It’s 2020, so your inboxes probably look like mine. Bloated with requests from people you don’t know, overrun by low-quality spammers, a bubbling morass of bandwidth-consuming time vampires mixed in with people and sources you actually *want* to hear from, forcing you to pan for gold amidst the sans serif grays and post-modern white of your mail provider’s “productivity-centric” user experience.
You’ve seen those ludicrous Sci-Fi movies where a character is shunted into the vastness of space, only to be inexplicably-yet-oh-so-predictably bumped-into by some unintentional savior. Your brain registers the odds: equivalent to winning every lottery on Earth without once buying a ticket. But still, you suspend disbelief, toss back the popcorn, and swallow both the puffed-up kernels and the lazy writing.
It’s a “stumble-on-Thor-floating-in-space” miracle that most of what passes for outreach messages:
- Make it past Google’s spam filters
- Ever land in the primary tabs of our mail apps
- Don’t get deleted/reported as we browse our inboxes before opening it
- Slide past our own mental filters long enough to even be considered
- Aren’t “reported as spam” often enough to enable the machine-learning systems to reject them for future delivery
And it’s even more of a miracle that tactics like this have just enough effectiveness (often <1 in 10,000) to continue being sent.
How Do You Do Better?
The tips in this post are unorthodox. Almost none can be found on any other page currently ranking in Google’s top few pages of results for outreach tips.
Most every scrap of advice you’ll find on those “Top X Best Practices for Outreach” suck. Sure, they might fool Google’s ranking algorithm, but they’re stale. Repetitive. Obvious. Useless.
- How to make a subject line fool your target long enough that they click open
- 4 helpful macros to use so you can spam faster
- How many times to follow-up and how often (6 times in 4 weeks?! How do you keep your address from being blacklisted by mail clients?)
- How to target high authority (but not *too* high authority) domains
- Demonstrate value.
Literally, it’s exactly that phrasing. No explanation. You think I’m kidding, but here’s an excerpt from the top-ranked result in Google as I type:
I almost think the author wants you to fail. Or maybe they own a bulk email service?
To hell with all of that.
The tips and tricks below, they work. They’ve worked for me, for organizations and people I’ve coached, for businesses with one struggling employee, consultants without two dimes to rub together, startups without even their first three customers, and so I know they can work for you. But you have to be willing to change your mindset away from: “I am sending a message convincing you to give me the thing that I want,” and toward a mindset of: “I am sending a message of kindness whose primary goal is a long-term relationship. The ask (or offer) within, even if it’s summarily rejected, is meant to further our relationship, and make it more likely that in the future, we’ll help each other.“
That is a very hard idea to wrap your head around if you’ve been pitching like a high-volume, low-conversion-rate sales tool. But if you indulge me, I think you’ll see how a mindset shift can dramatically boost results.
8 Outreach Tips
The tips below are more strategic than tactical. I’ll get to the tactical in the tricks section later. But if you want your tactical efforts to be a competitive advantage, you’ve gotta change your approach. Most people reading this sentence right now will ignore what’s below. They’ll go back to the high-volume, low-response crap. That’s actually part of the secret — if everyone invested in these, they wouldn’t work as well. Scarcity begets effectiveness 😉
Tip #1: Continually Do Things That Earn Attention from People Who Can Help You
Some people call this “networking,” but I think that’s a fallacy. I’m not suggesting you neglect forming professional and personal relationships based on mutual interests and camaraderie. But I think that in a pandemic era, where in-person gatherings are scarce, and an algorithmic era, where attention-earning creations have so much amplification potential, doing things that are, initially one→many and can later lead to one→one connections, is the more efficient route.
When you do those things that earn attention, make one→one path (the “network building” bit) friction-free and obvious. E.G. anytime I’m on a podcast, a webinar, a stage, anything, you’ll hear me end with “I write on SparkToro.com, am most active on Twitter, where I’m @randfish, and you can email me anytime via [email protected]”
Seventeen years of doing that without any intentional investment in “networking tactics,” and my network is surprisingly strong 😉
Tip #2: Ask for Things No One Else Does
Look through your spam folder. Then your deleted email. Ask your friend who runs a successful publication to look through theirs. You’ll quickly get a sense for the tactics du jour.
