A Surprising Cold Email Best Practice

By the time a “best practice” is best, it’s mainstream … common. A cold email best practice is most often a “worst practice” in the realm of sales outreach. Starting conversations with decision-makers using LinkedIn InMail, or standard email, requires breaking away from the usual cold email best practices.

By the time a “best practice” is best, it’s mainstream … common. A cold email best practice is most often a “worst practice” in the realm of sales outreach. Starting conversations with decision-makers using LinkedIn InMail, or standard email, requires breaking away from the usual cold email best practices.

Sending cold email messages, and follow-ups, using sequences or campaigns is working less-and-less. Mostly because of a widely-accepted best practice: Adding value to cold email messages.

What?! I thought everyone knows — earning response means adding value to email messages when prospecting.

Today, I’ll challenge this cold email best practice. I’m basing the challenge less on opinion, more on experience.

Offering value — without having earned the chance to provide it — is failing most sellers. Beware.

The Case for Adding Value

“Here’s the problem with emails today, they lack value,” says Jim Keenan of A Sales Guy Inc.

“If you don’t think an email needs to offer value, then you are most likely one of the perpetrators of horrific emails. Emails have to offer value,” he says.

However, our clients, our sales team and I myself are living proof: Cold emails not offering value do earn response.

Likewise when prospecting, most sales reps believe email messages need to be seen as credible by prospects. Not always true either. Trying to add value, and be seen as credible, can sabotage success.

That said, Keenan makes a compelling argument for what many believe is the No. 1, golden cold email best practice.

Your email, he says, must offer value, “Because you’re asking for something.” A meeting.

“I’m regularly bombarded with horrific emails, almost always asking for 15 or 30 minutes of my time, these emails offer nothing of value to me and just end up cluttering my inbox. I delete them as fast as I can,” says Keenan.

“Why should someone open your email or give you 15 minutes of their time if there is no value in it for them? They shouldn’t and they won’t.”

But what if your cold email didn’t strive to prove value — at all? What if you also skipped asking for a meeting in cold sales outreach?

Increasingly, clients are opening emails based on curiosity about what’s inside the email — not anticipation of value they’ll receive. Likewise, compelling a customer to take your meeting without having established a need to is an outdated cold email best practice.

An Unusual, But Effective Best Practice

Want a meeting with your decision-maker? Stop requesting them. Instead, start provoking discussions, piquing curiosity.

Stop trying to give-give-give, add value and clearly present offers. Start trying to quickly provoke. Be un-clear.

“The offer is what you are offering or giving the reader. Yes! I said giving. If you’re not offering the reader anything, why should they open it, read it, respond or even agree to what you’re asking for?” asks Keenan.

Because they’re curious. They’ve been provoked. Not because you offered clear, compelling value. This is sales, not marketing.

My colleagues and students are earning more meetings by not asking for them; instead, provoking curiosity about an issue, idea or claim which may lead to (justify) customers’ desire to meet.

Yet Keenan makes the argument we hear so often.

“To get your buyers and prospects to open your emails you need to craft an email that compels the buyer to open it, (your first ask), read it, (your second ask), then respond (your third ask) and then agree to your request for a meeting or demo or whatever you’re ultimately asking for (your fourth ask).”

In a marketing context, yes. Sales is different.

When sales people try to earn meetings by providing value, and proving themselves credible, they often fail. My opinion? Sure. But this is also my experience.

Why Adding Value Fails

In a cold email context customers aren’t asking for your value. They’re not sitting around waiting for value to arrive from a stranger. You can offer value on the first touch… and then again, and again in a follow-up sequence.

But you’re just pushing value at people — hoping they’ll find your words valuable enough to respond. Clients aren’t triggered by sellers pushing “just enough” unsolicited value at them.

Consider also: That valuable tidbit in your email message is often information clients often already know. (don’t value!)

