Your Cold Email Response Rates Suck

Here’s how to fix them

If you’re using cold email to generate b2b opportunities then response rates matter. Quite a lot actually.

Responses are a feedback mechanism that tells you whether your messaging is on track, or needs to be refined. And they play a key role in starting a dialogue with your prospects.

In this article we’ll explore ways to massively increase your cold email response rates. And if you follow the suggestions below, there’s no reason you can’t achieve email replies of at least 15%.

cold email response rates

What’s a Good Cold Email Response Rate?

Everyone wants to use benchmarks to evaluate the effectiveness of their cold email campaign. After all, if you don’t know what average responses look like, how do you know whether you’re doing a great job, or not?

Sadly, there’s no perfect benchmark you can use to assess your campaign reply rate. That said:

In our experience, cold email response rates are around 15%

Woodpecker found that response rates tend to drop depending on the number of people contacted. Which makes sense. The larger your prospect list, the less likely your copy is to be a perfect fit for every single person on it. Their research indicates cold email campaigns with more than 200 people get average response rates of 5%.

Business Objectives > Reply Rates

A better way of thinking about response rates is to gauge business outcomes. Knowing what your cold email campaign accomplished is far more useful than how many people responded.

Think of it this way. Imagine your virtual sales assistant contacts 100 people and 45 of them tell you to take a long walk off a short pier. You will have achieved an impressive 45% response rate. But you won’t have built the foundation for a new relationship. And that’s what cold email is all about – starting a conversation that can grow into a strong relationship.

Sales Higher once had a client who got a paltry 4% email response rate. At first it was a cause for concern. But upon deeper inspection we found that almost all the responses received were very positive. For every 100 people he contacted he got 3 or 4 meetings. Which made his cold email campaign incredibly successful and brought his cost per lead under US$50.

The point is, the quality of responses you receive are more important than the quantity. Ideally you want both!







Sales Higher recently ran an internal campaign for our lead prospecting solutions. In the campaign we contacted 93 people at 68 companies. The headline results were average, at best. Our response rate was 14%, and the opening rate was a middling 53%. But beneath those numbers, the positive response rate was an INCREDIBLE 12%. Out of 68 companies, 8 of them wanted to continue the conversation.

So when you are evaluating your cold email campaign don’t consider response rates in isolation. Think in terms of business outcomes, not just the number of replies you received.

Engagement Spiral And The Vicious Cycle Of Cold Email Responses

While business outcomes are exponentially more valuable, getting strong email response rates still matters.

Ok, but why?

Cold email is subject to the laws of (what we call) ‘engagement spiral’.

Email filters use engagement metrics to determine how to classify your messages. When lots of people open and respond to your cold email, they know messages from your email address are probably safe. And they should go to the inbox, rather than spam.

But engagement cuts both ways!

email engagement

If you aren’t getting a good response rate then you’ll quickly discover your messages don’t get opened. This is because they were directed to the promotions tab or the spam box.

This creates an engagement spiral that’s difficult to escape. As fewer messages land in the inbox, your response rates drop even more. Which then reduces your inbox delivery even further.

If you find yourself in an engagement spiral stop digging and change your copy. Craft messages that naturally invite a response. A ‘no thanks’’ response is better than no reply at all. As your responses slowly increase you’ll also see your opening rates increase. Which will in turn drive higher response rates.

How To Massively Increase Your Cold Email Response Rates

The biggest reason for cold email campaign failure is writing to a broad audience. An email that applies equally well to 1000 individuals is applicable to no one.

Start by writing to one person. That’s it – just one person.


Read your message again. How confident are you that you’ll get a response? If you aren’t at least 80% confident of a reply then write another draft. Keep revising until you are all but certain you’ll get a response.

This process works because it forces you to think of things from the recipient’s point of view. And it trains you to think about your cold email contacts as people, rather than as data points.

Now that you’re certain you can get a reply, test your hypothesis. Try contacting 10 people and see how many respond. You may find your reply rate is lower than you envisioned. Repeat this process as necessary.

When you are confident you can get a solid response rate try scaling your messages. Outreach platforms are designed so you can fully customize your messages and personalize entire sentences of text.

More often than not, you’ll discover that messages meant to be sent in small numbers actually CAN scale with a bit of effort. And it’s almost always worth putting in the extra effort.

Factors That Affect Cold Email Response Rates

Having had the honour of working on hundreds of email campaigns, we’ve seen 3 factors that consistently affect cold email responses rates. Here are some targeting considerations everyone should know.

Data Segmentation

You won’t be at all shocked to learn that relevancy matters. In fact, it’s the single most important factor for getting a reply to your email.

Imagine you are a meat distributor selling to restaurants in a new sales territory. Which is more likely to buy from you, the Brazilian BBQ restaurant or the vegetarian restaurant?

It sounds like a silly question. But many marketers make the mistake of grouping data by demographic. And don’t actually look at the specifics of the contact.

For example, if they target “local restaurants” they’ll get many unsuitable opportunities. The data set could include vegetarian restaurants, bakeries, ice cream parlors, and other places that don’t use much meat.

Ultimately, your reply rate will be determined by how well you segment your data. So put in the extra effort. Your response rates will thank you!

Show Them You Know Them

No one wants to feel like a number, and that includes your sales prospects.

Prospects KNOW when a message feels like it wasn’t really meant for them, specifically. Using basic identifiers like FIRST NAME and COMPANY doesn’t make a message personal. Your message has to have real thought or intention to feel like a personal email.

Most people are happy to receive cold messages that are obviously intended for them alone. So take a few extra minutes to include some non-basic snippets. PROVE you know who they are, and understand their problems.

