Cold Email Outreach: the most complete guide to writing cold emails that convert

Cold email outreach is a marketing tactic where you reach out to a stranger having a specific goal. To write a good email you have to address these two things.

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Nathan’s SaaS business hit $1,500 MRR before he got stuck.
He tried everything: content marketing, webinars, partnerships. For almost 3 months he struggled trying to figure out what to do. Nothing was working. Nothing until cold email.
Finally, he went all-in with cold email outreach and in 12 months hit $100K MRR. Today, ConvertKit generates over $30M ARR.
In this guide we’ll breakdown the cold outreach campaign that took ConvertKit from struggling indie business to publishing power-house.
This is how it all started for Nathan Barry:
  1. Choose a niche
    1. Initially, Nathan was trying to target everyone who needed email marketing. That was a sure way to lose.
      Once Nathan narrowed in on “email marketing for professional bloggers” it became much easier to convert users. The emails, subject lines, and landing page copy could all be written for a single customer-type and therefore convert at a much higher rate.
  1. Niche down again
    1. Nathan played around with several options, including “email marketing for professional paleo recipe bloggers who are women” and “men’s fashion bloggers in NYC”. The more specific your audience, the more targeted your copy and outreach can be which lead to higher conversion rates.
  1. Become micro-famous
    1. Being very specific allowed Nathan to research the people he decided to target in depth. He used Twitter, Google, and 'top blogs in x category' posts to compile lists contacts. He subscribed to their newsletters, followed them on Twitter, and interacted with their content in order to make a name for himself within a narrow niche. Now when Nathan reached out, he might not be entirely a stranger anymore.
  1. Listen carefully
    1. With contact list in-hand, Nathan began emailing, but rather than asking for them to buy or demo his product, he'd ask what was frustrating them with their current email tools.
      The email was short, personal, and name dropped the most relevant customers:
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      The responses poured in. These bloggers were frustrated with not being able to segment their list, create opt-ins to give away a free guide or incentive, creating automated email courses, and more.
  1. Get on a call
    1. These emails led naturally to a conversation about how Nathan’s product solved those same issues.
      He'd offer a call to:
    2. Give them suggestions to improve their current workflow.
    3. Show them what he built with ConvertKit.
    4. In 3 months Nathan was doing hundreds of Skype calls a week.
  1. Remove objections
    1. Most early sales conversations ended poorly until Nathan learned how to address his customers’ most common objects.
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“ConvertKit sounds great & I love what you’re about, but…switching providers is so much work. Sorry, it’s not going to happen”, explains Nathan. Ouch. Just when I thought the conversation was going so well! I tried to explain my way through it: “It's not that hard”, “you just have to...” but nothing worked. On one call out of desperation I said, "I'll do it for you for free." That worked. They said, "uh, okay. Let's do it!" What followed became our concierge migrations program.

Why cold email outreach works for some and not for others?

The ConvertKit case study might sound fantastic, but unfortunately it’s the exception to the rule. Most cold-email campaigns fail.
According to Drift research, an average response rate for cold outreach email right now is 1%.
Open rate fluctuates around 10%.
Many founders spend enormous amounts of effort and resources on campaigns that don’t pay off. Don’t be one of them.
The founders who succeed with cold email outreach don’t settle for 10% or even 20% open rates. They push for 40% or more.
What’s the difference? Strap-in, because we’re about to go deep on email.
If you make it through you too will be achieving world-class open rates.

What is cold outreach?

Let’s start with the basics: What is cold outreach?
Cold email outreach is a marketing tactic where you reach out to a stranger having a specific goal.
This goal presumes that a person you are reaching out to should take an action:
  • Buy your product
  • Become your partner
  • Schedule a call
Email isn’t the only channel for cold-outreach.
You might find LinkedIn, Twitter, or Reddit are more effective for your product.
Rule of thumb: go where your customers are already hanging out.
The rules for every platform may very, but in this guide we'll be dealing ONLY with cold emailing. Twitter and LinkedIn DMs will be covered in the other guides.
 
Read more about What is cold outreach (plus some great examples of messages)
 

What is cold email outreach used for?

