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The Forbidden Channel: Grow Your SaaS Business Through Direct Email

Some argue that the cold call is dead. However, if my growing business is any proof, the cold email pitch is alive and thriving.

And, besides, in a world where spam filters are increasingly sensitive and most cold emails are decidedly unwelcome in a decision-maker’s inbox, then how could anyone be so successful with this age-old strategy?

If you would like to build a successful cold email strategy, begin by determining the ideal person in your target business to contact, among its users, decision makers, and sponsors.

Determine the Corporate Role of the Addressee

Imagine you have an awesome SaaS tool for marketers. Let’s say it audits websites and gives 100 super-tailored recommendations for how to lift conversion rate.

First, there’s your user, whose role might be something like:

  • Online Marketing Manager
  • Marketing Associate
  • Manager, Demand Generation

This is the person who will ultimately log into the tool and get value from it.

Then, you have your decision maker, whose role is probably something like:

  • Director of Online Marketing
  • VP of Demand Generation
  • VP of Marketing

Finally, there are the sponsors. These are other people in an organization who have clout when it comes to making a decision to spend money on things like SaaS tools. Those could be:

  • CEO / Founder
  • VP of Sales
  • VP of Business Development
  • Any C-level person

Some companies make the mistake of targeting direct email outreach to the user. You can argue that a bottom-up approach – where the user will evangelize and sell in the solution if you just show her a great experience – will close deals. But here’s what’s far more likely to happen:

  1. Your email will get a better response rate from users than from decision makers.
  2. This will translate into plenty of demos with low-level influencers like your Online Marketing Manager.
  3. This person will advocate for your product, but ultimately will not have the power to help you close the sale.

In this scenario, you’re getting more interest at the top of the funnel, and you’re spending a lot of time on a prospect who doesn’t close.

Enter a second approach, the one I recommend. Target the sponsor(s) or, better yet, the person to whom the decision maker reports.

In this example, if your decision maker is a VP of Marketing, she probably reports to the CMO or CEO.

When you target that person, they may ignore your email. But, if it’s compelling enough (and once you get through this post, it will be), some CEOs will forward it to the VP of Marketing and say something like “check this out, see what you think, I’ve spent about 12 seconds thinking about this and it’s not an immediate throw-away.”

Now, you have a potential demo or phone appointment that’s sanctioned by upper management. Your close rate for this type of demo will invariably be higher.

Use Tools to Find Good Contacts

Here are a number of tools you can use to gather information about leaders in companies you are interested in contacting: Formerly known as Jigsaw, this database has a lot of the leadership at established (and up-and-coming) SaaS companies covered. You can buy a subscription or simply start by trading contacts you have for ones you want.

LinkedIn. Buy a relatively inexpensive membership, and get a few dozen InMails to reach the people who are fantastic targets for you but who you haven’t been able to track down email addresses for. At least one or two will get back to you, and that will give you your ROI on this purchase.

Crunchbase. You’d be surprised how much information you can glean from about a company’s leadership team.

Team page. Sometimes, the person you want to reach is right there on the “Our Team” page of your target company. Don’t forget this simple option.

Avoid These Terrible Cold Email Practices

Here’s a real email pitch I got once:

quote request email

Why is this email pitch so terrible?

  1. The subject line “Quote Request” is not informative except that it promises a super boring email.
  2. The email jumps into a “sales promotion” before I even know what this company does.
  3. Why is “Add 4 free meetings” in red? Red means I’m doing something wrong. Don’t use red text.
  4. Don’t talk about “contracts” on the first date.
  5. “Let me know if you would like to lock in this promotion…” is a weak close. The promise of becoming a “long term sales partner” is coming on too strong.

Another pitfall sales reps sometimes fall into is to take things personally. Here’s a reply I received just a few weeks ago after reaching out to an account executive who had cold emailed my client:

hi igor email

The highlighted sentence is creepy and passive-aggressive. Would you want to do business with this person?

Compose the Email Message

Follow these rules, and you won’t come off like the guys in the last section. Be upbeat, straightforward, and honest. People will appreciate your enthusiasm and the fact that you gave some meaningful thought to how you can actually help their business.

Carefully craft the subject line. Don’t allow it to be left as an afterthought, because there are two kinds of emails: the ones you open right away, and the ones you dread reading, probably never get to, and eventually nix. Make sure your subject line gets you into the former category.

Customization is the trick, as shown in the examples below:

Bad: “Partnership opportunity” or “Quick call?”

Better: “Clever Zebo + KISSmetrics: how we can partner up”

Much better: “Clever Zebo + KISSmetrics: ideas for making $1M/mo together”

Don’t drone on. Nothing takes more than a few sentences to explain. You think your software is the bee’s knees and quite complex, but your hook doesn’t need to be. Distill it down to its simplest version, and then cut it in half.

