18
min read

How to Write a Cold Email: A 9-Step Guide

Table of Contents

This is not an article about Mark Cuban.

But if you need proof that cold emails work, look no further than the billionaire Mavs owner.

  • Dhruv Ghulati, a first-time founder, sent Cuban a cold email about his AI product that analyzes content for bias and clickbait. Cuban invested a quarter million off the bat. And another quarter million nine months later.
  • Doctor Alex Oshmyansky cold emailed Cuban about a low-cost generic drug company. The Mark Cuban Cost Plus Drugs Company launched in January 2022.
  • DTC expert Nik Sharma cold emailed Cuban to see if he’d do a podcast interview. He got a one-word reply: “yes.”
  • Food-tech company SAVRpak got a $3.5 million investment led by Cuban in 2021. You can guess how they did it.

(Sources: Inc., Forbes, Nik Sharma, The Spoon)

Mark Cuban checks his email. And so does every other entrepreneur—and every other sales lead.

We’ll go over the methods the above marketers and founders used to get not just a response, but a major win. (Not all their emails are publicly available, but enough are that we can connect the dots.) Cold emailing is effective—if you apply a few key tactics as you write.

And they all start with: Get inside the mind of your reader.

So while this article isn’t about Mark Cuban, it is about the person on the receiving end of cold email, whoever that may be. As you consider how to write a cold email, give equal measure to what it’s like to read a cold email.

Why “cold email” is a misnomer

Ice queens. Cold fish. Revenge is a dish best served cold.

Cold things tend to be a bit, well, frigid.

But cold emails need to be the opposite. They need to be warm. To connect and convert, they must be rooted in empathy.

They should show an understanding of what the recipient’s pain points are, and how you can help them.

Many of the tips you’ll read below pertain to that understanding. For instance, you’ll learn how to tailor your messaging to address specific problems and solutions, how to make it as easy as possible for the reader to respond, and how to add a personal, helpful touch.

The secret to writing a good cold email is simple: Help the person who’s getting it.

So with all respect to whoever coined the term “cold email”—and with an appreciation for the logic behind it—we recommend thinking of what you’re writing as a “warm email.”

9 steps to writing (warm) cold emails that get opens—and responses

Here’s how we’ll break down the steps of cold-email writing.

The three know’s: know your audience, your differentiators, and what good writing is

The six how’s: how to write a sender name, subject line, opener, email copy, CTA, and closer

For the most part, these tips work for LinkedIn and Slack messages too. You won’t need to craft a sender name, but you will need an engaging message that draws in your reader.

1. Know your audience

Imagine you’re an aspiring standup comic, and you finally muster the courage to get onstage at your local open-mic night.

You get up there, introduce yourself, and tell what you think is a pretty great joke.

And…nobody laughs. It’s crickets out there.

Unfortunately, that’s inevitably what’s going to happen with cold email. As soon as you press send, you’ll have to deal with complete and utter silence.

If that sounds painful—like the stuff of recurring nightmares—it doesn’t have to be. Here’s what you can do about it: Research your recipient before you start writing.

If you know who you’re emailing, you’ll:

  • Find it easier to write. Words flow much more easily when you can picture who you’re writing for.
  • Be more relevant. We recently got an email congratulating us for how well Demand Curve is doing…in the health and wellness space. We deleted it.
  • Improve your cold emailing ROI. It’s time-consuming to send cold emails. Increase the likelihood of success by targeting people who align with your customer personas.
  • Be more likely to get a response. Going back to the standup comic scenario, if your joke is a biting takedown of people who love Pringles, and you’re telling it to a roomful of spouses of Pringles-lovers, you’ll get some good laughs.

How to research your recipient

1. Define your customer personas (see step 1 at the link). The first thing you need to know is that you’re emailing someone who’s a legitimate lead. Someone who will be interested in, and who will benefit from, your product/service. They should fit the customer personas you and your team have created.

2. Look at your recipient’s online presence. Social media profiles, media mentions, and company/personal websites can reveal a ton about a person’s interests, responsibilities, and pain points. Don’t just click on the top Google result. Spend time building an understanding of who they are and what they need.

You’ll likely have a few potential clients who require extra personalization. Check to see if they have Twitter and LinkedIn accounts. If they do, spend a few minutes on their timelines to get a rough idea of what makes them tick.

(PS This is also a good opportunity to check that your own online presence reflects how you want to be perceived by your target audience. Chances are high that they’ll Google you too.)

