When it comes to getting responses to cold emails, billionaires clearly operate at a huge advantage compared with the rest of us. Who wouldn't write back if the name "Warren Buffett" or "Mark Zuckerberg" appeared in their inbox? But just because business icons probably don't need to exercise cutting-edge persuasion skills all the time anymore, it doesn't mean they didn't have to hone them to become billionaires in the first place.
And based on recently released emails between Mark Zuckerberg and Anthony Fauci, the Facebook boss has retained his ability to write a killer persuasive email. A raft of emails obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request by BuzzFeed News contained an exchange between the doctor and the mogul in which Zuckerberg asks for Fauci's help with the Covid information hub Facebook developed during the early phase of the pandemic.
The exchange isn't just a window into how Zuckerberg operates, it's also a master class in how to write a killer cold email. Here are a handful of the things Zuckerberg does right.
He says thanks.
Is saying "thank you" so incredibly basic that your mom no doubt drilled the practice into your head by the time you were 5? Yes. Does even a quick glimpse at society suggest many people could still use another reminder? Also, yes.
Basic manners make the world more pleasant for all of us. They also make it more likely you'll get a yes. One study found emails are 36 percent more likely to get a reply if the sender signs off with "thank you." Zuckerberg kicks off his email with appreciation rather than closing with it, but the effect is no doubt the same. Expressing gratitude doesn't just make your mom proud, it makes you more likable and therefore more persuasive.
He makes it personal.
Zuckerberg is a billionaire who no doubt has an army of assistants, but he chose to send this email under his own name and in his own voice, free of corporate speak and boilerplate language. Almost none of us have a name as impactful as Zuckerberg's, but the principle still applies when crafting your own ask.
People respond better to messages that read as both personalized to them and from an actual human being. Blasting out a boilerplate request to multiple recipients may feel more efficient, but it's a false economy if your message goes straight in the trash.
He gives Fauci an out.
Zuckerberg's giving Fauci an easy way to decline the request by writing, "I understand you're incredibly busy, so don't feel the need to reply to this unless these seem interesting" is, again, basic manners. It is also smart persuasion.
Dozens of psychological studies have shown that when you offer someone the freedom to decline a request, they're actually roughly twice as likely to say yes. By giving the other party an out, you signal your respect for both their time and their feelings and that in turn makes them much more sympathetic to whatever you're asking.
He makes Fauci feel like an insider.
By writing "'This isn't public yet," Zuckerberg "gives Fauci the impression he is going to get a behind-the-scenes look at a project he hasn't seen," points out Better Marketing in a long analysis of the whole trove of Fauci emails.
Framing an insight or offer as exclusive, limited, or available only to a select group of "cool kids" is a perennially popular marketing technique because it works, whether you're selling high-end fashion or participation in a pandemic related Q&A.
His request benefits Fauci.
You can be as clever and polite as you want in your wording and approach, but if the substance of your ask isn't right, your chances of getting a yes are still miniscule. And the right kind of ask is almost always the same: something that benefits the other party as much as it benefits you.
As VC Auren Hoffman has said of his own experience both sending and fielding cold emails, "In a great cold email, the person receiving the email should benefit far more than you from a potential exchange. ... If you don't have something that will benefit the person you are sending the email to, you are better off waiting to send it until you do."
Zuckerberg nails this. Yes, he wants America's top infectious disease specialist to appear on his platform, but Fauci wants to get science-based information out to that platform's billions of users just as much.
And as you can see in the reply from Fauci, all this worked. Zuckerberg got his Q&A, Fauci got an avenue to communicate with the public, and Americans got science-based advice on staying safe. That's clearly a persuasion win and one we can all learn from.