How to Email Busy People
“Email is where keystrokes go to die.” If you want to get in touch with busy people , you must know how to avoid wasting their time.
Far more people use email to communicate than any other online medium, and business today still gets done over email, not through tweets.
My work at Help Scout has me in my inbox for quite a few hours each week. I have to make my time count and get results—I’ve learned quite a few things over the years.
Today, I’m going to show you the elements of an excellent outreach email.
Why This is Important
Knowing how to write outreach emails might seem like a “no-brainer” or maybe even an unnecessary skill to have, but I can assure you the opposite, on both accounts.
You can’t rely on random encounters to get in touch with people who can help you flourish; while it may happen once in a while, the rest of the time it’s up to you.
Due to the fact that tweeting is so impersonal and a cold phone call is so annoying, email is the ideal platform for reaching out. Yet for busy people, even their inbox is something that is viewed as a “task,” meaning they want to get in and out as quickly as possible.
Understanding how to properly email people is a skill that sets you apart from others.
Avoiding the Dreaded Trash Bin (“Bin-bound” Outreach)
The world revolves around me. Me, me, me. My favorite person: Me.
I don’t want email from you. I don’t want junk mail from you. I want me-mail.
— Seth Godin
Before we get into how to get busy people to actually read your emails, we need to tackle phase 1: you must understand how to avoid the trash bin.
When deciding whether to read or delete an email, our brains go through this common evaluation process:
- Who is emailing me (and is this spam)?
- What do they want?
- How long will this take?
Getting a “pass” on all 3 of these can be tougher than it looks, especially for busy people. Luckily, I have a 3-step technique to avoid the trash bin.
We’ll be getting into a bunch of named techniques in this post, so why not start now ;).
I call it the 3-B plan, and I always double-check my emails to make sure they follow the guidelines below, and I’ve been able to get some fantastic response rates.
If there is one thing that busy people value above all else, it’s brevity.
In order to get your messages read ASAP, it’s best to make sure your opening email follows a separate ASAP rule: as short as possible.
I wouldn’t put a set limit on email length, because it’s a case by case basis. The important thing to remember is to always edit your emails at least once to trim unnecessary information.
Being blunt doesn’t mean not being persuasive, it simply means getting to the point without trying to be clever. Stories & jokes are essential for other forms of writing, but NOT for emails.
Emails are all business and you should treat them as such. Get to the incentive on why the other person should respond right away.
If possible, list a number in the title to signal commitment time (Ex: “3 quick questions”) and state exactly what the email is about in the subject line.
I sometimes am in disbelief that this one needs to be said, but it’s so true.
I’ve had emails where people send what looks like a newsletter, emails with tons of images in them, and emails with a DOZEN attachments when it’s their first time emailing me…
Keep it simple, sweetheart.
How to Get People to Read Your Emails [1-3]
The above was “pre-game” in our email strategy, now it’s time to get into how to actually write the perfect outreach email, the kind that gets read all the way through and gets people to take action!
Part of me has always a vague template in mind when writing my outreach emails, but it was only recently that an awesome post by Matt Gratt put these strategies into an easy-to-remember formula.
Now I always craft my emails to make sure they follow the 3 P’s of a great outreach email: personalized, positioned, and persuasive.
Here’s how you can do the same…
Nothing makes me feel quite so loved like an automatically generated message from “DO-NOT-REPLY”.
Similarly, none of us like getting robotic emails that just ooze, “I mass emailed this to a ton of people because I’m a lazy shit.”
Even if you’re sending personally written emails, if you aren’t keeping certain important elements in mind, they can come off as impersonal and will quickly find their way to a busy person’s trash folder.
a.) Do your homework
If you are going to be the one to reach out to someone, even if they have something to gain, it’s your job to at least know a little about them. This is an ideal rule for reaching out to anybody (to show you value their time), but it’s especially important when reaching out to busy people.
This part cannot be skipped because it’s an essential element of your email’s “opener” (more on that later) and establishes some context as to why you’re reaching out to this person.
b.) Know their network
When you know about someone’s network, you’ll have a past reference to act as an icebreaker whenever you have to send a “cold” email (well, that metaphor lined up nicely ;)).
