From subject line to sign-off, a foolproof guide to help writers craft effective cold emails
Email is going to be with us long after we have moved on to different social media platforms and messaging services. Remember AOL Instant Messenger and MySpace?
There are no gatekeepers with email. Unlike Facebook, where you have to pay to boost your posts, you can send email to anyone for almost nothing. There is no algorithm or gatekeeper preventing you from reaching out to people. The only thing stopping your message from getting through is a bad subject line.
Email is also the most effective way to reach out to a large number of strangers. Best of all, you can run a sizable cold email campaign by yourself for almost no cost.
When you’re looking to grow your freelance writing business, cold email needs to be a key part of your outreach strategy. Like everything else, the more cold emails you write and send, the better you will get at doing it.
Learn These Two Things to Get Results with Cold Email
There are two keys to getting results from cold emails. As long as you nail these two things, you can do everything else wrong and still achieve some measure of success.
First, you have to send out more messages than you think — you need more recipients, and you have to send out more emails to each recipient.
Second, you have to be patient. It may take weeks or months for a cold email strategy to pay off. The more messages you send, the more quickly you will get results. The better quality messages you send, the higher quality your results will be. Most people who are new to using cold emails quit too soon.
Often you aren’t going to get any response. You aren’t going to know what you’re doing wrong. But if you are serious about building your business and uncovering new opportunities, you are going to have to keep sending out messages. Eventually, you will get a response. All your feelings of rejection will be less intense once you have your first success. Don’t stop walking just because it’s dark, the light is just around the corner.
An effective cold email has eight parts:
- Killer subject line
- Friendly opening
- Compelling first line
- Hook that gets people to keep reading
- Clear, concise offer to help
- Link to proof
- Simple call to action
- Friendly closing
Your email should be brief, usually no longer than 200 words. Shorter is almost always better. The message should be casual but respectful. When you get all these parts right, you will feel like your emails are magical. You will be shocked at your response rate and conversion rate.
When you get even one part wrong, and most of the time you will get at least one part wrong, you will want to bash your head into a wall. The good news is that you will often get a positive response from an imperfect email, as long as you send out enough messages.
Identify the Problem You Are Solving
Most email experts will tell you that your subject line is the most important part of any email you send. This is false. The most important part of any email, but especially a cold email, is to identify the problem you are solving.
Before you write one word of your cold email, you need to be clear on the problem you are offering to solve. Think about the emails in your inbox. Which do you automatically delete? The ones selling or pitching something. We are already overwhelmed with online ads. Ads in our inbox seem especially vile. Nobody likes to be sold to.
What emails do you open? The ones that seem like they could be helpful. No one will read your message if you are asking for a favor.
If you are offering to help solve a specific problem, you will get responses.
Your email needs to communicate that you’re trustworthy, that you understand the recipient’s problem, and that you will solve it. Once you can articulate the problem you are solving, the rest of the message is easy to write.
Write it down. This only needs to be one or two sentences. These sentences will never make it directly into your email, but they will make it easier to write an effective subject line.
Here are some examples of problem-solving statements:
- I help marketing agencies that serve law firms deliver compelling, high-quality, thoroughly researched blog posts to their clients.
- We help landscaping companies create emails that win them more customers.
- I help entrepreneurs contact potential investors and strategic partners.
- I help cement companies find new customers with compelling sales copy.
Remember, cold emails are never about you.
Remember, cold emails are never about you. They are always about the recipient. You are not asking for anything; you are offering to solve their problem and proving you can do what you say.
Once you have your email address, your targeted list, and the purpose of your message sorted out, it’s time to write the actual email.
Create a Killer Subject Line
An email subject line is like an assassin. It has only one job, and it’s easy to tell if it accomplished its mission. Your subject line exists to get the recipient to read the message. Be careful, however: You never want the recipients to feel like you tricked them. If they do, they will never fully trust you. Avoid clickbait subject lines.
