Studies show that the average person sends and receives 126 work-related emails every day. Knowing that your message will be up against 125 others for the recipient's attention, knowing how to write a cold email that stands out is more important than it's ever been.
When it comes to writing a cold email, many of the principles and best practices aren't that different from writing any other type of email — you still need all the right pieces, from subject line to sign-off, and you still need to convey your message crisply and effectively and inspire the recipient to action. Piece of cake, right?
Like so many other things, writing email (and especially cold email) is a skill. With the right knowledge and some practice, you can learn how to write a cold email like a pro. Here's what you need to know.
What is a cold email?
A cold email is any email sent to someone (usually a potential client, customer, or other business connection) who doesn't already have an existing connection with you.
In the non-digital world, you might meet a new potential client at a conference. When you strike up your first conversation with them, you don't jump right into a sales pitch. There are pleasantries and getting-to-know-you questions. You're just trying to break the ice.
Online, this is where a cold email fits in. You're hoping to build and maintain a relationship with the recipient, but the cold email is just the first part of the conversation.
What's the difference between cold email and spam?
A cold email's intent should be to establish a business connection and build a rapport with a recipient or recipients. Spam, on the other hand, is purely an advertisement for a commercial purpose that's sent to a recipient who doesn't want to receive it.
While cold email can be sent as a one-off speculative email to a cold lead, or as a message to a list of people, it's important to note relevant anti-spam laws and be sure your message doesn't violate any.
In the US, that means following the CAN-SPAM Act. To comply with the law, a marketing email must:
- Use an informative header that allows the recipient to easily identify who the message is from
- Use an accurate subject line
- Identify if the message is or contains an ad
- Contain a physical postal address for the sender or business
- Include an easy way to opt out of future emails (either by replying to the first email or visiting a single webpage to unsubscribe)
- Honor opt-outs promptly
In the EU, marketers must follow the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which has similar guidelines to the US law, but with one big difference: it's an opt-in law, rather than opt-out. That means businesses can't send sales emails to potential customers unless they obtain their consent to do so in advance.
The good news is that CAN-SPAM's requirements only apply to email with the primary purpose of "commercial advertisement or promotion of a product or service". That means that if you write a quality cold email that's personalized and intends to establish a relationship with the recipient, rather than jumping right into trying to make a sale, your message is likely to be compliant.
The GDPR is more broad, since it covers data security and privacy for all EU citizens. While the law has some gray areas when it comes to email marketing, experts generally agree that it all comes down to consent — the recipient must agree to receive communication from you and to have their data used in the way you're using it.
They can also withdraw consent at any time. Sending a personalized cold email and simply asking the recipient if they're open to further communication from you should satisfy the law and stay out of the recipient's spam folder.
Does cold emailing actually work?
Despite laws against it, spam is at an all-time high — in fact, one study found that around 85% of all email is spam. Our inboxes tend to be noisy, cluttered, and full of distractions. Considering that landscape, is cold email even an effective outreach strategy?
The truth is that research from Pitchfunnel showed that 91.5% of cold outreach emails are ignored. But that means that 8.5% of them do get engagement — your goal is to be part of the 8.5%.
That means staying on top of cold email best practices and writing effective cold emails that inspire recipients to action. Here's how…
How to write a cold email: a step by step guide
Writing an effective cold email is a multi-step process that takes time and practice to perfect. But as you hone your skills, writing email will become easier — and your success is guaranteed to increase.
Learn how to write an effective email that inspires action (and check out some cold email examples) in our comprehensive guide.
Step 1: Research your recipient
The research required for sending a cold email is two-pronged:
- First, you need to find a recipient and their contact information.
- Second, you need to learn about them so you can personalize your message.
There are many different ways to find leads (and their email addresses). Using manual research (i.e. using databases or combing LinkedIn) is the cheapest and most labor-intensive way. Using a lead-generation company is faster, but can be expensive. Social media like LinkedIn is a popular place to do research for cold email outreach, because it's easy to find decision makers who work in industries relevant to you and your product/service, meet people through mutual connections, and find and verify email addresses.
Once you have your recipient's email address, research the lead. Find out relevant information about them that can help you determine a common touchpoint, like their job title and company, their social media activity, and their hobbies and interests. You'll use this information in Step 2.
Step 2: Personalize your message
Use your research from Step 1 to get your prospect's attention and make a good first impression!
It can be difficult to strike the right balance — to make a cold email feel personal without it becoming too intimate, informal, presumptuous, or otherwise over-the-top. Remember that you don't need to take a deep dive into the recipient's life: a recent product launch, a tweet they just sent, or an award they recently received are all easy to find and will help you personalize your cold email in a way that's likely to catch their attention.
Step 3: Write a compelling subject line
An email's subject line is the first thing the recipient will see — even before the opening line of the message itself. Writing a great subject line is both an art and a science, and it's one of the hardest things to master when learning to craft a great email.
The subject line has a direct impact on the open rate of your messages, so the best cold email subject lines should make the recipient want to click through and learn more. They should be short and intriguing, posing a question that the rest of the email will answer.
Here are some subject line best practices to keep in mind:
- Your subject line should be 10 words (25-30 characters) max. 42% of email opens happen on mobile devices, so you need to optimize your subject line for small screens.
