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The Magic of a Great Cold Email

When you need to do it, do it right

Otto Pohl

Sep 6, 2023

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Cold emails suck. The best cold email is a warm email—most cold ones feel spammy. In every entrepreneurial path, however, there comes a time when you need to do cold outreach, so let’s make sure that yours are the best they can be.

If you google “great cold email examples” you are inundated with templates that promise perfection, ridiculously high open rates, and guaranteed sales. If only it were so easy. It reminds me of pitch decks, for which everyone also claims to have the perfect template.

Even for a deep tech B2B startup, you’ll likely find yourself needing a good cold email campaign to jumpstart sales, invite leads to your conference booth, or find potential industry partners.

There is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all cold email, and rigorous A/B testing only works if you have a target list of thousands. There are some good rules, though, and since I have several clients for whom I’ve been writing cold emails the past few weeks, I thought I’d share my approach and start a discussion. If you have any approaches you’ve used that work particularly well, please share them with me, and I’ll distribute.

Here is my list of cold email guiding principles:

  • Subject line. If they don’t open the email nothing else matters. The golden rule here is, write to others what you would want written to yourself. A sub-rule is that you want to raise expectations that your email body can fulfill. The subject line “Quick question” is understandably popular because of the high open rates, but the recipient expects something they can respond to quickly. When they see that the body is a sales email, there’s a disconnect that can instinctively drive them to the Delete button.

  • First sentence. The recipient is still deciding whether to commit to the email when they start reading. So the goal of your first sentence is to get them to read the second sentence. Several approaches can work. If you can do it, personalization and flattery is a great opener. Second-best is speaking to pain points you think they have. Third is a simple, honest statement about the reason you’re reaching out. Most importantly, you’re not selling—you’re establishing rapport and offering value.

  • Remainder of body. First rule: keep it short. Mention the value of your product and getting in touch with you, but any sales pitch should be low-key. Consider following one of the approaches below.

  • Call To Action (CTA). Make it gentle. Give them an out. If you want them to click and take an action, make it as simple and fast as possible.

Examples and structures:

Bond, Value, Proof, Sale

Here’s a slightly shortened version of an email I wrote for a client recently. Establish common ground first, offer a solution, provide social proof, close with CTA.


Non-Salesy

Here’s a variation for the same client. I started with a straight-forward and non-salesy description. A light touch to the paint point, then to solution, social proof, and then a CTA combined with an incentive.


3P

Here’s a slight variation of an email I wrote for another client. The compliment at the top could be about the company, about an article the person wrote, etc.


(Tip of the hat to https://marketingexamples.com/sales/ppp)

Cascade of Asks

Here’s a slight variation of an email I received a while back that I really liked. It addresses an entrepreneur’s dilemma of packing enough meetings into a trip to make it worthwhile—or even fishing for meetings before deciding whether to go at all?

This email does several creative things. Right off the bat it creates urgency through the upcoming trip and drops the big ask—an in-person meeting. Then it softens that with the suggestion of a quick Zoom call—suddenly taking a Zoom meeting with this person seems like the time-saving solution! Finally, it offers information about the sender and grants them permission to refuse. Often called the “But You Are Free” approach, many studies have shown it to substantially increase conversion.


The perfect cold email is an art form, and no one structure is ‘right.’ But even being intentional about each sentence—which of the purposes described above is it fulfilling?—will help you keep it short and effective.

Cold emails is an opportunity for lifelong learning—share your best ideas or examples!

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Otto Pohl is a communications consultant who helps startups tell their story better. He works with deep tech, health tech, and climate tech leaders looking to create profound impact with customers, partners, and investors. He has taught entrepreneurial storytelling at USC Annenberg and at accelerators across the country.

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