How to Write Killer Email Subject Lines
Having the right subject line for your email is like having the right key to start the car
For a cold email, write subject lines that are simple and direct and that show the recipient you speak their language. Before drafting your subject line, review the problem you are solving. You want the subject line to be in harmony with that purpose.
One of the most effective cold email subject lines I have ever written, and one I still use variations of to this day, is Do you need a FinTech writer?
I have run campaigns where this gets me a 64 percent open rate and a 47 percent response rate. It doesn’t always perform that well, but every time I use this subject line (or a variation) for a batch of at least 10 emails, I have gotten at least one gig.
This subject line works because it is short and direct. The recipient knows exactly what the email is about. If they need writers, they open it. It also works because it is specific. I show that I understand their particular needs. This is why your list is so important: You have to match your subject line to your audience.
How Long Should your Subject Line Be?
The general rule for a subject line is that shorter is better. You need to think about how your audience will be viewing your emails. There have been a lot of studies on this issue, and the consensus is that there is no consensus. Prominent, well-researched studies have shown that:
→ 17–24 characters get the most opens
→ 61–70 characters get the most opens
→ Subject line length doesn’t matter
The ideal length of the subject line ultimately depends on your audience. If your recipients are more likely to read your email on a smartphone, you should use a subject line no longer than 33 characters. Galaxy phones, the most popular in the world, show users about 33 characters in most email apps. Apple devices show users 35 to 38 characters. If your audience is reading emails on a desktop, Outlook will show between 54 and 73 characters, depending on a variety of factors.
You don’t want to keep your audience guessing. You should write a subject line that is short enough for them to see the whole thing in the program they are most likely using to check their email.
The subject line Do you need a legal writer? is 29 characters long, including spaces.
In addition to using a short, informative subject line, there are several other best practices:
Do not use title case — capitalizing most of the words — in subject lines (e.g., Do You Need a Legal Writer?). This is too formal, and studies show it hurts open rates. Also avoid using all capital letters. It looks like you’re yelling, and it can trigger a spam filter.
Pose a question. Subject lines with questions are opened more often than statement subject lines.
Use emojis only if they are appropriate for your audience.
Don’t lie. Don’t claim that you are following up on a first email. People aren’t stupid, and it makes them angry.
Write several different subject lines before choosing one.
How Many Subject Lines Should You Write?
One of the biggest mistakes writers make with cold emails is only writing one subject line. If you want the best results you need to write at least five different subject lines. You may want to write seven or ten different ones.
One trick I use is to write subject lines that get opened is to walk away after I have drafted a set of subject lines. I move onto a different project and come back to the subject lines after a day or so. This helps me see the subject lines with fresh eyes. Sometimes the first subject line I wrote is the worst one of the set. Take your time with your subject lines.
It’s important that you get it right.
Write a Compelling Opener
Now that you have a killer subject line, it’s time to write the main body of the email. Your first order of business is choosing a salutation.
Addressing the Recipient
Cold emails are already swimming upstream. You need to make your message as personable and personalized as possible. It is best to address your recipient by name. Getting right to the message without any greeting will feel abrupt to the reader and may give the impression that you just cut and pasted the message without any thought to who you were sending it to. You want your recipients to know you are addressing them individually.
Usually, you should use the recipient’s first name. The exception is if you are a student messaging a professor or if there is another power dynamic where using the first name would be inappropriate. Avoid just using the first name without any other words. This feels too informal. You haven’t earned the right to send a stranger an email that starts with “Bob.”
You aren’t writing a letter, so avoid using “Dear.” This will make your message seem too formal, and will make you seem unprofessional This is a business communication. It can also make spam filters and readers suspicious of the message. Some good email openings include:
- Hi ~Name~,
- Hey ~Name~,
These are friendly without being too familiar. “Hey” is slightly more casual than “Hi” and may not be the best choice if you wouldn’t normally greet a stranger that way.