3. Get research help. Proper audience research can be labor-intensive. Improve efficiency with data-enrichment tools (we like Clearbit and Hunter.io), or possibly by hiring a freelancer through Fiverr or Upwork to help with online research. But if you hire a freelancer, make sure they can give you insights into your prospect’s interests and needs, not just their job title.

2. Know what sets you apart

Once you’ve looked outward at who your reader is and what they need, look closer to home. What does your brand offer that no one else can?

The answer will come down to your unique value propositions: the value your company promises to deliver on. Your value props offer specific solutions to bad alternatives.

Here are a few unofficial examples, along with the personas they work for:

Company Bad alternative Value prop Customer persona
Slack Inefficient communication that’s dispersed over email, text, phone, and meetings One spot for all your communication and collaboration Remote teams
Uber Trying to hail a taxi for a while, and being late to your appointment A car comes to you. When you want it to. City dwellers
Everlane Clothes that may look nice but are bad for the planet Ethically sourced, sustainable clothing—that also looks good Women 18-35

Value props are foundational to any growth marketing initiative. If you haven’t defined yours yet, make them Priority #1. Check out our Growth Program for step-by-step guidance on defining your value props and the problems they solve.

How do value props inform your cold emails? Consider them the subtext of everything you write. Even when they’re not explicitly stated, they’re your point of differentiation. They’re why the person you’re emailing should be interested in hearing from you specifically, instead of anyone else. And they’re what will make your email a win for them in the end.

Use that point of differentiation to stand out in an overcrowded inbox.

Optional: Also think about how you can differentiate your email with your writing style. Depending on your brand and personality, two possibilities are:

  • Humor: Marketer Jon Buchan sent a cold email that got an open rate over 80%. Its subject line: “Sorry for the ferret in the post.” Its outcome: meetings with Red Bull, Pepsi, and a bunch of other global brands.
  • Eccentricity: Here’s the start of a cold pitch to Slate.com that became a story: “In St. John’s, Newfoundland, a provincial fishing town roughly midway between Montreal and Greenland, the mermen began to appear in the summer of 2017.” More, please!

3. Know what good cold-email writing is

Before we get into actual email building, here’s a lightning round of answers to the question, “When it comes to cold email, what is good writing?”

Good cold-email writing is:

Concise. Your cold email should be ~1/50th the length of this article. Cut anything that isn’t essential.

Although we strongly recommend basing your word count on your content—not the other way around—a general guideline for cold-email length is around 80-120 words and five to seven sentences. That will give you enough space to hit your key points without exhausting your reader’s attention.

(There are outliers—rarely, long cold emails work. But only if they’re really well written, original, and appealing. After graduating from Vassar, Olaf Carlson-Wee sent Coinbase an “annoyingly long” cold email, with his 90-page college thesis attached. He became their first employee.)

Personal. Use the research you did at step 1 to speak directly to your recipient, and to start a conversation you know they’ll be interested in. Make it clear that you’re emailing them, instead of anyone else, because they’re exactly the decision-maker you want to talk to. No one else would fit the bill.

Personable. Remember the days of “dear sir” and “to whom it may concern”? They exist in some stuffy corners of the world, but not in effective cold emails. You’re approaching someone who doesn’t know you, so be approachable in turn.

Being personable means being informal and open. No cold shoulders in cold emails.

Authentic. In 2022, people have a sixth sense for inauthenticity. It’s why brands that jump on trending bandwagons can fall off so quickly, if they don’t seem genuine.

If you want to lightly flatter your recipient, that’s fine—but make it authentic. Don’t claim to be “blown away by their work” if you haven’t read it. Don’t pretend to have a mutual connection if you met that person once at a party eight years ago. You should be able to back up everything you say.

Focused. Stick to one goal. What’s the one thing you want to get out of your cold email? Is it a 15-minute sales call? A critique of your deck? A referral?

Define your goal before you send your email. It will inform your call to action (CTA), which we’ll go over at step 8.

Original. There’s no way you’ll stand out if your email says the same thing as every other email. Think about all the email banalities we have to deal with all the time: “I hope this email finds you well,” “sorry for the delay,” “quick question.” Avoid them.

Cold email isn’t the most original medium—after all, you are reading an article with instructions on how to do it. But you can add novelty and intrigue. And when you do, you’ll garner interest.

Clear. Avoid including anything in your cold email that your reader might not get. Unless you know they know about your company, assume they don’t. Unless you’re confident that they’ll get a reference, don’t include it. One person’s favorite meme or movie quote could be completely unfamiliar to someone else.

cold email copywriting

Now that we’ve covered the three know’s, we’ll jump into the six how’s. Which collectively answer the question of how to write a cold email.

