But there’s a problem: Inboxes have turned into out-of-control monsters. People are increasingly being ambushed with unwanted messages, and they’re getting less timid about hitting the delete key when faced with unsolicited emails. Often, you have only a few seconds to make a good impression.
So how can you rise above the din? The recipient of your email will ask (perhaps subconsciously) three questions about you when deciding how to respond.
I’ll admit these questions are a bit judgmental. That doesn’t mean someone whose emails aren’t up to snuff deserves to be shunned electronically. It just means you need to be aware of how your emails sound to recipients who are forced to make snap judgments in order to prioritize their overflowing inboxes.
So if you want to increase your chances of getting a response from a complete stranger, make sure you pass these three tests:
Question #1 – Can You Write Well?It may sound harsh, but most people don’t write very well. So when a well-composed outreach email comes across my inbox, I immediately take notice. Why? Because I assume someone who can write well is also smart, ambitious and worth investing the time to connect with.
I can’t think of anything more intimidating than trying to write a blog post on how to write well. The topic merits its own book or even library. But here are a few things to keep in mind:
Get the Basics RightIt goes without saying, but punctuation, grammar, spelling – all of these are really important. Brush up on the correct usage of then/than, they’re/their/there, it’s/its, your/you’re and all of these commonly misused words. I realize I sound like an overly pedantic eight-grade English teacher, but most of the people you’re trying to connect with to help grow your business will notice these kinds of things – good or bad.
Be Anal About ProofreadingYou only get one chance to make a first impression, so don’t botch it. Proofread your emails if you’re reaching out to an important contact for the first time.
If you’re anything like me, you’ll re-read some of your drafts and find egregious spelling mistakes, misused words and incoherent thoughts in what you thought was a well-written first draft. So take the time to double- or even triple-check your work. (Pro tip: It helps to read your message aloud. You’ll quickly hear the awkward parts.)
If you tend to read through your sent email looking for typos – and I KNOW others do this, too! – you’re on the right track.
Ditch Text ShorthandSurprisingly, “lol” doesn’t exactly translate to “laughing out loud.” In email speak, it means “please take my email much less seriously.” Including half a dozen emoticons in your email has the same effect.
Think About ToneTone can be tricky to express with an email, given there’s no face-to-face interaction. You want to be friendly and upbeat without coming across as overbearing or unnaturally exuberant.
You can use exclamation points, but do so conservatively and only after sentences that merit them. If you must use the smiley face (which can sometimes be a way to lighten an otherwise serious sentence), make sure you limit it to one per email.
Don’t Skimp on Capitalizationif you don’t capitalize when you should, i guarantee you will rarely get replies. not capitalizing the beginning of your sentences simply makes you look lazy. Don’t do it. Embrace that shift key.
Pick a Professional Email AddressIf you’re still rocking your @juno.com email address from the ’90s, it’s time for an upgrade. Anytime I see an email address for one of these dated domains, I instantly think the person I’m corresponding with isn’t too tech-savvy. It may not be a fair judgment, but given that I have about 30 seconds to make the call, it’s the assumption I (and others) settle on.
You should have an email address from @gmail.com, @outlook.com, @yahoo.com or from a business domain. And make sure to keep it clean with a variation of your first and/or last name. If I were using my old high-school email address for outreach – email@example.com – I doubt I’d get many replies.
A few other tips to follow
- Keep it short! If it’s more than 10 sentences, you’ve written too much. Six to seven is ideal.
- Don’t be overly personal. Bearing your soul to me in a first email is awkward and inappropriate.
- If your text color is anything other than black, change it back.
- Stick with a standard, professional font (i.e., no curlicues).
You should be able to find loads of information about upping your writing game, including this great piece from Forbes. (And if all else fails, you can always marry a writer/editor. That’s what I did!)
Now that I’ve convinced you that I’m actually a cranky, 80-year-old English curmudgeon, let’s move on to the second question your recipients will ask.
Question #2 – What Do You Want?If you’re writing an outreach email, you almost certainly want something specific from the recipient. The problem is, what you’re asking for is extremely valuable – that person’s time, attention or their audience –and they don’t know you. Why should they spend their finite resources to help you, a complete stranger?
That’s why the best approach isn’t to ask for anything. Instead, make your goal just to start a conversation. If you’re a quality person offering something of value, the option to work together will naturally come up in subsequent emails. And it makes it much more likely someone will reply to you if you don’t ask for anything up front.
