In recent years much has been written about the "death of email marketing," the basic premise being that everyone's inboxes are more inundated with emails than ever before. Spammers are a problem and response rates are on the decline as we all get better at ignoring the noise in our inboxes.
Email prospecting is a blunt instrument, they say. At best it's a spray and pray game where you blast a sizable list of targets and pray for a 20% open rate and a 2% response rate.
The day I sat down to write this post I stumbled across the following Linkedin update from Larry Kim, Founder and former CEO of Wordstream. Larry has Founded and acted as CEO of successful tech companies, has been a mentor in Techstars, and is the type of guy with a Twitter following of 35,000+. I must admit it put a smile on my face to see him openly vouching for sending cold emails.
I would even argue that with all the lousy emails people are receiving, there's never been a better time to stand out from the crowd with a well designed email prospecting strategy. This article will outline step-by-step the approach that I've been using at Outseta to achieve a 40% response rate on prospecting emails. My hope is some of these tactics will help you in your prospecting efforts, too.
When I say that I've been sending emails to a "cold" list, what I mean is that not a single person that I've emailed knows me or anything about Outseta. What that does not mean is that I'm emailing a low quality list - if you are sending emails to undeliverable email addresses, or have out-of-date contact information, that's on you.
The first step in successful email prospecting is finding a data source that contains information on target companies. At Outseta, we sell to early stage SaaS companies so sites like Founder Dating, Gust, AngelList, and Product Hunt are a great place to find target companies. AngelList and Product Hunt even let you sort specifically to find SaaS businesses, then filter by "Joined" or "Created Date" making it easy to find newly added leads.
There's 13,357 potential leads for me right there on AngelList alone!
If you sell to colleges, an example of a data source could be the Princeton Review. If you are looking to sell your product to yoga studios in San Diego, you can simply Google "San Diego yoga studio" and begin building your list of targets that way.
I recommend building a list of at least 50 target companies to start.
Now that you have a a list of target companies, you need to find the right person to reach out to at each of your targets. Here are a few tricks that I recommend.
About Us pages
Lots of companies today have "About Us" pages on their website. This often acts essentially as a directory of company employees. Here's an example from our own website.
Look up the target company on Linkedin
By looking up your target company on Linkedin, you'll find what is essentially a company directory of Linkedin member profiles. Simply search for the name of the company, then click the link that says "See all employees on Linkedin."
Google Search "Company name, title"
In this example, I searched for "Mailchimp CEO."
One of these three tactics usually does the trick. Now you should have a nice list of target companies and specific people at those companies that you'd like to reach out to. Which brings us to...
The best way to get started with finding email addresses is simply looking the person up online. Check their Twitter profile. Maybe they have a "Contact" page on a personal website, or an About.me page that contains contact info. If you visit the person's Linkedin profile, you'll find it says "Contact and Personal Info" in the right hand side bar. By clicking "Show more" you'll expand this section, and oftentimes find contact information readily available.
If none of the above tactics work, your next best option is searching for the email address of anyone else at your target company. Most companies use a consistent structure for their email addresses - something like email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org. If you can figure out what email structure the business uses, you can then use a tool called Hunter.io to guess at what the person's email address might be, and verify if you are correct or not. In this example, I verified that geoff(at)outseta.com is in fact a valid email address.
If you can't find a valid email address for someone on your target list, remove them from your list and move on. Again, your success will depend on the quality of your list!
And a final note; when you first start this process, you should build your own list. It's your responsibility - nobody else is going to assemble the list with as much care as you will. Once you've proven this process and that it can generate results, you can absolutely train someone else to do this for you... but you should do it to start.
Now that you've assembled a high quality email list, it's time to craft your approach.
This sounds obvious, but it happens all the time; prospecting emails are sent with a subject line that the sender, not the recipient, cares about. "Sign up for Product XYZ" or "Can we connect for 15 minutes"...
The recipient has never heard of product XYZ, or you for that matter, so why would they want to connect?
Much has been written about email subject lines - yes you should avoid words like "Free" or "Sale" to avoid spam filters - so I'll just leave it at you need to mention something that the recipient genuinely cares about, that peaks their interest in a non-gimmicky way.
In the case of the prospecting emails I've been sending, I came up with a very simple solution - make the email subject line the name of the company that I am emailing. Nothing more than "Subject: Start-up Name."
This sounds simplistic, but in this case it works - start-up companies are by definition unknown. They have little-to-no brand awareness, and are starved for attention. It makes sense that when you email a start-up Founder with the name of their company in the subject line, they get excited - "Someone knows about us!" and they open the email.
