How to Get Early Customers to Respond to Your Cold Emails

This is a guest post from Robert Graham — a solo bootstrapper who blogs about the experience. Robert has been working in software since 2005. He is a Ph.D. dropout who spent time working for Google. Someday he‘d like to work for himself. You can learn more about his approach to developing customer relationships in his new book Cold Calling Early Customers.

Any foray into a new entrepreneurial enterprise will hinge on the contacts you forge around this new opportunity. Occasionally, you can pursue ventures where you possess bulging Rolodexes and everyone you need to speak with is an old friend. More often, you are faced with chasing an opportunity starting from zero. Many channels can produce your first early customers and contacts, but the one I see most often is cold email. This post outlines the method I use to approach cold emailing. It reflects the tactics I use when cold calling, and I have seen my success rates improve dramatically when I invest in the process.

I’m assuming that you already have a profile of people you would like to speak with, but before you charge ahead, make sure that it is a specific and useful customer profile. I also assume you can generate a list of those people to contact.

Know your target

This is the most important step of all. You must understand who it is you’re speaking to. It is no different than writing a great speech or putting together a hit presentation. It must fit the audience. I’ve sent poorly targeted emails far too often. It is rarely read and even more rarely responded to. The most common reason I send it is that I get in a rush due to something exciting about the opportunity. It rarely pans out. The excitement of getting responses is much better. Put in the time and know your target.

It is easy to think that you know all you need to about your targets by throwing out some guesses and glancing at a few demographics, but I think preparation defines the success or failure of most activities. If you mail this part in, you are crippling your chances for success before you begin.

Check out their website and read their blogs. If they have a demo or a trial, you should pursue it and see your thoughts. Use a tool like OpenSiteExplorer to see who links to them and take a look at those sites. Find industry groups, conferences, and magazines. Take a look at the rate cards, demographics, attendance, and organizers. Follow them on Twitter and read their stream. Use FollowerWonk to get a feel for their followers. The more information you can get, the more likely you are to find inspiration and understanding. Running through the complete process in the early stages makes you much more efficient in later stages as you get a feel for the industry and have warm introductions.

Core Pitch

I use two routes as my primary pitch in the cold emails I send. The first is to devise a way to offer immediate value to a prospect and integrate that into the email. This approach gives me the best response rates, but it takes more effort to build something valuable that I can offer. Sometimes, I‘d prefer to send out a few additional emails with a simpler pitch that focuses on getting them talking.

Route 1: Devise a value proposition

You need to build some value to offer a client. There are two avenues I’ve used for the value offer.

The first value offer is education-based marketing. You research the market and develop some materials that will improve their standing, sales, or prospects. You then package that material into an e-book, report, video, or other media. This can be effective, and I was best introduced to the idea in Chet Holmes ‘ The Ultimate Sales Machine.

I’ve also seen this used at Star Furniture. I went by one Christmas look at what my options were in leather couches, and I was treated to a tour of the leather types and qualities as well as the materials and construction types for all tiers of furniture. After the information, I felt much more able to make a purchasing decision, and I felt that my sales rep was invested in me in that process.

If you spend a few minutes searching the Internet for blogs and you click through to some high-traffic ones, you‘ll probably be given a chance to sign up for a newsletter. The best pitches to do this will include a free template, report, or e-book. This is the mold for Internet marketing with the education pitch. We‘re just applying that to cold emails. One of the places I have seen also offers a chance to win a 1-on-1 coaching session if you follow them on Twitter and/or Facebook. You can use this pitch to get more followers, or you can build your value proposition around a productized consulting offer (SEO analysis, customer acquisition, etc.).

The next value offer is a play on marketing and lead generation. If you are familiar with my writings on cold calling, you will recognize this pitch, but I hope to add some additional perspective here.

Everyone needs to promote his or her business. You can inject yourself into that equation when you‘re trying to meet people in an industry. Build a website with industry awards for various categories and contact people to interview them as nominees. Build a blog about an industry and offer to interview people in the industry for the blog. The blog can address best practices or be a rotating feature of options. Best practices are a good play for an industry like engineering consultants. Rotating features would play well for resorts or festivals.

This is free promotion, and it is highly valued in most industries. Chet Holmes even recommends that you play the competitors in an industry off of one another by mentioning who else you are speaking to.

Route 2: Quantity has a Quality all its own.

When you don‘t have the time or interest to build a value offer, you can still craft an email that will get you some responses. The only such pitch I‘m comfortable making is an honest one that begins a relationship. This section will detail my approach.

I retarget my prospect list at this point to individuals that are similar to me. Ideally, they are entrepreneurs or business owners more likely to help someone start a new venture. If that isn't possible in a particular niche, then I go for geographic locality, shared affiliations, or alma maters. You can improve your success dramatically by personalizing your list to contact. If you ever catch yourself writing something for everyone, pull back and realize that you‘re writing for no one.

My pitch revolves around asking earnestly to speak with them about their business. The more research you do, the more specific you can be.

“Talk about your business” is less effective than “Talk about the e-book business.” Which is less effective than “Talk about e-book marketing.” Which, finally, is still less effective than “Talk about marketing e-books on Amazon.”

More specific pitches connect directly to the people you are contacting and grab their attention. Research this and add some cursory but subtle remarks about your similarity.

