Cold Email Benchmarks by Campaign Size and Industry: What Makes Cold Emails Effective in 2020?

Cold email benchmarks


Cold emailing has changed a lot since its early days. So did the definition of an effective cold email campaign. Let’s see how to approach cold emailing to get the most out of it in 2020. Take a look at the benchmarks I’ve prepared and compare your results with the average stats to make sure you’re on the right track for success.

But first, let’s try to define cold email according to modern standards and see how it evolved over time.

What is a cold email?

To get a better understanding of what cold email is, let’s think of how business relationships develop in the offline world. Usually, everything starts with a conversation…

Here’s one of the possible scenarios: a salesperson goes to an industry conference or trades to meet new customers. During the event they look for opportunities to start a conversation. But their goal is not to pitch their offer or brag about their company. They want to break the ice and start a dialogue. They aim at learning more about their prospect’s business and building rapport with them.

Outbound sales follows the same principles. Cold email is a means to start a conversation in the online world. It’s a message you send to a person who most likely knows nothing or very little about your company. Since it’s the first time they hear about you, we say they are “cold” leads.

The goal of a cold email is not the instant conversion, but building the relationship from strangers to business partners. In other words, to warm those leads up. Little by little.

How the approach to cold emailing has changed?

Cold emailing has come a long way since it was first used in sales. Back in the old days, the sole purpose of a cold email was to pitch the offer. Usually one, generic message was sent to a large group of prospects without personalization or segmentation whatsoever.

Since the method was new and not many people did business via email yet, such a mass-sales-oriented approach actually worked great as a lead generation method. But the more copy-paste type of messages flooded the prospects’ inboxes, the less effective this approach became. People grew sensitive to the salesy tone and the generic character of cold emails.

The approach to cold emailing has evolved significantly since then. Messages with an aggressive sales pitch are now bound to fail. Also, impersonal, one-size-fits-all type of emails are no longer effective.

Nowadays it’s all about building a relationship with a prospect. Cold email copy should be focused on the recipient, not your product or service. Put yourself in their shoes. From the very first email, a prospect should feel that you understand their business and the challenges it entails. Don’t jump to making the deal straight ahead. Instead, let your prospects tell you more about what they struggle with in their daily work. Then show them how these processes can be improved or done in a more efficient way.

Personalization is key to winning prospect’s interest these days. Therefore, also the prospecting plays an important role in the overall success of your cold email campaign. The more you learn about your prospects, the easier it will be for you to craft a message perfectly tailored to the particular prospect segment.

How do we measure success in cold emailing?

When do you consider your campaign as successful? And what does success mean in terms of cold emailing in general?

Since cold emails are a means to start a conversation, the response rate is usually considered to be the metric that determines the success of a campaign. Does it mean that you need to achieve a 100% reply rate to call it a success? Is it even possible?

Having 100% reply rate is a rather idealistic scenario, but you can get pretty close, provided you do your homework with prospecting and put some effort in A/B testing. Experience comes with time, tests and analysis. The more campaigns you send and the more approaches you try, the higher the probability that your emails will win your prospects’ attention.

There are two processes you need to master to improve your reply rate. First one is finding the right prospects. To do prospecting better, you need to keep your ICP updated. The other process is testing the performance of various versions of an email copy. Don’t settle for one version for too long. Change your approach from time to time and monitor how it impacts the reply rate.

So how do you know whether you’re on a good track to achieve success? The assessment is easier when you have some reference point. That’s why I’ve analyzed our database to provide you with cold email benchmarks for comparison.

What are the cold email benchmarks?

I’ve analyzed over 26 000 campaigns, which size ranged from 11 to 1000+ prospects. The sample included industries such as recruitment, lead generation, software houses or digital agencies from all around the world. I’ve taken a closer look at the average open and reply rates and how the level of personalization impacts these metrics. Also, I’ve checked the correlation between the size of a prospect base and the reply rate. Let’s see what I’ve found out.

Personalization pays off

For the sake of this analysis I distinguished three levels of personalization:

  • no personalization – 0 snippets,
  • basic personalization – including either {{COMPANY}} or {{FIRST_NAME}} snippets,
  • advanced personalization – including other snippets than the ones mentioned above.

