As an agency, finding new business can feel a lot like feast or famine. One minute the pipeline is bursting with new opportunities, the next it’s dry as dust—often when you need it most. When you’re focused on delivering for current clients, it’s easy to neglect finding whom you’ll work with next. But if you’re not closing new business, you’re only one phone call away from uncertainty. When opportunity runs dry, you worry: Will I be able to pay the bills? Make payroll? Keep the lights on?
When work dries up, most agencies turn inward. They work on their website, update their portfolio, dust off their WordPress dashboard and crank out some blog posts. But when you need a new client yesterday, you don’t have the time to wait for clients to come to you. Agencies too often overlook the simplest, fastest, most affordable tool available for new client prospecting: cold emailing.
Now, before you say, “Ugh, sounds a lot like cold calling,” bear with me. Despite what you’ve heard, cold emailing really does work… but you have to do it right.
How to Write Better Cold Emails in 3 Simple Steps
Given how many emails we send each and every day, the reality is sobering: most folks just plain suck at writing emails. But while that’s sad for humanity, it’s great news for you. Just by doing your homework and following these three steps, your cold emails will beat out 99% of the other stuff vying for your prospect’s attention.
Let me break this down.
Step 1: Find your leads
It’s great to aim high, but let’s be honest: if you’re a small agency just getting started, cold emailing the CMO of Coca-Cola probably isn’t going to do much for you. Nevertheless, a lot of agencies spend a lot of time reaching out to big-name, top-tier companies whose executives are already getting pitched a hundred times a day… it’s just not a productive use of your time.
Start with job boards. I’m serious. Industry job boards like Authentic Jobs and We Work Remotely, or even better, niche-specific boards like Dribbble give you access to people who are actually looking for help, dramatically increasing your chance of success.
While these folks need help, the fact that they’re on these jobs boards tells you that they’re being inundated with email, so you need yours to really stand out.
Step 2: How to write a cold email
Once you have the who, it's time to figure out what. Hubstaff works with digital agencies around the world, and as Marketing Director, I’ve had an opportunity to talk with many of them about cold emails that actually work. I’ve boiled down those insights into four fool-proof rules for writing a winning cold email:
- Rule #1: Make it personal — Cold emailing can have a much higher chance of success than other marketing channels like pay-per-click or direct mail, if you make it personal. The people you’re contacting have already expressed a need by posting on a job board, so it’s worth the time to personalize it. Robert Williams summed up the importance of personalizing cold emails perfectly on a recent Agency Advantage Podcast:
“If prospecting is a numbers game, then that is number one.”
The best way to personalize your cold email is to find THE decision-maker and write to them directly. This is no time for the impersonal “Dear Sir/Madam” or (cringe) “To Whom It May Concern."
- Rule #2: Make the subject line stand out — You’ve got less than a second to capture your prospect’s attention, so it’s critical that your subject line immediately proves two things: 1) that you’re not spam; and 2) you know about them and their business. Remember, if someone is putting up a job listing, they’re getting a TON of emails. You can show you’ve done your research (and stand out against the 99% of really crappy emails) by simply referencing the project in the subject line.
- Rule #3: Keep it short (but not too short) — It takes more than one sentence to connect with someone, but at the same time, nobody wants to read an encyclopedia. Keep it under 200 words and use those words to show your understanding of them, their projects and their needs. Don’t just talk about yourself—give them enough detail to get your point across. As Williams says, “Don’t give them more work by keeping it too short.”
- Rule #4: Make the next step clear — The client is (hopefully) hiring you to solve their problems— they don’t want to figure it out on their own. Make it easy by offering a short and simple next step. Don’t water this down, either: “Just let me know what you need” is way easier to ignore than “Let’s set up a quick video chat — maybe Thursday or Friday?”
Critical mistakes to avoid
1. Bad subject lines
Emails with spam words like "free" in the subject line are automatically filtered out by email service providers. This ultimate list of spam trigger words to avoid will help your clients stay out of their recipient's junk folders.
2. Lengthy emails
Avoid long emails that no one has time to read. It's important to get a clear and concise message across to recipients at first glance. If length can't be avoided, ensure that the CTA is higher in the email and the most important part of the message is at the top.
3. Too many calls to action
Keep the number of CTA's at one or two. This sends a more powerful message to readers and gives them a clear next step. Too many CTA's can create confusion by giving too many action items to the reader.
4. Too many links
Links should be relevant to the email topic and kept to a bare minimum as this is another form of spam that email service providers will send to the junk folder.
Sample cold emails
Here’s an email template prepared by Folyo.me that follows these rules nicely:
This email is personalized, it speaks directly to the recipient’s specific need, it cuts to the chase without skimping on detail, and it offers a clear next step. Sent with a personalized subject line, this email is golden.
Now, on the flip side, here’s a cold email I received that’s not doing the sender (or me) any favors:
Pretty big difference, right?
In this real-life example, the subject line doesn’t tell me anything, the email isn’t personalized, and it’s clear they haven’t done their research. If they had, they’d know we already offer mobile apps! Perhaps worst of all, the email is all about them. What they’re basically communicating to me is this:
We’re pretty awesome.
Maybe you’re interested in how awesome we are.
Let’s schedule a time to talk about us.
Ugh. If you don’t follow the four rules outlined above, you’re wasting your time (and your prospect’s).
Step 3: Follow up
How many emails do you get a day? How busy are you just trying to do your job?
Your prospects are no different. Everyone you reach out to is bombarded by just as many emails as you. In fact, since they just posted on a job board, they are getting even more emails than you can imagine. They’re doing their best just to stay afloat, but things fall through the cracks. If you don’t get a response (and you followed the three rules above), don’t take it personally. It doesn’t mean the prospect hates you, it probably means they just got busy.
Follow up (without being annoying), otherwise you’re throwing away all the research you did in the first place.
Remember, if a prospect has shown even the slightest interest, keep following up until they say “No” (or better yet, until they say “Yes”). If there is only one lesson you get from this article, it should be this...
Why Your Cold Email Approach Matters
Cold emails are a great way to start growing your business with new clientele. The more channels you have to proactively prospect for new business, the faster your agency can grow, the easier you can raise your rates, and the less you’ll have to stress about unstable cash flow. When cold emailing is done right, it’s one of the fastest ways to keep your pipeline full.
What's been your most successful cold email campaign? I'd love to hear about it!