Instead, help prospects ask you for a discussion by piquing their interest in one. Not by offering value; rather, by being vague and not asking for a meeting. (like everyone else does)

“What’s the point of sending a cold email if you’re not going to ask for anything,” argues Keenan. “The key is to make sure the ask is clear; 15-minutes of time and introduction to the CEO agreeing to 30-minute demo, etc. These are clear asks. Asking to discuss their challenges, or asking if the prospect would be open to a call are not clear asks.”

Increasingly, our students do better by not asking for the meeting in a cold email; instead, attempting to pique interest in a discussion. (which may lead to a meeting)

This helps your message stand out from the pack. It’s unusual in how it breaks the typical cold email best practice (pushing value) pattern.

Eliminate Asks

Adding value doesn’t work anymore … logically and in our collective experiences. Instead, what if you could earn better response to cold email messages by not asking for a meeting?

What if your message contained no “asks.” What if your email’s goal was purely to provoke curiosity — rather than earn a meeting?

Make your cold email “smartphone short.” Do homework on the prospect. Research them. Make it obvious this is not another templated piece of spam. Avoid persuading. Avoid posturing for credibility. Care a little less.

Increasingly, clients are opening emails based on curiosity about what’s inside the email — not anticipation of value they’ll receive. Likewise, prospects are replying to cold messages based on curiosity, not value received in the message, nor anticipating value in a meeting.

What is your experience?

HubSpot Email Template Not Working? Here’s How to Fix It

Are your HubSpot email templates not working? The key to starting more conversations is to find and correct your blind spots, especially the ones that may be lurking in your email templates.

“I just finished a year of Lead Forensics putting 1,000 leads through email sequences using Hubspot. Not one sale,” said my reluctant email writing student, a successful entrepreneur. We’ll call him Jason to protect his identity.

“Before that, I hired a cold calling team. It was a one year effort. Zero sales. They gave a second effort on the house. That landed one sale that covered my costs.”

“Nothing is working,” outside of occasional referrals. But Jason’s successful, 22 year-old business can no longer rely on word-of-mouth alone.

He was frustrated. But not done. After all, he launched and is successfully operating this business for over two decades. He has what it takes. But he needs to grow.

Prospecting new customers is the lifeblood of his company. Always has been, always will be. Those are his words, not mine! Sure “inbound marketing” is trendy and, for some, it generates conversations with potential buyers.

But so far his HubSpot email templates have failed to engage customers in conversations.

“I need to increase gross sales … and I need a better process for doing that,” Jason told me. But, at the time, he was terribly reluctant to invest in email writing coaching.

Jason’s Blind Spots

Every seller has blind spots; portions of an email message we cannot see creating big problems. Because we are the source of these poisonous tendencies, they are difficult to spot. Bad word choice. Weak tone. Persuasive hooks.

I have blind spots. You do. We all do. And not just with email. In life!

The key to starting more conversations, using email, is spotting and fixing blind spots. Here is one of the most common examples: Biased “hook” questions.

In Jason’s case, he dripped six emails to organizations identified as visiting his website. Companies like Lead Forensics help identify the company, but the rest is rather like guesswork … trying to understand who within the company visited.

Once targeted, Jason was sending the six messages — seeking conversations with prospects. He used HubSpot to send and analyze open and response rates.

Jason’s messages were all problematic. But his third HubSpot email template asked these “hook” questions:

“Many companies have a product development process that follows a similar schedule year after year. Is that the case in your business? When a pattern exists, it is much easier to plan for the slow time as well as when things get completely crazy. If there is no pattern what do you do when more projects land on your desk than you can handle?”

These kinds of questions are typical in my experience as an email writing coach. Hook questions. Leading questions. Questions that “push on pain points.” Questions marketing people often write, hand to sales people and say, “try this approach.”

Big mistake. Persuasive tone and hook questions equals instant death in sales prospecting emails. Aiming to persuade targets to have a meeting is mostly a non-starter. This goal is a complete non-starter for B2B sellers of complex, longer sale-cycle products and services.

If you need to start a conversation, asking for a meeting (without being invited into one … based on a value-added conversation) is a great way to get rejected and/or secure meetings that go nowhere.

