Cold Email vs Spam. What's the Difference?

Cold email is not the same as spam. Read this blog to learn the differences between cold email vs spam.
What separates a cold email from spam?

This is a question anyone engaged in sales via cold email outreach asks themselves at some point.

They are very much not the same thing, and anyone involved in this practice needs to be aware of the key differences between the two.

After all, even the smallest mistake can send your legitimate cold email into the spam box, and that is the last thing you want if you are simply trying to conduct business with prospects.

With this article, we’ll provide you with the knowledge you need to fully understand the difference between the two, which will help you become a better cold email writer.

What is a Cold Email?

A cold email is an unsolicited email sent to a recipient with whom the sender has no prior relationship or connection.

It is called "cold" because the recipient has not expressed any interest or given permission for the sender to contact them. Cold emails are typically used for various purposes, such as sales and marketing outreach, networking, job inquiries, or business development.

Cold emails tend to be less intrusive than cold calls and thus better received depending on the prospect. There are best cold email practices to follow to ensure you always get a reply, chief amongst them are:

  • Brief and to-the-point description of the product or service
  • Relevance to the prospect
  • One simple call to action
  • Engaged personalization that demonstrates the salesperson's knowledge of the industry and the prospect’s pain points

Without these, your cold email will not be well received. The worst case scenario is receiving no reply, which affects your senders’ reputation.

Additionally, salespeople know to keep track of their email lists and keep them updated and validated. If the folks receiving your emails are not within the target audience that is best for your product, you are irrelevant to them and their needs.

While, as salespeople, you’ve already researched the leads as you added them to your list, weekly checks on it to make sure everyone is still validated and relevant to your business is a good practice to have.

If you’re not keeping it relevant, the folks receiving your email will not hesitate to label you as spam, even if it is incorrect.

What is Spam?

Spam refers to unsolicited and often irrelevant or inappropriate messages sent in bulk, typically via email but can also occur through other communication channels like instant messaging, social media, or online forums.

These messages are sent to many recipients without their consent and can be annoying, disruptive, or even harmful.

The most common form of spam is email spam, where the sender sends out mass emails to many recipients, often promoting products, services, or scams. Spam emails can also contain malicious links or attachments that may lead to phishing attempts, malware infections, or other cyber threats.

As we saw in the spam trigger words to avoid this year, anything related to money, medicine, homes, and similar topics will directly send messages to spam thanks to spam filters.

Typically, those receiving these emails have not been vetted in any way by spammers ahead of time. In fact, spammers are sending out massive amounts of emails daily to try to lure as many unsuspecting victims as possible. They do not care about generating value for prospects or relevant messaging, they just care about getting those emails out there.

Spammers typically ding spam filters because the addresses they use send thousands of emails daily but do not receive a comparatively high engagement rate. That is to say, they do not receive as many responses to balance the number of emails being sent out.

They do not pre-filter or research the best leads possible or even validate if the email addresses are real and exist. This often leads to the addresses that spammers use lasting less and less, thanks to current email authentication methods like SPF, DKIM & DMARC.

However, suppose you are testing out different customer profiles or still researching your value proposition. In that case, you may be running into recipients not recognizing the difference between your approach and spam.

Let’s take a look at the differences you should always keep in mind when sending cold emails to avoid your prospect marking you as spam:

Cold Email Vs Spam: Key Differences

cold email vs spam

Cold Emails Provides Personalized Value to Prospects

Cold email is a personalized approach to selling that has time spent on the research behind the recipients.

These are not emails being sent out to anyone, these are specific to the industry, company type, company size, and role of prospects.

What you are aiming for is a demonstration of your understanding of their pain points to create legitimacy. You want to make them aware of the fact a solution exists, and that you can provide it.

Spam is a Generic Email Focused on Obtaining Something

Unlike a cold email which is meant to inform and personalize the approach to do so, spam is trying to obtain something from its reader in a more overt way.

Their focus is typically getting someone to open the email, click on a link, download a file, or provide their information to the spammer somehow.

These emails are not worried about making themselves understood or demonstrating their knowledge, they are just trying to convince whoever reads them to follow along with what they want.

Cold Email has a Pre-Selected Target Audience

To personalize the emails correctly, cold email is sent to a pre-selected targeted audience of prospects relevant to the company's solution.

You are not looking to email anyone whom your specific product or service would not serve.

Those are emails you do not get back, and that would cause more harm than good for someone selling via email in the B2B world.

Spam is Directed to Anyone

On the other hand, Spam demonstrates a complete disregard for targeting specific audiences. Its primary goal is to indiscriminately flood inboxes indiscriminately, hoping that someone unwittingly falls into the spammer's trap.