- Personalize the subject line. Using the recipient's name in the subject line can increase open rates by 29%!
- Use the most surprising or impressive line from your email body as the subject line.
- Be specific. A statistic like "Superhuman cuts email time by 50%" is more effective than "Superhuman makes you faster at email".
- Highlight a common pain point for their industry. Then, promise a solution.
Here are some examples of great subject lines in action:
- Have you tried [solution] for [pain point]?
- X tips/ideas to [succeed with your solution]
- X% of [counterparts in the same function] are loving [solution]
Step 4: Tell the recipient what's in it for them
There's no way to inspire action with a cold email unless it contains a value proposition for the recipient.
The main part of the email body should be this: your pitch to the recipient. But remember not to make your first cold email too salesy. Talk about the benefits of your solution, not the features. Use social proof if you have any (like reviews from other customers or a testimonial from a past contact).
Answer the age-old question the recipient likely has: "What's in it for me?"
A good way to check whether your cold email proposes value to the recipient is to put yourself in their shoes. Read your email from the recipient's viewpoint and ask yourself, "What does this email provide for me?"
Step 5: Include a call to action
Finally, your email needs to tell the recipient what to do next if you've piqued their interest. Include a call to action (or CTA) that tells the recipient exactly what you'd like them to do.
Some examples we love:
If you'd like to learn more, let's schedule a 10-minute call next week to go over more details.
Please join me for a virtual coffee this Thursday or Friday if you're interested. Your coffee is on me!
Would you rather have a phone call or a Zoom meeting for our next step? Let me know which you would prefer and a few times you have available over the next week or so.
Step 6: Follow up as needed
Remember how 91.5% of cold emails get ignored? You're facing some long odds, so don't feel bad if your first email doesn't get the response you need. People are busy and their inboxes are cluttered. Sometimes even the best email just hits at the wrong time and gets lost through the cracks. This is why followup email is an important part of the process.
A good followup email should use the same principles as the cold email — an attention-grabbing subject line, a value proposition, and a clear CTA for the recipient. The important thing about the followup is to make sure you send it — and at the right time.
There are many ways to track email communication (if you send a lot of cold emails, a CRM may help you create a good system for your outreach). Automation is another way to keep track of follow-ups — like Superhuman's automated followup reminders, which can help make sure you never leave a lead hanging.
Step 7: Track your email metrics
Finally, you should monitor metrics to see when your cold emails are working — and when they aren't. Some good metrics to track include:
- Open rates
- Response rates
- Reply rate
- Conversion rates (a conversion, in this case, being following your CTA, whether it's scheduling a call or responding for more information).
A/B testing different types of cold emails (while tracking whatever metrics are most impactful for your specific goals) is one of the most tried-and-true ways to determine what works in an email.
Other cold email tips you should know
Incorporate these bonus tips into your cold email strategy to even further boost your chances of success.
Keep it short
The most successful cold emails are concise, yet impactful. That's a hard thing to do, but it's important — emails that contain between 75 and 100 words have the highest response rates. Whenever possible, try to edit your email copy down to less than 100 words.
"Read the room" to determine the right tone
Should your cold email be more formal, or more casual? Somewhere in between? Nailing the tone in an email to someone you haven't yet connected with is incredibly hard — especially since, unlike with in-person interactions, you can't use nonverbal cues to adjust your approach on the fly.
More: How to write an effective email that inspires action
This is another area where your research about the recipient can come in handy. Pay attention to the tone they take in their social media posts and other online content, and try to mirror that. Superhuman's Social Insights can help — they allow you to see key social media information about your recipient without leaving your inbox.
Also, keep in mind how your target audience should impact the tone you use. For example, a recruiter can generally strike a friendlier, more casual tone when reaching out to a prospective employee than a salesperson who's trying to land a new client.
When in doubt, always err on the side of being more formal and professional.
Proofread before hitting "send"
Every email writer's worst nightmare is hitting send and realizing, moments later, that they made an embarrassing mistake, like misspelling the recipient's company name (or worse, the recipient's name).
Proofread every email carefully to avoid these kinds of mistakes. But since no one will be perfect 100% of the time, use Superhuman so you can Undo Send if you catch a mistake a moment too late.
Optimize for F-shaped scanning
Research shows that most email recipients don't read messages word-for-word — they perform "F-shaped scanning".
This means you want to craft your message so it's overall shape is like a capital letter "F" — the most crucial information is up top, and all other important parts are in bullet points underneath. It should look like this:
Create a template for faster, easier outreach
Using a cold email template can be controversial. Your email does need to be personalized to stand out and achieve the highest chances of getting engagement from the recipient. But that doesn't mean you can't start with a template to make your outreach process fast and seamless.
Using Snippets in Superhuman allows you to store pre-written messages and insert them into your messages with just a quick keyboard shortcut. Then you personalize them based on what you know about the recipient before sending.
Send messages at the right times
Determining the best time to send emails is more of an art than a science.
But testing out different send times can help your message land in a recipient's inbox when they're most likely to open, read, and engage with it. And that's easy to do with Superhuman's Scheduled Sends.
Add superpowers to your cold emails
A cold email campaign can be a powerful tool, when used effectively.
Superhuman gives you all the tools you need to send powerful, impactful outreach emails — on top of being the fastest email experience in the world. Sign up today!