7 Keys to Cold Emails that Guarantee You a Response

September 5, 2014

You’d imagine that with all the new marketing platforms and email-optimizing technology, we’d have figured out the secret to cold emails by now. Yet here we are — still hitting send and blindly holding out hope this will be the one that gets a response. Entrepreneurs are still struggling to convince VCs that their pitch email is worth opening; job seekers are still failing to persuade employers they’re that one-of-a-kind candidate; and sales people still haven’t found the perfect balance between being irritating and accessible.

I’m currently working on a report around new metrics for mobile-first B2B SaaS companies, and in forming my hypothesis, I’ve engaged with experts in the space with whom I’ve never previously interacted (including entrepreneurs, investors, independent advisors, etc.). I’ve been pretty happy with my response rate, even when reaching out to people far more experienced and more difficult to access than myself. That’s because I’ve focused on making the simple yet elusive act of responding as compelling and easy as possible.

Here are some tactics I’ve been most successful with.

1) First Things First: Nail Your Subject Line

People say the subject line is everything. But while I’m certainly adamant about the importance of making it compelling, I also don’t think you need to spend an hour finding your creative genius. Remember, all your subject needs to accomplish is to convince your recipient to open the email. Then your killer content in the body of your email can take it from there.

An easy way to produce an effective subject line is to simply focus on summarizing the purpose of your email in just a few words. Every subject line should cover three main descriptive points:

  • Who are you?
  • What do you want?
  • Why are you emailing me?

Woah! I know what you’re thinking — that’s a heck of a lot of junk to fit into one meager line! Don’t fret — it’s easy. Here’s an example:

VC seeking expert opinion on mobile trends in B2B SaaS

  • Who: The emailer (you) is presumably a VC
  • What: You want info on trends and success benchmarks for mobile-focused or mobile-first SaaS companies.
  • Why: Because the recipient is an expert in some capacity on mobile SaaS metrics, and she has information that could in someway support your research.

Easy right? But there are in fact other boxes that need to be checked. As superficial as it sounds, it’s also helpful to boost the recipient’s ego and to also qualify yourself. The example above achieves both with including the words “expert” and “VC,” respectively.

2) Keep it Short, Simple, & Easy to Read

The biggest obstacle in achieving success with a cold email isn’t getting your reader to open the message, but to keep it open and continue reading past the first line. Spend however long it takes on your first few lines. Above all, you need to quickly articulate your point, keep your message clear, and break apart your text. Here’s why:

  • Your recipient needs to immediately “get” your message. If the first line is convoluted and has to be read twice, then it sends a negative signal for how the rest of your message will read. Carefully choose your syntax and diction to ensure clarity throughout your email.
  • Blocks of text are intimidating and difficult to skim. Again, if the reader can’t quickly calculate whether or not your email is worth his time, it’ll be skipped over.
  • What’s clear to you isn’t necessarily clear to them. Odds are, it’s not as easy for the reader to follow your thought process as it is for you. Don’t write how you think…
  • Mobile has eaten the world. It’s safe to assume that your reader is going to read your email on her iPhone or Android. Mobile developers spend their lives packing a boatload of functionality into as few clicks as possible. They’ve acknowledged the importance of simplicity, and so should you.

3) State Your Purpose

It’s surprising how often people send a multi-paragraph email that accomplishes nothing. While information on your company’s mission, your role, or your interests might provide necessary context, don’t forget to close it all together with your overall purpose. What can you do for your reader or what can he or she do for youHow would you like to interact?

Your goal should be to make it as easy as possible for the reader to respond. If you make it her responsibility to find the purpose in your email and act on it, chances are that email won’t generate a response. Highlight your purpose by briefly stating it at a higher level in the first few lines, then dive deeper into your goal in a new short paragraph. Your closing lines should request some form of actionable follow-up from your reader.

4) Stay Respectful

There’s a difference between being annoyingly aggressive and being proactive. Unless if it’s a particularly time-sensitive case, wait at least five days on follow-ups to non-responses. The reason behind that is pretty self-explanatory (no one likes to be pestered).

In the same vein, always be polite and humble, regardless of your accomplishments. Odds are your email is requesting a thoughtful response from your reader, so acknowledge that and don’t phrase your email as though you’re doing the recipient a favor by reaching out.

5) Don’t Seem Desperate

Even if you actually are. If your recipients catch any hint of desperation or neediness they will be reluctant to respond. Additionally, positioning yourself as a charity case will mar your image from the get-go even if you’re able to land a response.

6) Do Your Research and Establish a Connection

The best way to generate a response is to develop a connection between yourself and the reader. The more specific and significant, the better. Stating a meaningless fact like, “I noticed you live in New York City, and so do I!” won’t cut it.

Work to uncover a connecting thread. Do you and your reader hail from the same alma mater? Are you part of the same Meetup group, or do you share a past employer? If a direct connection doesn’t exist, perhaps you’re a big fan of your recipient’s product or a big advocate of an organization she’s involved with. The more passionate your reader is about the connection (e.g. he’s obsessed with his college’s sports teams), the higher the chances of a response. A good place to gauge his passion on topics is through his Twitter or blog.

The connection you build could also add some personality (as long as your message isn’t generic). More on that in the next point…

7) Don’t Hide Your Personality

Always include your own spark to your cold emails. It’s been said that with risk comes reward. Defaulting to the standard, cookie cutter template might feel safe, but your reader will be much more willing to take the time to help or chat if she doesn’t think you’re a robot. Don’t get me wrong,  it’s efficient to have a standard and systemized cold-email format to resort to, but don’t let it confine your content. Take the risk and be yourself.

You should avoid the potential pitfall of mistaking personality for informality, however. If you’re reaching out to someone more senior than yourself or even a peer, it’s best not to act like you’re long-time drinking buddies.

Bonus: Only Promise to Follow Through on What You Can Actually Deliver

In return for your recipient’s gracious help, you might offer yourself up for a simple task. For instance, I’ve offered an early draft of our research findings to a few particularly insightful mobile SaaS experts. When it comes time, I will deliver on that commitment. It’s a simple task and can help sustain the relationship past the initial email or phone call, so it benefits everyone.

Of course, these steps only graze the surface of perfecting a cold-email. In fact, there have been entire books written on the topic. If anyone has any other tips that come to mind, please share.

Image by Pockafwye

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