Cold email is one of the most hotly contested outreach methods in B2B. But is it even legal in the first place?
Professionals’ inboxes are flooded with emails from senders they have no relationship to. Recipients often gripe about this and quickly relegate the emails to the spam folder. There are a zillion think pieces ranting about how irritating cold email is. And then there is the flood of comments defending cold email as a sales tactic.
Regardless, cold email keeps pouring in. Without the express consent of the recipient, are companies legally allowed to send it? Is cold email legal?
The answer is: it’s complicated.
***Before we dive in, please note that we are not lawyers and this article should not be considered formal legal advice. We have brought our professional research experience to examine the issue from many different angles. Read on to better understand the factors contributing to the murkiness surrounding the legality of cold email.
CAN-SPAM Says You Can Cold Email.
Under CAN-SPAM legislation, you can send an email to someone you don’t know.
However, there are several requirements that must be met for commercial email to qualify as legal. You can read the requirements at this link, but here is a quick summary:
- Include no false or misleading header information. For example, you can’t fake the origination domain for the email or email address.
- Avoid the use of deceptive subject lines. There seems to be some ambiguity here. When does a creative headline become deceptive? It’s a pretty subjective judgment call.
- Clearly explain that the email is an ad. Simply put if it’s an ad (as defined by CAN-SPAM) you need to be clear and explicit about that fact.
- Tell people where you’re located. Yep, you have to tell them where you are.
- Explain how folks can opt out of receiving email from you. This does not require a formal unsubscribe. It can be something as simple as, “Tell us if you don’t want to receive email from us.”
- Honor opt-out requests within 10 business days. You also can’t charge a fee for recipients to be taken off the list. Also, you can’t sell or transfer their email to a third party.
- If someone else is sending cold emails on your behalf, you need to monitor what they’re doing. If the emails sent on your behalf don’t meet requirements, you can still be held legally responsible.
Is Cold Email Legal In Other Countries?
Internationally, the legality of cold outreach gets even more complicated because each country is different.
Take regulations around opt-in requirements, for example. Do recipients have to sign up to receive the email? In the UK, opt-in is not required if the email is sent to a commercial entity and the email is relevant to the job the recipient engages in. However, opt-in is required in countries like Germany, Italy, Norway, Spain, and others. In other countries, no opt-in is required at all if the email is relevant to the recipient’s job title. Countries in this bucket include France and Sweden. In another variation, the Netherlands doesn’t require opt-in if the recipient’s address is publicly available. Obviously, that’s a wide range of different types of conditions and concerns. And that’s just for Europe.
Canada, for instance, has some of the strictest laws in the world when it comes to spam regulation.
If you’re going to send commercial emails to folks outside the U.S., make sure to research each country’s laws before you do.
What About Cold Outreach For Market Research Studies? Is That Legal?
As a market research firm, we send out a fair amount of cold emails to recruit survey and interview respondents for our studies. You may be curious where market research recruiting emails fall on the cold email spectrum.
In the U.S., market research recruiting outreach is completely legal. Market research outreach is actually considered exempt from the CAN-SPAM legislation. (There are some caveats to this, read all about it here.)
But if you’re doing market research cold outreach internationally, make sure to research each country to see whether market research related emails are exempt from spam laws.
Why Are We All Getting So Much Cold Email?
Cold outreach automation platforms are used by many recognizable tech giants and unicorns. For example, Yesware is used by Groupon, Square, and ZenDesk. And Outreach.IO is used by Century Link, Cloudera, Microsoft, and Adobe.
You may be wondering how these platforms get away with sending so much cold email. Well, technically, they’re allowed to, under the current version of CAN-SPAM.
But, many savvy industry viewers wonder how long that will last. These platforms take advantage of sellers’ personal email accounts. Since the volume of email is then limited only by the email service provider’s sender limits, it’s no wonder B2B cold emails have increased dramatically. For example, depending on the Gmail account type, sender limits vary from 500-2000 emails a day. Hence, an automation platform could conceivably send 60,000 emails a month from a single Gmail account.
Why All The Hate Over Cold Email?
We’ve established that as long as cold email meets the necessary requirements, it’s legal.
And yet, blog posts on how much cold email sucks keep getting exponential shares. What merits this reaction?
Well, an annoying B2B cold email probably slips up on one or more of the following:
- The message has no connection to the recipient’s work. For cold email to be valuable to the recipient, it must be relevant to their day.
- The email does not provide value. A good rule of thumb is to try to give as much as you take. Want to start a conversation with a new lead? At least include a link to something they can use, like a relevant industry resource, podcast, or blog post.
- It’s unclear what the point of the message is. It’s important to have a simple and reasonable ask. This could be as easy as requesting a short email response. Simple is key. Make sure the request can be replied to in ten words or less.
Cold emails that are relevant to the recipient, provide value, and have a clear, easy ask are much more likely to get a response.
For The Most Part, It’s A Legal Evil.
Cold email may be annoying and you may prefer unsolicited survey requests to steer clear of your inbox. But, that irritating influx of unrequested email is probably legal, as long as the sender follows the appropriate regulations, such as CAN-SPAM in the U.S.
However, just because you can do something, doesn’t necessarily mean you should. Don’t send that cold email unless it meets the legal requirements, is relevant to the recipient, provides value, and has a reasonable ask.
Wondering why your company’s cold emails are scoring leads or sending them hurtling toward the “unsubscribe” link? We’re happy to help.
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