Social networks finally get some mileage here: check out mutual connections and if possible, send out an email to someone you both know before trying to contact said influential person.
c.) Use their name!
Honestly, if you can’t take the time to find out even a single name or personal contact, you’re probably sending the wrong email!
Whenever you’re sending out an email to an influencer, positioning is critical, especially if you’re asking for something (which you shouldn’t be in the first email you send them).
As an example, when I was doing outreach for my recent ebook, I wanted to get featured on social media blogs, because they tend to have strong domains and generate a lot of shares.
The thing is, the content in the graphic is focused on customer service.
To circumvent this problem, I sent out emails that highlighted how important social media has become in providing great service, with many companies having fully staffed Twitter accounts to handle customer requests and complaints on the platform.
This created an “affinity” with my content to their unique selling proposition, showing them how my content related to what they talk about. Doing this, I was able to get featured on a slew of sites, all because it was positioned for them.
I also didn’t outright ask for a link, I just sent an email that described some of the research + content, and asked if they wanted to check it out.
Let me lay this out a bluntly as possible…
You should never beg in an outreach email, and should rarely say please.
“Alright, time to go start demanding things I don’t deserve!”
Not so fast there tiger, the idea behind this is not to be pushy, but to reach out to someone with a persuasive reason as to why your message is worth their time.
A great breakdown of this rule in non-email terms comes from the 48 Laws of Power, one of my favorite books. It states that you should never be in a position to outright ask for something, it’s better to outreach with a mutually beneficial opportunity, because people are looking out for themselves, NOT YOU.
(Utility doesn’t always have to be in a monetary sense.)
Let’s break down a very specific example. Here’s the exact email I sent to a Lifehacker editor where I’ve now been featured twice and have accumulated over 200,000+ views:
You’ll see that I referenced a past post that Tessa had published from a mutual connection of ours and then spent the rest of my email emphasizing how well that post did, and how mine would perform just as well (the persuasive angle).
Not long after:
My follow-up was a bit lacking, but I did at least emphasize that I’d love to be back (which I later was).
When you’re getting results like this from a 5-minute email:
…it becomes apparent just how important this email outreach stuff is.
What’s in it for them to open, read, and respond to your email and/or request?
In instances where you truly have nothing to offer someone, just be genuine: many of these steps are for when emails have a specific end goal in mind, but if you’re just looking to connect for the first time, cite something of theirs that you enjoyed. Your goal is allowed to just be, “get in touch.”
Last but not least, remember: One email, one desired outcome.
If you’re asking for 2+ things, you’re really asking for ZERO things, because no busy person is going to have time for that. One goal at a time.
The 6 Elements of the Perfect Email [4-9]
While the 3 P’s are great guidelines, in order to create winning emails on a regular basis, you need a script.
I love scripts because they give you enough flexibility to personalize certain aspects, but also provide a blueprint that you can refer to every time you need to get down to business.
Since this is the case, I’ve taken the time (gettin’ nerdy, I’ve even kept spreadsheets!) to track my email outreach extensively, and I’ve come up with 6 elements that are essential for crafting the perfect email… the kind of email that gets things done.
1.) The straightforward subject
Email subject lines should be as direct as possible.
“You’ll enjoy this new diet research”, works…
“Thought you might like this…” … does not.
Similarly, asking for “3 quick interview questions” is more likely to get opened than, “I thought we might do an interview…”.
Quantify the time commitment if it’s small, state exactly why they will enjoy what’s inside (remember to do your homework on the person it’s being sent to), and don’t try to be mysterious in the subject line, that’s a red flag for spam or deletion.
2.) The brief + personal greeting
The most important thing to remember about the greeting is keeping things short, sweet, and using the person’s name.
Recent research studying brain activation shows that our brains light up when we hear (or read) our own name, and we’re more likely to pay attention to the message at hand.
This obviously has less of an impact on busy people, but it still works in a universal sense.
3.) The genuine context
Remember our number 2 question that busy people ask when reading a new email? (“What do they want?”) This is your time to not only establish the context in which you know this person, but to also explain your reasoning with sincere praise.
Starting an email out like this: “Hey Greg! I need these 3 things done…” is a bad way to go about it… unless you’re someone in my family, in which case you probably will just call and yell that instead. 😉
Even something simple like:
I’m Greg Ciotti from Help Scout, I love what you’ve been doing on the _____ blog, that recent post on _____ was killer stuff, I’ve implemented a lot of your advice in my project.
