Cold emailing — is it another version of cold calling? No, not really. While there are similarities, there are more differences. For those who get a sick feeling in their gut at the prospect of cold calling, a focused and concise cold email can be an effective alternative.

What Cold Emailing Is

Cold emails are sent to people whom you don’t know, but they’re not spam. They are targeting specific people for valid business reasons. Yes, they are also often sales pitches, but they should not be form letters.

A cold email is more personal. It’s thoughtfully crafted for the individual to whom you’re sending it. The message is clear, concise and focused. A cold email speaks directly to the individual manager or CEO to whom you’re sending it. It builds rapport and offers a solution to a problem the recipient faces.

What Cold Emailing Isn’t

What makes cold emailing different from spam? First, cold email marketing is not an automated, generic message sent to tens of thousands of people to whom it might not even apply. Spam is like throwing an entire pot of spaghetti at a wall and hoping a couple of strands stick.

Cold emailing is like cooking pasta al dente for your Italian grandpa, a little past that point for your very American partner and slightly overcooking it for a child.

Most busy executives would be annoyed by a cold call in the middle of their busy day, and that’s assuming you can even get them on the phone. However, an email recipient controls when she goes through her inbox, so cold emails are less intrusive.

Normal Open Rates

Even though cold emails are not spam, it can still be a challenge just getting people to open them. They see an unfamiliar name, click delete and move on. So, while the content of a cold email should be a carefully crafted call to action, getting recipients to open them is the first hurdle.

Almost everyone is inundated with emails, sometimes hundreds or more a day. So, they’ll usually prioritize by opening the ones from their boss first and then the ones from direct reports, peers within the company, vendors they know and so on. Eventually, they may get to the emails from senders they don’t know.

Open rate estimates for cold emails vary widely from industry to industry, but a realistic expectation is 15% to 29%. You can check email marketing benchmarks for your industry on Mailchimp. The first reason these stats are good to know is because they provide a reality check. The second reason is because when you know what’s average, you have a starting point for improving your open rate.

Subject Lines Influence Open Rates

Not surprisingly, your subject line is very important in getting the recipient to open your email. Cold email pros recommend making it generate curiosity. Humans need to satisfy their curiosity. If your subject line reads “Software to keep you organized” versus “We get it!”, guess which email has a better chance of being opened.

Software to keep you organized is plentiful, and more of the same does not generate curiosity. However, if you see the subject line "We get it!," you may wonder, "You get what? Who are you anyway?"

“We get it!” also indicates understanding and implies support. These are two things that every overworked manager craves. Subject lines that are not directly related to the product you’re marketing work well too, such as, “Guess what my boss said to me today?” or “If I had only known sooner.”

More About Subject Lines

In addition to being intriguing, it helps if your subject line says that you can help the recipient solve a problem. “We get it and we can help” does that. Another approach is to go for camaraderie and inclusion, such as, “I’m ready for a day off, aren’t you?” and “Celebrate with us.”

If you know someone whom your recipient also knows, put that in the subject line: “I located you through Neil Armstrong.” If you have something specific in common with the person you’re cold emailing, mention that in the subject line. The way you find this is through research.

Since a personal touch is important in cold emailing, researching the people you’re contacting is key. What you learn from your research can help you compose a great subject line (and the email itself too). For example, perhaps you graduated from the same university: “I majored in English at Temple. How about you?” Maybe you both play Dungeons and Dragons: “How many bards and barbarians do you have today?”

Beyond Subject Lines

All of these suggestions will work well only if they’re sincere. Trying to make some obscure connection or worn-out statement in the subject line can have the opposite effect. It’s like someone approaching you at a bar with the tired line, “Don’t I know you from somewhere?”

Timing can also influence whether or not your email gets opened. The best times for sending your cold mail is very late in the evening or very early in the morning. The reason is because busy people are more likely to open a cold email if they see it while checking their inbox one last time before bed or with their first cup of coffee in the morning. It also increases the chance of your email being at or near the top of the recipient’s inbox.

Make sure you have the right person. If you’re emailing about a product that is useful to COOs, don’t email the CEO. He has bigger things on his mind.

After Your Email Has Been Opened

Never ever use a template for a cold mail marketing campaign. Yes, it will take longer to prepare personalized emails to potential clients, but are we cold emailing, or are we spamming? Cold emails are by definition personalized and carefully targeted at the individuals who are most likely to want what you’re selling.

In order to do that, you have to do your research. Do not just look at the company’s website because that’s generic information meant for the masses. Search for press releases. Get your company to invest in a good corporate company database and use it.

Check out the recipient’s company’s annual report. Take a look at how it’s been doing on the New York Stock Exchange or NASDAQ. The more information you have, the better your chances of having your email read after it’s been opened.