I found out that 84% of all the analyzed campaigns are personalized, 30% of which include advanced personalization beyond {{COMPANY}} and {{FIRST_NAME}}. This could include {{TITLE}}, {{WWW}} or a custom snippet. Most often the snippets are used to personalize email copy – that’s the case for around 83% of the cases. 44% of the campaigns I looked at had a personalized subject line.

Let’s examine how these numbers translate to the average open and reply rate per campaign size and industry.

What’s the average open rate of personalized cold email campaigns?

How personalization impacts the average open rate

Campaigns of all sizes get better results when the email subject line is personalized. The average open rate of campaigns with a personalized subject line is  10% higher than with the non-personalized one. That’s quite a difference, isn’t it?

And what’s the average cold email open rate when we distinguish between advanced and basic personalization?

How basic and advanced personalization affect the open rate

Emails with custom snippets have a slightly higher open rate in comparison to the ones personalized on a basic level.

And what is the correlation between personalization and the reply rate?

What’s the average reply rate of personalized cold email campaigns?

How personalization impacts the reply rate?

In general, personalized campaigns achieve almost twice as high reply rate than the non-personalized campaigns. That’s a huge difference.

Does advanced personalization increase the average reply rate, like in the case of an open rate?

How basic and advanced personalization impact the reply rate

By looking at the stats above, we can conclude that advanced personalization definitely does increase the average reply rate. Custom snippets allow for creating more unique and better-tailored messages, so that’s why prospects reply to them more often.

In general, from what I’ve observed, the smaller the campaign, the more targeted it is and the better results it brings. The conclusion is that a lean approach to cold emailing is much more effective. It’s easier to personalize the email copy and tailor it to smaller segments of prospects than create one that equally fits the needs of hundreds of individuals. In cold emailing segmentation is as important as personalization.

There’s also a visible tendency for the open and reply rates to be higher for campaigns with advanced personalization, that is including snippets other than {{FIRST_NAME}} AND {{COMPANY}}. That matches the trend for the human-to-human approach as prospects are tired of generic robot-like emails and expect being treated in an individual way. Also, from the point of deliverability, emails with more diverse content have a higher chance to land in prospect’s main inbox, instead of a spam folder or under a promotions tab.

Now let’s see have a closer look at how follow-ups impact your campaign results. Some of you may remember that I’ve made a similar research about a year ago (you can read it here). Has anything changed since then?

How do follow-ups impact cold email open and reply rates?

How follow-ups can improve the campaign's open and reply rate

The numbers show that campaigns with 2-3 follow-ups get the highest open and reply rates. It proves that 2-3 follow-ups is still the optimal number. Have in mind that these stats are the average for small and medium-sized campaigns, with minimum of 11 prospects.

What is an average cold email open and reply rate by industry?

Now let’s check what are the cold email benchmarks for some of the industries.

What is the average cold email open and reply rate by industry?

How are your campaigns doing in comparison? If you’re close to or above the average scores – congrats! If your stats are slightly off, you should perform some A/B tests to find out what could be improved. Here are some ideas for what you could test:
My open, reply or interest cold email metrics are low, what can I A/B test?>>

Also, remember not to compare between industries, because each of them has a different target group. Digital agencies may not achieve such a high reply rate as recruitment companies simply because their cold emails have a different purpose.

What will the future bring?

The trend for personalization grows stronger and stronger. These days people expect perfectly tailored communication with a lot of human touch. Nobody wants to receive generic, robot-like messages anymore. The demand for high-level personalization transfers to the sales world as well. Given this tendency, we can assume that communication adjusted to the prospect’s engagement will most likely be the next turning point in the cold email strategy for the upcoming years.

What new novelties may appear in the salesperson’s toolkit? Follow-ups triggered by the recipient’s action with copy adjusted to their interest level, advanced personalization options, email sentiment analysis, multichannel approach are just a few possible game-changers that may revolutionize the outbound sales in the near future.

And what are your thoughts? I’m curious to learn your predictions.

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