“We both went to Tennessee!” is less than

“Tennessee” in a signature or a probing, “I noticed you’re in Ann Arbor. Are you a Wolverine?”

The latter forms initiate the same conversation, but they don't sound desperate and grasping. You can use the Wolverine question type for most remarks, even if you know the target is not a Wolverine. It will spark the discussion if it is something they care about. If they respond without mentioning it, you know it doesn't matter to them.

Build your script

I usually personalize cold emails from a template. That template can be written or simply in your head. Here is a simple example template for starting the conversation that can be adapted based on your approach and context.

  1. Greeting
  2. Connection statement
  3. Praise
  4. Pitch
  5. Close
  6. Signature

The connection statement is a way to relate you to the target. Did you meet at or attend the same conference? Did you read their blog? How did you learn of them? Is there something really interesting about their business to you? Is there something interesting or impressive about their website? If you don‘t have a statement to fit this mold, then do more research until something falls into place.

You should include some form of authentic praise in your initial communication. I often include it as part of the connection statement, but I think authentic praise is a positive element. Make sure you are as specific as possible to avoid sounding hollow.

“I like your blog” is nice but less meaningful than “I read your post about improving conversion rates last week, and I thought it was so insightful I ‘m applying it to my site.”

Example Openings:

“Thanks for the blog. I have been reading since June ’11, and it continues to deliver. Your post on gingerbread construction has completely changed my holiday cooking and decor.”

“I was bummed out when I noticed that you were also at Wildlife Expo ’12. I wish we had met there to talk about how you guys select bloodlines. Your success has been really impressive.”

“I found your website last week, and I was impressed. Is it your primary marketing channel?”

Example Pitches:

“I run a blog highlighting exceptional real estate outfits, and I ‘m writing to see if you would be interested in a 30-minute interview via Skype or phone?”

“I am interested in speaking with people in the consulting engineering business to learn what their problems are. I run a software startup, and I want to partner with you to improve your business.”

Example Close:

“I look forward to speaking with you.”

“Best of luck at AADC ‘12.”

Complete Example:

Hi Jack,
I was bummed out when I noticed that you were also at Wildlife Expo ’12. I wish we had met there so we could talk about how you guys select bloodlines. Your success with genetics has been really impressive. I run a blog that highlights exceptional breeders in Texas and I want to feature you guys. Would you be interested in a 30-minute interview via Skype or phone? Good luck with your booth at TDA this year.


If you look at email as a funnel, the first big drop-off for our purposes is the open rate. Most people will only see your “From:” and “Subject:” lines. You need to use the subject to get people to open the message. Simple subjects are usually the best approach.

A subject should summarize the email and set expectations properly. For these types of emails, I create a summary of my value proposition in subject form.


“30m interview to be featured on Blog Name.”

“Conversation about marketing yourself as a realtor.”

“Chat about networking with City Managers.”

“Chat about customer acquisition for bakeries.”

“Partnership opportunity with software startup”

Subjects need some experimentation in the context of your market. Some markets are awed by software startups,  and others are skeptical and distrustful. Think about what would interest you in an email subject and why. Try to put yourself in their shoes and do the exercise again. Use the responses you get to guide which subjects you continue to send.

Be personal

Each email should be personalized. Your success rate will reflect how well you can connect with the people you are writing to. You can trade prep and writing time for blasting out more emails with a lower success rate, but I think your long-term business interests are better off with the personal tactic.

Keep it short

Initial contact should be short for multiple reasons. It respects their time, and it increases the likelihood that the message will be read. How often do you read an email from someone you don‘t know that is a text wall? I usually put off long cold emails with the best of intentions, but I know my response rate goes down relative to length. It isn't because I don‘t want to answer or help. It‘s simply because I don't frequently sit down in front of my email with a lot of time to read messages and write responses.

Email is something that people use continually throughout the day. They may be on a computer or a mobile device. They may only have a few moments when they open their email. You need to fit inside of a tiny window while standing out to get read and responded to.

Follow up

Because of the nature of email discussed in the prior section, you may get ignored by many of the people you send a message to. Following up is essential to make sure they have an opportunity to respond. You may be able to connect with them at a better time of day or in a week when they happen to be less busy. Follow-up dramatically increases your odds of success.

I recently learned an interesting tactic for managing email volume when you return from vacation. Delete all of the emails, and the important ones will naturally turn up again in your inbox. This observation rings true of my inbox, and it demonstrates how critical follow-up is for your response rate.

Keep a record of the addresses you send messages to, when the message was sent, and what version and subject you used. This information will add to your intuition about the best approach and provide you with the means to make your follow up systematic. I think you can follow up seven days after an initial message and thirty days after that in perpetuity. I have found that people respect persistence.

If contact with other targets or additional research allows you to improve your value proposition or offer the target something better, then tweak your pitch and try again. Different value propositions can succeed in very similar contexts. It is very common for my insight into a market to improve as I do customer development. I always adjust my pitch and follow up with the most promising contacts I have.

Add touch points

Be in front of the target in as many ways as possible. Participate in community forums, meet-ups, conferences, blog comments, etc. Become a speaker in the community. Don‘t post comments with your URL and nothing to add to the conversation, but become a real part of the community in a few minutes a day. Recognition is a boon to response rates.


Do your research, build a loose template, personalize your emails, experiment with your subjects, and follow up with responders and non-responders alike in a systematic way.

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