The right way to do a cold e-mail approach

by Ivan Mazour on March 16, 2013

Since the beginning of the year, my team has been researching the UK e-commerce analytics market. The first step towards this was to understand what existing products were being used by online retailers, and what they did not like about them. We tried a number of approaches, including asking one of our student interns to call and explain that the simple questions he was going to ask were all to help him with his university course, but after days of cold calls and cold e-mails, we were not able to get a single company to spend even five minutes answering our questions.

I can certainly relate to the people on the other side of this problem. We are currently recruiting for a number of roles, and get an incessant stream of phonecalls from recruiters who come across our job ads. Most are fended off quickly, but some manage to slip through the cracks, mainly by knowing the exact names of people to ask for most probably by looking them up on LinkedIn. It’s difficult to put the phone down straight away when someone asks for you by name. But even when they get put through to me or one of the other decision-makers, they are quickly discovered and the conversation promptly ends.

At the same time as all of this, someone I know is currently applying for jobs, and I’ve kept a close watch over this process. Her e-mails are polite, extremely well written, and demonstrate all of the energy and passion that she wants to put into the role. She locates the person best suited to make the decision about hiring her, and follows up her e-mail after an appropriate amount of time. And yet, almost all of these get no response.

The book I am currently reading is called Influence – the Psychology of Persuasion. It is a tome that is revered within the online conversion rate optimisation community, as well as in any sales-based industry. It describes the most common principles that compliance professionals use to get people to do what they want. My approach to reading is always to treat it like I am doing a degree at university, so I take detailed notes, and try and make links between everything I learn and everyday matters that I experience. So, of course, I have been thinking long and hard about what my researchers, and my friend, are doing wrong. The answer came not as a flash of inspiration, but from two cold e-mail approaches to me that have immediately been successful.

The first was from a recruiter through LinkedIn – as a type of approach this is the least likely to succeed since most people use it and hence it doesn’t stand out from the crowd. What did stand out was the simple contents of the message. “Hi Ivan. We specialise in growing technology startup businesses in the UK. We grew LoveFilm from 80 heads to over 280 heads at exit with Amazon and saved them £750,000 in fees. Would you be interested in a short meeting?”. Attached was a carefully crafted infographic demonstrating how they can help.

This short message contains all the elements of persuasion needed to get me intrigued. It is highly relevant to exactly the company that I run. It demonstrates social proof in an intricate way – not only have they worked with LoveFilm, but they also saved them money. It also leverages the principle of liking. Just like Pavlov was able to get dogs to salivate when he rang the dinner bell, the same tactic is used here by mentioning that LoveFilm exited to Amazon – by doing so they associate their recruitment agency with this success, leading me to like them more. The principle of authority is used in the same sentence – if they are good enough for LoveFilm, surely they are good enough for Ometria. And finally the infographic is a stab at reciprocity – they give me some value, and hence raise the expectation of me giving them some value back. All in all, a perfectly put together sales approach, and I’m actually looking forward to seeing whether this level of persuasion continues at our meeting next week.

But the second stood out considerably more. It was another one that was highly unlikely to get any attention at all – through LinkedIn, and offering to put me in touch with companies looking for funding. There is nothing that angel investors dislike more than introducers, and I have the same feeling not just through following the herd but due to personal experience. They add an extra layer of friction and entropy in any deal process which often results in time being wasted by the two parties actually relevant – the startup and the investor. But like the one described above, this approach used persuasion principles rather well too. “Ivan. Love your amazing inspirational website. You won’t colonise space with £1bn. You’ll need at least £2bn. I always wanted to change the world… with an idea. Cheaper but still needs cash. So I find companies for Angels. I may have some that fit your unique requirements. Can we talk?”.

It’s been proven that people cannot resist compliments, and that in fact genuineness is not relevant when determining its ability to achieve a persuasion effect. So the first sentence, especially when aimed at my website which is clearly something very close to me, was guaranteed to spark my interest. Then came a demonstration of seriousness, since time was spent on reading my posts. Then the beginning of a debate, which positions him as an equal, and a demonstration of similarity. All this increases liking. It was good – enough to ensure that the LinkedIn invite didn’t go in my current pile of 84 unaccepted ones, and got through to a connection. What followed, however, was so impressively written that I couldn’t help but spend time trying to work out why it worked so well.

Sentence by sentence, the e-mail that followed layered on persuasion principles in an always eloquent and highly engaging way. Liking was established by showing similarity in thought, in ambition, in goals. Any negative attitude I had towards introducers was preempted and turned on its head, not just through a logical argument, but by using a statement from my interview of David S. Rose. And finally, it was finished off with three perfect examples of combining social proof and similarity. The e-mail contained details of three individuals that the person was currently “personally invested in”, and why he likes them. Each of these people were exciting, successful and interesting. By mentioning them, all of their positive attributes were immediately subconsciously transferred onto him. And the proposition automatically became that if he was good enough to work with them, then he is definitely good enough to work with me. The whole e-mail grabbed onto and maneuvered my thought process from beginning to end, with me finally concluding that if I consider myself a smart and successful individual, the only reasonable response would be to meet this person immediately. There was no choice left to be made. All I could do was sit back, impressed and slightly shocked, and invite the person for lunch.

Would I have been able to achieve the same result if I’d been in their shoes? Probably not. But now that I’ve seen these two approaches, and analysed them based on the knowledge I’ve picked up from the book, could I re-create them? I’m pretty sure I can. And finally, can absolutely everyone benefit from understanding them, and changing the way they get in touch with people they haven’t met yet? Definitely.

Read my full story on the About Ivan Mazour page.

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