- “Will you link to my resource that’s relevant for your audience?
- “Would you participate in my blog roundup on topic X?”
- “Please retweet this to your audience?”
- “Can I share my latest article with you?”
- “We can help your organization succeed in the global buzzwordy buzzwordish buzzword.”
- “Hope you are doing well; did you check out the resource I sent?”
- “We are interested in discussing how our companies could work together.”
Here’s the tip: Do not ask for any of that.
“But, Rand! Those are the things I/my client/my boss need(s)!”
Nope. Not anymore. From now on, you want different things; things no one else is asking for, things that can bring similar benefits and results, but don’t follow the well-trodden path of things that look like spam.
There’s this fundraising advice every entrepreneur’s heard a dozen times: “If you want advice, ask for money. If you want money, ask for advice.” I’m urging you to ask for advice.
You don’t need to lie. You just need to forge new, more creative paths to your goals. Instead of asking for links, ask people to be guests on your short, punchy, well-edited video series that helps amplify something important to them. Ask people to contribute data to a project they’ll later be likely to amplify. Ask people to join your private community/discussion list. Ask them to connect in unusual, interesting, creative, surprising ways. The relationships you build will, long term, lead to links (direct and indirect) from a far wider variety of sources than your old link-begging campaign.
There are more examples of these tactical flourishes in the “tricks” below, but the idea is consistent: make requests your contact hasn’t previously received. Novelty earns attention.
Tip #3: Don’t Try to Scale
The practices I’m describing here (mostly) do not work at scale. They’re not intended for marketers who have 4 minutes per prospect, or even 40 minutes. Because this isn’t a numbers game. This is a generosity battle. You’re fighting to see if you can be more long-term generous than everyone else in your network — giving them so much, so often, so freely, that as the inevitable returns accrue, you’ve lost track of how or why these lovely, wonderful people would offer such kindness. There is no attribution. No ratio of favors done to those returned. It is the best kind of battle: one with only winners.
OK I lied. Technically, it can scale, but not through numbers of outreaches sent. Instead, the strategies described here scale through the compounding interest of time, increasing notoriety, improved brand affinity, and the broadening ability you have to help others as your network and audiences grow.
Tip #4: Always Get a Warm Intro
How many scuzzy, low-quality outreach pitches come to you by way of someone (even a relatively distant connection) making an introduction? Very few? Almost none? Literally zero?
So, if you must make a direct request, get an introduction. It’s that simple.
If you feel embarrassed making your ask after getting that introduction, because you’re worried it’ll burn your bridge with the introducing party, that’s even better! That means you’ll change your pitch to something better, something that won’t create embarrassment, something that will make that connector *more* likely to connect you in the future.
“But Rand, I don’t know anyone who can connect me to…” As they say in BASIC programming: GoTo Tip #1.
Tip #5: Be Able to Help in Compelling, High-Demand Ways
Do you get those outreach emails asking if you’d like some help fixing a spelling error or a broken link or contributing a blog post to your oh-so-good-blog? Of course you do. Because you are a human being in the 21st century.
The salient, worthwhile thought behind them isn’t terrible. Reaching out, offering to help, doing it for free… The issue is that the problem wasn’t one your target requested help with, nor is the service you’re offering uniquely valuable. Solving those two conundrums is how you turn a leaden tactic to gold.
How about this: Do you get outreach offering to turn a blog post of yours into a visual animation you can use to re-amplify it? How about an offer to translate and republish your work in other languages with attribution? Or an offer to include your company in a case study for a major industry publication? Or one that features your software’s solution to a problem for a presentation to 1,000 people on a webinar?
Sometimes? Me, too. I bet we both say yes to those vastly more often.
