How to write an outbound email that you can be proud of
As an early stage founder, you're probably going to have to outbound to prospects, potential new hires, etc. Here's how to do it.
I spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about outbound. The topic of how to create an outbound sales organization that produces consistent results is a massively juicy topic, and something I intend to write about further.
But for now, let’s cover the basics of how to write a halfway decent outbound sales email. Keep in mind, SDRs and AEs aren’t the only people who sell outbound- founders sell all the time, as do investors, as do crossfunctional teams within the same company to get their projects prioritized. “Outbound” can refer to either completely cold outbound (you have absolutely no relationship to the recipient) or warm outbound (you’re loosely connected without ever having spoken) - but the structure is roughly the same.
As a former seller turned investor, I still sell outbound- I reach out to founders cold all the time. Early stage founders do too- outbound typically fuels early product feedback, the recruitment of a product’s first design partners, and oftentimes, their first paying customers.
Even founders of the best product led (bottom-up) companies likely had to outbound in some fashion before their sign up engine was humming (especially to priority hiring candidates.) So let’s explore the basics of an outbound email you can be proud of.
Reason - Value - Question
Section 1 of your outbound email should be the reason you’re reaching out. This should be highly specific and customized- it should be something that you couldn’t possibly copy and paste from another email.
It’s ridiculously easy to spot a completely templatized, copy and paste email. Your reason section should be the “proof of work” of your email- something that couldn’t possibly be written for anyone other than the recipient.
Section 2 of your outbound email should be the value that you’re offering. When you write value into your outbound email, think about it from the perspective of your recipient. Focus on them, and why they might receive value from your product (or whatever you’re selling.)
Most poorly written outbound focus on the perspective of the sender, which the recipient probably finds irrelevant.
Section 3 of your outbound email should be a clearly written call to action in the form of a question. As a pro tip, your outbound email should probably end with a question mark. If you ask a question, and then water it down with a statement, you’re going to reduce your response rate- you’ve just asked for more attention and focus from your recipient to parse out how the sender wants them to respond, which is a bad idea.
Other principles of good outbound
Try to avoid the word “I.” It may feel impossible to avoid it altogether, but only use when absolutely necessary. “Your” is a much more powerful word than “I” when writing outbound.
Try to be genuine, thoughtful, and empathetic. When you sound like a robot, it feels unnatural and you set off alarm bells that you are a stranger that doesn’t deserve a response.
When you talk to an outbound prospect like you sort of know them already, you earn more reading time, and improve the odds of a response.
Also, try to keep an outbound email short enough to be read on an iPhone without the need to scroll.
As far email subject is concerned, same concept- try to be concise, natural, focus on the “your” instead of the “my.”
Example of a bad outbound
Subject: Clearbit enrichment for Dropbox
To: Greg Kaplan, Head of Marketing Ops at Dropbox
I wanted to reach out and introduce myself- my name is Mike Marg, and I am Dropbox’s account executive at Clearbit. [reason]
Clearbit is an enrichment platform that can enrich every single lead in a marketing database with firmographic information. That means no more incomplete records, or untargeted marketing campaigns. [value]
If you’d like to learn more about our enrichment product, please let me know, I’d be more than happy to share more. [question]
Why this is bad
This type of email is actually pretty common in sales-land, it’s extremely “me” focused. It also isn’t customized at all- I could send the same exact email to everyone in my territory- nothing about this is specific to Greg, his role, or Dropbox.
Reason critique: words used include I, myself, my, [first/last], I, my company. Not exaggerating, this is how a lot of sales emails start- no wonder outbound response rates are so low!
Value critique: it’s all about Clearbit. Here’s what OUR product does. There is a brief pain statement, which isn’t terrible, but it could be better by explaining impact.
Question critique: this one doesn’t end with a question, it’s a statement where the ask is unclear. It’s very easy to ignore this email.
An idea for how to re-write it
Subject: Your blog post on PLG marketing
Your blog post on Dropbox’s product led approach was really interesting- completely agree with your point that the job of the marketer is totally different when you have thousands of free users. [reason]
A lot of PLG focused marketers (like you) find that enriching their userbase with firmographic information makes it much easier to craft specific marketing campaigns that actually drive response rates.
Dropbox users in the enterprise probably have a completely different set of needs than SMB or mid market businesses, and guessing your messaging would probably differ slightly for both populations. Similar companies like Box, Loom and Grammarly have found that enrichment tools (like Clearbit) can help drive a 15-20% improvement in response rate by powering better email personalization. [value]
Assuming Dropbox probably invests a lot in improving marketing email response rate, do you think database enrichment could be impactful? [question]
Why this is better
This email is specific to Greg, it’s focused on problems that Greg specifically faces, and makes it clear what type of response I want.
Reason review: Focus on Greg (“your blog post”) and manage to avoid using the word “I.”
Value review: This paragraph doesn’t focus on me or my solution, it is again empathetic to Greg and focused on his world, challenges he faces, etc. I didn’t even assert that Clearbit is the answer to his problems- I asserted that enrichment tools (Clearbit is just one of these enrichment tools) can help.
Additionally, the hero of this email is “a lot of PLG marketers” - it’s not me. I’m saying that similar PLG marketers have driven a positive impact for their org, Clearbit is just one of several tools they can use to achieve that impact.
Question review: I’m not asking for a meeting, I’m asking a question. It’s easy to response “yes, I have considered it” - it’s conversational and unintimidating, with a low level of commitment.
How do you not say “I” in the reason paragraph?
When adjusting to this new style of outbound writing, to force yourself to start your outbound draft with “I saw” or something similar:
“I saw this blog post you wrote…”
”I saw Dropbox’s tweet about building a better remote culture”
”I saw your CEO’s comments about the evolving nature of sales…”
Whatever it is, focusing on what you saw is a better “trigger” for outreach than your own selfish interests.
Then, try to eliminate “I saw” and just move onto the the subject-
”This blog post you wrote about PLG marketing was really interesting…”
”Dropbox’s tweet about building a better remote culture was a fantastic read…”
”Your CEO’s comments about the evolving nature of sales were thought provoking…”
We spend 99% of our email writing careers writing emails to people we know, where there is implied context. It can feel really awkward to write an email to someone where you essentially need something from them.
The best cold outbound feels like you’re writing naturally, to a friend or someone you already know. Use specific triggers or research you did to kick off the email, focus on the recipient as the hero of the email instead of you and your product, and make it easy to respond by ending the email with a question.
And finally, break your outbound into reason/value/question sections. Draw them in with customization, clearly express the parallel and why your recipient would get value from whatever you’re reaching out about, and make your ask clear with a question.
Thanks for reading EarlyGTM post #9!
Principal, Craft Ventures
(for more thoughts on go to market, and occasional sports-related frustration - @mikemarg_ on Twitter)
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