To answer this question let’s see what are the main benefits of cold email outreach:
  • Targeted: Emails let you target exactly who you want.
  • Direct access: Most people manage their inboxes personally. While social media accounts management might be outsourced to an agency, mailboxes remain to be a much more personal matter.
  • Inexpensive: Unlike many other marketing tactics cold emailing can be done with almost nothing but an email address and the founder’s personal time invested in research.
  • Fast results. Many founders love working on SEO. It’s a perfect marketing tool. But it needs time to take off. Unlike SEO, cold email outreach provides immediate results. You either get a response or not. On average, you can see the outcome within 24-48 hours after the campaign.
Based on the benefits of cold emailing you can easily figure out the circumstances when this tool would be one of the most efficient and circumstances when it won’t be considered the best choice.
For example:
When you know the details about your niche and target audience, cold emailing would be a great marketing channel. When you don’t know your niche yet — don’t use it.
When your customer use email as the main communication channel with the outside world (their own customers, employees, bosses) — cold emailing is great. If your audience uses email from time to time and goes heavily on other communication channels like Twitter or LinkedIn DMs, cold emailing is not the best idea.
When you need fast results (for example, for validating the idea, or hitting your monthly MRR goals), cold email outreach is great. If you’re more into building long-term relationships using ONLY cold emailing would not help you achieve your goals.
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How to do cold email outreach the right way?

The narrative about “proper cold emailing” falls into two parts:
  1. Intention
  1. Technique
We’ll start with technique. These are technical steps you should take to ensure that your emails don’t go to spam. Consider this the foundation on which you’ll build your house.

How to prevent cold email from going to spam?

Without a solid foundation for your beautiful house, or your beautifully written email, is likely to collapse. With a strong technical foundation you set yourself up for success.
  1. Buy a domain specifically for cold outreach purposes. Michael Greenberg suggests buying 2 at once. Something that reminds your brand name. Don’t go with a different domain ending (.io or .net instead of .com — those will be marked as spammy). A good option would be ...mailfor{yourbrandname}.com
    1. Video preview
  1. Enable DKIM, SPF, and DMARC for email authentication. The steps to do that are usually specified in the documentation for your domain registrar. All of this is managed in the DNS setup section. You will have to do it 4-6 times a year if you run email campaigns annually. Do it as early as possible.
  1. Warm-up your domain. Cold email outreach tools usually have this as a built-in feature. If you are not using one you need several people to help you to send and receive emails from your domain. You have to create an impression that your domain is alive and active and people are replying to your emails. Do this for 2-4 weeks. For 2 domains that you have purchased.
  1. Clean and verify your email list. You have to make sure at least that all the email addresses you have are real. Again, if you start sending emails and many of the addresses turn out to be fake, your domain will probably be blocked. Cold email outreach tools, again, usually have this checking as a built-in feature. If you’re not using any, try to verify the emails by visiting company’s websites and checking people out on social media.
  1. Start sending out emails slowly: 10-20 a day. If your open rate is low and you are not getting any replies after 50 is sent out it means that you either ended up in SPAM folders or that your subject line sucks. Stop and change the line. Warm up the domain some more. The open rate is >50% but no reply? Change copy in the body of the email. People get interested but 0 conversions? Then your offer is lousy and you don’t have a product-market fit.

Is Mailchimp good enough for cold email outreach?

When starting with cold email outreach many first-time founders who don’t have experience with this subject start with asking: what mailing service should we use?
What is the best service for cold outreach: is it Mailchimp, Mailerlite, Sendgrid or maybe even Postmark?
The answer is — none of them.
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Most email services are built for transactional emails or newsletters that presume the recipients have opted-in. If they have’t (which is the point of cold email), then services like Mailchimp will mark your outreach as spam and ban you. If you’re based in the US it’s actually a legal question.
Michael Greenberg, a content marketing lead for Gateway X, a venture studio, who’s built and grown three 6-figure fully bootstrapped startups largely via cold-email.
If Mailchimp and the like are a no-go, what are your options?
You’ll need a service specifically built for cold-outreach. Here are a few good options:
SalesBlink
These tools are built specially for the cold email outreach purposes — that is, for sending out emails to people who have not opted in.
Why can’t I just use Gmail? It’s free.
Bad idea, says Michael — sooner or later you’ll be banned as spam and even your personal emails will never see the light of day again.

How to write good cold emails?

To write a good email you have to address two things:
  • Your audience (building and cleaning an emailing list)
  • Your message (crafting a compelling copy ⇒ sending it out ⇒ analyzing the results)

Building and cleaning an emailing list for the cold email campaign

The first question every founder asks is “where do I get the emails for cold emailing campaign”. Luckily, there is a number of options. Paid-for tools can jump-start your campaign, or you can manually create your own lead-list.
Find business emails and phone numbers through scraping LinkedIn and Xing. How: upload the name or company and get 15 data points including full name, job title, location, personal or business emails, business contact numbers, etc.
Integrations: integrates with third-party applications like Salesforce, HubSpot, Zoho CRM, FreshSales, Zapier, Pipedrive, etc. Additionally, you can also verify your email lists via AeroLeads email verifier.
Pricing: Free trial with 10 credits. The paid plans start from $49 per month with 700 Credits to $499 per month with 10,000 Credits.
 