Skills like community building, amplification to large audiences, visual design, video editing, network-building, big-data analysis, presentation crafting, and a thousand others might be A) relevant, B) valuable, and C) surprisingly unique to your outreach targets. Those are golden. The “usual suspects” of outreach emails (broken links, spelling errors, product sales pitches, etc.), not so much.
Pro tip: Come up with a way to help that literally nobody else is offering. One that’s not found anywhere in this post or any other. Then you’re really onto something.
Tip #6: Be Unreasonably Kind & Helpful to Everyone
I hate most dating advice, doubly so anything written before third wave feminism. But there’s one tidbit that’s been around at least a hundred years that I hope is around another hundred.
“Find yourself a partner that’s good to the waitstaff.“
– Grandparents everywhere
Professional relationships (and, tragically, far too many personal relationships) are often transactional. So when humanity, empathy, forgiveness, and kindness shine through, it’s indelibly memorable.
Let’s be clear that there is a planetary-sized gap between “nice, polite, and courteous,” vs. “unreasonably kind and generous.” The first is table-stakes, and therefore uninteresting. Some terrible people benefit more from rude, crass unkindness (because it, at least, stands out). The second, however, is still rare enough and difficult enough to do with authenticity and consistency that it builds real relationships.
- Polite: “Thanks for making time to chat with me the other day. I enjoyed our conversation.”
- Kind: “Great chatting yesterday. You mentioned online events that might be in need of a speaker with copywriting tips — does this event or this one look interesting? Happy to put in a good word with the organizers and suggest they drop you a line ;-)”
The difference is that in the kind scenarios, you put in the work to listen, to see how you can help, and to make a relevant and generous offer. Often, especially with busy or high status folks, asking them directly won’t get you anywhere. It’s more work for them to tell you what they might need than to simply move on with their day. Enter social listening, where you watch what they say publicly on whichever channels they’re active on (Twitter is great, but LinkedIn, their blog, YouTube, Reddit, even Disqus can serve this purpose). More on this trick below.
How does waitstaff fit into this? Because your grandparents’ advice is about how a person treats someone whose impact on their life/career will be fleeting, minimal, and largely inconsequential. When you show kindness to people you don’t believe can do anything for your career or company, a strange thing happens…. They suddenly do.
Tip #7: Do Work That Attracts Both Friends and Enemies
When I was a young professional, I thought I had to please as broad a group as possible. As my industry presence grew (back in my early SEO years) and people inevitably criticized me and my work, I was certain I’d done wrong, and I literally tried to get on their calendars, apologize, and make friendships. Terrible idea.
The older and wiser I get, the more I realize what a superpower it is to make enemies. Doubly so if they can be common enemies—enemies you share with groups of other people. Today, I’m not only proud to infuriate companies and people, it’s a fundamental part of why those marketing efforts work. My blog posts, presentations, tweets, and interviews surely piss off Google. They anger conservatives and racists (do we still need to specify those two groups separately?). I excoriate tech journalists, lazy marketers, out-of-touch execs, Covidiots, antivaxxers, and worshippers of libertarian lunacy.
Am I telling you to intentionally anger people for the sake of eyeballs and traffic? Absolutely not. I’m saying controversial topics are worth covering, positions of passion are worth taking, and angering people who don’t agree with you is a good sign that you’ll also attract and engage those who do. We’re still in the early days of the “politicization of everything,” a trend driven by algorithmic bias to engagement, and until or unless governments massively crack down on tech companies’ profit-via-addiction models, it will rule web behavior for a long time.
By declaring an enemy—even less political, “safer” ones (trends, best practices, bad advice from a prominent person in your field, institutional bias, monopoly power, etc)—you can win a lot of support. Perhaps best of all, you’re pro-actively weeding out the folks you don’t want to work with or help. That’s two birds with one position-taking stone.
Tip #8: (Almost) Never Start With an Email
If you have no shared connections and can’t find someone to make a warm introduction (tip #4), don’t start with an email. Start on Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, Facebook, in their blog comments, or at an event (digital or IRL, whenever those return). An email that starts with “…we don’t know each, but…” has far, far less likelihood of being read than “…that was a fun exchange we had on Twitter last week, and relates to why I’m reaching out.”
