For the first 90 days of this year, I'm each week posting the "single most important thing you need to know" about 13 essential aspects of sales and marketing, because "1 percent of activity creates 99 percent of success." Here are my columns so far:

In this column I'm discussing a common and super-powerful sales tool: the cold email. First, though, a quick definition: a cold email is an email sent to somebody with whom you haven't yet traded emails.

A cold email can come out of the blue (i.e. you got the email address from a service), as the result of something the recipient did (like enter their email address on your website) or as the result of a referral (you got the email from a mutual contact.)

Essential concept: The sole purpose of a cold email is to get a response that allows you to open a conversation with the recipient that might lead to a sales, an interview, or something else that you want from that person.

What Doesn't Work

Unfortunately, almost ALL cold emails attempt to jump over the conversational step and instead go directly to pitching, selling or even demanding that the recipient do the sender a favor. Here's a real-life example lifted right from my inbox:

Hello Geoffrey,

At EdCast, we are excited about our recent announcements about our integration with Microsoft Office and ServiceNow as well as our new ContentExchange content partnership. Read more below and let us know your thoughts:  (emphasis mine)

Notice how the call-to-action demands that I take two, time-consuming actions: 1) read a huge glop of information and 2) write a response to what I've read. My question for EdCast: do I get college credit for doing this homework assignment? Or maybe some money?

Kidding aside, I don't want to leave the impression that EdCast (whoever they are) are particularly obnoxious. In fact, they're simply doing what most cold email do: placing as many barriers as possible to getting a response from the recipient (in this case, me.)

What Does Work

There are many ways to increase the response rate of a cold email, but far and way the most important technique is to create the lowest possible barrier to getting a response from the recipient, thereby starting the conversation.

The lowest barrier to starting a conversation is: a YES/NO question where saying YES entails a minimal time commitment from the recipient. Here's why:

A YES/NO question requires only three thumb movements on a phone (<reply><y><send>), which is where most people do most of their email. Those three thumb movements take about 1-2 seconds. It's a really low barrier.

However, even a YES/NO question is unlikely to get a YES response if that YES response commits the recipient to do something expensive or time consuming. Examples:

WRONG (too much commitment):

  • "Do you want to buy now?"
  • "Can I schedule a meeting with you?"

RIGHT (minimal commitment):

  • "Does this interest you?"
  • "Are you the right person to be thinking about this?"

The first two examples entail major commitments, so the email will either be ignored or you'll get a "NO" response. The second two example entail almost no commitment and are thus much more likely to get a YES email response.

What Happens Then

Once you've gotten a response, you're in a conversation and only at this point does it make sense to provide more information and detail than the minimal essential that you included in the cold email.

Even then, though, you should continue to end each email with a YES/NO question that entails as little commitment of time/money as possible. Examples:

  • "Does this still interest you?"
  • "Is this making sense?"

Eventually, you'll want to segue the email conversation into a telephone conversation. Even then, you should make the intial request as a YES/NO question with as little commitment of time/money as possible. Examples:

WRONG (too much commitment):

  • How can I get on your schedule?
  • What time can you be available for a demo?

RIGHT (minimal commitment):

  • Does a 10 minute conversation make sense to you at this point?
  • Would you like to see a 15 minute demonstration?

The first two examples could easily end the conversation because they entail both a decision and a time commitment. The second two examples are more likely to get a YES response because, while they may lead to a commitment of time in the future, in themselves they do not ask for a commitment of time or money. 

Only after you've gotten a YES response to that very minimal commitment do you attempt to get on the recipient's schedule.

To summarize: rather than flooding the recipient with information and demanding huge commitments, you've opened a conversation where the recipient makes a series of small commitments, eventually getting to the point where the two of you are on the phone together.