The Problem With Hooks

“Is that the case in your business?” and the other (above) questions communicate “I’m asking because I want you to confirm (for me) what I’m sure is your problem — so I can sell you something.”

These are hooks. Customers aren’t fish. Hence, they don’t bite.

Answering one of these questions will make early stage customers (with latent need) feel too vulnerable. Result: They don’t answer and increasingly hit delete. (or worse, spam … an even faster way to unsubscribe!)

Hook questions are biased to an answer the seller seeks. They are rooted in Jason’s  —  or any salesperson’s  — desire to “open the door” to a sales discussion.

Instead, Jason should be asking questions with inward focus … helping the client examine his/her decision-making process with regard to possible change. He should be asking questions about, for example, how the status quo was created.

What works is simple: Focusing clients on change they might direct — on their own terms, on their own schedules, if they decided it was appropriate and, possibly, with the help of a vendor like Jason.

Success demands you gain permission to help prospects decide on a meeting themselves. Thus, your email message templates must help prospects persuade themselves. Everything else fails.

However, it is impossible to have a 100% accurate perspective on communications effectiveness — unless you have trustworthy (and qualified) people giving honest feedback.

Finding your blind spots.

How Jason Fixed His HubSpot Email Templates

Within a few weeks, Jason got his drip sequence sorted and nabbed a lead. The response read:

Hi Jason-
Thanks for tracking me down. I am interested in your thoughts and am certainly open to discussing opportunities.

Philip W.

The target subsequently went on vacation … then “went dark” on Jason. But he’s still in hot pursuit as I write this.

Here’s how Jason earned the conversation: He asked an un-biased, inward-focused question … helping the prospect consider his own situation for a moment. This provoked thought, stood out from other email come-ons and encouraged Philip to read the next sentence.

Jason opened by asking, “How would you know if (and when) it’s time to consider a different or additional product development path?”

He asked a neutral question. Questions are dangerous (in general). But this question is neutral to Jason’s natural bias.

His second sentence (of three) was, “I’m asking after noticing the innovative baby bed on your site … Are you open to considering a conversation about change — if it is the right time?”

Notice how short this approach is. Notice how customer-centric the questions are — and how the seller does not discuss himself whatsoever. Most importantly, the question posed is not a self-serving marketing hook. Instead, it’s provocative.

Want to stand out from the pack? Write messages in ways others aren’t. This way. Write messages that do not serve you — as much as they serve (and provoke) the reader.

Who Is Helping You Find Blind Spots?

Sadly, people who support us rarely give brutally honest feedback. They usually have a horse in the race and tell us what we want to hear — rather than what we need to know. Increasingly, we take free advice from experts who aren’t experts at all.

Are your co-workers, marketing team, software vendors, friends, spouse and Uncle Google really the best sources to get sales outreach advice from?

Beware: Do writers of articles you’ve Google’ed have your best interest in mind? Or are they just offering simple answers to complex problems — as part of their lead generation ploy?

In most cases, no. Think about it this way: Jason has been driving sales outreach without checking blind spots. You wouldn’t drive a car that way. It’s too dangerous.

So why drive your outreach this way? It could be costing you a lot of money.

How will you find a better way to start client conversations?


Email Subject Lines: The Worst Advice You’re Probably Taking

How believable are these statements about email subject lines? This cold email subject line earns a 34% open rate for a B2B software company: “[first name], quick call next Tuesday?” This subject line earns a 42% open rate: “Time to meet?” If you’ve sent any cold email lately, you’ll be laughing right about now.

How believable are these statements about email subject lines? This cold email subject line earns a 34% open rate for a B2B software company: “[first name], quick call next Tuesday?” This subject line earns a 42% open rate: “Time to meet?”

If you’ve sent any cold email lately, you’ll be laughing right about now. These are two of the worst performing subject lines these days …  based on my personal experience sending cold email, as well as my wider experience coaching B2B sales reps.

Yet, these claims are being made by a sales email automation software provider. In fact, these particular subject line claims come from a respected, growing software-as-a-service (SaaS) company. They’re publishing a guide book of subject line advice.

