Good, Ugly, and Best: How to (and How NOT to) Write Your Next Cold Email

Break out the champagne and sound the trumpets: 2021 marks the 50th-anniversary of email. Way back in 1971, a recent MIT grad named Ray Tomlinson, working on behalf of the U.S. government’s Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (which became the Internet), devised the first program to send messages across a network of computers.

We’ve seen a technological revolution since then, but many aspects of email haven’t changed. In honor of email’s golden anniversary and to help keep email relevant, we want to explore those aspects in this blog—to investigate why we welcome some emails in our inbox  and wish that others had never arrived. (If you’re curious why we’ve named spam email after a processed meat mixture, we can apparently blame Monty Python.) 

Of course, the basics of quality communication are especially important to understand if you’re trying to grow your business through outbound email. To discover which emails prospects respond to, and which they quickly delete, we’ve included three real-life examples of good, ugly, and best outbound emails to show you what really works to grab attention and improve response rates.

The Good Email

good email example

Not an extraordinary email, in our estimation. But way better than most.

What works in good emails

The first bar of entry for any cold email is to answer, “Why is this person contacting ME?” This cold email practitioner answers that question immediately—which is critical if you want the rest of your email to be taken seriously. In the first line of the email, the sender makes it clear that she understands the recipient's role at his company, and what’s more, she offers a compliment (which prospects almost always find welcome).

In the next paragraph, she reveals an even deeper understanding of the recipient’s role by acknowledging the challenges he likely faces. To emphasize the depth of her understanding, she shares a little of her own experience with those same challenges. (In the parlance of cold email campaigns, this strategy is called “birds of a feather,” or letting your recipients know that you share the same interests and experience, that you can flock together.)

In the following paragraphs, she mentions a likely pain point and the solution her company offers. Note that she doesn’t go into great detail about the product or service she’s offering. That’s because the purpose of this email isn’t to sell the product or service; it’s to sell the meeting. 

In short, this email succeeds because it’s respectful of the recipient’s unique problems, limited time, and attention (“I won’t blow up your inbox with follow-ups”). And it feels friendly without being overly familiar, concluding with a delicately phrased P.S. reminder that she is writing to him personally. 

Why you should be concise

While discussing an otherwise well-written email, it can feel a little nit-picky to … well, pick at nits. But as any cold email practitioner knows, the difference between the right words and the almost right words can be the difference between lightning and a lightning bug. 

As Shakespeare famously wrote, “Brevity is the soul of wit.” Or, to put it wordily, writing as concisely as possible is the essence of intelligent communication. And the above email, though brief, could be made even more so. 

Just look at the second and third paragraphs: “To ensure your results, you rely heavily on research,” and “I imagine that your team relies on research as well.” We understand the writer’s intention—to establish a “birds of a feather” rapport—but she risks annoying the prospect with redundancy. These are two sentences that could easily be pared into one. 

The Ugly Email

bad email example

What doesn’t work in bad emails

Remember that line from Shakespeare about brevity and wit? Well, suffice it to say: If this cold email practitioner wants to present himself as thoughtful and considerate, he’ll need to write a new message.

Think of every book you’ve ever read: How many of them appear as one long, unbroken stretch of text? Well, the same rule applies to cold emails.

For whatever reason, we’re hardwired to feel overwhelmed and/or repelled by text involving sentence after sentence without a break. That’s why the paragraph is brilliant in its simplicity—it allows us to break up our thoughts into smaller, bite-sized chunks so readers can easily digest them.

Remember to keep your word count low—a lot lower than the 626 words used in this email. As a guiding principle, although not a hard and fast rule, aim for a word count under 100. 

Here’s another good point: Imagine you’re at a party and you want to meet someone. Would you approach and, without giving any sign that you know who this person is, proceed to give a lengthy speech about yourself—a lengthy talk that only midway through mentions why you wanted to meet them?

Well, of course not. And—surprise!—it’s a bad way to approach through email too. Yet this is precisely this cold emailer’s technique. It’s all, “Listen to me talk about me!” while showcasing almost none of the virtues we celebrated in our discussion of the “good” email above.

It’s obvious that the writer has almost no idea who the recipient is, what his company does, and what is likely to interest him. In other words, it isn’t respectful of the recipient’s time. This bad cold email practitioner is the buzzed guy by the punch bowl, bloviating about his greatness, searching vainly for someone to listen.  

The Best Email

great email exampleWhat works in the best emails

What’s the best part of this email? The answer is: quite a lot.

The subject line grabs the reader by the lapels, and the first lines reveal immediately that this cold email practitioner knows exactly who Eric is. In other words, the writer has answered the reader’s first (and most essential) question: “Why Me?”

As in the “good” email above, this writer also starts with a compliment (150% in 2 years!) because … well, there are few better ways to ingratiate yourself with someone than to say something nice about them. 

Also, in stark contrast to the “ugly” email above, when this cold email practitioner mentions his own company, he is laser-focused on why it might matter to the prospect, i.e., because the writer’s company is “uniquely positioned to help companies with this type of growth.” In another savvy move, the writer also dangles the possibility that his company (which is huge) might be interested in the prospect’s services. 

The writer wants to schedule a call, obviously, so he writes to make that call seem as low-risk, and as potentially valuable, as possible. It won’t be “a hard-core sales pitch.” It will only take “a few minutes.” And it might result in a partnership with an enormous company that could be both a future service provider and a client.

The Golden Rules of Email

According to Cisco’s latest evaluation of Total Global Email & Spam Volume, roughly 200 billion emails each month are categorized as spam. That’s over 85% of all email. 

And what’s more? The number of sales emails has risen dramatically over just the last year. So, how do you ensure that your cold email will be read in its entirety, and maybe even receive a response?

1. Personalize your emails.

Consider the central lesson from the discussion above, and remember to personalize, personalize, personalize. Answer for your reader, right away, the question: Why is this person writing me? Find a way to let that person know that you’ve done your research, know who they are, and perhaps—since people like feeling appreciated—that you’re impressed by something they’ve accomplished. 

2. Keep emails short.

Then, remember this brutal truth: Your recipient, like you, me, and nearly every other professional person in the world, is a busy person. If you want them to keep reading your email, you must explain—in short order—not just who you are, but why they should care. And the only reason they’ll care is if you can address some problem they have and respectfully offer a conversation about a potential solution.

Improve Your Email Response Rates

We may have had half a century to learn these lessons, but 200 billion spam emails each month prove that many of us still have a lot to learn about composing emails that successfully inform and persuade.

In each cold email you write, answer for your prospect the three key questions mentioned above: Why me? Why now? And why care? Do it humbly and concisely, and, on this 50th anniversary of email’s invention, watch your response rates turn golden.