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How to Write a Cold Email With a 48% Reply Rate


Cold emailing has never been harder. That's right folks. We are at CODE BLUE. A few years ago, I wrote about what makes the perfect sales email. When I wrote that post, the average reply rate on a cold email was 3%. Fast forward to today, in a era d of sales enablement and sales engagement, our data suggest the average response rate on a cold email is now at .98%. That's lower than 1%!!!!  So if you emailed 100 people, you'd barely hear back from one person.

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Every time that sales reps send bad cold emails, it trains prospects to ignore their inbox. Sales reps sending junk are hurting it for all of us. It's like intentionally going on the highway during rush hour. Inboxes get clogged, filters get made, and the rest is history. 

Let's go over how to write a scratch to write a great cold email in 2020. 

Let's get into it shall we?

How to Structure a Cold Email Sequence

The modern sales rep is never going to just touch someone only once. Our customers who get double digit responses follow a fairly simple process to write an effective cold email. When it comes to cold emails, making a good first impression is everything. 

If you use a cold email template to write to a prospect, and they end up actually reading your email and being one of those 100 that do respond, you are already starting your relationship off on the wrong foot.

"But I got a response Ryan...isn't that the goal of a cold email?"  No reader. You are wrong!

First Impressions are Important 

Think about this for a second. Starting a relationship with a templated message will eventually lead to a meeting booked. If the rep hasn't invested enough time in proving they care about the prospect, how likely is that prospect to no-show a meeting? 

If they do show up, how likely are they to reveal their pain point, and help your rep in discovery? How about if they close, and have problems with your product or service? Will they open up with Customer Success if things aren't going well, or will they just churn into oblivion. 

The Goal of a Good Cold Email is to Make a Great First Impression.

Most companies end up relying on having at least 40% of their revenue come in from outbound prospecting. One bad cold email being sent to a prospect on a bad day could kill all the goodwill and reputation your brand has earned with that prospect.

Marketing spends millions of dollars a year trying to make your company look good, producing thoughtful content, putting thought leaders in front of prospects, etc. Then you go and send them a boiler plate email, it could make that prospect tilt on you, and never want to work with your company.

The good news is, most prospects get amnesia, so if you are doing things wrong, you can still change. 

Data from SalesLoft after 4 months

This is data from my SalesLoft account prospecting for 4 months last year using this approach. 

Before Writing a Cold Email Research your Prospect

We've done studies on cold emails and found that if you research a prospect and reference something you found in your cold outreach, you are 11 times more likely to hear back from that prospect in the first touch. 

SalesLoft and John Barrows actually did a study that shows you really only need to personalize about 20% of your cold email.  However you have to research the right things to break in. 

RateMyPitch Boston panel 2019John Barrows , Ashley Welsh, Nick Casale, and I rating cold emails in Boston back in 2019. 


We recommend that if you use sales engagement software to make the first step of your cadence or sequence (whatever term you use) an OTHER step that calls for you to find five interesting things about the prospect. Dan Frost on our team calls it the 5x5 method!

Write them down in the notes for that prospect, so you don't have to go rewrite them again when you do your follow up.

What to Research About your Prospect

Name, company, and title are not enough. I'm sorry, but it's 2020. This won't cut it anymore. All the tricks have been done. Our rule of thumb is that if you are going after prospects at larger companies, VP or higher will care about company goals, while Director and below usually care more about themselves. That means focus your personalization on the individual's interests before the company's. The only time to do the company's interest is if you can't find anything about your prospect's individual interests.

Think about friends you've made in your life.

How did you meet, and how did you start talking? Maybe you went to school together, knew the same people, shared the same interest, met at hockey camp, etc. These are all triggers that can make you reach out to someone when you are reading about them on LinkedIn. 

We've tackled how to get deeper connections with people using the 3 stages of conversation.

3 Steps to get a Deeper Connection with your Buyer:

  1. Current Events (think location, news stories, small talk, something you've seen on social media). 
  2. Common Interest (things you and the prospect both like, similar experiences or people, opinions you share, etc).
  3. Internal Feelings (what are both of your personal dreams, vulnerabilities, aspirations, what's your why, and what's their why?). 