So are these subject line claims fact or fiction? It matters not. What matters is there’s a fox in the hen house.

Who Do You Trust With Sales Email Strategy?

Where do you/your reps turn for sales email best practices? How are you educating sales reps … or how are they educating themselves on email subject lines? Who do you trust with the email writing portion of your sales prospecting strategy?

Googling templates can be dangerous. You won’t find a better-than-average way to start email conversations via Google. Because Almighty G is everyone’s top go-to source for subject line short-cuts.

Most demand generation, marketing, sales enablement pros and reps are turning to software vendors claiming communication expertise. Yet 95% of folks I meet experience complete lack of success using these tips.

Here’s why: The tips and advice are garbage. There’s no other way to put it and I won’t single-out any one provider.

Yes, I admit, it seems logical … turning to vendors providing sales email automation tools. But most organizations fail to realize: trusting software vendors ensures sending sellers to market with sub-par email subject lines and messages.

In fact, it guarantees:

  • sending them to battle with messages competitors are using
  • encouraging reps to form self-defeating communications habits

You cannot afford to invest in this kind of advice. It’s free but it’s not serving your best interest. It threatens you/your team.

The Truth About Your Software Vendor

Software companies are not communications experts. Period.

No, sales automation and engagement software providers aren’t evil. I get that. Many of these tools are quite handy. But setting email strategy based on advice from software providers is dangerous and foolish. Because they are not communications experts. They are tool experts whose clients need communications expertise … to use the tools.

It’s easy (for SaaS providers) to provide communications advice that won’t hurt clients, but won’t help either. Investing in quality communications expertise for software companies is not part of the SaaS business model. Even LinkedIn has invested in communications expertise to support its larger Sales Navigator clients, investing upwards of $200,000 annually.

Yet many of these sales teams end up knocking on my door… asking for help with communications technique. They often recognize LinkedIn’s communications tips aren’t on par and, in fact, are being handed out to competitors.

Relying on software vendors ensures zero competitive edge. Your tool is great. But your tactics are outdated.

Flawed Logic and Secret Formulas

Here are just a few examples of what sales automation software providers are telling prospects and customers who use their tools. They go as far as claiming to have “secret formulas.”

Catchy, compelling email subject lines will vastly increase your email open rates and engage prospects. 

This is simply not true. Catchy fails terribly. In practice, attempts to compel also fail miserably. What software vendors don’t understand is how readers are numb to catchy, see right through such attempts. They are also spotting anyone who tries to compel them into opening. Catchy & compelling don’t work. This kind of advice is clearly coming from a marketing person.

Effective email subject lines are direct, straight to the point and crystal clear.

Wrong again. Cold email arrives without context. Prospects have not opted-in to receive it. The more specific your subject is about the message contents (and your goal as a seller) the lower open and response rates it earns. From your target’s perspective, they don’t need to open when the subject indicates, “this is a cold email about a subject that 15 sellers per day email me about… to sell me.”

They delete, without hesitation.

Performing email subject lines are personal, directly reference the company or the prospect’s name.

While this is true in a minority of cases it is a disingenuous statement. Truth is, this is an old marketing ploy that also fails to work in most B2B contexts. As time progresses this tactic is trending negative. Using a database merge from your list into the subject line is, actually, a tell-tale sign of spam for humans and machines. Prospects and spam guard tools easily find and mark these subject lines as spam. Again, not in all cases but increasingly across B2B.

Marketing Creep

In most cases, marketing staff write B2B email messages for reps to apply. And/or reps turn to marketing materials, cut-and-paste into emails and press send. Marketing is creeping into sales emails and it’s not helping. For example, calls to action. We are told:

Good subject lines include a call to action.

I honestly don’t know how anyone could take this seriously… yet many folks are. Calls-to-action are inherently marketing-oriented. If you want your B2B sales prospecting email to get opened, and read, do not include a call to action. Using a call to action in your subject is a tired marketing concept, not appropriate for sales.

