Optimizing Cold Email Outreach

Optimizing Cold Email Outreach
Elyse Savaki is a B2B Direct Response and Cold Email Expert whose persona-based outbound campaigns have booked thousands of meetings with decision makers at startups, SMBs, and international organizations. In this guide, she lays out a sample sequence, explains how outbound sellers can leverage tried-and-true direct response formulas, and walks through the tech that makes automated outreach easier.

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Questions covered in this guide

Why invest in tuning email sequences and copy?

Better-qualified leads – this is especially important if you don’t have SDRs whose role it is to qualify your leads. The right copy lets your email sequencing qualify prospects initially and saves you time, since you don’t have to do as much of the filtering yourself. 

Better yield from your lists – no matter how you build your prospect list, it costs time and resources to do that. The better your sequences perform, the better yield you’re getting from that list, which is exceptionally important. If you’re buying from one of the more expensive data sources like (e.g ZoomInfo) you don’t want to just burn your data budget.

What types of touchpoints might you include in an outreach campaign?

Email – use variations to break up the monotony.
  • Video – some people personalize them, shooting a different video for each prospect. You don’t necessarily have to do that, but instead of having a “generic” video, have a video that speaks to a persona or job role. 
  • Graphic representations – e.g. Venn diagrams, visual representations of how it works, a screenshot. The representation usually shows how the solution solves the prospect’s problem. 
  • GIFs – knowing the persona you’re sending it to is extremely important here. 

LinkedIn – I tend to send connection requests in the middle of an email sequence. I don’t use a lot of InMail, instead, most of the time when I’m sequencing something, it’s dependent upon the connection request being accepted. However, you could use InMail if you have the credits.

Phone – you usually get a voicemail when you call, so when I’m doing sequencing, I don’t do call scripting, but I’ll add voicemail notes. 

Note to founders who sellyou might write sequences without a phone touchpoint if you’re too busy to consistently schedule phone calls, or if you have bad phone number data.

How many touchpoints should you have in an outreach campaign?

At least 7-8 to get you better conversion results – it’s not as many touchpoints as you think. The expectation is that your prospects won’t read every one. So each needs to read like a standalone email — not a typical “drip sequence.” 

If you’re a startup, you might not have as many testimonials or case studies as a more established company, so you might have fewer emails in the sequence, but you can still gather enough information to send seven emails. We’ve seen prospects finally start to reply around the seventh email a lot of the time — not because the rest of the sequence wasn’t compelling enough… But because we finally got them at the right time.

Up to 12 if you’re more sophisticated and/or using more channels – if I’m doing LinkedIn and phone touchpoints as well across the sequence, then it might have up to 12 touchpoints to it.

Just make sure you actually add value – One of my favorite ways to “add value” is highlighting an industry problem and offering an actual solution to it. You’d be surprised how many times people don’t know that there’s a solution to this problem that they’re trying to solve. 

In terms of metrics, what does a successful campaign look like?

Open rates between 40-50%:
  • If open rates are low, first, check deliverability – before you start sending campaigns, make sure that you’ve dotted all your i’s and cross all your t’s for deliverability. I recommend that my clients work with a deliverability expert on that because it gets really technically involved.
  • Next check your subject line, story, and targeting – if you have a good deliverability system, but people aren’t opening your emails, check your subject lines and opening lines first.
    • If your subject lines are specific to the topic at hand, then there’s something about that topic that isn’t resonating with the recipients. 
    • If you’re noticing good open rates on the first email, and then they drop off on the rest of the sequence, it leaves you with two options: It’s the right story, and it’s going to the wrong people, or it’s the wrong story and the “right” people don’t care.
Click rates between 5-10%:
  • If click rates are low, your copy isn’t resonating – if your open rates are good, and your click rates are really low, then typically it means your message wasn’t that interesting. You weren’t hitting the right storylines, pain points, or things your prospects care about — even if they SHOULD.

    It may be that you did a huge feature dump in the body of the email, and they’re thinking, “I don’t care. How is this relevant to me?”

