Why the entire practice of form letter cold emails is too good to be true.

How People Feel When They Get a Message

The promise of digital marketing is automation. Automation lets you reach more people, and for less work. Marketers use form letters, or construct messages in some algorithmic way for example to include a person’s name. But ultimately it’s too good to be true, if you understand the emotional flaw. Everyone’s got a gut instinct that spam is bad, but let’s break it down and we’ll find a deeper truth that is the reason why digital marketers keep going instead of giving up.

Nobody likes getting advertisements, and nobody likes getting a form letter or a message from a robot. But it’s not really about the format or even the sender. The reason we don’t like these things isn’t because we have some inner hatred of receiving the same message as other people. It’s about the utility. If I got a message from a stranger, even a form letter, that’s perfect for my needs, I welcome it. If a credible brand like Ben & Jerry’s is having a Free Ice Cream Day, I’m all in. I’m grateful to get the message.

To rephrase that, it’s about utility. When I see a message from a stranger, I think, “Will this be good? Is this likely to be useful to me?”

Here’s a typical example of what we all see every day. This is somebody adding me on LinkedIn with a custom message.

This is not a purely social message. Buried in Rob’s message, the line “I’ve been focused on launching XXXXX”, is clearly trying to get me curious to check out his product. This is a sales approach.

I like custom messages when adding someone on LinkedIn, and I never add someone without them. There’s good energy in text. But it is clearly a form letter. It’s that “I bet you say that to all the girls” situation where Rob is saying the same thing to everyone. There’s an emotional flaw there:

If you don’t care about me, why should I care about you?

It’s clear from what Rob said that he doesn’t genuinely care about me. This phony, vague text tries to establish a rapport, but because it’s a form letter sent to a wide range of people, it fails.

That sends a signal. It clearly wasn’t worth Rob’s time to spend a minute or two diving into my profile. For such a tiny investment, basically a zero investment of his time, it signals that even Rob doesn’t think that we are likely a match. Emotionally, it makes me feel like I shouldn’t spend any time on a possible connection either.

And it also suggests strongly that Rob isn’t working from a list of qualified leads. As you probably know, a ‘qualified’ sales lead just means a good-matching sales lead. Salespeople generally start with a giant list of ‘unqualified’ leads, in other words people who probably won’t say yes. Then they put some effort into weeding out the bad and keeping the good. The more work that you put into qualifying your leads, the more that each one is worth.

So if I’m thinking, “Is this likely to be useful to me?” the answer seems to be no. I am an unqualified lead to Rob. We are unlikely to want to work together.

It Works Even Less in the New Age of Artificial Intelligence

In 2024, we’ve had about a year of large language models, the new artificial intelligence. I know something about this as a former researcher at the MIT AI Lab and MIT Media Lab. There I worked for Rodney Brooks, who became Chair of the MIT AI Lab and founded iRobot, the maker of the Roomba vacuum cleaner.

Digital marketers love artificial intelligence, because it makes it even easier to churn out messages. But it also affects society. If I receive more seemingly real messages, I will start becoming more and more skeptical of cold emails. So artificial intelligence will actually make success harder for digital marketers, and also for the rest of us who don’t use it. How are my own non-spam, highly qualified, well thought out messages supposed to make it to strangers, if everyone’s walls go up even higher?

It reminds me of how nobody answers their phone anymore if it’s a call from a stranger. As a society, we just got tired of it. In the United States, the freedom to call strangers is written into law, even with robocalls, and somehow Congress couldn’t impose a way based on caller ID to automatically block the worst of it. (As I’m writing this, I just got a spam call that I let go to voicemail. The voicemail was from a bot who said without human inflection, “Are you a bot?” That’s right. The bot asked me if I were a bot. No wonder I don’t answer my phone anymore.)

It was the same with Myspace, back in the day. Before Facebook, Myspace was the giant social networking site. But Myspace allowed people to message each other without any spam limitations and it was just impossible to navigate people’s ugly pages. That’s why Facebook pages all look so uniform and boring.

I noticed recently that LinkedIn has added an artificial intelligence tool to help people write messages on LinkedIn. They are souring their own milk. It’s the Myspace mistake all over again. But that’s a topic for another day.

My point is, my argument is stronger in 2024. Rob’s form letter approach is even less likely to be effective in 2024, because our walls are going up even higher.

Making It Worse With Insincerity

Rob’s message unfortunately is worse than a generic form letter. It actively makes the sales situation worse.

In an implicit acknowledgement that the message is lackluster, and that I’m just an unqualified lead with probably zero reason to care, Rob adds insincere phrases to the message. To put it bluntly, he lies.

  • “Your name popped up in my network today.” That could be true, but it’s common knowledge that automated recommendations are garbage level useless. So Rob is either unaware of this common knowledge, or he’s deliberately playing up the value of a LinkedIn suggestion.
  • “It’s been great to reconnect with you after all this time.” Rob and I are strangers. But it stops and make you think, “Do we know each other?” If I had a previous encounter with Rob, I would not want to accidentally anger someone from my past. Fortunately, in this case I didn’t need to search through my contact list. Just the phrasing “It’s been great” gives the lie. What’s been great, sending me a form letter LinkedIn invitation? What’s the reference for “it”?
  • “I’ve been focused on launching XXX”. Why are you disguising a sales approach as a social update?
  • “What’s been keeping you busy lately?” Here Rob pretends to care about me. What a generous question to ask. Except my entire work history is on my LinkedIn profile. If Rob had a genuine curiosity about me, the information is right there.