One related tidbit—use your real name (or at least the same handle) and the same photograph (preferably a good one of your real face) across every channel where you participate: email, website comments, social networks, publicity shots, podcast guest appearances, the works. I try to only change mine once every 3-4 years; consistency is a powerful memory trigger.
7 Outreach Tricks
Now for the tricks. The hacks. The shortcuts. The things that won’t work if you’re just applying them to the same old strategies everyone else employs, but *might* work extraordinarily well if combined with a better strategy and mindset shift.
Trick #1: Mine Your Inbox & Contacts First
Before you do outreach to strangers, check to see if you already have connections that can help. LinkedIn is, obviously, a great starting point, but you have to know how to search.
I like starting with 1st-level connections, then expanding to 2nd and 3rd (many of whom I’ll find in my Google Contacts). The search keywords are critical, too. If you have a publication target, the website or corporate entity might work better in LinkedIn than the name of the publication. If you don’t yet have any idea which publications to target, SparkToro is superb (I know that’s self promotional, but it really is excellent for this kind of task).
Twitter and Instagram are also a superb platforms for finding right sorts of publications and people, but both have awful search experiences. Followerwonk is a good tool to find people whose Twitter bios contain particular words+phrases. Google can be decent for searching Instagram (using the “site:instagram.com/” operator) And again, SparkToro is great for finding publications and people across networks (Instagram is our second-largest network source of data behind Twitter) that *influence* particular audiences.
Broadly speaking, if you start with people you know and those directly connected to people you know, your odds of getting a positive response (and/or a warm intro) go way up.
Trick #2: Follow, Engage, and Wait for the Right Opening
Patience and a long-term outlook are a superpower in the outreach game. Most “outreach” is done at the end of a campaign, when the signal-boosting or marketing results are needed ASAP. But if you shift your mindset to a process like this:
- Identify the sources of influence that resonate most strongly with your target audience
- Build a list of those sources and follow them, listen to them, build relationships with them
- Wait for an appropriate opening to form a more personal connection
You can achieve vastly superior results.
Social networks are obvious places to start this process, but you can also do it by setting up Google or Mention alerts for a person or publication’s name, by subscribing to their email newsletters, blogs, event updates, and joining their online communities.
I’ve had a lot of success with this during the past couple years building a new startup and simply keeping relevant folks on my radar, regularly engaging with them, and then reaching out when an opportunity presented itself. In the world of outreach, it’s hard to beat good timing.
Trick #3: Amplify Your Target’s Work or Offer a Testimonial
When human beings receive gifts, favors, assistance—especially when it feels authentic and valuable—we have an intense desire to reciprocate. The nagging discomfort of a favor owed nudges us to give back, and it’s one of the best parts of our shared humanity.
The trick is NOT to “take advantage” of this persuasive technique, but instead, like tip #3 above, to win the battle of doing more for others than they do for you. And one of the best ways to do this is to check out the work you outreach targets do, then help advocate for it.
Don’t do this disingenuously. False praise is obvious, tasteless, and inauthentic. But if you try their software, buy their product, read their column, watch their presentation, and you truly enjoy it and received value from it, go amplify! Don’t just do this over social media (though that’s not a bad starting point), drop them a line, offer to be a reference or a testimonial, and send them a quote with permission to use it. In certain cases, a preemptive offer works, and in others it makes more sense to reach out and see if they’d find it helpful first.
Extra pro tip: Find something your target is amplifying that *isn’t* getting their usual level of traction. If *that* thing resonates with you, boost/endorse it. They’ll often be unusually grateful (compared to amplifying or endorsing something that’s already doing well).
Trick #4: Start a Content Series That Features Guests or Highlights the Work of Others
A series, no matter the format, is an unrivaled way to build your network, your notoriety, your perceived prestige and importance, and your content library. It’s also one of the most under-invested-in tactics, which, again, makes it all that much more valuable.