    Click rates can be a good indicator of whether the message is engaging.

  • If click rates are high but conversion is low, check your website and/or landing pages – if you’re tracking click rate, maybe you see that 10 to 15% of people are clicking through on the email, they’re going to the website, and still ghosting you.

    That tells you that they were hooked by what was in your email, they went to learn more, and they’re not finding what they’re looking for.

    I see this happen often with startups who don’t have a lot of content on their website yet and they don’t have industry-specific landing pages.

    You can follow up with people who clicked through but didn’t convert and ask what they were looking for that you didn’t have for them. This gives you an idea of engagement instead of flying blind and allows you to see areas for improvement. 

Note on click rate tracking and deliverability: be careful that your click rate tracking doesn’t negatively impact your deliverability. Some tools that track click rates do so in a way that changes the link, and links that don’t match the sending domain can be marked as spam (especially by aggressive internal mail filtering systems). You can go even further to make intentional outside links (e.g. a link to your LinkedIn profile) match your sending domain with a send-tool like Growbots.

Response rates between 10-15% of your opens (4-8% of emails sent). With any email campaign, you’ll get positive, negative, and neutral responses.

Positive responses (requests for more info, meeting requests, referrals) should make up 25-50% of those responses. That equals about 1-4% of emails sent.

The smaller the list you’re working with, the closer to the top end of those ranges you’ll want to be. 

Meeting conversion rates of 1-2%+ (sometimes much higher with highly targeted lists) – 1-2% is the general stat across the industry for any form of marketing to cold traffic.

The reality is that only a certain part of the market is in a buying position at any given time — and you can’t always know who they are or when they’re in that cycle. 

You can increase your meeting rate by targeting your list by industry, job title, etc. 

I’ve seen highly targeted campaigns bring in a meeting conversion rate of 30%. 

What might a sample campaign look like?

Here’s a sample campaign that takes place over 52 days (9 weeks) with 9 touches. It’s aimed at would-be customers of a third-party logistics (3PL) provider.

Email 1: Introductory email – the purpose is to give an executive summary about your business. Establish who you are, what you do, why they should care, and how it benefits them.

You’ll see a lot of LinkedIn sales pundits talking about short, teaser intro emails, but I tend to work with founders and full-cycle sales reps who are relying on email to do a little bit of qualification for them. So very vague teasers aren’t usually right for them.

A few key components of this sample email:
  • A question to help define relevance – How are they handling fulfillment and logistics? Do they have a good partner for that? Is there room for improvement? If they’re not super happy, then there’s reason to keep reading as we go into why we’re reaching out.
  • Social proof to establish credibility – in this case, that the seller is working with hundreds of ecommerce companies.
  • Soft CTA – we’re not trying to pitch them hard on a meeting. It’s, “if you’re not thrilled with your current solution, are you open to this?”

Email 2: Bump email (threaded) – this is a reply to the previous email, intended to bring that thoughtful email to the top of their inbox. 

This is the email where some people just say “Thoughts?”, but I prefer to do a little more to make sure that I have value in each of the emails. 

NEVER send something like “I was just bumping this to the top of your inbox” which implies “I think I should be more of a priority than whatever else you have going on”. That rightfully enrages people (or they just ignore it). 

A few key components of this sample email:
  • Reiterate the business problem that makes your solution valuable – they’re really busy, but you have a solution that could solve the business problem that’s making them run around all day.

Email 3: Founding story – if you’re a founder, one of the most powerful things you have is your story (AEs and SDRs often don’t have as strong a personal attachment to your industry). Leverage the story of how you saw a problem and started your company.

Note on threading – this email is on a new thread (don’t reply on the thread every single time). Use the reply threading strategically.

A few key components of this sample email:
  • Tell an “early days” story they can connect with – in this case, running fulfillment out of a spare bedroom.
  • Talk about problems you hear from similar customers – no matter what you’re selling, you probably have like those three main problems that all your best clients have–tell that story.
  • Add a credibility statement – “100 clients 2 million products later…”
  • Soft CTA – “Can we find some time to chat?”