Cold Email Content

To get recipients to read your entire email, do the following:

  • Continue with the personalization you created in your subject line. This can be done by simply using the recipient’s name in your first sentence.

  • Be direct and succinct with why you sent the email.

  • Don’t use sales lingo like “deal,” “one-time offer” and “last chance”.

  • Focus on the recipient. Don’t waste her time by talking about how amazing you are.

  • Be respectful of the recipient’s time and position.

  • Add immediate value in an informative way. Include a statement or very short bullet list of how your product can make life better. If you can include a link to a short demo of your product, that's even better.

  • Be appreciative.

  • Err on the side of casual and friendly but don’t go overboard.

  • Use a little humor if it seems natural and appropriate.

A Great Cold Email Example

Consider this example of a well-composed email from a sales representative who is selling a time management app:

FROM: Mitsiko Rodriquez
SUBJECT: We’ve been there. We get it.
TO: Jasmine Sullivan

Hi Jasmine. I want to tell you about a new app specifically designed for commercial interior design project managers. It can track all of your projects, from design to installation.

Here’s a minute-long demo that shows how Palladeo can help you stay organized and give you more control over managing multiple projects that are at different stages all at once.


I preloaded it with three hypothetical projects that are similar to the kind you manage. You’ll never have a blood pressure surge again when your boss asks you about the status of a project.

Please call me if you have any questions, and thanks so much for your time.

Mitsy Rodriquez
Palladeo, Inc.
Sales Manager

Why It’s Great

This is a great cold email because:

  • The subject line is intriguing and implies camaraderie.

  • It’s concise — three short paragraphs and a closing line. At a glance, it looks like a fast, easy read.

  • It’s targeted to a person who could really use the product.

  • The sender did her research. She provided a demo of the app and customized it with preloaded projects like the ones Jasmine manages.

  • It’s respectful of the recipient’s busy schedule because what it’s asking her to do only takes a minute.

  • It briefly but specifically describes how the product can help. It’s down to earth, and it doesn’t make grand promises.

  • It’s a soft touch, not a hard sell.

  • It includes a little humor that ties in nicely with the subject line.

  • It’s a nice touch that the writer ended with a more casual form of her name.

  • Mitsy provided her phone number in case Jasmine has questions.

A Terrible Cold Email Example

FROM: Dieter Sprockets
SUBJECT: The BEST app you’ll EVER buy!
TO: Brad McKenzie

Hey Brad! I saw your company’s website and have I got an app for you! You’re about to have your world rocked! My company has the best app that’s ever been created for project management! It can handle any projects you throw at it.

We’ve been in business for 12 years. We’ve worked super hard to get this app to where it can do everything anyone needs it to do, and we’re super proud of it. Lots of companies have given us great feedback on previous apps we’ve developed for other types of management jobs. We’re confident we’ll get major kudos on this one too.

I have no doubt that once you try “Your PM BFF” you’ll wonder how you ever did without it. I’ll be available to talk with you next week on Tuesday after 1:00 p.m. So, I’m thinking that would be a good time for me to call you and give you the full scoop on this app.

So, OK if I give you a buzz then?

Dieter Sprockets
Sales Manager

Why It’s Terrible

This example is a bit extreme, but it demonstrates the following faux pas:

  • The subject line is presumptuous and hyperbolic. In fact, it’s so bad that chances are this email would not be opened.

  • The content of the email is much too “salesy”.

  • It’s way too casual.

  • It’s far too wordy. With three hefty paragraphs, it looks like it will take too much time to read.

  • It’s not focused on the recipient; it focuses on the sender.

  • It contains irrelevant information, such as "previous apps we’ve developed".

  • It’s too aggressive.

  • It sounds like Dieter thinks he’s doing Brad a favor. 

Cold Email Tools

There are plenty of tools available to support your cold email marketing. Databases can help you focus on the right people to contact. Tracking software can show you whether your efforts have been effective.

Corporate company databases provide one-stop shopping for information on companies gleaned from websites, reviews, directories and other sources.

Tracking software is essential if you’re sending fairly large volumes of cold emails to potential clients. A very tiny pixel image is embedded in your emails. It’s invisible to recipients, but it tells you when the email is received, opened and whether any link you included was clicked.

Last Words on Cold Emailing

Be patient with yourself as you absorb all of this information. Don’t expect to cover all of it the first time you write a cold email. Don’t try to cover every single point in every cold email you send. Write several drafts and run them by a trusted colleague.

Don’t take any shortcuts when you’re doing your research. Write the best cold email you can write and then leave it alone for a day. Then, look at it again and see how you can improve it. Use tracking software to watch your open and respond rates grow.

Before long, you’ll be your company’s cold email tsar.