Close the deal. What do you want: A phone appointment? A free trial signup? Make sure you ask for it in a compelling way. Make it sound easy.

An easy close is to ask a question: “Are you the right person to talk to about this?” or “Does your company ever think about using tools that can help lift conversion rates?”

Another nice close is to get really specific about booking a time, and for what. For example: “Can we find 10 minutes to chat about this next week? I’m available Tuesday from 9 am to 1 pm PST.”

It’s weaker to give a long spiel and end with “Let me know what you think!” Asking someone what they think of your software is a bigger commitment than asking them to answer a yes or no question.

Be explicit about how the deal benefits the recipient. Tell them why they should care, early and often. Here are some things you might want to express:

  • They have a chance to be the hero in their organization by exploring your product or service (e.g., it’ll be like discovering Google Analytics or KISSmetrics through a cold email pitch)
  • They have a business opportunity you’re mutually interested in
  • You’re willing to give them something tangible in exchange for their time
  • You’re willing to do something in return
  • They will learn something interesting from the interaction
  • They will feel good / smart / fulfilled / like “the expert” if they connect with you
  • They will create goodwill

Be funny. People are bored at work. They’re serious. Make them smile at their desk. Be playful and have a sense of humor about what you’re doing. You know you’re taking a leap by cold emailing people and that’s okay because you have a great product to share.

Follow up. In Clever Zebo’s experience, the follow-up note gets a higher response rate than the original email. Don’t assume that if your prospect never replied, it’s over. Do be courteous, however. More about this in the next section.

Test rigorously. As with any marketing channel, performance will improve with frequent and systematic tests. Be sure you can measure the things that matter: opens, clicks, positive replies, appointments booked, and some semblance of lead quality. You should be testing multiple subject lines and email body components. You should even test your target audience / contact title.

It’s common to see positive response rates in the 1-5% range. If you’re getting a demo out of every 20 emails you send about your SaaS product, that’s a strong conversion rate for the cold email channel.

Mind Your Manners

All these tools and tricks work only if you abide by good karma and don’t act like a knucklehead. Remember that you’re harnessing a powerful tool: email is akin to knocking on someone’s door. You wouldn’t go around knocking on doors in your neighborhood unless you (a) had something valuable to say, (b) could say it concisely and compellingly, and (c) would maintain a polite and gracious manner. So, be sure to act that way in the email world, too.

Provide something of actual value. Before you send your email, think about your prospect’s business and how you can actually be helpful. Then, give respondents what was promised in the email.

Let people unsubscribe. It’s a legal requirement (of the CAN-SPAM Act) that you allow recipients to unsubscribe from any email, so don’t forget about this, even if it’s just, “Reply to me directly and I’ll make sure you don’t hear from us again.”

Don’t badger people. Occasionally, unsolicited emails draw surprising responses. It’s the needle in the haystack, but sometimes people can get angry and write weird or offensive remarks. Don’t engage, don’t waste your time, and don’t take anything personally. Be respectful of people’s inboxes, give them what they ask for, and move on to the next good prospect.

Ultimately, every business needs a healthy marketing mix to flourish. Cold email is just one channel, which, if harnessed correctly and responsibly, can contribute to your bottom line. Most companies have tested some form of this, but often we see clients who have given up too quickly. There’s a smart way to make this channel work.

What are the best email pitches you’ve ever received? Tell us in the comments.

About the Author: Igor Belogolovsky is Co-founder of Clever Zebo, a team of conversion rate optimization experts based in the San Francisco Bay Area.

  1. Hi Igor,
    Great article. I’m with you that cold email is far from dead. I say both to inbound and outbound.

    Looking into the team page is a great idea. I do similar search in Twitter and Linkedin Groups.

    What is your opinion on email tracking software like Yesware?


    • Hi SengHee, thanks for your input.

      We’ve found Yesware useful for automation and tracking with these types of initiatives.

  2. I got a little confused when you mentioned the CAN-SPAM Act. I consider cold emails to be those who are not on my mailing list. Since they aren’t subscribed to any list, why would I include an unsubscribe link?

    • Hey Keith, good question. You don’t have to include an “unsubscribe link” per se, but you are required by the CAN-SPAM law to allow the recipient to opt out of future email. So even if they’re not on a mailing list, it has to be easy for them to say, “don’t reach out again,” and make that request stick. Plus, it’s courteous. :)

  3. You wouldn’t go around knocking on doors in your neighborhood unless you (a) had something valuable to say, (b) could say it concisely and compellingly, and (c) would maintain a polite and gracious manner. So, be sure to act that way in the email world, too.


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