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Yes, cold emails still work at scale (plus, a case study)

If you’ve ever been on the receiving end of an obviously templated cold email – sent to a giant list of contacts – you might raise your eyebrows at this: cold email at scale actually can work. 

So why are so many cold pitches so… bad? Well, there’s a specific method that’s been circulating the interwebs. And under very specific circumstances, you can see results. 

But if you’re like most product-led SaaS companies – and aren’t working under those very specific circumstances – and you’ve tried the standard method with pancake-flat results – read on for a method that’s crafted for your business model. 

But first, what’s the typical cold outreach approach?

Take a look at the various cold emails you’ve received over the years and you’ll see exactly what I’m talking about. 

(Oh, you deleted them? I’m the only crazy one who saves bad cold pitches?) 

Your typical outreach flow starts out with an introduction.

“Hey, I’m George Clooney and I have delicious coffee to offer you.”

The next email is a reminder. “Hey it’s George again – just wanted to share some java with you.” 

Next, you’ll see something along the lines of “Did you see my message?” or “Just bumping this up.” 

Then comes the ultimate threat. “Please let me know if you're interested, because if I don’t hear from you, I'll stop contacting you.¨ 

The flaw with this method is that it’s essentially one touch, repeated multiple times. Introduction, reminder, reminder, reminder. 

If the first email didn’t resonate – the second and third and fourth won’t either. 

What if instead – each touch built on the previous touch? To provide a holistic picture of what you can offer? 

The secret: treat your cold emails like any other email sequence 

Sure, you’re sending cold email – but you’re still sending email. So plan it out like a typical email sequence. Namely: 

  1. Map out the journey
  2. Include persuasion triggers
  3. Follow the rule of one

Only after you’ve got the foundational “email” pieces in place, can you consider that you’re sending cold emails. Which we’ll get to in a sec. 

But first, let’s dig into the “email foundations:” 

1. Map Out the Journey

This is the most important step when planning a sequence: 

You need to guide your prospect from where they are now (identify this through research) – to where you want them to be (feeling like they can’t live without your product) – or, more officially, through the Stages of Awareness. 

First identify where your prospect is before you show up on the scene. Do they know they have a problem? Do they know solutions exist? Do they know you exist? Do they know what you do? 

Then, plan an email for each stage that they need to progress through. Each email has one job: to provide the context they need to progress to the next Stage of Awareness. 

Again, you can't do this without proper customer research

To make sure you’re not repeating information they already know – or jumping ahead and confusing them – you need to identify where your customer stands. 

How aware he/she is of the problem that the product can solve? How much do they know about other available alternatives? What all you need to say in order to get them to say yes? 

Once you have that information, you can plot out 1) how many emails you need to send (which is only the #1 question I’m asked about sending emails) and 2) what each of those emails include. 

2. Include persuasion triggers 

But – don’t just stop at providing information about yourself and your company. You also need to help your prospects move toward action.

You can do this with all sorts of persuasion triggers, like:  

And the list goes on. 

The last thing you want– especially given the iOS 15 update – is a high open-rate but low response or click rate. Layering in persuasion triggers helps your prospect respond to your emails – not just read them and mark them unread for “later.” 

3. Follow the Rule of One 

Ironically, the Rule of One is a whole bunch of rules. 

Every one of them is important for persuasive copy – but the one we’ll focus on is the idea of… one idea. 

In order to help your prospects move through the Stages of Awareness, every email should address just one goal. 

Every product has multiple selling points. And it’s tempting to stuff your intro email with everything you have to offer. 

But shoving too much information into one email is just too much to process. 

Instead, break down your narrative into mini, one-email-sized bites – to allow your prospect to slowly journey closer and closer to a conversion with each touch you send. 

So what are the best practices for cold emails?

Now that you’ve got the basic email foundations in place, you can begin to address the fact that you’re working with a cold audience – and layer in some cold strategies. 

There are two big differences between warm emails and cold emails: 

  1. They have no idea who you
  2. They’re not actively looking for help

Those two things mean: 

  1. Pattern interrupts are crazy important 
  2. Trust is your biggest friction point
  3. You need to make the ask super easy 

Let’s dig into each of the above:  

1. Pattern Interrupts are crazy important

Because your cold prospects are not asking for your help, you need to work harder to capture their attention. 

If a person is actively looking for a solution, just a mention of a solution will be relevant and interesting to them. 

Because they’re not, you need to introduce curiosity – to compel them and guide them towards interest. 

You can use pattern interrupts a number of ways, namely:

  • Subject Lines and sender names 
  • Incentives 
  • Likeability/Creativity 

Subject Lines and sender names: These elements make up your first impression – and make or break your engagement. Work as hard as you can to generate curiosity and encourage opens. 

Incentives: Who doesn’t love an incentive? If you’ve identified leads as high quality, spend the extra bucks to encourage leads to spend more time with you. Plus, you can use incentives to help score your leads – if you offer an incentive that ties into your product use – say an upgrade to a higher tier – it will only resonate with SQLs. 

Likability and creativity: Especially because most cold emails are either intrusive or boring (or both), adding that dose of likeability and creativity can be the difference between engagement and ‘Move to Trash.’ 

2. Trust is your biggest friction point 

Even in a warm transaction, trust is a key ingredient. And in a cold relationship – when they have no idea who you are and how effective your product is, you can bet trust is a huge factor. 