I’d never interacted with Greg Ciotti from HelpScout and SparringMind when I received his first outreach email:
Hey Andrew,I’m guessing Greg’s goal in reaching out was to eventually get HelpScout additional exposure via the eCommerceFuel brand. And yet, there’s no hard pitch.
Greg from Help Scout (and Sparring Mind) here. I’m one of the few contributors to the Shopify blog along with yourself, and I’ve been digging what you’ve been putting out lately!
This is just one of those emails where I reach out to somebody doing real stuff, heh.
But seriously though, keep up the great work my man, looking forward to what you come up with in 2013, and if you’d ever like to collaborate, give me a holler.
Instead Greg makes a connection, offers some praise of my work, tries to genuinely connect with me and proposes an open-ended collaboration opportunity that doesn’t require an immediate commitment.
And did you notice there was only one exclamation mark and one smiley face? Tone nirvana.
Like an expert hunter stalking his prey, Greg executed the cold approach perfectly. Since then, I’ve recommended HelpScout.net (awesome help desk software) to dozens of people and had Greg on the eCommerceFuel podcast to talk customer service. So I’d say his email did the trick.
Another great example from this week via Jeff from SoloStove.com:
Hi Andrew!Jeff’s email asked for nothing; he was simply writing to let me know how much he enjoyed the podcast and even offered to lend his experience to help out.
I just wanted to tell you thanks for your podcast each week. I listen all the time. You have great guests and good discussions. I actually run my own ecommerce store that has been an awesome ride so far. I’m no expert, but have some experience in the ecommerce world.
I would be happy to help you out if you ever have questions. Keep up the good work!
When I viewed his website, SoloStove.com, I was blown away by an impressive product and a beautifully executed design. We started a discussion, and I’m hoping to have him on the podcast in an upcoming episode. (Although he doesn’t even know it yet. Jeff, I’ll be in touch!)
Did you notice the tone? An exclamation point in the header and one in the body. Friendly, but not over the top. You may think I’m over the top with my nitpicking, but these small things can make a big difference in how an email is received.
Focus on building a rapport, and you’ll usually see long-term benefits if you’re doing something worthwhile that can genuinely help the other person.
If You Must Ask for Something …If you have to ask for something in your initial email, make sure you do three things:
- Show you’ve spent time on their site
- Offer something that would be valuable to them and
- Close with an authority builder
Here’s the wrong way to begin an email:
Mike,About the only thing this email has going for it is brevity. It fails in just about all other aspects. Where’s the rapport building? The offer that’s of interest to the site owner’s needs? And why should they trust you (er, me)? Here’s a better example:
I’d like to write a guest post on your blog about scorpion-taming kits. We sell dozens of scorpion cages on our store, and I know a lot about them. All you’d need to do is give us a link back to our site and we’d be happy to write this for you.
Mike,Quite a difference, eh? A lead that shows I’ve actually spent some time on his site and am not spamming him with a fill-in-the-name outreach template. An offer for content that puts his visitors at the center of the value proposition and gives him an “out” if the content is low quality. And, finally, an authority-building bit at the end listing my credentials and showcasing some of the top-notch work I’ve already created.
First off, I absolutely love your site on scorpion taming – really well done. Especially like the video you had on teaching them to do backflips. Didn’t even know this was possible!
Writing because I noticed you don’t have any posts or articles about scorpion cages. If it’s something that your readers would find valuable, I’d be more than happy to write a unique, quality post for your site. No commitments from your end – if you don’t think it’s top-notch stuff, there’s no obligation to use it.
I’ve been selling scorpion cages online at AndrewsScorpionShack.com for the past four years, so we really know the industry. If you’d like to see some of the resources we’ve compiled, you can do that here.
If this isn’t a good fit for your visitors, not a problem. Appreciate the consideration and nice connecting!
As I said earlier, the best type of outreach email simply starts a discussion. But if you’re going to pitch right out of the gates, make sure your email focuses on their needs and not yours.
Question #3 – What Have You Done?If you’re asking for something meaningful from the recipient, there’s a cost (or risk) involved in them agreeing to it. Whether or not they accept depends on how well you present yourself (how you write), your offer (what you’re asking for) and your track record online.
The biggest indicator of future behavior is past performance, right? So when evaluating requests – especially larger ones – people will often do some sleuthing about you.