4. Choose your sender

Your “from” field is as important as your subject line at motivating a recipient to open and read, instead of archiving or deleting.

cold email sender field
Neal, Demand Curve's co-founder, sends out this email to prospective members of our Slack community.

We recommend using a person’s name. It’s inherently more personal than a brand or team name.

You can do a combo of:

  • First name-last name (“Neal O’Grady”)
  • First name-company name (“Neal from Demand Curve” or “Neal @ Demand Curve”)
  • First name-last name-company name (“Neal O’Grady from Demand Curve”)

Which one should you go with? Again, think about your reader. What would they expect, and who would they want to hear from?

If you know they follow your founder on LinkedIn, an email from your founder (first name-last name) will elicit delight instead of distrust. If they’re less familiar with your company leadership, including your business name could be a safer bet.

You can always change your sender field. It, like everything else with cold email, should be optimized over time based on how well your emails perform.

5. Land the subject line

Together, subject lines and sender fields dictate your open rate.

Note: Your open rate will give you a general sense of how compelling your sender field and subject line are. But you shouldn’t use open rate as a key metric. Not only is it increasingly unreliable, but it’s also not the point. What you want is a conversion, not an open.

Cold email subject lines are so important that we wrote a whole article about them. We recommend reading it to get actionable tactics and insights for your cold email outreach.

But briefly, here are some things your subject line needs to be:

  1. Relevant: It should pertain to the problem your reader is facing, and it should be directly related to what’s in your email.
  2. Personal: The subject line is a great space to introduce the fact that you know who the recipient is and what can help them out.
  3. Short: Stick to 60 characters or less. Longer subject lines get cut off on mobile in most internet service providers (like Gmail).
  4. Self-evident: Don’t make your prospect guess what your email is about.
  5. Specific: Don’t be vague or clickbaity. You’ll get opens—and then your email will get deleted or marked as spam. Which will hurt your email deliverability going forward.

Examples of good subject lines

  • “Love your work—want to feature you in one of our guides”
  • “Seeking advice on [relevant subject]”
  • “[Mutual connection] thought we should connect”
  • “Controlling SaaS spend at [company name]”
  • “Case study I thought you’d be interested in for [company name]”

Examples of bad subject lines

  • Anything with “Re:” or “Fwd:”
  • “URGENT”
  • “You don’t want to miss this”
  • “Act now!!”

6. Hook the reader

Your subject line needs to be eye-catching. The opening line of your email needs to be interest-catching.

Your subject line is the bait. Your opening line is the hook. If it’s not intriguing enough, your reader will move on.

Use your intro to grab your prospect’s attention

Here are five ways you can hook readers with the opener of your cold email:

  1. Ask a question to pique interest: Hi [first name], curious if you have to log in to a bunch of different places to manage [company]’s health insurance, 401k, FSA/HSA, and other benefits?
  2. Address a pain point: Hi [first name], I noticed you work with six different vendors to manage [company]’s adtech. We can help you manage them all in a single system, if you’re interested.
  3. Demonstrate clear value: Hi [first name], I wanted to run something by you that can help you complete [insert SaaS thing] in 2-3 days, instead of 2-3 weeks.
  4. Offer a touch of personalized flattery: Hi [first name], big fan of your work. I read your book last month and have posted about it a few times on Twitter since then.
  5. Mention a mutual connection or common ground: Hi [first name], I play tennis with your colleague Jane, who thought you’d be a good person to talk to about SEO apps.
cold email example - strong hook
This cold email example kicks things off with mutual interests and strong personalization. Nick ended up chatting with Will.

As you can see, good hooks are brief—just a sentence or two—and personable. Use just the recipient’s first name, unless that’s inappropriate in your field (e.g., if you’re emailing a prestigious scholar who should be addressed as “Dr.” or “Professor”).

Although it’s not as hook-y, sometimes you’ll need to start a cold email with a quick self-introduction: Hi [first name], I’m the co-founder of Broad Reach Sales, an economical CDP for early-stage startups.

But only talk about yourself in the opener if you have to. If it would be weird not to. Or if you need to establish your credibility right away to keep the reader interested. Talking about yourself doesn’t offer the reader something of value.

Another option: Try a five-minute favor.

Make a great first impression with a five-minute favor

The five-minute favor, a concept introduced by Wharton psychologist Adam Grant in his book Give and Take and applied to cold email by Randy Ginsburg, is this: Spend five minutes every day doing something that helps others in your network. Just five minutes. Don’t expect anything in return.

