How to Write a Great Email to a Cold Lead

by Ruben 8 Minutes

This is a guest post by Robert Williams, an independent web designer who also helps other freelancers keep a full pipeline of work. Robert sends the best leads to a private list of freelancers every day with Workshop.

Freelance communities are constantly spewing out posts by people struggling to find work. Most are in search of magical solutions. The most common question is “where is the best place to find clients?”.

I understand why people ask this. Usually, it’s a freelancer in a dry spell—who knows finding leads online is hard work—but fails to ask himself whether this is the right question to be asking.

When I was graduating from design school and starting my freelance career, my focus was on my portfolio. I agonized over every detail, every stroke, and every pixel, making sure it presented me and my skills perfectly.

I wanted my website to speak for itself. However, when it came to contacting people about a job, however, I wasn’t so precise. I’m embarrassed to say my email and skype interactions would ramble, provide no call to action or next step, and exhibit low confidence all together.

That’s a common problem for freelancers.

For example, how many times have you ended an email with something vague like, ”Let me know what you think…” ?

What are you really saying by closing an email like this? To me, you’re saying it’s an email that shouldn’t be read or replied to — and that’s the worst message you can send when trying to find work.

Nowadays, most people skim the emails they read, and if you’ve ever gotten flooded with replies to a craiglist ad or job post you’ll know that they might not even do that. In some cases, only the subject line is read and emails get skipped altogether if they’re the least bit boring or generic.

That’s why if there’s one thing Bidsketch has taught me, it’s that having a system to fall back on, for time consuming tasks, not only saves you time but also makes you more effective at winning clients. With the time you save you can focus on perfecting each proposal and tailoring it to the current project’s needs.

Check out this example web design proposal to see what I mean.

Also because of this, you’re able to take a step back and notice subtle patterns about your effectiveness. If you have a system for sending email you can do this too, and learn:

  • Do people even read the emails I send?
  • What email gets the best response?
  • Where along the way are clients deciding not to hire me?

That’s why I recommend building a custom email sequence that you can use as a template, tailored for your business.

Now, I’m not suggesting that the key to getting work is how you word the emails you send or how you structure those emails, so pick something and move on with your life.

Getting work is about you. How you are positioning yourself and how valuable your service is to potential clients. Now let’s get into what that means in this week’s web redemption:

1. Always be qualifying the people you’re pitching to, in order to make sure they’re going to be great clients.

In order to do this, you need to have an idea of what your ideal client is. Include things like budget, type of project, and industry. That way you can look for people that fit this profile.

In fact, qualifying the people you contact is such a key step, that I’ve built a service that does this for you (more on that in my bio).

Before you ever send an email, you have to make sure the people you are contacting have a chance of becoming your client. What good will replying to a bunch of leads do if they’re all for horribly low budgets that you have no interest in?

I spend 3-5 hours a day compiling the best freelance leads. There’s no substitute for this, it takes time.

Once you have that list of people — the qualifying doesn’t just stop, you need to make sure that in every email correspondence you’re constantly checking for qualifiers that will indicate if this project is not the right fit for you and your company, so you can throw that project out the window.

Sounds counter-intuitive right? Get more work by eliminating potential work? It allows you to put your focus on the clients that will actually pay you in the long run, and say goodbye to the soul-sucking passion-less projects. But it takes some guts…. and some qualifying.

You do this qualifying by asking questions. Questions like, “what’s your budget and timeline?” You can also ask whether they’re terrible clients, but that’s given me mixed results.

Just remember, not all of your leads deserve your time and attention. Be discerning, be selective.

2. Start emails with a personal and intimate understanding of their problem.

Think about the emails you open immediately. These emails are from friends, family, and other people/things you love. Read the language in them, it’s almost like you have a completely different vocabulary in these emails.

They always address you by name and get to the point quickly. Usually they end with a yes or no question or a simple set of instructions. Now compare that to the emails that freelancers send out.

Bad subject lines:

“Freelance Web Developer” or “freelance design help”.

These subject lines could literally be from any freelancer in the world to any client in the world. On the other hand, a good subject line shows you’ve gotten personal with my wants and dreams.

Good subject line:

“Robert, I’d like to send you great freelance leads.”

If I received an email with the title above, I’m immediately going to open the email, because I know that this person knows who I am and what I do. He couldn’t send that subject line to the masses.

But it’s not just subject lines. When you finally get someone to open your email, the first sentence has to immediately grab them.

And guess how most freelancers start an email? With the word “I”.

The bad ways to start an email:

“I know illustrator.”
“I know rails.”
“I can help write blog posts.”
“I’m an awesome freelancer and I also bake and do accounting.”

Again too generic. The beginning of a cold email should say a maximum of two things. 1) How you heard about them and 2) why you’re emailing them.

This seems simple enough, but this is the part of your email that takes the most time to get right because you need something that shows you’ve intimately thought about their specific situation.

Think about an email from a friend. Do they say, “Hello, I’m your friend, I’m interested in discussing your plans for this evening, let me know if you’re interested?” No! That would be the most annoying friend ever. And yet, freelancers send that email everyday because it’s easy to write.

Instead, say something interesting in the first part of your email that shows you actually know the person you are emailing.