Email 4: Call out a problem – another question email, highlighting what’s been going on with them.

A few key components of this sample email:
  • Don’t trigger their egos – you need to be careful when highlighting a problem. Telling them they suck, or they’re bad at something, or they’re failing at something typically triggers people’s ego. So you have to couch the problem in a way that isn’t going to send up all their defenses.
  • A soft CTA that makes it easy to say yes – in this case, “If wrangling Amazon FBA prep and/or the rest of your 3PLs is something you’d like to do less of, could I send you more info?” Who’s going to say no to that?

Email 5: Reinforce the problem, changing the lead – there’s a lot of flexibility in how you order these. They’re not intended to be sequential, because we’re pretty sure that nobody’s going to actually read every single one.

A few key components of this sample email:
  • If you mention features, pair them with benefits – e.g. “40 warehouses across the US, so that you have today shipping to customers in any state”
  • Change the lead to catch people at different points of interest or awareness – one of the things we know in copywriting is like, different sales letters that you see out in the world will basically remain the same for years, but the leads will change. In these emails, we’re testing different hooks, the things that grab people’s interest 

Email 6: Right person? – this is one of those standard emails I use in many sequences because you can never be 100% sure that you’re talking to the right person. Asking the right for the right person can get you some referrals, and it breaks up the sequencing.

Optional phone call 

A few key components of this sample email:
  • Optional phone call – say (or leave a message that says), “Hey, I’m about to send you an email, to see if you’re I’ve been trying to reach out to the right person. If you’re not the right person, I just want to check and see who I should actually be reaching out to. I’ll send you an email that will be easy to reply to.” If you’re not the type who wants a manual step in your sequences, leave the call out, and this email will do its job.
  • Threaded for context – reply to the previous email for context.

Email 7: Reinforce the problem, emphasizing story – 

A few key components of this sample email:

The  “problem email” formula – problem, agitation (why this is a problem), and then the solution.

Soft CTA – “If you think there’s an opportunity to simplify, could we find some time to chat?”

Email 8: “Even if” – this email explains that even if you’re not directly interested in/affected by some of the previous problems cited, we can still help.

A few key components of this sample email:
  • Highlight your broader benefits – even if they’re not into your main thing, highlight how what you’re offering also benefits anybody in the industry.

Email 9: Closeout email – you’d be surprised how many people just have been busy and they saw something interesting, and they just didn’t have time to follow up. I tend to get a lot of positive responses off of the last email that looks like this. 

A few key components of this sample email:
  • Optional phone call – “Hey, I haven’t gotten ahold of you been trying to reach out to you about this.”
  • Avoid the guilt-trip – some people put guilt trips here, but how are you going to guilt-trip somebody you don’t even know? Plus, you might try again later.
  • Be a little cheeky – “(I still think you’d love what we do – but totally get it if you don’t have a need)”

What tools do you use to instrument and automate outreach?

Data tools – e.g. ZoomInfo, Seamless, UpLead, ExactBuyer help you get names, emails, phone numbers, etc. Until you’re sure how good data is from a source, validate, validate, validate. I find that:
  • Zoom info is expensive, but good quality. 
  • Seamless is very inexpensive and popular, but less reliable because it’s pulled from LinkedIn, which is huge, but often out of date. 
  • Growbots has great data integrated with their send tool
  • Exact Buyer is a newer tool with some unique filters, like keyword search on specific pages of the website (e.g. the careers page for relevant hiring) and negative keyword filters.

Validation tools – e.g. ZeroBounce to make sure you’re sending to good emails. Only send to addresses with 90% certainty of verification and above.

