How Should You Handle Cold-Call Emails?
It's an inevitability on both sides of the equation: Either you're receiving a lot of cold-call emails or sending them out—and it can be frustrating either way. Want to get someone to actually respond to an unsolicited message? The secret is personalization.
As a journalist, I have a problem that frequently arises: I get a lot of cold-call emails.
Sometimes, cold emails are welcomed, when they help to highlight news or stories that might deserve coverage—say, association or nonprofit initiatives that deserve a little extra notice. But quite often, the emails are often esoteric, jumping far afield from my coverage area, without noticing that, hey, I write about associations on a daily basis. (It happens like this: I write about a subject that sometimes has an association context, like marijuana or diabetes, and suddenly I get a lot of emails about diabetes and marijuana. Weird combination, huh?)
I’m not alone in this state of affairs, and you probably feel my pain acutely. You probably get dozens of emails a week from people who have something to pitch to you, and you often find yourself in the same situation I am: Given the limited amount of time in your day, which emails can you just ignore?
Related question: Should you ignore emails? An Entrepreneur piece from last year, by writer Tasha Eurich, argues that the answer is no—she highlights a variety of research suggesting it gives you a bad reputation, hints at poor reliability, and hurts your long-term credibility.
“If you think your benign neglect of email isn’t hurting you, I hate to burst your bubble,” she writes. “This behavior could be holding you back more than you realize.”
I agree with this standpoint—but only for warm emails, where a relationship, whether directly or indirectly, has already been established.
Cold emails that contain some form of solicitation are a whole different beast, and we need to be mindful of the negative effects these emails carry for the sender. You should cry no tears over a cold email that you choose not to respond to. (Especially if, as has grown increasingly common in my own inbox, the cold email is sent as a pseudo-reply, to make it seem as if you were already ignoring their email.)
How Not to Write a Cold-Call Email
One example of pitfalls of cold-call emailing comes from 2013, when Google’s search-engine optimization (SEO) guru, Matt Cutts, posted an example of a cold email from a person asking to make changes to Google’s website to make it more SEO-friendly. As you can imagine, the very concept of the email was flawed from the start.
“So this person is offering help to convert Google visitors into leads,” Cutts wrote. “Or, you know, to improve Google’s rankings in organic search results. Sigh.”
This kind of cold messaging deserves to fall in the spam folder, never to be seen again. Most people would never be dumb enough to do something quite like that, but if you’re a marketer who’s writing automated cold messages en masse, you’re often getting a lot closer than you think.
I know this from experience, because I’ve gotten a lot of these cold messages.
A Lesson in Breaking the Ice
A study from a couple of years ago was pretty revelatory about the way most people respond to cold messaging.
Back in 2014, author Shane Snow, the writer of the book Smartcuts, explained in Fast Company an experiment he conducted with Google marketer Jon Youshaei.
Basically, they emailed 1,000 high-level executives variations on a message eyeing a study of cold emails—if you were getting a cold contact, what would you like to receive?
Ever the good automators, they changed different phrasings and subject lines to make the emails seem selfless or self-serving, to make the subject lines vague or specific, or to change up the nature of the request.
The surprising thing they found is that while recipients opened 45.5 percent of the emails that didn’t bounce, a grand total of just 12 people actually responded to the message—a completion rate of just 1.7 percent.
So, why go through all this work for such a miserable response rate? Well, on its own, the data culled is useful, because it highlights just how much people dislike unsolicited email. But, as it turns out, Snow and Youshaei had a deeper motive.
“The point is that … the common advice about the little things you can do to optimize cold email is all moot without one thing—personalization,” the duo wrote.
In truth, the people who chose not to respond did so by paying the message no mind.
But, had the researchers spent a little time actually writing something to each executive that showed they cared about the recipient as a person, odds are they might have gotten a better response rate.
Cold, But Not Too Cold
And that, somewhat selfishly, is what I’d like to see out of the cold-call emails I get.
The thing is, people have been using the internet for two decades or longer at this point, and they can smell the difference between formalized junk mail and a sincere effort to reach out to you.
The challenge for associations, which—let’s be honest—send out about as many emails of this nature as they receive, is finding a way to balance this desire for warm personalization while utilizing the heavily automated tools that sit in front of them.
At one point last year, frustrated at the amount of useless emails I was getting from the marketing-distribution service Meltwater, I called them out on Twitter for a lack of relevance—and explained to them my plight of receiving content that wasn’t even in the same county as my primary beat. The message, admittedly, helped.
(Yes, there are entire businesses—big ones—built on the idea of cold-call emailing, and sometimes they’re not very good at it.)
MailChimp has a pretty great page on the importance of permission, and why you should get the OK before sending out a bunch of messages to people you don’t know.
Perhaps, if you must go automated, you might be better off setting a rule for yourself that you don’t reach out to anyone who hasn’t asked to be on your list.
Email isn’t like most things; in this case, it’s better to ask for permission than forgiveness.
Warm Things Up
So, what about cold contacts in general? What’s the best policy?
In my view, if you’re trying to reach out to a potential member, business partner, or consultant, your cold contacts can’t be the equivalent of shouting your email address into the main hall at a crowded cocktail party, hoping that someone notices you. That’s what these automated cold notes essentially do—and poorly, at that.
If you’re going to have any chance at all of winning over your intended audience, you have to at least try to write the digital equivalent of a handwritten note, showing that you took long enough to research your intended target to impress a personal touch on the message. That takes more work, but your response rate will be a little bit stronger.
And, as you’re writing those personalized notes, just think of how you feel when you get an email you don’t know what to do with. You might get better results.