“RE:” and “FWD:” are powerful when used appropriately.

In other words, tricking your target prospect (into believing your cold email is, actually, part of an on-going conversation) is good practice, “when used appropriately.”

Is there ever a time to trick your prospect into believing your communication is part of something it is not? Only a marketing person could suggest this filthy tactic.

Do yourself a favor: Don’t use this technique. I know many people who do (and are successful at starting conversations through trickery) but be careful of the negative repercussions… including forming habits that, ultimately, will sabotage good communications habits. Use your precious time to start honest dialogues with prospects. Don’t insult their intelligence.

“[first name], quick call next Tuesday?” is effective at earning opens because prospects like to see their name & appreciate yes/no emails.

Truth is, in a B2B context this stopped working for 90% of us about 10 years ago. Most B2B decision-makers receive dozens of pre-mature, cold meeting requests per day. Some receive over 100 per day. If you’d like to signal, “One of the steady stream of sales reps asking for your time to sell you something” feel free to use this subject line and subscribe to this outdated logic.

Remember: You won’t find a superior (let alone effective) way to start conversations by copying everyone else, based on what you found on Google. Avoid turning to software vendors claiming communication expertise. Otherwise, what has your experience been?

A Popular, Yet Failing Cold Email Technique

It’s shocking. Sales teams across the globe are telling prospects, “You should invest in what I sell — because this research says so” and expecting to start conversations. But using research as a means to break the ice in cold email is a non-starter. Unfortunately, most sales teams are using this failing technique.

It’s shocking. Sales teams across the globe are telling prospects, “You should invest in what I sell — because this research says so” and expecting to start conversations. But using research as a means to break the ice in cold email is a non-starter. Unfortunately, most sales teams are using this failing technique. Often because they’re under pressure to send non-personalized, cold emails to large numbers of contacts … in hopes of starting a conversation.

Targeted (one-to-many) email prospecting is not the best strategy to start conversations with B2B decision-makers. Tailored (one-to-one) earns better response rates. Yet targeted campaign-style messages are used by most BDR/SDR and digital demand generation teams.

2 Quick Examples

One of my students emailed me: “I think I have a good hook from a research perspective to get a prospects attention that also aligns with the service I offer.”

His idea is a common one: Write an email containing research as a means to compel his prospect to open a discussion with him.

For example, an opening email like this:

“Andy, IDC reports more that 90% of retailers are focused on improving their digital customer experience. Are you among them?”

Here’s another example from a different student:

“Hi John,

A customer service benchmark report released revealed 80% of businesses believe they provide excellent customer service, however only 8% of customers agree.

Expectations of customers are at an all-time high. Customers are busy, multi-tasking, on-the-go and are more sophisticated than ever before. Loyalty is built with positive interactions over time, therefore it is a continuous process to earn a customer’s loyalty.

It is expected by 2020 that the customer experience leader will be the key brand differentiator over product and price … “

Why Research Fails to Engage Customers

Pushing research at clients via email is ineffective because decision-makers are:

  • bombarded with long, mail-merged email “written at them” rather than quickly provoking them;
  • not swayed by research being used in a persuasive context;
  • often not aware of a problem to be solved (the pain has not yet surfaced);
  • already aware of the facts presented in the research;
  • not interested in being persuaded by a rep’s cold email message!

Telling prospects, “You should consider X solution because Y research says so” is a non-starter. Pushing information at customers works far less than provoking them.

“People generally opt in to receive marketing newsletters, but no one chooses to get cold emails. This simple fact is one of the most important differences between the two,” says cold email expert, Heather Morgan.

Morgan reminds us also how cold emails arrive without context. This is often the first time prospects have heard from you. Further, “you haven’t yet earned their trust or attention yet,” she says.

Context is key. Why talk at when you can talk with? Why push when you can pull, attract the conversation to you?

What You’re Really Saying to Prospects

Sending research to customers (without being invited to) says to customers, “I’m biased to convince you … but know you won’t believe me … so here is someone else to persuade you.”

The technique is weak. It attempts to persuade and convince.