Send tools – a way to send your emails. e.g. Growbots, Apollo, Mailshake, Reply.io, Outreach. When evaluating, consider:
  • Do you like that workflow? What about the way you add people to lists? How hard/easy is it? 
  • What does reporting look like? 
  • Can you easily see metrics for every email in a campaign at a glance?
  • Look at how/if it integrates with your CRM. 
  • Some have a built-in prospector, which can be helpful if you’re prospecting individually across named accounts (i.e. you have a list of target companies, just need to find the right contacts). 
  • Some allow you to integrate LinkedIn touches into sequences

Note: these email send tools are very different from marketing email providers like MailChimp. 

Don’t use a marketing email provider because: 
  1. It’s against their terms of service, and 
  2. The subscription rules are opposite in marketing and cold outreach. 

When we’re sending out broadcast communications, we keep sending (or send more emails) to contacts who engage. 

In a cold email, it’s the exact opposite. If somebody replies to your cold email, you do not want to keep sending them your prospecting sequence. So, cold email tools automatically take those people off of the active list.

If you’re small, combine data + send tool – e.g. Growbots, Apollo. I love that Growbots makes it easy to pull lists, then go through and you accept all the companies that you want as contacts and hand-proof the list.

It sounds time-consuming, but that’s how you get highly relevant lists that get good replies and meeting book rates. 

While you’re accepting, you can also adjust the company name, so you don’t call them “Company, Inc.” or something clearly non-human. 

Tech stack for sending:

Email provider – for cold email, use O365, not Gsuite if the goal is to set up a system (vs. occasional, individual outreach) for deliverability reasons. Both use shared IPs, but if you get a lemon, you can usually work with O365 to get that resolved. With GSuite, you’re out of luck. 

Email inbox aggregation tools – e.g. Wavebox, Shift. I like using one of these so I have all the inboxes in easy access. It makes keeping on top of things easier but is not strictly necessary.

What do cold-emailers need to know about deliverability and sender reputation? How can you protect your domain?

Don’t send cold emails from your core domain – e.g. if your business’ domain is acme.com, then send the cold email through acmeinc.com. The reason for this is that you want to protect your domain. If you have the best send practices, the chances of you being blacklisted are slim, but it’s still not worth taking a chance. You have to use your domain to send invoicing or client communication, and you don’t want it to be affected by something that went wrong on the cold email side. 

Warm-up your new domain – you don’t want to start by sending out hundreds of emails a day, so you’ll want to either manually or automatically “warm-up” your domain by sending some emails every day.  If you have a very engaged marketing list already, you can use your cold email domain to send emails to your marketing list (if they’re the type of people who open, click and reply, you can warm it up that way). You can also pay somebody to do it manually. They might have an in-house list they can send it to. When you start using the domain, I recommend starting very slow by reaching out to 10-15 prospects a day and then gradually ramping up over the course of a month. 

Set up your domain properly – ensure that your DKM, SPF, and DMARC records are all set up properly. These validate that the emails are coming from a legitimate domain. I recommend working with an expert because this stuff can be pretty technical and it’s worth the peace of mind to have it done correctly out of the gate.

What best practices do you have for subject lines and previews?

Make previews very human or very interesting – I’ll say “hey, I’m reaching out because…” or, “I think you’re the right person to reach out to about this…” The sales pros on LinkedIn might mock those approaches, but they still work. The other tactic is to make the preview engaging right out of the gate with something like a question or an interesting stat — but it’s harder to pull off.

Subject lines should be short (2-5 words) – if you can’t keep it shorter than 5 words, make sure that it’s going to a very targeted list and that you’re communicating something important or engaging. If it has to be a longer subject line, put the important part up first so it won’t be cut off. 

Never be alarming – don’t use things like “we need to talk” or “you missed a meeting”, and don’t lie to them anywhere in your email. Ever. 

What best practices do you have for the body of the email?

Similar to direct response marketing fundamentals – almost all of your emails are going to follow the basic flow of “Problem – Agistation – Solution” (some people know it as AIDA, which stands for attention, interest, desire, and action. They’re basically the same thing.)

