clearly defined brand.

Creating a brand identity includes finding the best possible logo that acts as the cornerstone of the brand. We know how to take product launches and brand building so as to achieve success in your business.

I’d be more than happy to demonstrate what we can do for The Aviation Agency with a sample and proposal.

Both are custom-tailored for your website – theaviationagency․com.

Can I send this to you?

No Seth – you can’t. And you want to know why? Because my Exchange server spotted your ham handed dick move 20 miles away and your email never landed into my inbox.


Seth made two mistakes: one – he has no idea who the hell he is selling; two – his email reeks of Aqua Velva and failure.

I want you to imagine this like you’re at a party. If you were at a party, would you walk up to someone and go, “Hi I’m Seth, I noticed across the room there that you have no idea what branding is, so let me explain it to you… now, when I’m done, you’re going to totally want to buy this.”

Absolutely not.

This isn’t how we talk.

First, I’d never try to sell branding to me. I’m a marketing expert. What’s next – are you going to try and give Michelangelo lessons in sculpting? My Outlook Exchange server has already figured out this is my business  – and it’s looking for reasons to stop people trying to sell what I sell to me. It has formed these opinions from a) watching what I do and say in my emails, and b) watching what I block from idiots like “Seth”.

But ok, let’s say I wasn’t Bryan, the myth, the man, the branding legend. Let’s say I was in this market and I was waiting by my email inbox going “I sure hope the next email is something about branding!”

Would this be the right pitch? Only if I have put half a tube of Brylcreem in my hair and I look like I was dressed by Jack Nicklaus in the dark – plaid polyester suit pants and all.

When we reach out to people, we typically don’t pound them in the skull with a sales message. Not when we’re being genuine. This message reeks of sales failure – and my Exchange Server knows it.

How might I have reached out to “me”? Look at this:

Hi Bryan,

My name is Seth and I work at Southpaw Projects. I’m a specialist in branding and targeted traffic.

(Which was the name of the actual agency that sent me that garbage. If you’re reading this – your emails suck.)

I was looking at your website and it’s amazing all those interviews you did. I really enjoyed the one with AIN.

You are clearly a branding expert. I’m sure you’ve thought long and hard about how to market The Aviation Agency.

But I was so taken with what I’ve seen, it got me thinking about a way I could turbocharge what you guys are doing. I’m probably whistling in the dark, but I’d love to share with you my idea. Maybe it would be a game changer, at worst it could be worth a laugh, and I’d learn something.

What would be a good time to chat?



Now, this email has a ton of benefits for reasons I’ll get to later in this piece. But the primary reason it would be a zillion times better is – it doesn’t sound like a spamming form letter.

Start Small and Optimize for Open Rates & Deliverability

What you should do is start with 100 people you think are your best candidates. I would pick 100 of the best companies in your niche – the top names. First, it’s going to be easiest to identify who these “critical decision makers” are in your niche, and second, the data you’ll get back will be golden. If you can send an email that gets to 70-80% of these people, gets opened, and gets some sort of feedback, then you’ll have a winning strategy.

Once you’ve identified your 100, you need to send in very small batches – 10 or 20 at a time.

You need to play with the headline (the first indication that your email is “on point” with the biggest problem that niche is facing). You also need to play with the body copy. It takes some skill and craft to do this (which is why we do this for a living). Your goals would be this – you want at least 60-80% of the emails to be opened, ideally 80%.

I know that sounds insane right? Didn’t I just tell you above that average open rates are like 20%? Yes, I did.

But imagine you targeted properly the 20% who did open your email and you targeted ONLY those people. What would your open rates be then? 100% right?

Well, if you can get 100% – let me know, I’d love to hear that story. For mere mortals like me, 80% open rates are mighty fine.

But you also need to optimize for deliverability. That means, you need an email that doesn’t sound like spam, doesn’t have a ton of links, and can be scanned quickly.

The best tool I’ve seen to use (and it’s free) and test if your email is “spammy” is Mail Tester.

You want to have an email that is short, sweet, has only one link (if that) and the call to action is to contact you. The email should deliver some promise of value and demonstrate it’s not just a form letter that was pounded away by monkeys smoking cigarettes and crack. It shouldn’t look like a sales letter, but a genuine request to connect and see if you can deliver some value to the recipient. That’s what non-spam links look like.

After sending a few rounds of testing, you’ll get over 50%, then 8 in 10. You may even get some people calling you. Life is good.

You can’t pound away – this is “craft beer” not Budweiser.

Email the right people

There’s no point in emailing people who can’t buy. Most of the lists I look at are largely “unmarketable” people. When I tell clients (or prospects) this, they say “but maybe so and so will tell.”