I always feel a little insulted when salespeople lie. I guess Rob thinks I’m stupid enough to take his flattery and phony warmth as genuine. Wow.

That is the key to digital marketing. Digital marketers think we’re stupid. That’s why they keep flooding us with spam, instead of giving up on such strategies. Rob is an extreme example, by outright lying to me, but even more innocent spam messages contain the following psychology: this is going to work.

In other words, the digital marketer gets to spend close to zero investment and the target will pick up the ball and run with it.

Sometimes people say to me, well why shouldn’t the customer respond? Why place all the burden on Rob? Because Rob is the salesperson. The #1 rule of marketing is people don’t care. You have to make them care. Like it or not, the burden of driving the sales conversation is on Rob. He can’t just throw it into my lap.

Even people who aren’t spammers, and they don’t lie, and even I would not call them spammers, deceive themselves into thinking that form letters work. They don’t. The entire practice of digital marketing has a fatal flaw.

“But It Works”

When I tell digital marketers that their entire ideology and approach to outreach is broken, they don’t usually take it well. One of the things that they like to say, defensively, is that digital marketing works.

Sure. I have to acknowledge that if spammers made no money at all, they would stop. If digital marketers got no responses at all, they would stop. So from a certain point of view, throwing a lot of form letters at people works on some basic level.

That’s the key, though: basic level. That’s a mismatch for most people’s goals.

For your actions to be smart and effective, they need to produce a result that matches your goals. This is obvious. But people can make a lot of assumptions about what their business goals are.

Is your goal to survive, or to flourish? Don’t you want to get to the next level personally, to earn that promotion, earn a bigger budget, or to help your entire business grow and establish itself?

Just think of the hapless, powerless individuals with nothing better to do who respond positively to Rob’s message. The ones who are taken in by Rob’s fake warmth and don’t just accept his add but take the ball and respond to him. Those people are not going to get you to the next level.

Rob really shot himself in the foot. Anyone who responds will be a combination of powerless to help Rob’s business and also, because he or she will be an unqualified lead, a tough sell, a person who wastes Rob’s time and is unlikely to say yes. Random people don’t buy. Qualified leads buy. But Rob’s approach tries to circumvent the tough labor of sorting out the good leads from the bad. It doesn’t work.

This reminds me of my 2 hours in Mensa. When I was in high school I won some kind of essay competition and won a free lunch from Mensa. I passed the test for admission. I went to the lunch. But it turned out that people who like to brag about their intelligence is a strange personality trait to hang a social relationship on. If you had to found a club of people who would enjoy socializing, why would you base it on that? I didn’t join or go back.

In a similar way, Rob’s valuable time trying to push a sale is being wasted because the people who respond won’t be those with a genuine interest in Rob’s product or service. The people who respond will sort of having nothing better to do. That’s a weird criterion on which to spend your time, a strange way to transform your sales leads into action items.

What Does Work: Not Cutting Corners

Sometimes digital marketers will say to me, “What else can I do? I have thousands of leads so I have to use form letters. I have no way to qualify them.”

The answer is that you can always qualify your leads. If you think that you can’t qualify leads, it’s because you don’t know your value add well enough. You either don’t know your own company or you don’t know your buyers.

I’ll address how to do this in a separate post.

If you qualify your leads, that seems like a lot of work but actually it’s a lot less work. Qualifying your leads gives you more time per target. That gives you time to research your targets and write warm, genuine, custom content. When you focus on people who are better matches for you, they are more likely to say yes. You just enabled and supercharged your entire sales process. It saves you time.

Then Be Real

Imagine if Rob had whittled down his list of sales leads to just a few hundred. Then he would have had time to write a real message to each one of them.

For example, he would have taken 30 seconds to visit my LinkedIn page, pluck out some detail like that I once built a juggling robot, and included that as a custom header into his message. Or he would remark on something specific about my business that plays into his value add message, for example that I make mobile games, not other types of video games. Maybe whatever Rob does is a great match for mobile games especially in some way.

This wouldn’t be insincere. He would find something genuine to remark on. When you qualify your sales leads, there should be a hook in there somewhere that’s real, or you haven’t qualified your leads enough.

People like real warmth. By signaling that he had bothered to read my profile, Rob would signal to me that he really believes that we could be a match. Emotionally, that would make me feel like it’s worth some of my time too. And, not for nothing, it would help drive our society away from the annoyances and dehumanizing experiences of spammers, and “digital marketers” who are basically also spammers even when they’re not the worst.

To sum up, spam is on a spectrum. Even if you’re not telling old people that you’re a Nigerian Prince, so you’re not technically a “spammer”, the more that you use form letter, generic approaches to any form of marketing, the more that you will fail to achieve success. At best you will be treading water on your business goals, and it’s not the cleanest water. My strong suggestion is to give up every type of digital marketing for outbound messaging to strangers.