Cold Email vs Spam. What’s the Difference?

email deliverability checklist cover
What separates a cold email from spam?

This is a question anyone engaged in sales via 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 Cold Email?

what is cold email infographic
Let’s understand what cold email is first.

Similar to a cold call, a cold email is reaching out to a prospective customer that is unaware of your company and the product or service you are offering. The idea is to begin a conversation and establish a relationship that may result in a sale later on.

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 at all, as this 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 not relevant 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?

what is spam infographic
Spam is emails sent with malicious intent, typically to try to insert malware into computers such as viruses, or to obtain information of the recipients that they are sometimes convinced to share.

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 per day 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 are sending out thousands of emails per day but not receiving 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.

However, if you are testing out different customer profiles or if you’re still doing research on your value proposition, 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 email to avoid your prospect marking you as spam:

Cold Email vs Spam. Key Differences

cold email vs spam infographic

Provide 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.

Generic email focused on obtaining something

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

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

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

Pre-selected targeted audience

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

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.

Directed at anyone

Spam, on the other hand, does not care to target its audiences.

Anyone is good, so long as the email is sent out and someone might fall into the spammer trap.

They do not even care to verify if the emails they use are real.

Creates brand awareness and starts a relationship

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.

Very specific intent focused on product

Spam, however, is focused on demonstrating its product or solution above all.

Spammers want you to open that document, click that link, or fill out that form.

They do not care to build a relationship with their victims or start a conversation, they are looking for instant success.

Honesty 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.

Dishonesty about purpose

Spammers are not as honest as salespeople when it comes to their emails.

They’re trying to trick you for their gain, and they are unscrupulous in doing so.

After all, they do not care about making a lasting impression or connection, they care about what they can obtain from you right at the very beginning.

Email addresses obtained via selection

The addresses salespeople use when cold emailing are obtained via a careful selection and validation process to ensure that they are real and relevant to their purposes.

Sending it out to anyone will only hurt their email reputation and thus mistake them for spam, so salespeople are especially careful about their lists.

They prospect continuously and validate the emails as much as possible.

Email addresses obtained through questionable means

Spammers do not care, and as such, often obtain the email addresses they use through questionable, possibly illegal means.

After all, they will simply make another domain once the one they are using stops working, and keep their emails going out.

For them, the more emails they send, the higher the chances someone will fall for it.
They do not need to be as scrupulous in their process.

Is Cold Email 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, providing clarity that the message is an advertisement or solicitation, will also mark you as spam in their eyes.

If you follow correct practices and are straightforward about your intent and how you will go about providing commercial value to your recipients, you should be in the clear.

In the EU, GDPR’s laws around data privacy are a bit stricter, but they do provide room for the practice of cold email. Individuals have to give consent to their data being processed, used, or distributed for more than one purpose. 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 that stated you consented to your data being used.

Other countries may have other rules, however, the leeway provided 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.

For any further legal questions you may have, we encourage you to speak directly with a lawyer.


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

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

When you’re writing your cold emails, if you are at all unsure, feel free to return to this article to refresh your memory about how what you’re doing is different, and how to keep it that way.
Get notified when we're live!