From bad mail merges to un-interesting subject lines to an utter lack of focus on WIIFM, I analyzed what makes bad cold sales emails suck so bad.
93.9% of the cold emails from business development / sales people are absolute and utter rubbish. That’s what I learned from analyzing 147 cold emails I received in a two week span during late August into early September.
The cold emails came after we announced a funding round from the National Science Foundation that got some coverage in The New York Times, TechCrunch, Pando, Forbes, Xconomy, Vator and several other sources.
I was surprised by the sheer volume of cold sales emails and so began to save and organize them a bit to see if there were any trends or insights I could glean from the sales strategies that folks use who are trying to sell into high-growth private startups.
Below is a summary of what I learned with lots of graphs, but first, it is worth noting that I’m not against cold emails. In fact, CB Insights uses many great products & services to run its business, and some of those were purchased as the result of an initial cold email. We also have an amazing business development team and we actually learn and share amazing cold emails from others with one another as it helps us raise our own game.
Summary results and then more detailed analysis is below:
- 93.9% of cold sales / prospecting emails were terrible
- Cold emails come from a variety of sales folks including wealth managers, real estate folks, recruiters, software and services providers. In other words, terrible sales emails come from all types of salespeople.
- Less than 20% of folks actually followup with a 2nd email
- “Congrats” or related derivates is the most common subject line to companies receiving funding
- 44% of cold emails include 1 link. Over 1/5 of sales emails have 3 or more links
- 41% of emails were between 25-50 words
- 88% used mail merge or copy/paste and 77% of those had formatting issues
- 76% of emails displayed zero knowledge of our business
I’ve put a more detailed summary at the end of this post but in short, the key weakness of these emails were 3 things:
- Subject lines which sucked (you have to get me to open)
- Content which didn’t get at the What’s In It For Me (WIIFM)
- Emails which generally got to me too late (147 emails in 2 weeks is insane. Your competing with too many others)
What % of cold sales emails are actually good?
As mentioned, I received 147 emails and 138 were terrible. I defined good as those that I responded to. We didn’t necessarily need what those 9 were selling but I responded to those 9 even if just to say “this is an awesome email, and if we need XXXX, I’ll reach out.”
Terrible cold emails by industry
I classified the terrible emails by industry and found that recruiters were the number 1 sender of terrible emails followed by real estate brokers and then software/infrastructure providers. Software includes everyone from those selling hosting services to marketing automation software to those trying to get us to use their ad retargeting software. It covers a broad array of B2B sellers.
Consultants was mostly wealth managers and a handful of B2B lead gen / marketing consultants and i-bankers. I realize wealth managers don’t like to be called salespeople but they are. Sorry.
While I didn’t quantify the degree of terribleness, I will say that there is a special place in hell for emails from real estate brokers which generally took terrible to whole new levels.
Follow-up practices of terrible cold sales emailers
The folks at Hubspot found that 80% of sales require 5 followups. This underscores the importance of followup. Terrible emailers didn’t do this very well. Only 20% sent more than a single email.
Those that did followup still had terrible emails but at least they understood the value of following up.
When you’re not making a transactional sale (bottled water) but one that is higher value and requires more education and relationship-building, it’s odd that most folks stopped at a single email. If they thought of it from the prospect’s perspective (us), are we really going to make a big decision about software or infrastructure or how we manage our money after a single email?
Sending just one email?
Build a series of followup cold sales emails that work.
Popular subject lines on terrible cold sales emails
While subject lines varied, there were some common subject lines or types that I observed. Given our funding announcement, “congrats” or derivates such as “congratulations” were popular.
Salespeople also love to “check-in” based on subject lines. If we’ve never talked before and I don’t recognize your name, you’re not really checking in.
Also popular were vague questions such as “Are you taking advantage of video?” or “Where is your next office?” I believe the thinking with these types of subjects is to inspire some type of curiosity gap a la Buzzfeed (I think) that gets you to open the email. The reality is that they were pretty bad so I opened them mainly out of a morbid desire to see if the body of the email matched the terribleness of the subject or if they somehow recovered.
Another popular question was of the “What are Adobe, Amazon and Google doing for _____” with _____ being some important decision like recruiting or PR or hosting or lead gen. This could work with the proper company names dropped (learn how to drop the right company names in an email) but what works for Adobe, Amazon and Google and what they’re able to pay bears zero resemblance to our needs or budget today. This is a tone deaf and lazy email.
Superlatives were another favorite. “The best _______” or “The easiest way to _________”.
These are as bad as the poorly phrased question emails because I’m not even sure we need the best ______.
How do people start terrible cold sales emails?
The most popular was “Congrats on your funding”. Maybe it’s me, but this is a hollow, lazy opening. While I like being congratulated on things as much as the next guy or gal, this screamed form letter, i.e. everyone else they found on the internet that day who got funding got this same lazy-ass email.
