Decoding Cold Email Open Rates and Choosing a Smarter Path

Cold email open rates

Are you tirelessly sending emails to unfamiliar inboxes, hoping for a glimmer of response? 

Wondering why your emails aren’t getting the attention you expected? 

Well, the struggle is real, and the sad reality is that cold email open rates often fall short of expectations. 

Understanding the average open rates and conversion metrics for cold emails will give you some perspective into your own performance. But as we dissect these numbers, you’ll see that cold email might not be the magic solution you anticipated.  

What’s the Average Open Rate for Cold Email?

The average open rate for cold emails is only between 15 and 25 percent, though these numbers can vary dramatically depending on the industry. Business consulting and SaaS fall at the lower end of the engagement spectrum, while cold emails from non-profit organizations, publishers, and media companies enjoy higher open rates. 

Recent studies report average open rates as high as 44 percent. But that doesn’t mean users have become more interested in cold emails. In fact, other engagement metrics tell a different story: average reply rates have declined over the years — 8.5 percent in 2019 vs. 7 percent in 2023. 

So, why are open rates higher? 

It has to do with Apple’s new Mail Privacy Protection, an opt-in setting that hides opens on all devices linked to an Apple ID. More on this later. 

What’s a Good Open Rate for Cold Email?

A high-performing cold email campaign typically has an open rate of at least 60 percent. This level of success is the result of meticulous planning, precise execution, and luck. You need to consistently test and optimize your list, subject lines, and send times. 

Although an entire industry exists around cold email best practices, the sad reality is that less than one-third of cold email campaigns manage to hit the mark. And the reason often has very little to do with your execution. 

Let us explain. 

First off, getting unsolicited emails can be downright annoying and feels like a time-waster. 

But it’s not just about annoyance; it’s a privacy and security issue, too. When people see an email from an unknown sender, their natural reaction is to ignore it. Even if only a handful of your recipients decide to hit “mark as spam,” your reputation takes a huge hit, landing your emails in the spam folder. And navigating your way out of the spam folder is an uphill battle. 

So, instead of sending cold emails to complete strangers, we recommend investing your energy into growing an email list organically and creating valuable content that establishes your expertise. When you’ve earned a reputation as the go-to expert, people tend to become not just subscribers but enthusiastic advocates for your brand.

Factors That Affect Cold Email Open Rates 

Before we discuss the dynamics of the factors that influence open rates, let’s be candid. Cold email is a path with lots of risks and challenges. At Campaign Refinery, we stand for more effective and sustainable approaches to email marketing. But we can’t stop you if you want to try your luck. So, here’s what you need to know. 

1. Sender Reputation

Sender reputation is like the domain’s credibility score. It determines whether emails end up in inboxes or spam folders. Enhancing sender reputation involves engaging with the audience, minimizing emails sent to non-existing addresses (aka, bounce rates), and implementing authentication protocols. Addressing recipient complaints is essential for maintaining trust.

Cold outreach involves contacting individuals on an email list you may have purchased. And purchasing an email list is a horrible idea. These lists may contain outdated or inaccurate information, so you may end up with a high bounce rate. What’s more, recipients on these lists haven’t opted in, so they’re more likely to report your messages as spam. 

Important Note: At Campaign Refinery, we strictly prohibit sending cold emails and purchased lists. Our policies only allow sending messages to subscribers who have willingly opted in to receive your communications. Violation of our terms of service results in immediate termination. 

2. Email List Quality and Segmentation

Verifying the emails on the list increases the likelihood of reaching individuals interested in the pitch. This reduces the chances of messages being perceived as intrusive or irrelevant.

Categorize prospects based on shared characteristics or behaviors. This way, you can accurately tailor cold emails to address each segment’s unique needs and pain points. You don’t want to cast a wide net. 

3. Subject Line Quality

The ideal subject line for cold email is clear, intriguing, and concise—36 to 50 characters. Adding personal details can also make the subject line more effective. Examples of personalization include mentioning the recipient’s name, company name, or a solution to one of their problems. 

4. Timing and Frequency

Cold emails sent on Tuesdays and Wednesdays have a better shot at getting opened. On the other hand, sending outreach emails on weekends can decrease outreach performance by around 30 percent. And emails sent before noon have a slight edge. What’s more, prospects are twice as likely to open and reply to emails after receiving one or two follow-up messages. 

Is Open Rate a Reliable Metric for Cold Email?

Open rate is only a reliable metric for deliverability, not overall outreach success. A high open rate means your emails are landing where they should — the primary inbox. It also suggests that your emails are well-timed and have compelling subject lines. 

But you shouldn’t rely on your open rate to measure success for two reasons: 

1. Open Rate Doesn’t Guarantee Engagement

Real engagement goes beyond just opening emails; it involves meaningful interactions with the content. After the recipient opens the email, the next crucial step is their response — a click on a link or a direct reply. But that only happens if you target people with a genuine interest in your content — a major challenge when doing cold outreach.  

What’s more, some users like to maintain a pristine inbox zero. They open all their emails without necessarily reading them in detail. 

2. The Exact Open Rate Is Impossible to Measure 

Tracking open rates involves using a hidden pixel in emails. When the user opens the email, this image loads and signals that the email was opened. However, the method isn’t foolproof because certain email programs prevent automatic image loading. 

