Is Sending ‘Cold’ Email Legal? And Does It Work?

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 it legal to ‘cold email’ people with your offers?

This question confuses a lot of people. One of my readers, for example, contacted me last week 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
  • 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’.

Should you buy a database of email addresses?

Let’s not be too precious here – the simple fact of the matter is that you will need to reach out to new prospects at some stage or your business will DIE!

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, and there are some good data providers out there.

But there are a lot of questions you should be asking. 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 you need to expect response rates in that context.

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

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

A customer of 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 volume and 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’.

  • Possible reputational damage vs business gained

The law may not consider cold emails out of bounds but many others may do. At the same time, the fact is that a lot of business is actually generated this way. It’s your decision.

List rental – a different kettle of fish

Now, ‘list rental’ is a rather different kettle of fish – a legitimate strategy 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 start by looking 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.

Finally: my own opt-in(!) email newsletter is very much concerned with ways you can LEGITIMATELY build and create value from your opt-in email list, so to get free tips join via the form on this page.

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  • I am a huge fan of growing my own list organically Robert. Super insight here 😉 By growing lists through my blogs and social networking accounts I know these people know me. They find me through my value, through my Facebook updates, or blog posts, and this fact displays that they are heavily interested in my offerings.

    This also increases my conversion rate. Not much dead weight when people opt in to your list through your own unique channels.



    • TheTysonReport

      Thanks for stopping by Ryan.

      And I agree – the value is not just in the email addresses per se but in the relationship you have with the people on the other end of them.

      That’s why just blasting a cold list is usually such a bad idea, and why you also need to grow your own list and develop that relationship over time.

    • Rose Sevilla

      Great observation. I personally use + yesware. It really works wonders.

  • Good stuff Robert, a helpful summary

    • TheTysonReport

      Thanks very much Alison – glad it helped!

  • Josh

    List rental is a great option and one way that we’ve built our business. As mentioned in piece we’ve had great success with renting opt-in lists. But one option that wasn’t mentioned was renting non opt-in lists.

    This has been nearly as successful for us while being much cheaper. It seems like the big problem with buying lists is the cost for good data, and the consequences trying to use bad data yourself.
    So renting the data allows you to avoid the financial hit, while having the company renting the list do the deployment. We use a company in the states that both rents the data and handles the email deployment

  • Jackie G

    This is informative. I agree that the success rate of an email campaign depends on the list that you have. There’s a good example of this approach in an ebook called Cold Emailing Tips:

  • Joel Blackmore

    This is awesome – thanks! I have a question maybe you can help me with though…

    I want to email individuals at a company and offer them some small paid work to discuss their professional experience (think answering a short survey about their professional experience). They would be paid, and they would be responsible for declaring the pay themselves. So it would be emailing individuals in relation to their business experience, but they would be paid individually and would therefore be payment outside of their existing company.

    Any help on that anyone?! Really want to figure this out and make sure I am not doing anything against any regulations.

    • TheTysonReport

      Interesting question Joel – my gut feel (and it is only a gut feel, not advice) is that what you describe falls into a grey area. I don’t think the payment side of it is here or there… personally I wouldn’t see a problem as it’s biz-related.

  • Lilach Bullock

    Thanks Rob, this is super helpful in what can be a grey subject :)