Some folks did say things like “Congrats on building an awesome company”. This made me feel better than being congratulated on funding, but again, it felt non-customized and symptomatic of a spray & pray strategy.
Although congrats was terrible, the worst was the 2nd most popular opening which was “It seems like you’re growing”.
These are words with zero value. In fact, the laziness and sheer stupidity of the comment makes me dislike it more. I suppose they didn’t use the funding in the opening to maybe make it seem like they just stumbled upon us and their email wasn’t driven by the funding announcement, but it doesn’t work.
Please don’t do this.
The 3rd most popular opening was similar to the question in the subject line (“Did you know…?”) previously discussed. These were about the company’s product or service right from the get go which I think is a bad way to start with a complex product or service. There was no clear understanding of what we do or our needs. These guys have a hammer and all businesses look like nails.
Other popular elements of terrible cold sales emails
I found certain elements of bad emails were repeated. Many folks wanted me to download something or click a link to learn more about them or to download a whitepaper.
I don’t think these strategies are necessarily bad to be honest.
But I’m only interested in a case study or whitepaper after it seems that the product or service is relevant to us. And this is where most cold sales emails just missed the point as mentioned above. It was not clear what’s in it for me.
One side note: There were several emails with animated GIFs. Properly used, I think these are awesome TBH. But again, it’s if the message is solid and relevant and the GIF is relevant. If the GIF is just a gimmick, not so much. But this is a strategy to use with caution I’d imagine and sparingly.
The number of links in terrible cold sales emails
I am not sure this metric is all that important but I found it interesting so wanted to share.
12.3% of cold sales emails didn’t have a link.
This puzzles me. You should make it easy for me to learn about you (if I want). Ideally, a page that is relevant to me versus the homepage, but in any case, I found it odd that so many didn’t have a website in the copy of their email. Of course, I could get it from the email address of the sender, but I gotta love what you’re selling to do that work.
As expected, most cold sales emails had one url.
Some folks went overboard (usually trying to include case study links) as well.
On a side note, links which are embedded into the copy like this one are preferable to those that look like this – https://www.cbinsights.com/research-how-to-sell-to-startups
The word count of terrible sales emails
I’ve heard brevity is key in a cold sales email. So I wanted to test if terrible sales emails tended to be longer and I didn’t see any real relationship between length and terrible’ness.
The few good emails (9 of them) varied in length a bit but 7 of 9 were less than 100 words.
How many terrible cold sales emails used mail merge?
The overwhelming majority of cold sales emails seemed to use templatized content delivered by mail merge or copy/paste. This is natural. In fact, I’d be surprised if they didn’t use mail merge or copy/paste.
How many mail merges had issues?
The next graph spells out the issue with mail merge. Again, I think you should use mail merge. Hell, we’ll show you how to use mail merge like a champ.
But if you’re going to use it, do it right.
77% of merges or copy pastes had a formatting issue. These varied from:
- Dear <name> – They didn’t set up the merge right so instead of my name it said the field name. This is such a rookie mistake, it’s insanely infuriating. Test your merge before hitting send. These are avoidable and making them is a sign you don’t care.
- Weird font / color issues – This is probably due to copy/paste issues in different email clients and resulted in different fonts and colors in parts of the email. These make cold sales emails look like ransom notes at times.
The weird font / color issues may be unavoidable as it may be driven by different emails clients, but again, as possible, test your merge.
As a prospect, I know you are probably mail merging me but at least make me feel like I might be special?
Do you know what we do?
More than 3/4 of the terrible sales emails didn’t know our business at all. Many that did were subscribers of our newsletter so their knowledge was limited to “I love the CB Insights newsletter“. Compliments are good but not enough.
Some of the above metrics are more important than others. Of all of these, the subject line is the killer weapon. I opened up all these emails because I wanted to analyze them but if I wasn’t doing that, all the Congrats emails would just have been deleted.
The subject line is what determines if you get opened or not. Do that right. We’ve got templates that show you how to do those right which you can get here.
Cuz if they never open the email, even if the content is amazing, you’re dead.
Beyond that, focus on the WIIFM – What’s In It For Me. I’m sure your product or service is great but before I’m willing to learn about it, I want to know that you’ve spent 5 minutes thinking about my pain points and how it might solve those.
The other big takeaway is that once you get funding, you get a crap ton of emails. Sales people should know how to find companies like us before these announcements because once the announcement hits, you’re competing for attention with a lot of other folks.
To do this, you should get data earlier on funded companies and find competitors of folks you’ve already closed. We have a bunch of tricks and data to find these companies earlier. And we’re sharing these strategies, templates and tactics for free.
How to not suck at selling to startups. We’ll teach you.