Never use openings like:
- Dear Friend,
- Hi Friend,
- Hey Buddy,
These seem sleazy. Most people instantly delete an email that opens with one of these. I have received cold emails that start with all of these, they make me feel I’m communicating with a bot or a scammer. These messages always get deleted and the sender goes on my email blacklist.
Writing the First Line
While your subject line will do most of the heavy lifting when it comes to getting someone to open your email, the first line of your email largely determines if someone is going to read all the way to the end of the message.
Almost all email programs on mobile devices and desktops will show the first line or two of an email below the subject line. Your first line needs to show that you are trustworthy and that the email is relevant and interesting. If your email is well crafted, each sentence will pull the audience deeper into your message, making it impossible for them to stop reading.
It’s easy to get stymied trying to write a great first line of an email. I like to cheat by repeating or rephrasing the subject line. Sometimes I also treat the first line of the email like a sub-headline. Think about how newspapers and magazines use headlines and sub-headlines.
Here are some real examples:
Best Sex Ever [headline]
42 New Tips [sub headline]
— Cosmopolitan, August 2013
A Princess for William?
She’s met the Queen, loves her man, and it’s scandal-free
— People, October 17, 2004
Another approach is to ask a qualifying question that your ideal client or customer will instantly identify with.
Some examples of qualifying questions:
- Are you wasting billable hours on blog writing?
- Having a hard time find dependable copywriters?
- Are you having trouble producing high-quality content consistently?
One last way you can write a compelling first line is to use a startling, relevant statistic. Numbers demand attention, and they make you seem more reliable. We are programmed to believe numbers. You need to be responsible, however. Don’t make up statistics. You will be discovered, and your readers will never forgive you for lying.
Just like with your subject line, write out several different opening lines before choosing one.
Craft a Hook
Your subject line and the first line will ensure the recipient at least opens and scans the email. Your next line is the hook that will get them to read all the way to your offer or call to action.
Remember, this cold email isn’t about you or your business. It’s 100 percent about your reader. You need a hook that demonstrates that you speak their language and understand their problem. The hook is where you prove you’re trustworthy.
One of the most common pieces of writing advice is to avoid using jargon. In the hook, you should break that rule. A great way to build trust is to use the jargon of your reader. If you’re sending a cold email to industrial test engineers, use a word that has a unique meaning in that field. Your recipient will see that you know something about what they do, and they will keep reading your message. Be careful: You must be authentic when using jargon. If you use it incorrectly, everyone will delete your message.
Another way to write a hook is to ask a specific question that relates to a problem:
- How many billable hours does it take you to write a single blog post for your site?
- How much time is your staff spending on payroll each month?
- Is your return rate higher than 7 percent?
These questions will bring your reader’s problem to the forefront and remind the recipient that you can help. Questions can start an open loop in the reader’s brain, but too many questions will become tiresome. The reader feels like you’re interrogating them. Never start a message with more than three questions, including the subject line.
A third way to write a hook is to make a statement about the consequences of the unsolved problem:
- You didn’t go into business to spend all your free time balancing your books.
- You can’t pursue new business opportunities when you constantly have kinks in your cash flow.
- Poor inventory management is one of the leading causes of retail business failure.
These statements won’t reveal new facts. But they hook your reader because they show you understand the consequences of the problem they’re facing.
Compose the Body of Your Email
Once you have established your hook, the body of your email must include a clear offer, a link to proof, a simple call to action, and a friendly closing. Keep it under 200 words.
Clear Offer to Help
Once the reader is interested, it’s time to deliver. You need to offer to help solve their problem. Keep the copy moving. You can’t afford to spend paragraphs making your offer. In a cold email, you almost certainly don’t have 100 percent of the reader’s attention.
Your offer needs to be clear and concise. It should take one to three sentences at most. I have found that 90 percent of the time, everything else being equal, one-sentence offers outperform longer ones. Be confident and stay focused on the reader. Many people slip up and make the offer about themselves or their business.