A few ways to foster trust: 

  • No clickbait: This one’s critical – especially because you’re working hard on pattern interrupts, creativity, and likeability – which can get a bit risky. I’ve seen cold email “gurus” bragging about amazing open rates – with subject lines like “Just Venmoed you” or “Re: our meeting on Monday.” Of course those will get great opens – but they won’t get great relationships – because they break the trust from the get-go. 
  • Videos: There’s nothing like video to introduce you as a person. Vidoes let your prospect see you and connect with you. Instead of just seeing you as a cold string of words, you’ll become a person in your prospects’ minds.
  • A/B test incentives: Sometimes, incentives can actually mitigate trust – because you come off as too desperate. Other times, it can foster trust because they can test you out with minimal rest. The only way to know? Test it!
  • Social proof: You can talk all you want – but because prospects don’t know who you are, they won’t know if they can believe you. Instead, talk about the people and results they can relate to – and how you solve problems for them – and your claims will be more believable.

3. Make the ask easy 

If you have a free trial to offer your target customers, your pitch is a lot simpler: "Hey, I have this cool product. I think it's going to be awesome for you. Check out the free trial." 

All it costs them is a few minutes and an email address (that they know you already have). 

That’s a whole lot less “expensive” than them hopping onto a demo – that can pressure them into a sale they’re not excited about. 

But let’s say you’ve got to talk them through the sale – make it easy for them to hop on a call with you. And don’t ask for more than 10 minutes, 20 at most

Also, don’t forget – using incentives can make the ask really easy because they both delight – and reduce risk. 

A’ight, those are your basics. Now let’s see them all in action with a cold email sequence I wrote for Lemon

Case Study:

Lemon is a matchmaking service that helps startups find developers and Chief Technology Officers. 

To build their cold outreach sequence, we started with – yep, always the first step – user research. 

Our research identified that Lemon’s ideal prospects know about Upwork and Fiverr, but find both solutions unusable because candidates aren’t vetted. Lemon’s prospects also know about Toptal, which does offer high-quality, vetted devs, but find the price point unsustainable. 

Essentially, the prospects we were targeting had a high level of market sophistication, a high level of intent, and a high level of solution awareness – but a low level of (Lemon’s) product awareness. 

So we mapped out the following journey: 

Email #1

To address the high level of market sophistication, we needed to begin the conversation with differentiation.

How is Lemon different from more familiar options like Toptal, Fiverr, and Upwork?

Here’s the email in full:

Pro tip: Always A/B test your subject lines in a cold email. It's a good way to gather more data into what your audience responds to. With the upcoming iOS 15 update, you’ll have to infer a bit more from engagement, rather than opens, but it’s worth experimenting regardless. 

The email immediately opens with a pattern interrupt.

Product Led Cold Email Example

It is a bit of a risky move – the prospects immediately start thinking: Who are you? And why are you doing this obnoxious thing for me, setting up an Upwork profile without my permission? 

But we throw in likability next. We tell them we're kidding. We apologize. 

So it opens the conversation, on a chummy sort of front. 

(We also validated it by sending it to a couple of startup founders, before sending it out to the full list.) 

Next, we hook into their pain. 


Product Led Cold Email Example

Here, we start explaining the narrative of differentiation: you can't trust the people on unvetted marketplaces. 

Then, before things get too boring, we pull in some trust-building likeability. 

Product Led Cold Email Example

We call out the fact that it's a little bit risky to send this email. We call it semi-evil, just to ramp up that likeability.

With that layer of trust in place, we dig into the solution:

Product Led Cold Email Example

We layer on a whole bunch of risk reducers: A 24-hour guarantee. Completely free to try. 

At the same time that we progress them through the stages of awareness, we also build trust and make the ask really really easy.

Product Led Cold Email Example

So what are we asking them for? Just 9 minutes. 

Once they read through this email, they know what makes Lemon different. 

Email #2

In the next email, we open by touching our prospect’s pain points.

Here's the email in full:

These prospects really, really want to hire Toptal devs. So we align with them on that. And tell them that we have an even better offer: Toptal-quality devs – for less. 

Next, we live up to that claim, explaining our vetting process:

But this question opens a can of worms: How can Lemon offer high-quality devs for less? 

Cue the next email: 

Email #3

Let’s take a look at the whole email first:

Product Led Cold Email Example

Right from the start, we call out the elephant in the room: how is Lemon so much cheaper?

Meeting objections is very very powerful. It helps your prospects feel understood – which helps them trust you. And it also puts you in control of the conversation. 

It’s scary to meet objections – but failing to meet them doesn’t magically erase them from your prospects’ minds. 

They’re thinking them – they’re hesitating over any number of things. Your job is to guide them through the objections so they can make a decision. 

Look how we control the conversation:

Finally, we show some proof – because we just made some bold claims. 

Email #4

At this point in the sequence, they are most aware, and they have high intent – or they're not interested at all. So here’s the email in its entirety:

The biggest no you’ll get from prospects is actually not a no at all. 

It’s actually people who just never make a decision. 

Inaction is the biggest conversion killer.

When prospects are at this point – when you've walked them through all the different stages of awareness, but they still aren't making the move – you need to drive them towards action. 

You need to push the urgency a bit, show them how beautiful their life will be if they just make this move. 

By painting just how fast the matchmaking process is, it moves them towards action – and makes the ask so easy. 

And there you have it!

If you treat your cold emails like any other email sequence – with just some cold tactics layered on –  you’ll create a pitch that’s perfectly tailored to your audience – and more likely to achieve results. 

Nikki Elbaz
Nikki Elbaz
Dubbed “the Queen of Emails” by too many people to count – and “one of the most courageous copywriters” by the one person who really counts (her boss) – Nikki is the copywriter behind emails for Shopify Plus, Prezi, Sprout Social and more. She serves as Head of Email for The Copyhackers Agency, and consults with brands looking to increase their email ROI.