When Cold Email Ices Your Marketing Program


This is a story about how you may unknowingly be a spammer. Ok, let me rephrase, you may unknowingly look like a spammer. And I say spammer because nowadays in the mailbox providers' eyes, unwanted mail is spam mail.


I consult with a number of different senders with different needs, audience sizes, verticals, mostly small brands, some big brands, some B2C, some B2B...it's a wide range.

Some have a fantastic setup that clearly identifies their mail with branded authentication, dedicated IPs, solid consent model, and more. Some do not. The reasons for deliverability issues vary, but the more challenging ones are the struggles faced by those that, on the surface, are doing it all right. So we dive into the technical settings, the sending strategies, streams, list source, recent changes, and more.

One thing we ask as we work through their program is, "What groups (who) are mailing? And not just marketing, list anyone that hits a send button." On a high-level, we typically have:

  • Marketing sending marketing things
  • Coworkers sending work things to coworkers
  • Coworkers sending work things to vendors, clients, and other miscellaneous individuals
  • Sales teams sending outreach to interested prospects
  • Sales teams sending outreach to unknown prospects

In the cases I'm about to discuss:

  • The listed groups above are all mailing something.
  • They are NOT all tied to the marketing team.
  • They are NOT necessarily all mailing from the same systems and each could have its own system.
  • They are mostly NOT talking to each other about what is being sent.

So although the groups may seem distinct and separate, there is something that ties them together. The company DOMAIN.

That's right, they share a domain and that domain is linking all of the activities between the different streams, despite them being sent from separate systems. Which means that for anyone else that does this, your program may be picking up the signals from the other mail out there using your domain. And if that mail is unwanted, those signals may also be hitting your marketing stream in a way that is not favorable.

This is no surprise to those that live in the deliverability world, but may be for others. A sender's reputation has been moving quickly toward domain reputation for some time. One could argue it came with Gmail, but one could also argue it’s been around longer, and one could say it's still making its way through the various mail systems with varying degrees of use.

Domains are a more "concrete" way to identify a sender and to identify a sender across multiple mailing systems. Granted, as with everything in deliverability, how much a domain reputation impacts unique streams depends.

Every piece of an email can be weighed. You could share a domain and only one account (or email address) is having issues, the link domain in the content is the culprit, or a subdomain's activity and reputation bleeds into the organizational one, and so on. How closely they are tied together, how strong the signal is, and the capability of the receiver to distinguish all of this will ultimately determine what the impact is.


So back to the clients with which we were working. They all had persistent inboxing issues at the major providers (Google Workspace, Gmail, and O365) and were seeing issues directly with their 1:1 mailings with occasional issues on their marketing streams.

When we dove into everything going out of their system (with DMARC reporting helping to identify some of them), we moved from "Who is sending?" to "What are they sending and to whom?" and then later to "Who else has access to use your domain in their outreach?"

This is where we found they were unknowingly spamming. And by they, I mean their domain was associated with less-than desirable activity. Here is the scenario:

Sales and outreach teams were buying lists and mailing to them using all the same sending domains and authenticating domains. Were they CAN-SPAM compliant? Yes. Were they all well received? All signs point to No.

Because the sender was sending relatively low volume from marketing, the sales volume was high enough that the resulting recipient activities from the sales team’s mail (behaviors like spam complaints) were a strong enough signal to cause overall harm to their other programs.

In short, it was creating confusion and a lot of mixed signals for the receivers. Think of it this way: 8 out of 10 times your Snickers bar tastes amazing and then, BAM, you get hit with a sudden hint of fish oil (if that doesn't make the point of how distasteful bad signals can be, I don't know what will.) After that second fish-infused bite, your trust in enjoying that highly caloric treat has dropped. Just like the trust in what is coming from that domain.

So what did we do? We separated everything as much as we could (using subdomains, for example). Not to hide any actions, but to differentiate the streams and systems enough that they can begin to carry their own reputation. The overall domain reputation is still shared, but the separation makes it easier for the receiver to pinpoint the source of the problem and treat it accordingly.

