Shoot Your Shot: A Guide to Effective Cold Outreach

“What response rate do you get with cold outreach?”

In a recent SparkToro Office Hours, someone asked me this question. It’s at least 80%. Earlier this year, I had a 100% response rate with a batch of messages. 

My approach? I invest serious time qualifying my lead list and researching my audience before I send messages. This requires extra energy and effort, but if you’re seeking results, the payoff is worth it.

Maybe you’re a team of two, launching on ProductHunt for the first time. Maybe you’re flying solo on media pitches because you don’t have the budget for a PR agency. Or you’re job-hunting, filling out a bunch of “Contact Us” forms on the websites of your favorite companies. No matter the size of your outreach team or the tactical outcomes you’re seeking to accomplish, the techniques that I detail below will boost your response rate and ROI.

In this guide, I’ll start with the elements of an ineffective cold message, then reveal how to improve moving forward.

If you prefer this information in video format, check out the presentation-version of this guide from our September 30th SparkToro Office Hours session:

Why Cold Outreach Is Often Ineffective

When cold outreach isn’t working, it’s typically some combination of the following:

It’s irrelevant to the recipient. You reached the wrong person. Maybe you emailed a CMO when you should have emailed a Director of Brand Partnerships. Or you pitched your DTC beverage company to a test kitchen cook instead of the food editor.

There’s no Ooh! Moment. Think beyond clickbait. In this scenario, the recipient opened your email and the first couple lines didn’t resonate. It could be that you tried too hard to lead with value and your message seems spammy. Or you laid out a pain point that isn’t relatable to the recipient. The problem boils down to the recipient not having that moment of, “Ooh! What’s this? I need to keep reading.”

There’s no Aha! Moment. This is about value. Maybe the recipient read your message and understood it, but they just didn’t see enough value in what you’re pitching.

The request seems big. It may not sound (to you) like a big deal to “pick someone’s brain.” But, the recipient might wonder what, specifically, you’re curious about, whether you’re asking to exchange emails, hop on a call, join a Zoom meeting, or meet in person. When potential options arise, busy people might feel it’s too much of a cognitive load to reply… so they don’t.

People don’t know you. It’s not about being famous; it’s about being clear. Maybe your title is vague, or when the recipient looked you up on LinkedIn, your request didn’t look compatible with your profile. Maybe your company feels too much like a competitor, or too irrelevant, or they’ve had bad outreach from associated parties in the past.

You’re asking for the wrong thing. This is a big one. Maybe you were bold and asked to deliver a product demo when you should have offered an ebook, a blog post, or a case study. Or, you asked for a retweet before confirming that your contact actually uses Twitter to share stories like yours.

And maybe, just maybe, you’re asking too much of a stranger. But before we dig into frameworks for how to change course, I’d like to ask that you consider my philosophical approach to cold outreach.

Amanda’s 5 Rules of Cold Outreach

Like most marketing tactics, there isn’t a single “right” way to do outreach. These guiding principles have helped me be successful every time I’ve done cold outreach, so they might work for you. Over 10 years and dozens of cold campaigns — for B2B services, PR pitches, product demos, and job hunting — I’ve averaged at least an 80% response rate. (Despite that, I carry a chip on my shoulder because I shoot for 100%.)

My five rules are:

Rule #1: Give a s*** about the other person. Cold outreach has a bad reputation. Too many people see this as a numbers game, and they do very little to qualify their list of leads. But even just taking a couple of minutes to familiarize yourself with the person you’re about to email will help you stand out from the crowd. If the person has an online presence, check out some of their recent social media posts. Read their recent blog posts. Do a quick Google News search.

Rule #2: You cannot demand attention from a stranger. This is related to the previous rule. Even when you research the person you’re messaging, it’s helpful to remind yourself that you’re both still strangers, and they don’t owe you anything. Be careful about asking for a favor right off the bat.

Rule #3: Talk like a human. If you’re a marketer, you’re trained to lead with value and outcomes. But when it comes to a cold message, be a human before being a marketer. If you write your email like you write marketing copy, your message is likely to go unread or be reported as spam.

Rule #4: Be genuine. Smart people have good B.S. radars. Related to the previous rule, smart people will immediately know whether you’re being inauthentic. And you are trying to reach out to smart people, aren’t you? 