Your goal should be to try and start every relationship with STAGE 2, but if you get to STAGE 3, you'll be golden. 

So try and find somethings you can bring up in a cold email that show your common interests. 

Let's say I wanted to prospect into David Gerhardt, CMO at Privvy for example. The first way to see if I have common interests with Dave is look at his LinkedIn profile, and see if any of our common interests or internal feelings are mutual. 

David Gerhardt's LinkedIn profile

By looking at his profile, I can see he's spoken at a ton of places. Most decision makers at companies also have places they may have spoken. You could easily YouTube or search for the person and find a video of them speaking.

David Gerhardt on youtube

So one of the five things I'm going to write down is that he spoke at these events (maybe they are events your company has even sponsored),and maybe a few opinions he had in one of these talks that I share or have a different opinion on. I can bring these things up to start my cold email. 

That's one angle to break in. Let's do something else because not every prospect you look at will have Dave's presence.

Let's look at his social activity.  To do this, visit your prospect's profile on regular LinkedIn (note you can't see social activity on LinkedIn Sales Navigator yet, though I hear this coming soon), and scroll down to the activity box, and click SEE ALL. 

David Gerhardt's LinkedIn profile

You must be within three degrees of the prospect to see their activity, other wise, LinkedIn won't let you see it. 

Now that you are here, this is where you can find some great angles for prospecting.

Dave's most recent post is asking for recommendations on CMOs who work remote:

David Gerhardt's LinkedIn profile zoomed in

As a sales rep, you can comment with a few of your customers you may know. This will make the prospect be more familiar with your name when you send the email..This can turn into a great angle for a first email as well.  

Write down a few more research angles until you have five. Five angles will make it easier to do follow up without having to go back into the person's profile, and save you time later. Maybe it's mutual connections you both know, or places you've been, or things you like? It's just like making friends back in school. At LeadIQ, we call this the 10 Minute Game. 

Turning your Research into a Cold Email

Okay. Now we're ready to write a great cold email. To start with, you'll want to write a good subject line that relates to the body of your email. 

3 Steps to get more opens on your cold emails with subject lines:

  1. Good subject lines are vague enough to draw curiosity.
  2. But they also relate to the body. 
  3. Subject lines are designed to be about what the email is about. Your email should be about the prospect, not your product or pitch. 

Here are the four questions every cold email should answer:

  1. How is the prospect special to you?
  2. Why are you emailing the prospect?
  3. Who are you (one sentence with a a customized value prop for that specific prospect...not your name and title)?
  4. What do want the prospect to do with your email? Book a meeting? Answer a question, direct you to the right person? (this is your call to action) 

Back when I wrote the old post about this topic, I used to start with why I was emailing a prospect, but with the way email is read on a phone, most people see the first sentence in their notification badge. This means we wanna show the content about the prospect first to help your subject bait the open. 

Here's how I'd write my email to Dave:

Subject: Your post about recommending remote CMOs

Hey Dave,

Big fan of yours. My company went to Hypergrowth, and we saw you speak there. I noticed on LinkedIn you posted you were looking for some remote CMOs. My personal favorite is one of our customers, Jaime Punishill, who is the CMO over at Lionbridge. He's got some really unique perspective on marketing, while his team is all over the world. 

So I actually wanted to see if your team is trying to get higher responses when they do cold emailing? We helped Lionbridge enable a workflow where reps can research a prospect first, without compromising daily sales activity. Are you involved in the outbound team over there? What are your thoughts?


P.s. I also tagged a few on your post on LinkedIn. Hope this helps!

So this email took the research we found, translated it over to prove that Dave is special to me, then transitioned over to asking for a meeting. It's a good balance between giving and taking. 

If we were using the four questions every cold email should answer,  here's how it would break down by color in this example:

  1. How is the prospect special to you? (Green)
  2. Why are you emailing the prospect? (Red)
  3. Who are you? (Blue)
  4. What do want the prospect to do with your email? (Pink)

Example of a good cold email

Let's go into each section briefly to give you some ideas.