Examples:

  • Write a review of their book or podcast.
  • Donate to a cause they support.
  • Share something they’re working on with your audience.
  • Give feedback on an idea.
  • Make an introduction.

When you mention that favor in your cold-email opener, you immediately build a connection with the person you’re reaching out to. Briefly praise your recipient and low-key mention that you reviewed their book or supported their cause, and they’re much more likely to respond.

Plus, it’s a nice ice-breaker. And it feels good to do good. There are a lot of wins here.

7. Warm up your outreach in your email body

Once you’ve hooked your reader, win them over with a few more sentences. But remember to keep it short. Your whole email should be around 5-7 sentences, give or take.

The heart of your email is where you lean into the value your prospect can get. It’s where you double down on the benefits you’re offering.

The focus should never be on your product or service. It should be on how your product/service will improve your prospect’s life.

Don’t think of what you’re doing at this stage as selling. What you’re doing is engaging, starting a conversation, and laying the foundation for a relationship. Approach your cold email with warmth and openness.

Think about the individual elements of a cold email—and how they flow together

Write naturally, and consider the flow of your message.

Some example flows:

  • Personalized intro → I noticed a problem you’re facing → here’s how I can help you fix it → here’s proof that I’m legit (e.g., social proof) → let’s talk
  • Introduction that establishes my credibility → reason for reaching out → let’s talk → here’s the value I’ll offer during our chat, no matter the outcome
  • Research-backed flattery + personal touch → address a pain point → demonstrate how you can fix it → let’s talk
  • Mention a mutual contact → provide a reason for reaching out → highlight a problem + fix → handle a key objection → let’s talk

You can see some of these in action in our library of cold email templates and examples. But don’t become so reliant on templates that you start to sound formulaic. Remember that good cold-email writing is authentic and original.

Here’s what some of the elements in those flows mean.

Parts of a cold email

Provide a reason for reaching out

When you send an email to someone who’s never heard from you before, it’s crucial that you explain why you’re reaching out. One possible way to do this is to show the reader that you value what they value: Just saw your tweet about x, and it made me realize that you’re interested in [the thing you offer].

But avoid coming off as salesy: I see you’re a sales professional. Me too. Or: Given that we both work at agencies, I thought we should connect.

cold email example - strong reason for reaching out
This sales email has a clear reason for reaching out. Remember those cold emails Mark Cuban responded to? They have clear reasons for reaching out too.

Objection handling

Your prospects will come armed with objections. Be aware of all possible objections, and come up with calculated ways to handle them proactively.

  • Objection: Your product costs too much. Handle it: Subtly indicate either that your product doesn’t cost more than competitors, or that it solves a problem in a better way.
  • Objection: It takes too long to learn about and integrate your product. Handle it: Mention that your product has a short learning curve, and that integration is seamless.

Make sure you preemptively handle only your biggest objections.

  • List your objections in order of severity. Which ones come up the most?
  • Handle the top one or two in your emails.
  • Leave out anything trivial—you don’t want to raise awareness of objections that new leads didn’t even know they had.
cold email example - key objection handling
Objection handling is especially important if you’re convincing someone to change their status quo. Here, the sender directly addresses the objection “this won’t help our revenue.” Source: Job Board Fire

Social proof

If a recipient doesn't know who you are, their first and biggest objection might be that they don’t trust you. Social proof can help build trust. A few social proof ideas to test:

  • Indicate which competitors you’re already working with.
  • Highlight any relevant names or companies that speak highly of your brand.
  • Mention how many customers you’ve helped out.
cold email example - social proof
This cold email mentions other Y Combinator companies as a form of social proof. Props for specificity in time savings (3 hours/user/week). Specific YC company names would provide further trust.

Personal touch

Add a personal touch to show you took the time to learn about the recipient. You can take one of two approaches:

  1. Keep it relevant to work: Signal to the prospect that they’re uniquely fit for your solution.
  2. Get personal: Connect through a personal note that’s unrelated to work. You might build trust with your prospect. BTW, saw you played soccer in college. I played at URI. You still playing these days?

Demonstrate that your email isn’t automated, and you’re more likely to get a response.

8. Include one low-friction CTA

What’s the next step you want your recipient to take after reading your email? That’s the basis for your call to action. Here are some common next steps, with example CTA copy.