If you go through any piece of direct response marketing for the last 50 years, you’ll more or less find that formula.
  • Problem – call out the problem. Use an industry stat. E.g. salespeople only spend 35% of their day actually selling.
  • Agitation – why is it a problem? E.g. in the sales example, if they’re only spending 35% of their time in front of prospects, that’s a whole lot of time that they’re not spending driving revenue for your organization, which is essentially what you’re paying them to do. Depending on how targeted your email is, you might be able to put numbers to what the sales team is spending their time doing instead.
  • Solution – then move into how you solve the problem (a solution your product provides).

Use a soft CTA – incorporate “if X, could Y” statements. You bring it around to them again and say, “if this sounds like something that’s happening in your organization, or if getting your reps back on the phone is something that’s appealing to you, could we find time to talk, or could I send you more information?”

Add credibility – why the prospect should care that you’re coming to them — why they should consider giving you some of their time or investigating a solution you have.

Reuse the formula in different ways – with any given solution, there are so many different problems and implications that you can use examples of to make your sequence interesting. 

Last copy tip: Tell the story only you can tell – even if you follow the framework above, you’re not going to stand out if you’re saying the exact same thing as everyone else. Your company exists for a reason. You saw a better way of solving a problem. Tell THAT story through your message.

How much personalization should you use? How do you maximize impact while minimizing time spent?

Personalization without relevance isn’t useful – if it’s not relevant to them, then they won’t be likely to find value in it and reply. Their alma mater probably isn’t all that relevant, but things happening with their company might be. 

For example, you could keep an eye out for acquisition announcements and trigger your outreach based on that, if it were relevant to your solution.

Write sequencing based on relevance to your prospects’ industry and/or job role– instead of finding something that’s personal to the person. This scales better and is typically more useful to the recipient as well.

Focus on how you can help them solve important problems and/or improve critical elements of their workflows.

Watch which jobs/roles you combine  – e.g. sales and marketing are different. I’d almost never put them in the same sequence because the way they think about similar problems, and the way they talk about them, is going to be totally different. 

How should you think about cold outreach to opportunities with multiple contacts?

Start with the best fit – in the beginning, your send volume might prevent you from reaching out to all the contacts at once. Pick the vertical or the job role that you think is going to be the best entry point for you to start at. 

Don’t overthink it – e.g. “we’re sending a sequence into marketing and one into sales. What if there are contacts from this company on both lists?” It’s usually okay, and if you worry about it too much then you artificially narrow your opportunities. 

What are the most important pieces to get right?

You need all 3 —  deliverability, list building, and copy to get results with outreach:
  • Start with deliverability – if your emails aren’t getting to the inbox, your outreach will never succeed.
  • Invest in list building – your message has to get into the right hands. If your data is bad, no one will get it. If your data is poorly targeted… the “wrong” people will get it. Still no response. But when you invest the time to getting the right people on the list, your message has a fighting chance. Which also gives you more grace with the next part —  your copy.
  • Write readable, problem-based copy – try to keep it under 200 words. Break it up for mobile and don’t have massive paragraphs. Highlight the problem, tell them why it’s a problem, tell them there’s a solution to it, and tell them why they should care. From there, offer credibility and offer them more information. That’s your structure in a nutshell.

What are the common pitfalls?

Feature dumps without relevance – It’s fine (even good!) to share relevant features in some of your emails, but you always want to connect them back to an actual pain point. When sharing features try a format like: “Extra Great Thing does X, so that THIS desirable outcome is achieved” or “Super Tool does Y, so that this UNdesirable outcome is avoided”.

Lack of context – I see lots of outreach that doesn’t the dots for their prospects, and it’s a quick path to the trash bin. You need to spell out why your message is relevant to them and their problems — because your recipients don’t have time (or any incentive) to figure it out for you. 

Not proofing the list – I can’t say it enough – make sure the right people are on the list. BUT ALSO make sure the merge field data from the list is formatted correctly. Nothing screams Spam like company names in all caps or their full, formal, legal name merged into a subject line or email body.

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