Good way to start an email:

“Hello Robert, I came across a blog article of yours where you say you hate pixel perfection, well I design pixels that are quite shoddy!”

Okay, maybe not the best freelance design pitch, but interesting and tailored to me, none the less — that guy is getting a reply from me for sure.

3. Only talk about yourself in relation to the potential client or project’s needs.

Once you have a good opening to your email it’s okay to let me know who you are—after all, you’re a total stranger — for all I know you’re some crazy person typing away at a computer plotting to eat my face.

What exactly qualifies you to work on my project? What past experiences do you have that you can briefly mention to lend you credibility? Lastly, what do you specialize in? (Use words that demonstrate you specialize in this.)

For me, I specialize in creating landing pages and websites for clients that are designed to sell and create more customers by being delightful to use. However, when I email potential clients I speak in their terms, in relation to their needs.

For example if the project is related to creating mobile templates, I’ll say something like,

Good way to talk about yourself:

“I’ve worked with a handful of startups in the past 3 years, including Appstack and Mobimaster, and we’ve been able to generate great results like improving conversion rates and lead generation.”

Try to identify the keywords that people use to speak about business. You might not use these words in everyday speech, but potential clients do, especially when they’re talking about their upcoming project.

A lot of times these keywords are easy to find, because you can find them in their job post. Then steal their words and spit them back at them.

Try to remember to keep the emails loose and conversational. Sticking to a template or structure helps you save time but a blanket form email can be spotted a mile away.

4. Go into what a successful project with you will look like for their business and their daily life, don’t just focus on the technology or tactics.

Nobody cares about great design. Nobody cares about great code. Nobody wants to have the best content just to have it. It’s all about the end result. What does having these things mean for a business?

What does a great SEO strategy mean in terms of business results? You might think it means great search engine optimization but you’d be wrong. Dig deeper.

Without going deeper you’ll have a tough time selling in the next SEO proposal you send off.

Great SEO really means that the business owner doesn’t have to worry about promoting articles as much and can just focus on creating great content, or whatever else they want to focus on. It’s a win for their business to have that handled and taken out of their hands.

If you simply talk about the benefits in terms of technical jargon and don’t relate this to what it means for the end business owner, then you’re basically just a hired hand, and you’re no longer an investment, you’re an expense. And expenses are much harder to sell.

How to relate your service to an outcome:

A delightful, conversion-optimized website will not only make every dollar you spend more effective, it will make your customers fall in love with your product and share it with people they know and care about.

5. Lastly, end your emails with a call to action.

Failing to do this is probably the biggest mistake freelancers make because not doing this will dramatically change the amount of people who respond. How do freelancers commonly shoot themselves in the foot with their closing statement?

Bad way to end an email:

“I’m not sure if you would be interested in something like this, but if you are feel free to let me know what you would like to do.”

Freelancers close their emails like this so that they don’t sound pushy. Instead they sound unsure. If you’re not sure that someone will be interested in your service, don’t email them. It does no good to say this to potential clients.

Closing an email like this undermines your credibility. The person receiving your email doesn’t want to think. They’re busy and by finishing an email like this you’re making them do all the work.

You’re basically saying,”look I just took a brain dump all over, and I don’t know what to do next, so I’m going to leave it up to you to figure it out.”

As a freelancer you need to take work away from your clients, not give them more. Also you’re likely to lose control over the project if you’re not constantly suggesting what the preferred next action is.

Instead, every email you send should end either two things ways. 1) A yes or no question. 2) Suggested instructions on what to do next. Or both.

Every email should be written based on what this action step is. For emails where you’re contacting potential clients, that means you include how to move forward assuming they’re interested.

As a freelancer, it’s your job to assume they’re interested, and to write the email as though you’ve already gotten the project. This makes the emails easier to digest for potential clients because they feel they’re working with a confident, experienced, professional who does this all the time.

Good way to end an email:

I’d like to discuss the details, sometime this week, if you are interested. If so, would it be okay if I sent you a few ideas on how I could help?

The only realistic goal for a cold email is to get a one word response from a busy person, preferably a “Yes.” Once you implement this advice, emails become a lot easier to write.

(Additional Resources: Check out this great list of cold email templates if you’d like some more ideas that will help with your emails. Also, here’s a deep dive into sending cold emails by LeadFuze.)

I eliminate the most time-consuming step in this process by pre-qualifying leads for a private group of freelancers through my service; Workshop. If you want to learn exactly how I pick the leads I send, feel free to get in touch. Focus on what you do well and how you provide value to your clients, and you’re guaranteed to work on some great projects.

Pro-tip: Once you start getting responses from people, make sure you put them into a CRM or Bidsketch and keep track of your interactions. Even if you don’t end up getting the project, it’s great to have a pool of past leads you can touch base with occasionally when things get slow.

Working remotely means you need to be on top of communication. You can set yourself apart from 90% of freelancers by simply writing clear, concise emails. You can also close a lot more projects.

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by Ruben
Ruben originally founded proposal software, Bidsketch as a one-person company while working as a software developer for a billion dollar payroll company. Since its early days as a “company of one,” Bidsketch has grown to help over 2,000 paying customers win billions of dollars in new business and save thousands of hours in the process.