Not only do you find out who I am and how I know you, but I’m also displaying (without being a suck-up) why I’m reaching out to you in particular: I admire something that you’ve done.
You will ideally be reaching out to people you respect anyway, so laying on a sincere compliment is not a salesman tactic, it’s just you being genuine (and at the same time, persuasive).
4.) The desired goal
This is where you get down to business: concisely stating why you’ve sent the email you’ve sent (remember that the “why” can just be that you were looking to connect).
The goal can obviously be all over the place, but when you’re asking for a specific favor (remember, intro emails WITHOUT favors are often a good idea), be sure to get right to the point.
Since I do a lot of content outreach specifically, here’s another example of me emailing Derek Sivers (who sold CDBaby for $20 million) on a customer service piece I did:
I made the mistake of sending the link in the first email (d’oh!), but he got back to me the next day, shared the post, and it took off with ZERO other outreach to reach thousands of visitors.
5.) The persuasive pitch
This section really goes hand-in-hand with the goal, and is often interwoven.
While I often reference content outreach examples (since that’s what I do), the specifics don’t matter, the important thing here is to craft a persuasive pitch via one of two options:
- State why it will be beneficial for them. Since I had nothing to offer Derek personally, the benefit was hinted at subtlety: he would get to see advice of his being implemented by a fan. Influencers enjoy seeing that they’ve left an impact.
- Simple praise. If you truly have no angle to frame some sort of benefit, just remember to thank the person for their time.
As I’ve mentioned, I avoid the word “please” like the plague.
It’s better to focus on the ways your email will offer something for them (again, even something simple like, “I thought you might enjoy reading this, since you’ve already covered…”, works quite well) and to reference what you bring to the table, rather than seeming desperate.
The secret to a great pitch is the perceived time investment vs. reward: make the request simple and painless by doing any extra legwork and spend an ample amount of time highlighting the opportunity.
6.) The close (signature)
Email signatures done wrong: 8,000 social media buttons and a logo of your company.
Signatures done right: your name, position (occupation), and your personal website. Please tell me you have a personal website! If not, get one. Also fine to use a company site here, so people can find out more about what you do.
Keep it basic, it’s about letting people know who you are and where they can find out a little more about you, not everything about you.
Subtle Tweaks That Go A LONG Way
I typically hate anything labeled as “tricks”, because it’s usually stuff that focuses on things too minute to matter.
When it comes to email though, short emails work, so minor changes can go a long way (the shorter email you write, the bigger impact each change has).
With that in mind, here are a couple of tweaks that I’ve seen go a long way when emailing people.
a.) Use inviting language
Which of these examples sounds more inviting?
- Hey, I’d love it if we could do a quick interview sometime soon on your new project.
- Hey. I want to do an interview with you on your new project by this Friday.
This is where being TOO blunt can get you in trouble: you won’t take the time to use inviting language.
Use we instead of you, be friendly, emphasize time but not in the context of making the recipient feel rushed.
b.) Timing matters big time
This ties into doing your homework, discussed above.
In my experience, hitting those peak “email checking” times is key, because your message will come in and get tackled (and be at the top of their inbox).
I tend to favor emails on Tuesday morning, Monday is usually a rough day, but I don’t like sending things too late in the week if I can reasonably anticipate a response in the same week.
c.) Don’t expect anything
When writing these emails, it can be easy to over-analyze every little aspect and hinge some emotions on the person’s response (kind of ironic to say this after a 3000 word post on emailing people, huh? ;)).
The key to being consistently good with email outreach is to not let a lack of responses (or negative responses) to cold emails get you down. Tracking progress and improving is essential, but you’re going to get some people who just can’t back to you, or maybe missed your email (don’t be afraid to follow up ONCE afterward), or some folks who just don’t care about what you sent!
It’s okay, long term, doing smart outreach through email is going to help you build the connections long before you need them, so don’t be afraid to fail or get hung up when you get a “No.” response every now and then.
It’s that time again: time for you to do work!
- Let me know what you thought about these tactics & examples.
- Do you have any other tips on emailing busy people?
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