Voila Norbert Finds and verifies emails. Also enriches leads with data points (what social media do they use, etc.)
How: type in domain name and get related business emails.
Pricing: 50 leads for free. The paid plans: rom $49 per month to $499 per month.
 
Popular email finder tools that find authentic email addresses in a bulk and one at a time.
How: searches contacts by name and by domain on LinkedIn or any company website.
Integrations: has a powerful API that can be integrated with almost anything
Pricing: Free plan includes 100 discovered emails/month. Their pricing ranges from $49/month (1000 discovered emails) to $399/month (50,000 discovered emails).
Overloop (former Prospect.io)
An integrated CRM solution for outbound teams
How: LinkedIn extension that allows to see the emails, in-app cold emailing with copy templates, + sales automation tool.
Pricing: Free 14 days trial. Lite plan starts at $45, Asvanced plan — $149/month.
 
As 99% of emails you can get through these tools come frpm LinkedIn you can use scrapping tools, buy or build your own bots that would do LinkedIn search for you. If you are a non-technical founder, you can use a no-code scrapping tool builders like Datagrab.io that would allow you to build your own scrappers.
 
A wide range of more serious tools that migt be a little bit out of range for bootstrapped founders but nevertheless very useful — “intent identifying tools”. It’s tech that captures data from your website (or from your competitor’s website) and enriches it with details about the visitors. These tools allow you to reach out to people who are already interested in your or similar solutions. The most popular tools in this catagory are:
  • Drift.com
You can’t get this data manually but you can use other hacks to identify intent. For example, you can use Google Alerts to inform you when a company gets funding, hires a new CTO, installs a new technology, partners up with someone, etc. — anything that you believe would be relevant to your product.

How to build a free lead-list for cold email outreach?

If you Google up “how to get contacts for the cold email outreach campaign” you might end up with recommendations like:
  • create a lead magnet
  • start broadcasting a newsletter
  • host a free online event and get sign ups
Though all these methods are great for building your mailing list, they have nothing to do with cold email outreach!
Remember: cold outreach is sending emails to total strangers that had NOT opted in to receive anything from you.
Yes, newsletters, events and lead magnets are great for outbound marketing, they can’t be considered to be a part of cold outreach campaign.
The emails you will get through sign up forms would be a part of your emailing campaigns, transactional emails, content marketing campaigns — you pick it. But they definitely won’t be cold.
The basic and the most popular tactics everyone uses to get emails without spending a cent on it is manual LinkedIn search.
Yes, it will take a lot of your time. But you will end up with a very clean and relevant list. And the next step — creating a compelling message will be so much easier.
Vukasin Vukosavljevic (Vuk), former head of growth in Lemlist explains how his personal data-driven approach to email list building looks like.
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It all starts with profiling

Step 1 — build your perfect customer profile

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Step 2 - Demand research

  • Does this perfect customer even look for solution you’re about to offer?
  • If they do — how do they phrase the search?
  • What pain points do they google up?
  • How often? Is there a visible search volume?
All these data points can provide a valuable insights on the roles and keywords you would use when you go to LinkedIn.
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Step 3 - Go to LinkedIn

and search relevant roles or people who use the identified relevant keywords in their posts
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Step 4 - Analyze

every account, aside from the email
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You can also get the details of other people who work in the same company and might be more relevant to you.
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Any serious (especially, free) approach to the list building demands time. It will probably take more than 1 week, but you don’t need 2K emails to get started.

See also: How to build a B2B outbound sales strategy from scratch:

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Harris Kenny from IntroCRM, a US-based lead-generation agency, explains:
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For a great cold email outreach campaign I recommend starting with a low volume, 1-5 emails a week to get into a groove and try out some different hypotheses.
Once you have an idea that’s working, work up to 10-20 emails per week:
  1. Test your audience first.
  1. As soon as you found a perfect fit you work on delivery rate (up to 90%)
  1. Work on open rates (get up to 50%)
  1. Finally try to hit 3-10% response rate.
Once you get it, you’ll end up with maybe 30% demo and 30% off those will close.

How to write good email copy?

No matter what you’re selling, the secret to optimizing conversions is to craft a personalized message that’s relevant to the person who’s going to be engaging with it.
"Hi first_name” isn't even close to personalization.
It’s easy to get hung up on writing that perfect subject line for your cold emails. But the reality is, even if a lot of people open that email because the subject line is intriguing, they’re only going to convert if the message is relevant, and if it actually addresses a problem they’re having right now.
Again, there’s tech that might help you with personalization (like Breakcold.com), crafting first lines and the message copy in general (like Lemsist.com, Clearbit.com, Drift.com). With these tools you will get the prompts based on machine learning and wide use of AI, and data analysis what this particular person is passionate about.
But as with the data scrapping, you can do your research manually. LinkedIn is a great data source for analyzing the pain points you will have to address in your messaging.
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You can use this knowledge for personalization and for addressing the pain point from the start
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Whatever research you do will help you to come up with something better than generic, predictable patterns, with lines like:
  • “We haven’t met yet but I found [prospect’s company] online…” ❌
  • “I love what you’re doing with [prospect’s company], and I believe my company can help make it better.” ❌
  • “I recently read a few posts on [prospect’s site] and found them rather informative and interesting—great work!” ❌
Never use templates like these! You obviously will be creating templates for your internal use. But your goal should be to make your email not sound like a template.