How is the prospect special to you? (Green)

So we talked about this earlier. If you make most of your outreach about your prospect, you are wayyyyy more likely to hear back from them. I probably exceeding the 20% rule that JBarrows says, but it helps me transition to the pitch easier having a little bit more text.

One key thing to do is try and set up your personalization to transition to your value prop. I usually like to come up with more creative ways to relate to a prospect, but I don't want to overkill it for this blog. Sometimes it can just be one or two sentences.

Why are you emailing the prospect? (Red)

This is maybe the most important part of the email. You have to delivery the news to the person you are emailing why you are emailing them in the first place. Sometimes this can be a trigger, like noticing they are hiring, or that something going on at the company level. Maybe you noticed certain technology they use? You have to be honest with your intentions when you do this part. 

Who are you? (Blue)

This is probably the biggest mistake you see people make when they write cold emails. They talk about themselves too much. I always try to get my value proposition down to one or two sentences MAX. Don't you dare go feature dump on the prospect! I see you there thinking about it!!!

It's best to line a value prop up with whatever trigger made you find the account. Instead of saying, "I see you use x tech." and possibly being wrong, line up a why with a tech they use. Notice I didn't introduce myself either. Your email signature should do this part for you. Make sure you have a good email signature set in place. In my case, I kept my pitch fairly general here, but I can try some other value props in my next call and email since I'll be reaching out several times.

This is why you don't want to feature dump. You can change your "who are you?" in each touch to try and see if it can produce some pain or interest from the prospect. 


What do want the prospect to do with your email? (Pink)

I love talking about this one with students at the University of New Hampshire when I guest lecture there.

What's the easiest way to get a meeting? Ask!

Many sales blogs and companies out there will say you need to be direct with your question. In our experience, customers who send emails ending in open ended questions get a higher response rate (almost +6-7%) vs. direct questions. For example, many people end cold emails asking for 15 minutes.

Can I have 15 minutes to chat?

The biggest reason this isn't as effective is because direct questions usually create either a YES or NO response. YES is usually positive, while NO is no response. We want to get a response because if they respond, and the prospect gives us an objection, I can pick up the phone and call them.

I'd start my response call like this:

Hey prospect,

I just shot you an email talking your post on LinkedIn looking for CMOs. You just responded. I didn't want to write a long email and create more reading for you so I figured we could talk for sec. This is Ryan O'Hara by the way. You free?

Most of the time the prospect will be free because they just responded to your email. If they don't answer, you can then switch back to email. 

Length and Spacing

A few years ago, I made a bunch of sales PSAs about this. The general rule is to try and avoid going more than one smart phone screen.

Here's what Dave's email looks like on a phone with the preview message and subject. 

Dave's email on a phone screenAnd when you actually look at the email in an email app, he doesn't have to scroll to read it:

Email on a phone screen

Always try to get your cold email as close to one smart phone as possible, but sweat it if you go over a little bit, as long as more of the email is about the prospect than your product or service.

Another thing to keep in mind is avoiding using vague business talk. Avoid buzzwords, business speak, and bullshit things you'd never say in real life. Pretend you bumped into this prospect at a conference, and were say hey! You wouldn't go into a pitch, and say babbling words that make no sense to a stranger. 

What should you do in a follow up email?

For follow up emails, follow this same format, but back reference the thing you did in your first touch. Here's a follow up email I'd write to Dave a few days later if he didn't respond or answer my first call:

Follow up email example


In this email, I try to use a little humor. I like using post scripts and disclaimers for fun. You can do a lot with them for fun. 


The Most Important Part about Writing a Great Cold Email!

Be yourself. Extraordinary people want to talk to other extraordinary people. Put your personality into your cold emails, and you'll get results. I promise you this. Find ways to use humor, your personal life, and feelings into what you are doing and you'll get good results. Don't do fake personalization where you comment on something you don't understand. 

Overall, if you be yourself, mind your length, and follow these formats, you'll be in a better position to get higher response rates, which means increased sales!