Cold Email Is Easy to Get Wrong

Sometimes it feels as though cold email is the bane of my existence.  This is weird on some deep level.  While I do own multiple businesses, making me a frequent target, it’s not as though I spend a ton of time dealing with it.  It’s just… well, let’s do this.  Take a look at an example.

A Hypothetical, Awful Cold Email

Dear Erik
I am Willy Loman from Body Shoppers Inc, an award-winning company in the field of miscellaneous IT stuff.  We can help you with blockchain, integration, quality assurance, performance, firewalls, project delivery, usability, browser, and, for some reason, catering.  Not only that, but we’ve won the BlahBlah Award for Excellence four years in a row from Bernard’s Award Emporium.  Our customers love us, and here is a link to some testimonials.
We have a long history of helping companies just like Hit Subscribe in Cassopolis, MI.  After reviewing your profile, I knew it was important to reach out.  If you like succeeding and getting ahead in business, you’ll be happy you talked to us.
What date and time next week works for an introductory 15 minute phone call?

This isn’t a reach, in the slightest.  I actually just looked through my LinkedIn (I’m counting LinkedIn messages under the general heading of cold emails) and inbox for a few emails and put together a composite out of what was there.
What’s awful about this?
Let’s come back to that.  First, I want to show you what happens after I roll my eyes and hit the “archive” button.

A Hypothetical, Awful Series of Cold Follow-Ups

One day later:

Hi Erik,
Looks like we might have slipped to the bottom of your inbox.  No problem.  Successful people like you are super busy.
Anyway, what time works for that 15 minute chat?

Three days later:

Erik —
Looks like we keep missing each other.  Just thought I’d reach out to make sure you saw my note.  What time works for a 15 minute phone call?

Five days later:

Hello Erik,
It seems like you might not be the best contact point for decisions about investing in your company’s IT infrastructure and support.  Who is the best person at your company to reach out to for a 15 minute chat about your IT needs?

Usually, it stops at this point, give or take a form email about “just thought I’d try one more time!”  So an eye-roll inducing email comes in, and the onslaught continues over the next five days, like a mini-natural disaster in your inbox.
Does the cold outreach work (or any of its follow-ups)?  Not on me, but it’s an inexpensive way to dial for dollars.  Since this is almost certainly completely automated, it costs very little to blast it out to thousands of people, so presumably a few of them will take the bait.
But is this really how you want to lead people to your brand?  Email chains like this make you feel like people are trying to sell you Slap Chops.
Let’s look at all that’s wrong here—this is a laundry list of ways to fail at cold email outreach.

Stop Talking about Yourself—No One Cares

The first cold email mistake that should jump out here is that the emailer leads by boring his recipients.  I didn’t wake up this morning how many dubious awards Body Shopper Inc. has won or why I should care what their customer think.
I think of this as having a sort of “resume mentality,” if you will.  When sending a resume in for a job, you’re “selling” to a motivated “buyer” with a deep interest in your credentials, for comparison’s sake.  That’s not at all true of cold email outreach.
If you’re going to have any shot of holding the reader’s attention, you need to lead with something of immediate interest to them, such as empathizing with a pain point or talking about what you can help them do.

Don’t Give People Homework Assignments

If you go back and read through this email chain looking for it, you’ll start to notice the email giving me subtle homework assignments.  Implicitly, he tells me to do the following.

  • “Go read our testimonials.”
  • “Here’s a laundry list of our skills/offerings—figure out how we can help you and pick out a time to tell us about it.”
  • “Since I haven’t heard from you, why don’t you figure out the best person for me to talk to and then introduce us.”

Good outreach doesn’t involve giving homework to strangers.  Instead, it leads with how the emailer can help and then makes things as turnkey as possible.
So, for Hit Subscribe, I might reach out to someone and say, “Hey, it looks like your blog content has tapered off of late.  I’m guessing you’re too busy to write posts.  I can help with that.  Here’s a link to the sort of post we could write for you, and here’s a link to my calendar if you feel like booking some time to discuss.”

Enough with the “Have You Stopped Beating Your Wife” Trick, Already

Look, this probably worked for outreach at some point.  Psychologically, I don’t doubt that it’s effective.  What am I talking about, and what does this heading mean?
It’s the loaded question fallacy, most often epitomized by the question “Have you stopped beating your wife?”  No matter how the respondent answers (yes or no), he tacitly admits to the crime in question.
Salespeople use a variant of this all the time.

  • Does Tuesday or Wednesday work better for you?
  • Should we schedule half an hour, or will 15 minutes be enough?
  • When is the best time for me to reach out?