This is probably the single most important step in this process, and it's the one that everybody skimps on. I like to start all of my prospecting emails with...
My name is Geoff Roberts, I'm a Co-founder of Outseta."
After that brief introduction, I immediately make some sort of personalized comment about their business. Everybody has been on the other end of generic email blasts, and it's immediately obvious when you receive an email like that. So take five minutes to learn about the prospect you are emailing and try to add value to them in some way. Consider...
The number of ways you can go about doing this are endless, but you need to do your research first. Check out their website, look at content they've shared, and look at their social media interactions. If you can't genuinely add value or personalize your approach in some other meaningful way, take them off of your list. Here are a few examples from emails I've sent.
This was a company that provides real estate websites to real estate investors.
"I stumbled across (Company Name) on AngelList when I was researching SaaS companies in the real estate industry. I was previously head of marketing at Buildium, a property management software company so I've spent a lot of time thinking about how to market websites and software tools to an audience of real estate investors."
This email got a response and we ended up talking both about Outseta and about how the start-up could best market their business.
Another company I emailed was building a network for start-up Founders to share their objectives and drive accountability.
"I came across (Company Name) on Angellist and I love the concept of providing collaborative workspaces in order to set objectives and drive accountability. One of our idea validation interviews at Outseta was conducted with a very similar company called OpenCompany, which has since rebranded and pivoted a bit to become Carrot.io."
Again, I likely got a response because I was familiar with a company that was tackling a very similar problem. The recipient checked them out, was curious about why they pivoted, and I was able to peak his interest because I shared something very relevant to him.
Ultimately, I had a strong hunch that the personal approach I was using in my prospecting emails was one of the primary drivers of the strong response rate that I was seeing. I decided to test this hypothesis - the results were pretty astounding.
Personalized Approach: 117 emails sent, 48 responses, 41% response rate.
Traditional Email Blast: 437 emails sent, 7 responses, 1.6% response rate.
That's right - I saw a 39.4% increase in response rate when I took the time to personalize my email approach. Same quality list. Same call to action. The only difference was I led with a personalized comment based on researching the recipient's business, rather than sharing a more generic comment with a larger audience.
“That’s right - I saw a 39.4% increase in response rate when I took the time to personalize my email approach. Same quality list. Same call to action.”
Two or three sentences of personalization is enough, but it's an absolute must. Here’s one of my favorite responses that resulted from this approach.
Now that the recipient knows that they aren't on the end of an email blast and that I've actually taken the time to understand their business and engage with them in a meaningful way, it's time to tell them what I have to offer and why it's important to them. Again, 1-2 sentences should suffice - get to the point! Usually I go with something like...
"Anyways, at Outseta we've built a platform that offers fully integrated CRM, subscription billing, customer communication, and reporting tools. This allows SaaS start-ups to launch "leaner" with less technical overhead."
I will admit, this is a practice that I was initially skeptical of - start-up Founders tend to be insanely busy people, so why wouldn't I just send them information right away? Do they really want me to send them another email?
Turns out, this works really well. I end each of my prospecting emails with...
"Would it be OK if I sent along more information on our approach?"
This works for a few reasons:
By ending the email with an open ended question, recipients that are interested in what I'm offering will usually reply with a "Sure, send some info over." Those that aren't interested tend to send along a polite "No thank you," which is equally valuable and let's you know that you should spend your time elsewhere.
Here are the actual responses from the examples I shared earlier.
Don't get hung up trying to find the mythical perfect time to send prospecting emails, but do use some common sense and whatever information you have at your disposal.
At Outseta, I've found good triggers to be when companies launch their product on Product Hunt or publish their company profile on AngelList. These indicate early stage businesses that are just getting a product to market or are embarking on their start-up journey, and that's the time that we'd ideally like to intercept our prospects.
If you were selling a product to colleges, chances are it's best not to send prospecting emails on graduation day. You get the idea.
Last but not least, a little experimentation is a good idea. I saw particularly strong response rates during the "dead" week between Christmas and New Years, when start-up Founders had more time than usual to unbury themselves from their email inboxes.
Yes, this is a time intensive process and it's easy to make excuses as to why your email prospecting efforts aren't working. But for bootstrapped start-up this is a strategy that costs nothing, that can yield significant results.
Start small. Send 10 emails that are absolutely the best emails you can craft.
I think the responses you get will surprise you.
We send 1 or 2 emails per month—that's it. You'll receive a company update as well as shared learnings from our own entrepreneurial journey.