I’ll never forget the day I woke up to an email from Arianna Huffington.
The week prior, I had emailed her (cold) to see if she would speak at Columbia University for the entrepreneurship organization I’m involved in. And not only had she taken the time to read my email, but she had actually responded—with a yes?! Needless to say, I freaked out.
But then I stopped to think—what made my email work? What about my message had enticed Arianna to pay attention to a college student like me? What, for that matter, had made so many of the more than 100 other requests I’ve messaged professionals this past year successful?
Looking back at all of those requests, there are a few elements that I believe are particularly effective in cold emails. Whether you, like me, want to invite an inspiring founder or CEO to speak at your event, or you hope to connect with a reputable professional in your industry, here are three steps for dramatically improving the chances of getting a response from someone you admire, but don’t know—yet.
1. Establish Credibility Within the First Sentence
I’m going to assume that whoever you want to message receives plenty of emails from equally eager professionals. Because of this, it’s critical that you introduce yourself in a credible way—and as soon as possible—before your contact clicks on the dreaded archive button.
Let’s start with what you don’t want to do. You don’t want to open up your email going on and on about how you’ve been following this person’s work, how much you liked this and that thing they did, and how you’re such a big fan—wouldn’t they please help you out? There’s flattery, and then there’s sounding like a random stalker who popped out of nowhere.
Instead, keep it professional from the get go, and immediately prove why you’re a person worth listening to. An easy way to establish credibility is to hyperlink websites—either your company’s or your own—and let the website speak for you. (Don’t have a personal website yet? We’re here to help.)
I started my email to Arianna with: “I'm an operational committee leader of Columbia Organization of Rising Entrepreneurs at Columbia University.” By linking the website, I knew I didn’t have to waste another two sentences explaining our group’s mission and initiatives. Other ways to build credibility? List publications you’ve been featured on if you’re a writer, customers you’ve worked with if you’re a salesperson, and impressive stats if you’re making disruptions in an industry. What impresses you the most about your work will most likely impress your contact the most, too.
Just be brief—remember, this person is busy and will likely lose interest if you go on and on about your qualifications.
2. Make Your Request Unique to the Contact’s Specialty
Your contact is much more likely to reply if your request is specific and can’t be completed by just any person out there. Following my introduction to Arianna, I continued with: “This fall we plan to expand our initiative to promote global entrepreneurship and would love to have you come on campus to speak about founding The Huffington Post as well as your vision for the company’s global expansion.”
There are two ways this ask is specific to Arianna and not just to any founder out there. First, Arianna grew up in Greece until the age of 16—hence being more than qualified to promote our organization’s global initiative. What’s more, The Huffington Post has launched in nine different languages since 2005 and continues to expand across continents. By asking Arianna to specifically speak about her company’s vision for global expansion, I lowered the possibility that she would reject the request because another foreign founder with a U.S.-based company could do the job.
When sending out your message, make your request as specific as possible to show that 1) you did thorough research about this contact’s expertise, and that 2) very, very few people apart from this person would fit the bill.
3. Describe the Benefits for the Contact
What will your contact get out of responding to you? In other words, turn this one-sided request into a mutualistic relationship. Yes, it can be difficult thinking of what in the world you could possibly offer to a successful (and possibly famous) professional. But every person has something to offer.
This section of my email gives an example: “With more than 2,000 followers on Facebook and 2,200+ newsletter subscribers, we’d also love to help attract even more students to start following HuffPost.” This might not seem like a ton of people compared to The Huffington Post’s audience, but, because our organization has one of the largest audiences among Columbia’s undergraduate population, those numbers mean reaching a relatively large group of readers with a lot of potential. Plus, the gesture shows that I’m not just interested in a one-sided relationship.
When you outline the benefits for the contact, only include qualities that set you—or your organization—apart. Then explain how these qualities would help advance your contact’s long-term goals.
Apart from Arianna Huffington, my cold emails have received responses from Mashable’s founder Pete Cashmore, DramaFever’s founder Suk Park, and founders of various London-based startups like Deliveroo and TransferWise. The reply rate is still far from 100% (and I don’t think it ever will be), but with these three steps I’ve been much more successful in hearing back from professionals with whom I never would’ve thought possible to contact.