Yeah – maybe I’ll lay a golden egg. The idea that someone not in the market might tell someone who is and the idea that somehow I might simultaneously lay a golden egg are about as equally likely to happen (and I have a masters degree in statistics).

The number is simple – zero.

There’s absolutely no point to emailing vegans an offer for a stake house. There’s absolutely no point to emailing the secretary with an offer for services when she’s not the one who buys.

You have to know who the buyer really is. Then you have to be able to target them properly.

This is where elbow grease and knowledge comes in to the picture. You have to know your sales funnel. You have to know your best prospect. You have to be able to find them effectively in email.

I doubt for any of you in this field there are tens of thousands, or even thousands, of decision makers. Your lists are going to be in the hundreds. Get the right 500 or so, and you’re totally money.

Targeting matters.

Now, you might be wondering, since some of you see this post because of my own “newsletter” type email if I do this for real?

Yes, I do. Those of you who saw this post because of my newsletter emails aren’t people I expect necessarily to buy from me. Our agency is trying to solve two problems simultaneously – the first is obscurity (which is largely a spray and pray play through advertising and mass outreach); the second problem, which are solving through emails exactly like what I describe, is targeted emails with a singular offer.

I send out about 50 a week. I know exactly who my targets are – reminds me of my days in the Bush Administration with the “Deck of Cards” I know exactly who I want. I know about 80% of them will open my email.

Then you have to not screw it up.

What that means is – don’t waste my time.

You have my attention – give me an irresistible offer.

The irresistible offer

If you haven’t realize by now, I love cinema. For me, the best sales pitch in film isn’t “Coffee is for Closers” (although that is an epic scene and David Mamet is a genius – also loves flying by the way.) For me, the best scene of sales in Cinema is the irreverent genius of Robert Preston as “The Music Man”:

Think about the situation (granted this is fiction but as Picasso is famed to have said, “Art is the lie that brings us closer to the truth.”). Nobody at that moment wants musical instruments. The Music Man knows that the town cares about the corruption of their youth. So what does “The Music Man” do? He makes them an irresistible offer – buy the instruments or face the downfall of society thanks to “scarlet women,” “sen-sen,” and the local pool table.

That my friends is an irresistible offer.

Now in my message above as “Seth” I tried to make an offer that would likely “hook,” me. The offer is “I’m sure you know tons of stuff, but maybe you’ve neglected something. Wouldn’t it be worth the time to figure out if I have a killer idea?”

At the moment Seth contacts me – I couldn’t care less about him, about the products or services, about his ideas. But a charming email  written with humility, genuine interest, and the possibility of gain for me, gets my attention.

The way most people sell is this: “We make X… wanna buy some?”

No, I don’t actually.

You have to woo them in this email – which I realize is super hard because the real estate is super short. We’re only doing it in a few words and the fewer the better.

There has to be demonstrated value for ME to respond to you, click the link, or do whatever.

The formula is pretty simple – build up tension, release the tension by having the prospect take the action you want. Here’s another great scene from Wall Street:


Tell me something I don’t know – it’s my birthday.

I’ve presented to two Presidents, multiple cabinet officials, heads of state, and heads of Fortune 500 companies. I’ve testified before Congress and briefed international organizations. I’ve been in the room and presented to some of the most difficult, demanding, and senior executives in the world.

It was a learning process to be sure.

I’ll save you what took me three years and a bunch of failures to learn. I’ll boil it down for you in two sentences.

Get to the point. Make it worth my while.

A short email with an irresistible hook will work. Everything else is just another dog with fleas, pal.

Does it work?

Does this all work? Yes.

Cold email is one of our primary lead generation activities. We pair it with programmatic ad spend as well as cold outreach.

I sent out about 100 emails a week to a finely tuned and finely researched set of executives, primarily in aerospace. The result? We get about 80 people opening the email. About 50 people visit our website. About 15-20 people decide to have a discovery call with us. About 90% of those result in proposals…

I think you can see the math.

Is it spamming? No. Absolutely not.

But Cold Email can work. If you target, test, act genuine, offer real value, and go about it in a deliberate way – it absolutely can work.

Right now – email, phone, and online, are where 99% of the aviation market executives are during business time. I wish we had trade shows. I wish we had print.

But we don’t thanks to COVID. And we probably won’t have trade shows or print or even direct in-person sales for quite awhile.

In many ways, COVID is a blessing for cold email. People actually open emails that make sense to them.

If you send a good email that is well placed, you have a very good shot at introducing yourself to someone who needs what you do in a way that makes sense.

If we can help – reach out to us. Love to show you more and talk to you more about how to do this (and more).


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