I know what you’re thinking. “But doesn’t this contradict what you said above about how separation alone may not protect a domain?” Again, it depends. In the cases we were consulting on, there was NO separation at all. The visible sending domain and the authenticating domains were all shared. Even the addresses were shared in some cases. So we added in some separation to make the streams more identifiable.

We also pushed on the cold leads being used by sales.. We suggested they do some analysis on the benefits of their lists, the quality of the leads, conversions, and so on. After some number crunching and internal discussions, they did indeed find the lists weren't beneficial, they were spending money on a service that wasn't reaping significant benefits. So they dropped them.


What can you do?

  • Identify EVERY mail stream and it doesn't have to be isolated to bulk marketing or transactional
  • Separate streams as much as possible. Subdomains in the friendly from are one way, but what we found works best is making sure that domain/subdomain separation was in the authentication (DKIM, for example.)
  • Talk to your teams about what is being sent, how data is collected, where your domain is used and who has access to it, and how your domain is used across streams/services (subdomain, organizational domain, etc.)
  • Do some research. Weigh the financial benefit of each stream/team outreach against the issues you are experiencing. Do they outweigh them or are they hindering growth?

What should all email senders keep in mind (even those sales teams):

  • Focus on first party data and the cookies on your site to get data points
  • Leverage the correlations between email performance based on product segmentations to customize outreach and improve relevance
  • Make prospects come to you...start working on your SEO strategy
  • Create easy ways to sign up or reach out for more information (pop ups, clear and easily found subscription forms/fields.) They searched for you, don't make them search further to get in touch.
  • Create open communications (don’t just send, receive email) to learn from customer replies and outreach
  • Build communications and/or outreach around how a customer came to your brand
  • Analyze what your customers are clicking on your site, email, ads, etc. and customize outreach based on that
  • Look at your goals and establish if they are realistic. A large list doesn't mean much if it doesn't bring business so perhaps your list size or number of contacts reached is the wrong metric.

Questions your sales team should ask themselves

  • Am I really benefiting from this lead source?
  • Are these leads quality? And are they worth the cost?
  • How much vetting did these leads really go through? For example, will you end up emailing someone at a deliverability company about kickbox supplies just because the company name is Kickbox?
  • Are your lead sources sharing their collection methods and any disadvantages or quality issues associated with them?
  • Is your cadence too high?
  • Does your content look like spam? Unsure? If you were to get the same content from a different firm, would you want it/expect it/find it valuable?
  • How personal can you get? And is it too much? In other words do you have information about these leads that perhaps you shouldn't?


Your domain is influenced by everything that surrounds it (all streams, 1:1 and bulk) and your domain influences everything it surrounds. We have many more clients impacted by activity on their domain outside of their actual marketing program.

Take care of your domain and understand where it is used, which may require discussions with other departments in your company.

Be wary of overhyped claims. There are a number of services that support bulk cold emailing via list purchases. They tout the effectiveness and the legality of it. "It's legal" doesn't work as the framework for successful delivery nor deliverability (a.k.a. inboxing). The least common denominator for great email performance is not just what is legal, but what is wanted and acceptable...wanted by the end recipient, wanted by the receivers who have to manage the massive influx of mail to their systems, and acceptable by the law.

Al Iverson said it best…”[R]emember, farts are not illegal either.” https://www.spamresource.com/2023/03/the-truth-about-cold-leads.html

Editor's Note: Jennifer will be leading a discussion on this blog post during our weekly OI-members-only Zoom Discussion on Thursday, April 13, 2023, from 12:00 Noon to 1:00 PM ET.

OI members, watch the discussion list for your link. Not a member? Join today and be invited to our weekly members-only Zoom Discussions as well as other benefits. Just $200 per year for an individual membership. 

robert zunikoff LTtgPUZ cTo unsplash 600Photo by Robert Zunikoff on Unsplash