Is Cold Emailing Illegal? And Does It Work Anyway?

There is no quicker way of generating a high volume of business than emailing a database of targeted prospects with a strong promotion. But is ‘cold emailing’ actually legal?

This question confuses a lot of people. One of my readers, for example, contacted me a while back saying:

“I am having great difficulty understanding the spam laws… I need to send uninvited emails that are business to business emails to trades and construction companies to recruit trades onto my data base.

On one hand I read it is spamming to send uninvited mails. On the other I read it is not spamming to send business to business mails. If it is the case that I can’t contact by mail could you let me know an alternative fast method?”

With the caveat that you should take always legal advice, here are the basics of the anti-spam laws in the UK (if you’re operating from the US, the equivalent legislation is the CAN-SPAM act):

  • Anti-spam law is enforced by the Information Commissioner who can in theory fine your business up to £5,000 for breaches
  • You CAN, of course, email anyone who has OPTED IN to receive emails from you, for example by requesting your regular email newsletter
  • A person who has bought a product or service from you can be considered a ‘soft opt-in’ – meaning you should be able to email them, provided you are sending them related offers and give them the opportunity to opt-out
  • You CANNOT ‘cold email’ consumers – i.e. private individuals
  • You CAN ‘cold email’ individuals at business addresses PROVIDED that your promotion is a BUSINESS-TO-BUSINESS promotion RELATED to their work
  • However, you CANNOT ‘cold email’ sole traders or partners in business partnerships in England and Wales, even if you email them in their professional capacity because the law counts these individuals as consumers (a real consideration for my reader, since there are many sole traders in the construction industry/trades)
  • Any commercial email you send must always a) identify accurately who it’s from, and b) provide an email address or mechanism through which people can opt-out of further emails.

But legality aside, is it worth sending unsolicited or ‘cold’ email anyway?

Buying vs renting email lists

I always tell anyone who’ll listen that the number 1 marketing tactic they should be pursuing is building up their own database of opt-in subscribers to email communications.

But how much if any value is there in sending email to recipients other than those on your own opt-in email list?

It’s important at this stage to distinguish between two methods of email marketing: buying a database or ‘list’ of email addresses outright, and what is known as ‘list rental’.

Buying email data – nearly always a bad move

A quick internet search will reveal suppliers offering email lists of thousands of ‘business decision makers’ to purchase for a few hundred pounds or less.

If you take up one of these offers, you will usually be provided with an Excel spreadsheet containing the actual data, which is yours to do what you will with.

Sounds great in theory, but consider this:

  • Likely poor response from a bought list

How clean is the data on a bought list likely to be? Was it compiled properly? Is it accurate? Out of date?

And if every man and his dog can buy the same list and fire emails to it at will, doesn’t that kind of suggest that any response that was there has been well and truly battered to the point of non-existence?

Furthermore, no-one’s expecting your email and you can’t have established any familiarity with a bought list, so your response is likely to be poor.

  • Sending to a ‘dirty’ list can cause you server problems

Sending email to a poor quality list can not only be a waste of money – it can actually cause you worse problems than that.

A customer of my preferred choice of (strictly opt-in) email software AWeber recount how they bought an email list only to find that:

“Upon emailing to 100,000 of the records, 85,000+ bounced, clogged up the mail server and also got them fired by our web-based email provider.”

Yes: a high proportion of your emails ‘bouncing’ (being returned as undeliverable, probably because they are invalid email addresses) can actually cause your internet service provider/hosting company to suspend your account, because you look like a spammer…

  • Reputational damage

…and you look like a spammer when you bulk email a bought list because many if not most of the recipients will consider you a spammer too!

The law may not consider cold emails out of bounds but many others will do, so consider whether you care about possible reputational damage.

We discussed these and other issues around buying email data in our podcast here.

List rental – a different kettle of fish

Now, ‘list rental’ is a different kettle of fish entirely – a legitimate strategy of tapping into OPA (other peoples’ audiences) that I would encourage you to try.

List rental means that you pay a fee to the legitimate owner of an OPT-IN email list. You provide them with your email promotion ready to send, and they send the email to their list ON YOUR BEHALF at an agreed time and date.

The ‘rental’ terminology is somewhat misleading in fact, since the actual subscriber data never leaves the list owner’s hands.

And this is not unsolicited email since the list owner has permission to mail it.

It’s possible to achieve very good responses if you rent a reputable list – and the best ones are usually with credible, ‘household name’-type media organizations – for some of the following reasons:

  • Subscribers have actually opted in for information and related offers – making it far more likely that the list will be responsive
  • Borrowed credibility – because the subscribers on a good rented list are used to getting (hopefully) valuable content, some of that goodwill should rub off on you
  • Advice from the list owner to help you improve response – list owners know which promotions perform on their list and which don’t, so ask for their advice
  • The volume of email sends is limited – reputable list owners will usually put a limit on the number of emails sent to their audience per day and week, making it less likely that the list has been exhausted

In summary therefore, I’d recommend that my reader look into renting an email list from a reputable media organization who creates content for his target market. He should ask who else uses them and what responses they get. And negotiate on cost.

Final point: the regulators on this are pretty toothless.

A £5,000 maximum fine really isn’t that offputting. And while I don’t recommend the approach of trying to buy email data, the maths will always mean that, on paper at least, it can seem an attractive option.

Want to grow your own email database, with new opt-in subscribers who actually WANT to hear from you? 

Click here for my free lead generation page checklist – use it and you could conceivably double the opt-ins you get from your current level of traffic.