Here are some examples of clear offers to help:
- I can save you time by writing compelling, well-researched legal blog posts that people love to read and search engines love to rank.
- We can save your administrative staff 10 hours a month by streamlining your payroll process.
- We can decrease the downtime of your cement plant by 10 percent with our proprietary software and inspection service.
Link to Proof
Put yourself in the shoes of your reader. They’ve received an email from a stranger. It sounds good. But how do they know you’re for real? You need to prove who you are and what you can do. You need to give the reader something to verify you are worth the risk.
When I’m reaching out to clients, I provide a link to a relevant sample in my portfolio on my website. These days, I also say something about my years of experience. When I was a new freelancer, I explained that they could see my work for themselves. You can include a link to the testimonials on your site, to a great guest post with tons of comments, or to a reviews page on another platform.
Proof turns high open rates into high conversion rates.
Ending the Email
Once you’ve made your case, it’s time to make your closing argument. Don’t ruin your chances by getting wishy-washy at the end of your message. You need a simple call to action and friendly signoff.
Simple Call to Action
Make life easy for your recipients. As you close the message, include a call to action (CTA) in which you ask them to do one thing. Your CTA should get the reader closer to you solving their problem.
- Ask them to call you.
- Ask them to email you back so you can answer their questions.
- Ask them to buy your service.
The exact CTA will depend on the solution you’re offering. But if you don’t ask for a specific action, the reader will forget your email and move on. If you’ve already beaten the odds by getting a recipient to open and read your cold email, don’t blow it with a weak or confusing call to action.
If you have a call to action, it’s okay to end the email abruptly after that. Don’t put in another paragraph. Most people will forget what you want them to do. Also, the longer your email is, the less chance there is of a stranger finishing it.
Do not use a P.S. in a cold email. This can be an effective sales tactic, but it falls flat when you are offering to solve someone’s problem. You are trying to avoid the sales vibe.
You can use a single sentence to add a sense of urgency if it’s relevant. But, again, you don’t want the reader to feel like you’re selling. You want them to see you as a problem solver. I added one sentence to the end of a client’s email after her call to action and before her sign-off that boosted her response rate by 5 percent. She was an insurance broker and worked with small businesses. I simply added, “I look forward to hearing from you soon.”
You may want to try something similar if you feel your message needs a better close.
The way you sign off your email is the least important part of the message. But most people new to cold emails spend too much time agonizing over this. The only closing lines I always avoid are “Sincerely” and “Love.” “Sincerely” is too formal. “Love” sounds weird coming from 99.9 percent of people.
Studies show that “Thanks” gets the best response rates, with “Cheers” coming in second.
Your signature block is another way to show you are the right person to help your reader. I sometimes switch out “copywriter” for a more specific title:
- Legal Copywriter
- HR Copywriter
- Legal Email Writer
- SaaS Explainer Video Script Writer
- SaaS Email Copywriter
- Small Business Copywriter
Send Out Your First Cold Email to at Least Five Recipients
You will have to send out way more cold emails than you think. I always assume that any cold email I send out will get a 1 percent response rate. I also assume I will convert 10 percent of the people who respond. I almost always get much better results. But by assuming the worst, I avoid the mistake of not sending out enough cold emails.
These numbers can be overwhelming. You may need to send out 1,000 cold emails just to get one new customer or client. Remember, the more work you put into the subject line and content of your email, the better your results will be. If you get a 2 percent response rate, you can send out half as many messages.
However, it is still a numbers game. You don’t have to send out 1,000 all at once. If you are the only one in your business, start small. Send 5 or 10 cold emails a day. You’ll be surprised at how quickly this boosts your business.
If you are trying to ramp up your writing business quickly, send at least 150 emails a week.
You can send more cold emails to people you want to work with, but haven’t heard back from yet. Don’t email them every day. Be kind and be smart. If someone asks you not to email them, respect them. I usually wait at least a week before sending a second email to a prospect. I keep track of who I sent the emails to and when I sent them in an Excel spreadsheet. Some successful writers use a handwritten list. Do whatever works for you, but have some type of tracking system.