Cold email structure — a winning framework

Whatever structure you will come up with, make sure it follows this simple framework that works in 99% of cases.
  • Subject line. It can be a separate entity, or it can be integrated with a personalization. It’s main goal is to create a great first impression in the mailbox.
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  • Opening line: Again, this important piece also appears as your email’s preview text in the inbox. The goal of this line is to intrigue readers enough to open your email.
  • Context: Explain why you’re reaching out—for instance, because you noticed that the recipient is using a particular tool and might have a certain pain point. The more specific, the better. This is also a good place for a quick intro.
  • Value proposition: The context for why you’re reaching out usually provides a natural segue to this part—how you offer value. Don’t be salesy. Focus on describing your product’s benefits rather than its specific features.
  • Wrap-up: End with one clear call to action (CTA). And since it’s the first email, ask for someone’s interest instead of their time. “Think we might be a good fit?" works better than “Let’s book a call.”
Here’s a structure of a great cold outreach email recommended by the Demandcurve.
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Pro-tip: after you’ve drafted your cold email — test it! 1. Send it to yourself to check how does it look on desktop and on mobile screen. 2. Check out for broken links, typos, if the lines get cut. 3. Get rid of big blocks of text 4. Use a tool like Mail-tester (FREE!) to check your ranking. Aim for 8.5 to 10. If you get less the chances are high you will end up in a SPAM folder.

Cold email follow up

You might think that you’ve been pushy enough just sending out the first email. But you are not. Always do the follow ups! If you had done your research properly and targeting the right audinece and they still don’t answer you — they have probably forgotten. Don’t hesitate to remind them about you.
There are no guidelines for follow ups. But the most respected resources suggest do it twice: once after 3 days, and again after 7 days.
For more effective follow-ups, make sure they:
  • Add value to your original email. Avoid using any wording like “Just wanted to follow up on my last email”. Instead, provide a relevant content for a person to learn more on the subject (a link to a webinar or a tool they can use to realize their problem).
  • End with a question, not a statement. This tends to open up more conversations. For example, ask “What’s holding you back from exploring this?” or “Are you still facing XYZ problem?”
The goal with follow-ups is to build credibility until your prospect can’t help but respond.

How to measure cold-email results?

Successful cold outreach campaign is the campaign where you iterate constantly based on the metrics you have collected from the previous batch of emails sent.
What metrics do you need to collect:
  • Open rate: The percentage of emails that get opened by the recipient. Aim for the 60% open rate.
  • Click-through rate (CTR): The percentage of people who clicked on at least one link in your message. The average CTR is 3-5%.
  • Response/reply rate: The percentage of people who respond to your cold email. The average response rate is 5-10%. You can easily do 30% if you do you homework and target the right audience.
 
  • Purchase rate: The percentage of people who eventually purchase. The average is 0.5-1%.
(The averages varies based on industry, these numbers are provided by Demandcurve.com )
What other metrics are important?
How long it takes to get a purchase through cold email— the number of hours it takes to build an emailing list, personalize emails, and so on.
Why do you need it?
This will help you with calculating ROI and figuring out if this channel is efficient or you’d be better off using some other tactic.
It will also help you to forecast your growth based on the additional resources you will obtain in future. For example, if you know exactly how many hours and emails does it cost you to close 1 deal you can easily figure out if it makes sense to hire a person who would follow the framework you have built, and focus your founder’s efforts on something else.

Cold Email Case Studies

1️⃣
10 things about cold email outreach every indie hacker should know: Arnaud Belinga
2️⃣
5 step-framework to get 80% open rate: Amanda Natividad
3️⃣
How I got a 60% response rate and $8K orders in 2 months: Ana Bibikova

Further reading on cold email

What is cold outreach

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Ana Bibikova - @NotechAna
Ana is an Author, Marketing Strategist and a Mentor in the Founder Institute. Ana has 18y of experience in building businesses, growing them to $4M annual revenue.
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Anthony Castrio - @AnthonyCastrio
Anthony is a Software Engineer, Fractional CTO, and the founder of Indie Worldwide, a virtual incubator and social club for bootstrapped founders.