What's alarming is that they don't even bother to verify the accuracy of the email addresses they use, further exemplifying their lack of concern for personalization and legitimacy.

This careless approach underlines spam's disruptive and deceptive nature in the digital world.

Cold Emails Creates Brand Awareness & Starts Relationships

Salespeople writing cold emails know that they are playing the long game.

Prospects have rarely, if ever, heard about their product or service, and this is their first encounter with it. A cold email is meant to start a relationship and a conversation that may have to be revisited several times before it becomes a sale or partnership.

Cold emails typically focus on having that first initial call, and even if that call does happen after the first or second email, it may well be some time before it bears fruit.

And that is alright – the goal is creating brand awareness and simply starting the conversation.

Spam Intends to Obtain Something Fraudulently

Spam, on the other hand, is a deceptive practice aimed at obtaining something through fraudulent means.

Spammers employ various tactics to lure unsuspecting individuals into opening malicious documents, clicking suspicious links, or filling out deceptive forms.

Unlike legitimate communicators, spammers are not interested in establishing genuine connections or initiating meaningful conversations. Their sole objective is to achieve instant success, often through nefarious actions such as stealing personal information or illicitly acquiring funds.

It is important to remain vigilant and exercise caution to thwart the persistent efforts of spammers and protect ourselves from their malicious intentions.

Cold Emails are Honest About Purpose

Cold email writers know to be honest about the purpose of their emails.

There is no point in trying to hide it, after all.

Many salespersons will even go so far as to acknowledge their purpose as part of their pitch, helping to humanize them and their prospects by providing some humor in what is otherwise a purely transactional experience.

Professional salespeople know there is no point in being dishonest if a true partnership is to come from such an encounter.

Spam is Dishonest About Purpose

Spammers are notorious for their lack of honesty when it comes to their emails.

Unlike salespeople who strive to build trust and establish meaningful connections, spammers resort to deceptive tactics solely for their own gain.

Their unscrupulous nature is evident as they prioritize immediate benefits rather than fostering long-lasting impressions or connections. It is crucial to remain vigilant and wary of these malicious individuals who seek to exploit unsuspecting recipients for their own nefarious purposes.

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Cold Emails are About Obtaining Email Addresses with Careful Selection

When it comes to cold emailing, salespeople understand the importance of obtaining accurate and relevant email addresses to achieve their goals, using their ideal customer profile.

To ensure authenticity, they carefully select and validate each address meticulously. By doing so, they avoid damaging their email reputation and being mistaken for spammers.

Salespeople diligently prospect and continuously validate the emails to maintain a high level of accuracy in their contact lists. This attention to detail allows them to confidently reach out to potential clients, knowing that their efforts are focused and targeted.

Spam Obtain Email Addresses in a Questionable Manner

Spammers, notorious for their disregard, acquire email addresses through dubious and potentially illegal methods. Moreover, they exhibit remarkable agility in swiftly shifting to new domains as soon as the current one becomes ineffective, allowing them to persistently unleash their unsolicited emails.

Their primary objective is to flood inboxes with a high volume of messages, increasing the likelihood of someone unknowingly falling victim to their schemes.

This lack of obligation enables them to forgo meticulousness in their practices, raising concerns about the security and integrity of online communications.

Are Cold Emails Legal?

At the end of the day, yes, cold email is legal.

The legalities of it may vary depending on location.

For instance, the US has the CAN-SPAM Act, which provides leeway for “transactional” or “relationship” messages from businesses. It states that a commercial message is classified as spam if the “header information…is materially false or materially misleading”. Essentially, if the “from” line, email address, domain name, or IP address is false or misleading.

Additionally, a misleading subject line, clarifying that the message is an advertisement or solicitation, will mark you as spam in their eyes.

You should be clear if you follow correct practices and are straightforward about your intent and how you will provide commercial value to your recipients.

In the EU, GDPR’s laws around data privacy are a bit stricter, but they provide room for cold email practice. Individuals must consent to their data being processed, used, or distributed for multiple purposes. As soon as they opt out for any reason, their email must be purged from servers.

You’ve probably come across this if you’ve filled out a form for an EU company that included ticking off a box stating you consented to use your data.

Other countries may have other rules. However, the leeway here demonstrates that cold email is not going anywhere. It is a recognizable and accepted form for selling, and they’ve made room for it.

We encourage you to speak directly with a lawyer for any further legal questions.


Cold email remains a sales tactic that is used by salespeople around the world to great success.

While uninformed individuals may tell you it is spam, this is not the case, as we have explored today.

When you’re writing your cold emails, if you are unsure, feel free to return to this article to refresh your memory about how you’re doing is different and how to keep it that way.
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