Why Your “Cold” Emails Aren’t Working

Last month I got an email from a girl we’ll call K. The first sentence read, Hi, I was reading your response to the blog, How do social media consultants charge clients? I got a better insight on the breakdown of costs but still had a few questions.

After four paragraphs of her life story, what she’s trying to accomplish, her work experience, her latest friend drama and her mother’s social security number, she signed off with, I know how to set-up and operate the popular social networks but I really want to learn how to bring in clients for certain businesses. How could you help me with this?

I wish I could say this was the first time I’ve gotten an email this cold, with an expectation that I’ll spend half an hour, out of the goodness of my heart, to help her with this. It’s also not the first time I responded like an 80-year-old grandmother – telling her to shape up and start personalizing her emails.

Of all the cold emails I’ve received, only twice have I written back with a non-bitchy response. What did those people do right?

The first email that warranted follow-up was from a friend of a friend who wanted to start social media consulting on the side. Her email was short and said she’d been reading lots of my blog posts and had a few questions about how to get started. She asked for a 20-minute Skype call to pick my brain.

The second was a LinkedIn request from a recent Davidson grad (my alma mater). The guy was super friendly and having a hard time finding a job. We chatted back and forth for a week and there’s no way in hell I would have given him so much time if he hadn’t seemed so earnest and made me feel valued.

That said, I’m shocked at how few people know how to write a cold email.

First of all, let’s stop right there. The idea of a cold email is a stupid one. Warm that email up right away! Use exclamation points! Tell them how much you love their work or that your dad has talked them up for years and you’d love to buy them a cup of coffee.

I met a woman at Davidson a few years back (Hi Carin!) and she selflessly helped me when I was looking for a job in publishing. While I haven’t asked her why she took so much time to help me out, now we continue to keep in touch, help each other mutually and occasionally talk about boys.

Last month I spent three weeks working on a farm in Queenstown, NZ, helping plant native trees. My host repeated this saying daily: “It’s not how many trees you plant, it’s how many survive.”

And now that I’m experiencing life on the other side of the fence (the one getting asked for help as opposed to constantly needing it), I’m realizing this tree-planting mentality extends to networking (and most aspects of life, actually).

It’s not how many resumes you blindly send out, it’s how many are tailored to the specific job.

It’s not how many cold emails you write, it’s how many develop into a meaningful relationship.

So before you go frantically emailing strangers and asking them for favors, please take these tips into consideration:

1. Don’t send your CV. I know tons of folks say you should, but if they don’t know you that might take it a step too far. Whenever I email someone, I wait for them to ask me for my resume rather than jumping the gun, and it’s always worked as we develop a relationship first before I go begging them for help.

2. Use their name. There’s nothing worse than getting an email that’s obviously been sent to 10 different people.

3. Mention how you know or have heard of them. And it never hurts to add what you like about what they’re doing.

4. Be specific about what you want. Sometimes I get these emails and I don’t know if they want a five-minute answer or whether I’m going to get stuck in an epic back-and-forth series of emails. Simply asking for generic “advice” isn’t going to get you anywhere. If you have a question or questions, ask them. If you want to meet in person for coffee, say that you’re buying and you promise not to take up too much of their time. This is THE most important part so your potential mentor doesn’t feel stuck.

How many of you regularly practice so-called “cold emailing?” Any other points to add?

Marian Schembari is a blogger, traveler and all-around social media thug. She’s based in Auckland, New Zealand, hails from Connecticut and blogs at


  1. Great advice. If you aren’t asking for what you want you will not get it. Just to pile on to the tip on using the persons name…this is a BIG point when you talk about persuasion and sales.

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  3. Amen times like 9 billion on the “Be specific about what you want.” I often recommend that you ask a contact if they’d be willing to answer three quick questions — which you’ve thought out in advance and are customized to that person’s expertise (and, no, one of these questions cannot and shall not be “Do you have a job for me?”)

    Establish a little bit of freaking rapport before you ask something of them that may feel like an imposition, for crying out loud. And yes!! Exclamation marks will get you everywhere. 😉

    Cheers. Jenny Foss

  4. Janice

    Love this. Also ‘thank you’ notes are imperative, easy to do, and so often overlooked when asking for advice or taking up someone’s time.

  5. Anonymous

    I really like these tips. So many articles talk about contacting industry professionals for help, but they don’t explain how to actually do it successfully.

  6. Allie Osmar Siarto

    I third (or fourth) your point on getting specific. I’m going to start pointing students toward this post when they email me for “any advice” – love it!

  7. Garret Hurley

    The thing that sucks about cold-emailing the most is I don’t always feel like I can immediately repay them for the favor…

    • I know the feeling. Still, people don’t help other people just to get something back. They do it to show off their expertise, help out a newbie or just to be nice. Mostly, they – we – do it because someone helped US back in the day. Meaning sometimes you don’t need to immediately repay the favor, but a few years from now you might be on the opposite side of the email and can spread the good karma that way :)

  8. It seems to me that neither of the two successes were quite cold “calling.” They already had some sort of connection to you. I’ve never gotten a response from a truly cold email. The only time I’ve ever gotten a response was if there was some sort of prior connection.

  9. This is good stuff. I don’t “cold email” for a job because I’m a freelance financial writer and I’m not interested in a conventional paycheck. However, I do a ton of cold emailing for information. I pretty much follow your suggestions in getting information and interviews for my writing. And it always works. Yesterday afternoon I sent a brief request for some information to the “new media” representative of one of the big United Nations independent agencies. She didn’t have the answers to my questions. But she gave a long list of OUTSTANDING links that I could use for find what I needed. And that was great. And then (remember this part) I sent her a warm, personal e-mail message thanking her for her help. (I REALLY DID APPRECIATE THE HELP. THIS WASN’T B.S.) — Well done – Reg Crowder –

  10. V. R.

    Good advice re: emails. Have you read any of the books on good business writing by Dona J. Young? They’re the best I have seen.

    • Thanks! And no, I’ll have to check them out, thanks for the recommendation. That said, I tend to stray from “business writing” when asking for a favor. I’ve found it’s better to be genuine and personable than give someone an elevator pitch.

  11. Awesome post, Marian. The first email you replied to sounds suspiciously like me…am I right? Haha. Well, even so, I’ve since gotten better at the cold email!

    As you know, I review books and the number of untargeted pitches I get annoys the hell out of me, so I completely understand your annoyance at the cold email.

  12. Hi Marian,

    I know I’ve been guilty of this before, especially email seeking out a vacancy where I’m supposed to be, ahem, professional. It just never dawn on me before that it made a world of difference from the perspective of the reader. This is an eye opener for me. Thanks for sharing!

  13. hltruelove

    I have an “Oh crap!” question. I tailor cover letter emails, but I often start from a base template (a couple of bases actually–I have a lot of interests). At least once, I’ve realized too late that I forgot to update a section. I hadn’t had my coffee, had been looking at it for too long, who knows what went wrong but it did. Is hope to be had in following up with grace and humor to own up to and apologize for the error? Or is it really just too late at that point?

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