In general, the more difficult a series is to create, the more valuable it is to get right. A podcast series isn’t a terrible way to start, but it’s also getting to be a saturated market. Blog series are similarly saturated. Quarterly data reports, high quality surveys, product comparisons and reviews, structured video series (especially ones that are more than a talking head)—all of these formats are unusual, difficult, and therefore particularly valuable.
When you combine unusual, serialized formats with regular guest appearances or contributions, you naturally build a network from both the guests themselves and their followers (who learn about your series when you feature that person). Suddenly, your outreach request becomes less of an ask and more of a give, and eventually, if your series becomes notable enough, an email from you turns into a sought-after honor.
Trick #5: Build Your Own Private Amplification Group
I’ve written about amplifier groups before, so I won’t go deep here. But if you can’t be bothered to click on the link, the concept is simple: assemble a crew of like-minded friends and colleagues from your network who are willing to regularly help amplify each other’s work in exchange for amplification of their own.
These sorts of communities sprout up in Twitter DMs, LinkedIn Groups, Facebook Groups, et al. I personally prefer email, but to each their own. I’ll just say this: they’re unreasonably effective, and much of the content that “goes viral” on the web has had the benefit of these private community catalysts.
Trick #6: Acquire and Publish Data Unavailable Elsewhere
The era of data journalism is nearly twenty years old, but it shows no signs of slowing down, nor is there any indication that people are getting tired of high quality data mixed with useful visualizations.
Collecting and aggregating information is difficult. It’s rare. And that makes it worthy of attention and citation. If you’re doing outreach, unique data assembled in easily digestible, built-for-sharing ways is still a competitive advantage. No surprise a healthy 60%+ of these 100+ examples of 10X Content are data-journalism-style pieces.
Brief aside: PLEASE STOP with the terrible, awful, no-good infographic spam. That $#*% is almost never unique, useful, easily digestible, and worth sharing. It’s been seven years since this WB Friday on the crap-infographic problem, but far too many content creators haven’t gotten the message.
Trick #7: Hire Outreach Specialists Who Are Already Good at This Stuff
Many, many outreach specialists and agencies are not doing great work. They’re not even trying (or even pitching) the tips or tricks above. Some of that is their fault, a lot of it is their clients’. Clients usually come to outreach firms with misguided expectations and asks because of how outreach as a tactic has, historically, been framed.
Oddly enough, you’re more likely to get great outreach from agencies, consultants, and hires who describe their work as “digital PR” or “marketing strategy” or “content amplification” than those who use the keyword “outreach.” I don’t know how or why use of this word came to be correlated with high-volume and low-quality work, but the problematic overlap exists.
There are, however, firms that employ the strategies and tactics above with remarkable talent. They’ve got ten ideas just as good as anything on this list in their back pockets, and they employ them for their clients. My experience has been that boutique agencies that charge more, have smaller teams (or are solo consultants), and are pickier about their projects tend to do this better than larger groups.
How do you find the good ones and avoid the bad? It’s easier than it sounds.
- Talk to people in your network who’ve had marketing success and ask if they’ve used agencies or consultants they’d recommend (this is the kind of ask you can often do with even a cold email or LinkedIn message)
- Visit the websites of firms you’re considering and look at how they describe their services, show off their case studies, and who their clients are (you can reach out to those clients and ask them, too). Check out their social feeds, presentations they’ve made, videos or podcasts they’ve been on, etc.
- Take a few introductory calls with the firms you’re considering
If you need a few starting points, I’ve seen some excellent campaigns from Lexi Mills of Shift6, Ross Simmonds, Andi Jarvis at Eximo Marketing, Tara Coomans from Poodle Mafia, Michelle Garrett, Sarah Evans at Sevans Digital PR, 97th Floor, Dean McBeth from Shepherd, Melinda Byerley from TimeshareCMO and Paddy Moogan at Aira.
That’s only a smattering of folks I trust and endorse so if you’re on the prowl and in need of more options, feel free to drop me an email ([email protected]) and I’ll do my best to get you connected to a solid match. I promise not to bias only to folks who use SparkToro for audience intelligence 🙂