You have a lot of options when it comes to making your emails look fabulous, but I would avoid most of the extras. Simple is almost always better when it comes to cold emails.
I prefer to send plain text messages instead of using fancy templates. Image-heavy emails are more likely to trigger a spam filter than plain text messages. You cannot control how a fancy template displays on a mobile device. I have images disabled in my inbox. On some phones and email apps, disabled images is the default setting.
Don’t send attachments in a cold email. Most people will not open an attachment from a stranger. If you have samples, send a link instead.
Don’t use tracking links or URL shorteners in a cold email. When you get an email from a stranger, you are already suspicious. Make sure it’s obvious to your readers where you are directing them. This makes it easier for them to trust you.
You don’t need the data from a tracking link in a cold email. You’ll know by your response rate and open rate if people are interested in your message. Limit the number of links you include to one or two. If you send too many links, it can trigger a spam filter.
The best practice is to have one link for proof in your email and one link to your website in your signature block.
Avoiding Spam Filter Triggers
You will never be 100 percent successful in avoiding spam filters. A certain number of your messages are going to be flagged. But it’s important that you minimize this amount. Messages in the spam folder won’t generate a response. If too many of your messages are flagged, your domain could be blacklisted. Make sure you follow any spam laws in your country.
Some common spam triggers include:
- Using “free” in the subject line or message of the body
- Poor spelling and strange punctuation
- The phrase “click here” in the body of the message
- Anything having to do with income or weight loss
- Too many links
- Too many images
- Embedded video
I’m a freelance copywriter, but I never use the word “freelance” in my emails. It doesn’t add any meaning or value, and early in my career, I had a bunch of messages flagged as spam because of the “free” in freelancer.
Spam filters are always getting more sophisticated. However, if you keep your message simple, you are less likely to have a spam filter ruin your hard work.
Even when I’m sending out a lot of emails, I always try to add at least one sentence of personalization to each message. This takes a lot of time, but it can lead to significantly better results. It helps you make sure you’re sending your emails to the right people, and it also helps you stand out from everyone sending cut-and-paste messages.
Don’t be fake. Don’t pretend you’re a big fan of someone’s work if you’re not. But add something specific to show you understand what makes their business special.
If you want to write for a specific magazine or website, mention what you like about the publication in your email. You may want to mention a specific article you enjoyed.
You don’t want to seem like a chatbot. Personalization will help your email stand out. It is worth the extra time it takes to personalize your cold emails.
Tracking and Testing
You need to keep track of who you sent messages to and what the results are. I use an Excel spreadsheet. Most email service providers can help you track the results from your messages.
If you want to maximize your chances of success, you have to test relentlessly. You need to have good tracking data to make testing work. Never test more than one variable at a time.
The more you test, the more success you will have. Always try to improve the quality of the cold emails you send out. Testing and tracking is a complex topic and deserves its own in-depth guide. When starting out, focus on testing simple things like subject lines and calls to action. You will be surprised by what works best for you.
The next step after the email is the follow-up. Sending out a single cold email is never enough. People are busy. It may take several exposures before they even pay attention to you. But, there are two best practices you need to observe in your follow up efforts:
- Never say “I’m following up.” That’s like asking a stranger, “Why are you ignoring me?”
- Make each message to a recipient a new pitch. Assume they didn’t read your last message — or if they did read it, they trashed it and don’t remember you.
I have signed some of my best clients after sending six or seven cold emails over the course of a year. Be patient. But, also be respectful. Emailing someone every day is spam.
Now that you know the secrets to writing cold emails that get results, it’s time to put your new knowledge into practice.
Don’t worry about being perfect. Start writing your first cold emails today. The sooner you get started with your cold email campaign, the sooner you will be adding clients to your freelance writing business.
This is a pared-down version of the article that first appeared on MEDIUM.
Written by Jason McBride