“Just following up.”
“Did you see my email? [Insert cute GIF here]”
“I just want to make sure you’re not DEAD!”
We’ve all been the recipient of cold-email follow-ups like these. But, if we’re honest (and I grew up in New Jersey, so I try), we’ve also been the sender of these emails.
One of the great parts of living in #2019 is that it’s possible to reach (almost) anyone. Thanks to the wonders of email and DM, even massive celebrities and moguls are just a few well-crafted lines of text away.
However, once you’ve crafted that initial message, the seemingly existential, anxiety-inducing question becomes: How often do you follow up?
The answer, I think, is surprisingly straightforward.
Networking vs. sales
There is plenty of research on sales emails. There the question is not necessarily etiquette (but you still have to be mindful), but rather effectiveness. According to a report by sales development consultancy Topo, the average number of emails and calls per prospect is 16.
While that can work to close a sale, if you’re simply trying to encourage someone to help you, plastering their inbox with requests is a great way to put them off (and maybe even block you).
For clarity, I am talking about the cold networking email. These are the emails you send to people you want to work with, befriend, be mentored by, and so on. There’s a different set of rules for this type of networking. It starts with how you send the email.
Remember, you are not owed a reply
Spend enough time on LinkedIn, and you’ll see people posting about how it’s “rude” that people don’t reply to their unrequested missives.
While everyone (including the cold sender) is human and worthy of respect, whenever you contact someone without permission, you are owed nothing.
Imagine this, if you received telemarketing phone calls and voicemails asking you to call them back. Would you have a responsibility to return the call? No.
Not only is this idea of being owed a reply wrong, but it can also give the sender an excuse to make the cold email mediocre.
If you want to get a reply, you have to start by assuming you aren’t owed one. Instead, by crafting a great email, your effort is rewarded with a reply.
Four keys to writing a great cold email (or letter or fax if you’re a Luddite/hipster)
First, it should be relatable. Did you go to the same college? Mention it. Love the same favorite classic rock album? Tell them. Both Armenian? Be sure to say. Research shows that people feel an immediate affinity for people who share identities with them.
Second, make a clear ask. Note, that was singular, as in one solo ask. You’re already interrupting someone. Don’t ask them for 17 things. Also, make sure it is clear. Asking someone if you can “pick their brain” is terrible, asking someone to “talk about your career options” is clear and good.
Third, be yourself. Those two words look good on a Successories motivational poster, but they’re also essential to getting a reply. I’ve seen too many otherwise solid emails, thwarted by a bad case of formalitis. That’s the medical term for turning into a robot when emailing like this: “Dear Mr. Gannett, If I can have a moment of your time . . . etc.” Remember, you are emailing a human and humans like to interact with people who bring them joy. Signaling that you take yourself too seriously is a great way to lose someone’s interest.
Fourth: Make it short. Like really short. Like this paragraph short (not really, but you get the point).
Okay, so you now have a well-crafted, thoughtful, and short email. How often do you follow up?
Use the 3×3 rule
You’re sitting on your laptop, in some coffee shop that thankfully has Wi-Fi, and you hit send. Your cold email is off into the nether spots of the internet.
But, now you look at the clock. A minute passes. Then 20 minutes. Then an hour.
When should you follow up?
When it comes to a cold email, my advice is to follow the 3×3 rule. This means following up a maximum of three times, with at least three business days apart. I’ve found this to be the ideal balance between persistent and annoying.
Also, I think it’s okay if your follow-ups are short, but try to avoid any clichés. For example, sending a follow-up asking if the recipient “was offended” in hopes of provoking a reply. Or, another classic, “You haven’t responded. Have you been kidnapped?”
Not only are these cheesy, but they’re emotionally manipulative. Your follow-ups should be pleasant and direct, such as “I wanted to bump this to the top of your inbox.” I believe in your third (and last) email that it’s helpful to say something like, “I wanted to try one last time” as it is direct and not manipulative, but otherwise avoid playing games.
The result? You’re pleasantly persistent. You are pushing on the universe and trying to make things happen, but you’re not shaking the universe so hard that Neptune gets mad at you.
I support cold emails. They work and represent the newer, flatter way that we live. I’ve sent cold emails that have led to everything from deep friendships to opportunities that I never could’ve imagined. Now, I’ve also made mistakes and definitely been unpleasantly persistent.
But you don’t have to remake my mistakes. Follow the 3×3 rule, send thoughtful emails, and be rewarded by having doors open—really wide.