For instance, if you were to email Rand Fishkin with, “Hey Rand, huge fan of your work. I have a productivity tool that I’m sure you’ll love. Can we schedule a quick 15-minute demo?” He would see how empty that compliment is.

A better message? “Hey Rand, read your blog post about Chill Work a couple weeks back. 100% with you on outcomes > input. I read in the post that you don’t use productivity or time-tracking tools yourself, but… maybe you’re still up to take a look at what we’ve built at Acme and share with folks who do?

Core concept: instead of showing you and your team how many hours you spent on a task, our app rewards meaningful outcomes by tracking X and Y. I’d love it if you checked out our 60-second video if you’d like to take a closer look and possibly share with people who use time-tracking tools.”

Even though the “better” example is longer, it’s written from a place of genuine affinity and connection.

Rule #5: Don’t waste their time or your time. Get to the point. Better yet, spend more time upfront qualifying your lead list so that you can spend less time sending low-odds messages. We’ll dig deeper into improving your odds of a successful response in the next section.

A 5-Step Guide to Cold Outreach

1. Start your list with cluster sources

Creating an outreach list from scratch is often the hardest part. Start with cluster sources, and you’ll move a lot faster.

What’s a cluster source? It’s an entity with numerous sources of relevant information. Some examples include:

Industry roundups and lists: Think “Forbes 40 Under 40” and beyond. If you’re looking for companies that are hiring, you may want to look up Fortune’s or Glassdoor’s “Best Places to Work” lists. Personally, one of my favorite lists is Wealthfront’s “Career-Launching Companies.” It’s a good starting point for finding potential job openings, and teams to pitch software or services to.

Curation sites: Job boards and websites like ProductHunt and AngelList are good examples of these. You’ll find an ever-changing list of information here.

Communities: It’s not just social media. It’s private communities, too. Some marketing communities I like in the marketing/tech world include Forget the Funnel, Swipe Files, and Superpath. No matter the niche, communities like these exist, e.g. Ravelry in the knitting community, ManyBags for folks obsessed with bag collections (yes, that’s a real thing), the surprisingly active and old-school Chocolate Alchemy forum for home chocolate makers. Be sure to review community guidelines first so that you’re staying in compliance and not spamming members.

Social media accounts: Think of some of the accounts you like engaging with most. Those can be your starting point for your outreach list. But go a level deeper; pay attention to the other social accounts your favorites also engage with. And if you check a person’s SparkScore (which, yes, is one of our free tools!), you can also get a sense of how engaged their followers are, and you’ll also see the nine other accounts they engage with most frequently.

A screenshot of Related Accounts in @amandanat’s SparkScore

Search and create a list in SparkToro. This is an incredibly efficient way to start an outreach list. Let’s say you’re about to launch your probiotic beverage company, and you’re wanting to get the word out. 

You’d call up the New York Times, right? Probably not gonna work. A better approach would be to first get earned media coverage in niche, influential media like consumer health trade publications or health review sites. Plus, over time, you can use this niche coverage in a more thorough pitch to the NYT.

I might start by running a SparkToro search for “My audience uses these word(s) in their profile: nutritionist.” (By the way, that’s an always-free full query that shows you all the data you’d get in a paid SparkToro plan!)

Then I’d click over on the left to see what websites that audience frequents most. I’d start selecting the most relevant websites. In the below screenshot, I would select lifestyle brands and health news sites like Mindbodygreen and Medical News Today. I would not include a site like Harvard Health Publishing because they don’t write about DTC food brands.

Then I’d click on “Add to List,” and create a new list.

Looking at my List in SparkToro, I’ll see the given websites’ relevant social media accounts and potentially, their email addresses (assuming these are publicly available). If I wanted to project manage this effectively, I would export this list as a .CSV file.

To get the most out of this query, I’d also want to go beyond press coverage or earned media. I’d reach out to people who might be interested in sampling or buying my product. I think it’s fair to assume that nutritionists might be interested.

So I’ll hop over to the Social tab to find some nutritionists’ social accounts. I would sort by least-to-most amount of social followers because I might be more likely to reach someone with fewer followers than, say, Dr. Oz.

Alternatively, I’d consider filtering to a maximum Audience Size. Perhaps I’d just want to see people with no more than 50,000 followers. In this example, that’s still well over 6,000 social accounts to choose from!

