The folly of salespeople guessing email addresses, according to data

guessing email
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Prospecting is tough.

There are a handful of components of cold email outreach, and each one is absolutely necessary to be successful.

It’s hard enough to write an eye-catching message. And sending that email at a time when the prospect will read it, and respond to it is even harder. Not to mention the significant time commitment in identifying the person you want to email and mapping out their organization.

Let’s look at all the different forces that need to be working in your favor before you turn that cold lead into a prospect:

  • Time: Researching prospects takes time. Determining which accounts to target and which prospects at that account can take hours.
  • Message content: Your message can make or break an email campaign. Long emails get deleted, and short ones may not be compelling enough to grab the prospect’s attention. One good sentence can make a prospecting email, while one bad one can send your email straight to the trash.
  • Timing: You might have the right product for the right prospect, but if they’re overworked when they get your email you’re probably not going to get a response. Or maybe they love your product and email but just spent the last of their budget. Your message has to hit their inbox at the right time to get noticed.
  • Accurate contact information: There’s one last step for individuals who have inadequate sales intelligence and want to send a cold email:  figuring out their prospect’s email address.

If you’re in sales and marketing without real sales intelligence, you need something else to be successful, too: Luck.

I know what you’re thinking: Guessing email addresses is easy! Just apply the prospect’s name to the company’s email formula, and you’re all set. Right?

Wrong. The truth is that guessing email addresses is becoming harder than ever and it’s not nearly as successful as anyone thinks.

How lucky do you have to be? We did a test to find out:

  • We randomly selected 2,700 email addresses from the DiscoverOrg database, verified by our research team and SMTP email verification.
  • We examined the most common email formula for each associated company, then removed the email addresses, leaving only the associated names.
  • We then created an email guess for each name. (Essentially, we were mimicking what SDRs, account executives, and marketing professionals do when have only a name and a company.)
  • We re-tested the emails we guessed for validity.

Guess what we found? Only 62.4% of the guesses resulted in valid email addresses.

That’s right. Even if you changed all the common names with nicknames – the Daves to David and the Jens to Jennifer – the accuracy rate is only about 66%. If this is your strategy, you’re going to need more than a little bit o’ luck.

At first, I didn’t believe the results. But after inspecting all the instances where the results of guessing email addresses came back invalid, I realized that there’s a number of practices occurring at companies around the world that’s making it hard for guessing email addressses.

Why are emails more difficult to guess than we think? We learned from this experiment that there are several reasons:

1. Large companies have several email formulas

Some employees who have been at Apple a long time have the email address formula first@apple.com.  But more recently, employees have been assigned first_last@apple.com. Those hired in between sometimes received addresses like flast@apple.com.

We also see last.first@apple.com and last_first@apple.com. Do you feel confident in guessing email addresses for a prospect email at Apple?

2. Brands and subsidiaries create complications

Let’s say you want to reach the person responsible for digital marketing at Pizza Hut, which is owned by Yum Brands. Do you guess first.last@pizzahutrestaurants.com …or is it first.last@yum.com? How much would you bet on getting it right the first time?

3. Subdomains are becoming more popular in email addresses

We’re seeing increased usage of subdomains in email addresses. A few of the emails we missed were incorrect only because the individuals did not actually use first.last@acme.com (which was the most common formula) but instead used a variation with a subdomain, like first.last@pl1.acme.com.

4. Some companies use multiple email domains for different roles

Sometimes employees in different departments use different domains to protect domain reputation. Marketers and salespeople may have different domains to ensure that their cold outreach does not tarnish the reputation of their primary domain. At DiscoverOrg, we have some employees using discoverorg.com and others using mail.discoverorg.io.

5. Nicknames are very common

Let’s say you’re prospecting to Jonathan Harrison at Acme Corp. The good news is that you know Acme Corp uses first.last@acme.com.

The bad news? His email isn’t guaranteed to be johnathan.harrison@acme.com. It could be jon.harrison@acme.com.Or maybe john.harrison@acme.com. Prospects with names that have short forms create headaches for sales and marketing professionals abound. How about Jennifer? I personally know a Jen, Jenn, Jenny, and Jeni – all with the given name Jennifer.

6. Middle initials and middle names

Who feels like making 26 guesses? We’ve found that many professionals use their middle initials in their email addresses, especially at large companies.  We have tools that automatically check all 26 variations of an email – probably not something you want your top sales and marketing professionals doing. We also found individuals who have their full middle name before the “at sign” in their emails.

Good luck guessing emails with middle names.

7. Duplicate names

In my previous job, my email was derek (dot) smith (at) mlb.com. Very guessable.

But guess what happened halfway through my tenure? They hired another Derek Smith. He was dsmith (at) mlb (dot) com. We also had two people named Eric Diaz. One was Eric (dot) Diaz (at) mlb.com, and the other was Eric (dot) Diaz2 (at) mlb.com. We found large companies often use this technique, including Apple.

8. Foreign Names

In some cultures, that which we consider a last name is actually the individual’s first name. In others, special characters like umlauts or accents complicate email addresses. Some individuals in Latin America use two last names.

How confident are you that you’ll guess the email for María Camila De Los Santos Marquez on the first try?

9. Secretive email formulas

What if you’re prospecting to AT&T? Good luck. Some of their employees use initials and an arbitrary four numbers as their email addresses: I would probably be something like ds1346 (at) att (dot) com. You’re not going to try 10,000 email addresses to send one email.

The impact of guessing email addresses: Bounce

Given these email guessing hurdles, there are three main reasons why playing these guessing games will come back to haunt you:

Let’s say you do have infinite time to waste, a massive database of commonly used email formats, 10 years of experience, and a ton of luck working in your favor. There’s another flaw in that plan:

1. You can’t send an inordinate amount of emails that bounce. It hurts your domain reputation, which results in your emails going into your prospects’ spam folders.

2. Worse, you may get outright blocked.

Companies with bounce rates over 5% are usually in hot water in the deliverability world.

How can you bring bounces under 5%, when your guesses are wrong 37% of the time?

3. Worse yet, many spam traps are planted with the name and formula for a departed or fictional employee. Every guess you make for a prospect with an unconfirmed employment status, you’re rolling the dice that you might be emailing a spam trap.

Here’s my advice: Stop guessing email addresses. No one is that lucky. Rely on your sales intelligence provider to give you accurate and reliable contact information on your prospects. It will save you time, and you can avoid some very costly pitfalls.

A lot of data providers offer “confidence levels” or likelihoods that a specific email is good. They’re just peddling their own guesses. Anybody can pass along their best guess at an email. Real sales intelligence gives you accurate, actionable data that won’t result in a bounce of your carefully crafted prospecting message.

But with great data as your foundation, you don’t need luck to get your prospecting message read.

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Derek Smith

Derek Smith

Derek was DiscoverOrg’s first researcher in 2007 and now, as SVP, Data & Research, is responsible for the processes and technologies DiscoverOrg’s research team uses to create and update the data in its industry-leading sales intelligence platform.
Derek Smith

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