Privacy mechanisms also make it hard to get accurate data. Since 2022, Apple’s new Mail Privacy Protection has caused a major increase in open rates across all industries. The average open rate across all emails went from 19 percent in 2021 to 31.8 percent the next year. 

How can this setting have such a huge impact? 

When Apple users activate MPP, their emails go through a proxy server before reaching their device. This registers as a fake open because the hidden pixel loads when the server fetches the content. Now, imagine what open rates look like when 95 percent of Apple users have the setting turned on! 

Because of this change, open rate has become less important, and marketers are exploring other metrics to fill the void. 

Measuring Engagement Using Reply Rate

Reply rate for cold email is the percentage of recipients who reply to your message. It has a couple of advantages over the open rate. 

Firstly, it directly tells you how engaged people are — did they just open the email, or did they take action? 

Secondly, it gives you insights into how well your email content is working because it shows whether people are willing to start a conversation with you.

What’s the Average Reply Rate for Cold Email?

The average cold email response rate is around 8.5 percent, but your results may vary based on your industry, who you’re targeting, and your email list quality. You can expect a response rate of about 5 percent in most cases.

To break it down, if you send out 100 cold emails, you can expect only five people to respond. This might not feel like a great return on your effort since you’ll have to send many emails to get any meaningful conversions.

What’s a Good Cold Email Reply Rate? 

Unfortunately, it’s challenging to achieve reply rates above 10 percent with cold email because the vast majority of recipients ignore emails from strangers. However, outreach campaigns for specific purposes, such as link building and guest posting, tend to have higher reply rates, around 20 percent.

Other Useful Cold Email Metrics 

Here are a few other metrics to measure the success of your cold email campaigns: 

  • Click-Through Rate (CTR): This metric shows the percentage of recipients who clicked on a link in your email. It’s another engagement signal besides response rate. 
  • Conversion Rate: Cold email conversion rate tracks the percentage of people who actually did what you wanted them to do, like filling out a form or booking a call. 
  • Spam Complaint Rate: It indicates the percentage of recipients who mark your emails as spam. The golden rule is to keep your complaint rate below 0.1 percent. Higher rates signal that your recipients find your emails intrusive or irrelevant.

Don’t Confuse Cold Email with Email Marketing 

Cold email outreach is a targeted sales approach that involves sending unsolicited emails to a group of individuals or businesses. The idea is to kickstart a conversation with prospects who might not know your brand yet. The aim is to build awareness, generate interest, and eventually convert them into customers.

But cold outreach only sounds good on paper. While it might bring in a few quick wins, the long-term costs can add up. These include damage to your brand and credibility, higher complaint rates, and wasted resources. Cold outreach typically consumes time, effort, and money without delivering substantial returns in the long run.

So, if you’re looking for a sustainable strategy, email marketing is the way to go. 

With email marketing, you’re sending emails to a list of subscribers who have willingly opted in to receive your messages. The focus here is on nurturing existing relationships, providing value through content, and building customer loyalty. It’s not about making a quick sale; it’s about creating a long-term bond with your audience. 

Here’s a comparison of cold email outreach and email marketing: 

*Cold Email OutreachEmail Marketing
PhilosophyInitiating contact with potential leads or clients.Nurturing and maintaining relationships with subscribers.
Use CasesB2B lead generation, sales prospecting, new client acquisition.Customer retention, brand building, ongoing engagement.
PermissionTypically lacks explicit permission; the first contact is unsolicited.Requires explicit opt-in; recipients have agreed to receive emails.
Content FocusDirect product or service promotionVaried content, including newsletters, educational material, and promotions.
Open RatesLower; recipients may not be familiar with the sender.Higher; emails are sent to a willing and engaged audience.
Conversion RatesVaries based on targeting, messaging, and initial interest.Typically higher due to pre-existing relationships and trust.
Metrics EmphasizedInitial engagement metrics such as open rates. Conversion rates, click-through rates, customer lifetime value.
Cold Email vs. Email Marketing

At Campaign Refinery, we’re all in for email marketing. It beats cold email outreach every time, thanks to its focus on building relationships. And email marketing is expected to grow in the coming years. 

Elevate Your Strategy Beyond Cold Outreach

As we wrap up our analysis of cold email open rates, one thing is crystal clear: cold outreach isn’t a solid business strategy. Open rates and engagement rates are consistently low. There’s a significant risk of damaging your reputation. And building meaningful relationships with customers through cold emails? Not really possible. 

Campaign Refinery’s approach is different. We’re a high-performance email marketing solution laser-focused on ensuring unparalleled deliverability and engagement. With our robust features, including automatic list cleaning, engagement gamification, and domain authentication, your emails don’t just land in inboxes; they make an impact. 

Learn more about our services and apply to become our customer.  

And we’re also here to share our expertise.  

To help you ditch cold email for good, we’ve created a guide unveiling the secrets to crafting email marketing messages that command attention and drive more sales. You’ll learn how the world’s best copywriters and email marketers get results without relying on cold outreach and clickbait. 

Sign up to get our Inbox Formula guide and let us know how it went. 

Happy emailing! 

Written by Casper Feeney

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