Examples of cold email CTAs

Next step Example CTA copy
Schedule a call (most common next step). How would a quick call this Tuesday work for you? Also happy to chat more over email if you’d prefer.
Schedule an online demo. How about a quick demo next week? We’ll show you how [name a strong competitor] is using [product name] to get an edge.
Activate a free trial. We already hooked you up with an extended free trial. All you have to do is click here, and you’re set for 14 days. Figured we could skip the phone call—just let me know if you try it and like it.
Connect the recipient with your CEO. I can introduce you to our CEO [CEO name] if you’d like.

Tips for cold email CTAs

Include only one CTA. More than that, and your message will get muddled.

Example: If your email includes both “What do you say to a quick call on Friday?” and “Are you interested in meeting with our CEO?” the reader will wonder what they’re supposed to respond to. That’s more mentally taxing than knowing exactly what to do next.

De-risk your CTA. Offer something regardless of whether the recipient decides to buy from you. If you suggest a call, let them know you’ll be bringing valuable insights to the table.

Example: “Even if you’re not interested in working together, I can tell you about a study our engineering team just did, which I think you’ll find applicable to your work in data management.”

Make it natural. Unlike in marketing emails, where CTAs are high-contrast buttons that stand out from the rest of the email body, cold email CTAs should look and feel organic.

Example: “Do you have time for a 20-minute call? I’ll ask a few questions about how your team is using x, and I’ll provide some tactics we’ve learned about x training over the years. Pick any time that works for you here ['here' links to the sender's calendar].”

The CTA (a 20-minute call) isn’t forced. It’s a simple question, followed by a short link.

Make it easy to respond. “Can you meet on Friday afternoon?” is a stronger CTA than “Let me know if you can talk sometime.” Make responding even easier with a calendar link or comparably simple next step.

Keep it low-friction. Low friction CTA: a 15-minute chat. High friction: a 60-minute demo. You might even want to forgo asking for a call in your initial email, and instead start out with a simple “Any interest?”

9. Always be closing

Email sign-offs are so clichéd that they inspired one of the most delightful jokes on Schitt’s Creek (which is saying a lot).

We recommend just leaning into having a trite email sign-off. Don’t overthink it. It’s not the place you want to draw attention to.

Your CTA, not your sign-off, is where the focus should be. So although “best wishes” and “warmest regards” are boring, this is one instance where being a bit dull is okay.

Here are the top email sign-offs by response rate, according to Boomerang:

  1. Thanks in advance
  2. Thanks
  3. Thank you
  4. Cheers
  5. Kind regards
  6. Regards
  7. Best regards
  8. Best

Again, boring. Also a good reminder that a touch of gratitude goes a long way.

Add value to your email signature

One way you can add value to your closer is by providing information about yourself in your email signature.

If any of the following will help you achieve your goal, include them. If they could be a distraction from your CTA, don’t.

  • Full name
  • Job title
  • Company website
  • Contact information: phone number and email address
  • Link to a relevant resource like a case study, blog article, or white paper
  • Social media profiles (again, if including them serves your goal)

Do let recipients know where you’re located. It’s required by the CAN-SPAM Act, which governs cold emailing in the United States.

Avoid too many links, which could be a red flag for spam filters.

Should you include a photo of yourself in your signature? Images are another spam-filter red flag that could affect email deliverability, and some email service providers block images. Plus, headshots in email signatures can come across as broadcasting, “I’m a salesperson selling you something!”

On the other hand, people respond well to pictures of other people, which are more friendly and inviting than a block of text.

Our recommendation: If you think a headshot could have a significant positive effect on response rates, run an A/B test. Include a headshot in your emails to some recipients, and see if response rates are higher for them.

Make sure you follow legal requirements

Last thing: Make sure you comply with CAN-SPAM rules. Consult a lawyer for legal advice, but at a minimum, you should let recipients know how to opt out of getting future emails from you.

That doesn’t have to be a link. It can be a line in the email asking them to reply if they don’t want any more emails from you. Honor opt-out requests promptly.

Your first cold email is the tip of the iceberg

Your first email won’t close a sale. It probably won’t even get a response. Think of it as the start of a business relationship—one you’ll nurture over the course of follow-up emails.

Cold outreach takes persistence and patience. It takes experimenting, seeing what works, and basing new outreach on past successful cold emails.

But if you approach your cold email campaign with a mentality of helpfulness and interest in the person on the other end of it, you’ll start to see a positive outcome. Your reply rate will go up. And eventually, your conversion rate will too.

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Content @ Demand Curve. Obsessed with books and Beyoncé. Trying to learn Spanish and live on a boat.

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