Whenever I teach new sales reps how to do effective cold emailing, I always explain to them that no matter how good their email is, they waste their time if their subject lines are not exciting enough that the recipient even bothers to open the email. This means that the subject line is arguably the most important part of any cold emailing strategy, with open rates being a particularly important measurement. And yet, most businesses seem to get it wrong consistently. Part of my training both in my book, Authentic Selling: How to Use the Principles of Sales in Everyday Life, and in the new online course I am launching called Weirder Than Waldo, entails having these young aspiring salespeople open up their own email inboxes. I ask them to look at the subject lines of the various emails they have from all of the retailers or other brands who captured their email addresses as part of some marketing campaign many moons ago.
“What you see in your inbox? Don’t do that,” I tell them.
Why is it so easy for me to ascertain that these subject lines are overly generic and boring? Because most businesses engage in mass-marketing, and therefore cannot spend much time personalizing their message in an attempt to connect with their customers in a meaningful way.
As human beings, the number one need we have is acceptance. So when you are reaching out to someone for the first time, your goal – and this goes for your subject line, too – should be to make that individual feel accepted. And a great way to make someone feel accepted is to lead with some sort of shared value or commonality that you have. This will allow you and the other person to feel connected more meaningfully than just two strangers, one of whom is apparently seeking something from the other.
So, without further ado, I want to give you three simple subject lines that rarely fail for me. I have used these time and time again to get meetings with C-Level executives within the Fortune 500, and there is a method to my madness that I will gladly explain.
1. Referral-based subject line
Hands-down, the best and most successful way to get a meeting with someone or really just for them to take you seriously at all is through a referral. For example, if you were a good friend of mine and you wanted to talk to my parents about buying a timeshare, odds are you would have little luck just calling them on the phone out of the blue. However, if you spoke to me first and I encouraged you to contact my parents based on what I learned about the opportunity myself, and if you told my parents that you were a friend of mine and that I asked you to contact them, it would almost be a little rude for them to ignore you. And that is because my parents love and trust me.
With referrals, you are passively obtaining trust with your target client through a third-party. Businesses ought to be doing more of this, as word-of-mouth marketing and referrals are really the strongest marketing tools in their arsenal. For example, suppose you have a customer who is willing to give you the information of three friends who might also enjoy their brand. In that case, it stands to reason that you will be much more successful obtaining those three new customers using the name of your existing customer than going in cold.
In these cases, my subject line is simple: “referral from [referring individual]”. It is succinct and clear about why you are reaching out but leaves enough unknown that you will almost certainly get an open from an intrigued prospect.
2. Shared value
I mentioned earlier that shared values are really important for building trust and capturing someone’s attention. For example, if I see that a prospect of mine is a fellow Boston sports fan, my subject line might be as simple as, “hello from a fellow Boston sports fan,” or, if I really want to turn it up a notch, “Hello from a fellow Masshole.”
From the perspective of a business reaching out to its customers, you might think of ways to tailor messages to clients based on their expressed interests and how they align with your brand—the more personal, the better. People want to feel like you really mean it when you are saying whatever you are saying to them, so the more it feels like you are harping on universal values (e.g., kindness) rather than personal values (e.g., enjoying nature), you will have a harder time breaking through with people.
3. Thought leadership
A lot of people spend a lot of time and energy doing random things that they enjoy. You might never know it, but the person you meet next at a cocktail party might have a keen side interest in playing with a Yo-Yo. Or, they might have written a great article for a trade publication. Whatever it is, calling your attention to it and why you find it fascinating is usually a good way to appeal to people’s egos.
I once had a prospect from a major Fortune 100 brand who ignored all of my emails. One day, I found out he had a blog. The blog was very personal and touching, and it had to do with his travels and to be away from his family. As a fellow writer and as someone who also travels a lot for work, his blog really resonated with me. So my subject line was something like “about your blog.” You have to keep in mind – it would almost be rude for someone to ignore this type of subject line. Again, the recipient has no idea what is inside the email; they just know that it has something to do with their work. If, for example, someone were to write me an email about the book I recently published, I would be hard-pressed to figure out reasons why I should ignore it.
So there you have it, three simple ideas to break through the noise with effective subject lines. In all of these scenarios, remember to position something that ties you to your prospect in a personal way. The more they feel connected with and accepted by you, the stronger your odds of success.
Jeff Kirchick was Vice President of Enterprise Sales for Next Caller, a Y-Combinator backed technology company, where for 7.5 years, he helped lead the company by managing the sales team, reporting to investors and the board, and closing multi-million-dollar enterprise contracts with the Fortune 500. He led the company to a successful acquisition by Pindrop Security in March 2021 and moved on to a role as Strategic Sales Director with Cresta.ai, a leading AI firm in San Francisco that is backed by the largest investors in Silicon Valley.