I’d add these people to my outreach list as well.

2. Prioritize and cut down your list. 

Personally, my first step is to prioritize my list in order of people I feel most comfortable to least comfortable reaching out to. For me, that means some combination of whose work I know well and whose industry or niche I know well.

But there are many ways to prioritize and cut down your list. You could use a tool like Similarweb to prioritize who to contact based on their website traffic, and thus, potential reach. If you’re looking for social media amplification, you could prioritize based on how large or engaged someone’s following is on a given social media platform. (Hint: SparkScore is a great way to check engagement of people’s Twitter accounts.)

However you decide, I suggest you look at each website, publication, or social account to familiarize yourself with their content so that you can ensure whether your request matches their editorial goals. (Remember the Harvard Health Publishing example from the previous section? They wouldn’t make my outreach list at all because I know they won’t write about my fictional DTC beverage product. They write about health data, studies, and outcomes.)

3. Check yourself. 

Put on your empathy hat. Google yourself. Look at the top results. Assuming your name isn’t common, there’s a good chance your public social media accounts rank pretty high. (If your name is common, Google yourself plus your company name or the company/entity on whose behalf you’re doing cold outreach.)

Ask yourself these questions:

  • Is it clear who and what you are?
  • Does it align with your outreach?
  • What, if anything, should you edit?

If you have a title like “reverse sales engineer,” people won’t instantly know what that means. Be clear instead of clever.

Now, consider making edits to your social media profiles that would best align with the request in your outreach.

4. Consider the notion that the best cold outreach is actually warm outreach.

No one likes hearing from complete strangers. (And most of us don’t like initiating conversations with strangers either!)

An easy way to do this at scale is through social media. Follow relevant accounts in your niche — whether it’s Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram, Reddit, etc — check out their content, and comment on their posts when you have something insightful to say or when you have a thought-provoking question to ask. 

Ultimately, this will make it less awkward when you do reach out. “Hi Rand, we chatted on Twitter last week about XYZ,” is far more likely to be a successful hook than “Hi Rand, we don’t know each other, but I represent CyberCoin crypto NFTs.”

5. And finally, go ahead and shoot your shot.

Not every message needs to include a personal introduction. In fact, some of the most effective messages I’ve received have only been one sentence. 

On Twitter, I once asked if anyone was looking for marketing job opportunities because I happened to know of a few available ones. Pallet, a job board company, DMed my own tweet to me and offered a demo. One sentence, straight to the point, directly relevant to my content. It was easy to say yes to this.

A screenshot of @amandanat’s Twitter DM with Pallet

But if your message isn’t directly aligned with a recipient’s public social media post, that’s ok too. It doesn’t need to be a punchy one-liner either.

I’ve found the most effective cold messages are written plainly, and it’s clear that the sender wrote it themself as a single message to a single contact. All that clever messaging focused on value or outcomes? Save it for your landing pages.

Also be sure your cold message addresses these questions:

  • What is your product, service, or expertise? The thing you’re pitching. Described with clarity and brevity.
  • What are you requesting? Whether it’s a request for a phone call, to do a guest post, or co-market together, be specific.
  • Why you and not someone else? Think: the combination of your uniqueness and value.
  • Why them and not someone else? This one’s important. Of all the people in the world that you could have reached out to, tell them why you decided to contact them. If nothing else, this is a helpful thought exercise for yourself as you curate and cull down your outreach list.

This may sound like a lot of work, but the good news is that there’s still a way to make this effort scalable. Here’s a good example of an impersonal email that was very likely sent en masse:

Here, Ishita was clear about who she is, what her company does, the pain point they’re looking to solve, who some of their customers are, and what she’s asking from me.

I’m sure she sent this exact same email to dozens (or hundreds?) of other people, swapping out just the first name. She or someone on her team probably put together a prioritized list, and I imagine that on paper, I fit the profile of their target audience. And all of this is ok — because she was forthcoming about her request and gave the necessary context.

Though for me, this wasn’t a fit because I wasn’t looking for her solution.

But that’s the funny thing about cold outreach.

At the end of the day, you’re shooting your shot. You don’t know how the recipient is going to respond, or whether they’ll respond at all. So the best thing you can do is target your list with care and your messaging with precision. My own results are proof that such effort translates directly into ROI.