This is in contrast to formulating the question in terms of “would you like to schedule a call” or “would you like to hear more.”  Don’t give them the opportunity to say no, says the Glengarry Glen Ross school of pressure sales.
As I’ve said, this is probably effective on some level, or at least it probably was.  But these days, it’s so hackneyed and predictable that you might as well also ask if they want a clear coat and an extended warranty while you’re at it.  It so strongly labels you a spammer that it’s probably not worth the marginal psychological effect.

Beware Your Template Making You Look Stupid

It’s no secret that blasting out emails like this happens by following a template or form letter.  They start with this.

We have a long history of helping companies just like [Company] in [Company Location].

And then, with a quick, automated mail merge on my LinkedIn profile, or something, it becomes this.

We have a long history of helping companies just like Hit Subscribe in Cassopolis, MI.

DaedTech and Hit Subscribe are both registered in the town of Cassopolis, MI, where we keep our theoretical “official” residence (despite our nomadic lifestyle).  Cassopolis is a very rural town, featuring pretty much nothing but farms, a few shops, and a few diners.  Less than 2,000 people call it home.
So, Mr. High Energy Sales guy, I have to say that it defies credulity that you have a “long history” of helping the many digital marketing/content agencies of Cassopolis, Michigan.  It’s pretty obvious that you’re just spamming out an automated blast—if you’re going to resort to such techniques, don’t bother with faux authenticity.  That just makes it worse.
Of course, what you really should do is actually qualify your leads to the point that you can actually, personally reach out with a genuine email.

Know When to Say When: They’re Just Not That into You

Someone that’s really into blanket, mass outreach might be able to find statistics that disagree with me here, at least for some market.  But in the tech niche that we both participate in, I can’t imagine that bombarding people with four emails in five days does enough good to offset how incredibly desperate and annoying it makes you seem.
If you’re hawking questionable pharmaceuticals to the right cross-segment of “desperate and gullible,” this might work.  But you’re trying to sell things to techies, who are already predisposed to aggressive sales fatigue from manically cheerful recruiters.  This categorically not how you want to reach out.
Send a friendly email and that’s it—one email.  Say at the end, something like, “if you’re not interested, no worries, I won’t bother you again.”

So What’s the Secret to Good Cold Email?  Empathize and Lead With Value

Now that I’ve picked this email sequence apart, you might have noticed that there’s pretty much nothing left.  As I said, it’s sort of a great example of how to get cold email outreach completely wrong.
So what does completely right look like?  Here’s an example of a cold outreach email that made me laugh, and then reply.

Bonjour Erik,
You’ve never heard of me. Hi, I’m [redacted]. I got your details from a list of the most erudite and innovative company founders!
Ok. I’ll be honest. I took the liberty of putting said list together. 😀
I’ll keep my pitch short…
We’ve worked for a few month to develop a program that allows you to send personalized automated emails and follow-ups to your target audience.
We also generate personalized images so you can build warmer relationship… like this one for example:
We’re looking for adventurous beta users to give us as much feedback as they can. In exchange, you will always have a special spot in my heart (I’m French so it really means something to me).
If you want to be part of this adventure, just answer to this email with the secret word «beta».
I await for your profanity-filled response,
CEO / Winner of « The Unpronounceable First Name » Award
Not interested? It’s ok, it’s my one and only email 🙂

It’s engaging, it gets to the point and doesn’t waste my time, it doesn’t bore me with details about his company’s history, it promises not to bother me again, it amuses me, and not only does it tell me what it can do for me, it shows me.  If you’re going to do cold outreach, do it like this.

Best of All: Eliminate the Need for Cold Outreach

Notice that I said, “if you’re going to do it.”  I won’t tell you that cold email outreach is a bad thing.  I’ve thought of doing it myself on behalf of Hit Subscribe.  But we haven’t actually needed to.
Why not?
Well, because content marketing and syndication have produced enough inbound leads to bring us business as fast as we can grow.  Hit Subscribe is a content marketing firm designed to help you get inbound leads.  I didn’t arrive at the opinion that inbound marketing is a better path than cold outreach because I happen to offer inbound marketing.  I happen to offer inbound marketing because it’s proven so wildly effective that we’ve been able to build a business on it.
The best cold email outreach strategy is not to need it because of inbound marketing.  The second best strategy is to have an awesome blog, lead magnet or free value that you can offer in your outreach.  Because emailing someone with something that can help them will go a lot better than emailing them with begging disguised as confidence and mutual benefit.