There is only so much time in a person's day. And there's only a limited amount of time allocated to each person on this planet. That's why the only reason why most people would use a portion of it on reading an email from somebody they have never had any prior contact with is if there’s something in it for them:

  • a promise of substantial value (e.g., a mutually beneficial partnership)
  • a useful piece of information (e.g., a user reporting a critical bug)
  • or experience of positive emotion (e.g., some genuine customer feedback).

In simple terms:

Once you decide to enter the private space of somebody's overflowing inbox asking for something, make sure you're offering something in return to make them care.  

That's rule number one.

Having said that, it may not be quite easy if you are a junior professional, a student, or if you're new to business, for example, asking a potential mentor or someone you respect for their help. At times, there are moments when you have little to give back, at least in your subjective view. In that case, make it as easy as possible for the person to pay attention and reply to you by being ultra-specific on what you need, in what form, and when. I personally aim at responding to most of the emails asking me for advice that falls within my area of expertise, knowledge, or skillset, if I see that the person contacting me has made an effort to make it relevant, well-defined, and personal.

In one way or another, when composing an unsolicited email for someone who doesn't know you, try to avoid the most common mistakes cold emailers tend to overlook:

Not addressing the person by their proper name or misspelling their name

I often receive emails starting with the bare "Hi" or "Hello". Hello, who? Are you shouting into the void? Or are you talking to me exclusively?

And if you don't care enough to spell my name correctly, why should I care about anything you have to say?

Writing an essay about what matters to them before getting to the point

If you're lucky enough that the recipient of your cold email actually opens it – based on a meaningful subject line – tell them right away what it is about.

Only then you can support your cause by briefly introducing yourself, including appropriate social or web links, and elaborating on your request or proposition.

Not knowing or not being clear on what they want

Many cold emails start with: "I was wondering if you could do a), b), c), d), or potentially e) for me." Or even worse: "Is there anything you can help me with?"

Before hitting "send" on such a vague inquiry, ask yourself: why would anyone start pondering about what they can possibly provide for a random, unknown person emerging from the deep waters of the internet?

Starting off the email with a fabricated flattery

If you genuinely enjoy the work or appreciate a particular achievement of the person you're trying to reach, there's no harm in mentioning it. Sometimes, it can be a great starting point for forging a human connection.

However, never ever make this up for the sake of attracting the person's attention. Because in 100% cases they are able to tell and it's just plain annoying.

Forgetting to be professional, respectful, and polite

A surprisingly high number of unwanted emails come off as aggressive, rude, or even entitled. I'm not sure what's the logic behind such thinking since common sense tells us that if we want something from somebody, we should make an extra effort to be kind and empathetic.

All in all, this one is easy: Use appropriate language and tone. Proofread for mistakes. Don't forget magic words, such as "thank you" and  "please".

Now, if somebody did subscribe to your mailing list, then you need to give them a possibility to opt-out, naturally.

But here we're talking about somebody who is mass-sending copy-paste version of their cold email without permission. In such a case, most recipients will block them or mark them as a spammer right away.

Again, it's a no-brainer. You need something from a person who doesn't know you, so do all you can to draft a personal and pertinent message.

It's okay to reach out, to ask questions. It's not okay to steal somebody's time. Because they will never get it back. And when they open your email, the click is already ticking.

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