Social Distancing

When evaluating email response rates, distance matters. Specifically, the less physical distance between you and your prospect, the more likely they are to respond.

Imagine you receive a cold email from someone who works a few blocks from your home. Will you reply? Of course it depends on the email. But given the sender’s proximity, there’s a good chance you’ll knock off a quick response. After all, they might be friends with your spouse, or play in the same darts league you do.

The opposite is also true. Emails sent from the other side of the world are less likely to get a reply. Especially if there’s few social connections linking the sender and prospect.

So when you consider your targeting, always look in your own backyard first. You’ll get a far more positive reception from the get go.

It’s Better To Give Than Receive

The title says it all!

Most cold emails end with a CTA (call to action) that tells the recipient what you’d like them to do next. Cold emails are often sent to generate meetings. So a typical CTA is, “let me know when would be a good time to speak next week.

The problem with this is kind of obvious. You are contacting a complete stranger and asking them to hop on a call. And while this is sometimes very successful, you should be aware that you’re asking for a lot. For the prospect to agree to a call your timing has to be really good. Or they have to be super interested in your solution.

Assertive CTA’s potentially alienate prospects who want to know more. But aren’t focused on your solution in the short term. These ‘future interested’ prospects are a potential gold mine and shouldn’t be left out of the conversation.

A better approach is to soften your request. Instead of asking for a call, OFFER something of value instead. And it isn’t hard to do. If you modify your phrasing you’ll magically transform your request into an offer

For example, “Click on my calendar so we can discuss further next week.” is pretty aggressive. And your target prospect may interpret it to mean, ‘can I waste 30 minutes of your valuable time?’

Instead, modify your CTA to, “would some detailed information be helpful?” If the prospect is potentially interested in your solution then they’ll be receptive to opening a conversation with more information.

Would you be open to receiving {something valuable}?

Ideally, you want to create CTA’s where you know the answer will be YES. Typically that means you frame your CTA as, “would you be open to receiving {valuable thing}?” The more value you can provide, the more likely your prospect is to engage.

Iterate Like Crazy​

The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.” – Albert Einstein

Sales prospects are precious. It’s tempting to think of sales leads in terms of numbers. But every person on your prospect list is an opportunity for your business to grow. That makes them a VIP and you want to impress the hell out of them.

To ensure you’re putting your best foot forward, test ideas with small chunks of your prospect list. Try contacting 25 people. Did your messages get opened? What was your reply rate? Were the responses favourable?

Think of cold email as a scientific experiment. The more you test, the better you know your prospects.

Almost all cold email platforms include the ability to A/B test your copy to see what gets the best conversion rates. But try and go beyond testing minor variances in copy. Change up the main idea – think outside the box. If you were contacting just ONE person, how would you be sure to get their attention?

4 Ways to Increase Your Cold Email Response Rates

If you still aren’t sure how to increase your reply rates, here are four methods that will bump your responses by at least a few percentage points.

Ask For A No

The easiest way to get a response is to make prospects feel ok about saying ‘no’, or ‘maybe later.’

Consider an assertive CTA like, ‘are you free to discuss next week?’ Prospects who don’t want to hop on a call will just ignore this message. There’s no action left for them to take.

But a gentler CTA like, ‘Is this of interest? Let me know either way’ makes it ok for the prospect to say no to your offer.

The more comfortable people feel about giving a negative response, the higher your reply rate will be in general.

Use Manual Unsubscribe

All cold email platforms come with an unsubscribe link option; but it’s best not to use it. To be clear, you HAVE to include an option to unsubscribe. But it doesn’t necessarily need to be a link. There are two reasons to avoid these links.

First, they are spam box magnets. Think of it this way… When you email your best friend, do you include an unsubscribe link? Of course not! The ISPs know that if you are using an unsubscribe link then your message is of a bulk nature and will be classified as such.

Second, manual unsubscribes are an easy way to generate responses. Since some people will absolutely want to stop receiving messages from you, a manual unsubscribe method guarantees some users engage with your message.

Best of all, the language you use can be friendly – you don’t even need to use the word ‘unsubscribe.’ You can just say, ‘if you’d rather I not follow up just let me know.’

Ask For Their Help

All cold email campaigns target decision makers. And how did your prospects become decision makers? You guessed it! By being rock solid experts in their field of expertise.

But despite being leaders in their field, when was the last time someone asked them for an opinion or for assistance? It probably happens a lot less than you think. They’ve got a TON to offer, but no one to share it with.

So instead of telling them they should meet with you, why not flip the script? Ask for help, or see if you can get their thoughts on a topic. You may discover that it’s not that difficult to start a conversation when you approach your prospects with a bit of humility.

Follow Up

You probably already know this one, but it’s worth mentioning. If you want to increase your reply rate, add a couple of follow up messages. If your prospect was on the fence about responding to your cold email then a gentle reminder may get them to take action.

The caveat being, make sure every message you send adds value to the prospect. Too often follow up messages are just, “Why haven’t you replied to my mail from last week?” Every message should stand on its own and move the conversation forwards, independent of any prior message.

It’s Worth Fixing Your Response Rates

Email reply rates are a very good indicator of what’s going right and wrong with your cold emails. So track them carefully! A low reply rate usually means there’s room to improve.

Using the tips in this article you should be able to achieve a response rate of 15%, or higher. Remember, know your prospects and treat them like real people. They’ll show their appreciation by replying.

Matthew Murray

Matthew Murray

Matthew Murray is the Managing Director of Sales Higher. He knows any company can THRIVE with enough qualified sales leads. So he’s spent the last decade helping companies meet engaged prospects and win new deals.

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