The Guide to Getting Nearly All Your Cold Email Opened

It’s hard to get cold email opened.

No-one wants to receive a cold email. Right? 

‘Look, here’s the thing. No matter how hard you work on your subject line, your cold email is an unwelcome party crasher in your recipient’s mailbox. The vast majority of them will never read the email.’

Well, that’s kind of true. It’s true for some people. It all hinges on:

What makes a cold email cold?

Wikipedia (source of all knowledge) says:

‘A cold email is an unsolicited e-mail that is sent to a receiver without prior contact or a request for information previously.’

  • But there’s nothing about that, that says no-one will welcome it or open it.

I think many cold emails do a big dull thud because they’re weakly aligned with the recipient’s interests and needs. Getting cold email opened is hard because they don’t look like something you’d want to open.

We’ve tried a different approach, one that involves intense focus on research, and gearing our emails as tightly as possible to the individual that’s receiving them. The results of working like this can be eye-opening:

LeadGenius took their cold email open rate from 37% to 86% in five iterations. Constantly testing, getting and applying your own data, is absolutely essential.


cold emails opened


Note that their most successful iteration was based on extensive research and personal trust.

We’ve had similar results. In some cases, we’ve been able to deliver 80+% open rates to clients – reliably, consistently, predictably. (Industry average? Around 30%.)

Here’s how to make that happen.

Before you even start…

1: Research and Preparation

Getting cold email opened with high open rates comes down to getting the knowledge you need, then putting it to work. That first step is absolutely vital: you can’t possibly address pain points and make useful contributions that deliver real value if you don’t know anything about the prospect.

We get into how we think this research should be done in another post. Maybe you have your own way; that’s cool. But you have to have the most complete information on your prospects before you do anything else, and you have to have it business focused and yet remain personal.

No-one’s going to respond well to obviously phony attempts to be best buddies, coming from someone they never heard of before. At the same time, we know people respond best to messaging that identifies business pain points that cause them unease personally.

You wouldn’t email HR about low conversion rates, or marketing about new-hire churn, or customer success about sales KPIs. Those might be concerns for their company, but they aren’t the issue that impacts that individual’s professional life.

Great research and prep starts broad and gets deep and narrow. By the time you have an email address in that ‘to…’ bar, you also have clarity on what that prospect cares about and how you can help them.

Getting ready to send….

2: Timing and Cadence

Sending sales emails isn’t a one-shot thing. You might not be dripping out a million marketing messages in MailChimp, but you’re still going to send more than one message to each contact, even if they’re cold.

Once they’re warm and responsive, you’re in a conversation, and it has its own rhythms, but initially? It’s important to find the balance between being persistent, without being irritating.

Obviously, the most desirable time for an email to arrive is when the recipient is going to be interested in opening it. You want to be at the top of inbox when they check, not buried under a dozen other messages.

Best practice doesn’t always match your best choices – your prospects might behave differently than the norm, so you have to get your own data. But even the norm isn’t what you’d expect. When is the best time to get cold email opened?



The best times to send emails are counterintuitively in the early morning and late at night, to catch people while they’re browsing the inbox before bed and not focused on other tasks.

And the day of the week doesn’t make a lot of difference either.

There’s more to timing than when you send the first email.

How long should you wait to send that follow-up?

Patrick Dang, of Dang Worldwide, recommends leaving it 5 to 7 days. ‘Once you send out your first email,’ says Patrick,  ‘your follow up sequences will probably be automated. Meaning, there is not a rush to send a follow up every 3 days (unless you’re on a tight timeline). I’d actually recommend a 5-7 day gap between each email send.’

Patrick goes on to explain, ‘as a sales rep, you’re in a lower status position and it’s important to respect a decision maker’s time.’

Other voices suggest a 5 to 7-day cadence between sales emails; no-one thinks it’s wise to send them less than three days apart.

And although timing and cadence do both matter, targeting and messaging matter more. If you want emails 2 through 7 opened, the best way is to get email one opened. And that’s not going to happen by chasing; it’s going to happen by being well-targeted, well-personalized and having great messaging.

‘It’s best to think about improving the quality of your emails vs. being overly persistent,’ Patrick says.

3: Personalization

Personalize to industry, then the company, then the role, then individual. This is impossible without extensive research and it’s only worth getting right into it if you’re chasing big deals or if you can find a way to make it cost effective. But here’s how it’s done:

Start with industry…

Identify common pain points, concerns, and topics of interest for the industry the prospect is in, then tie your offering to those.


Your prospect works in business information management, so they’re concerned about the imminent rollout of GDPR – a perfect match for your machine-learning-powered information security system.

Then company…

What has that specific company experienced or what are its goals? Sometimes you can get info from the social accounts of the company’s leading figures, as well as from technographic providers and other sources.


Your prospect’s company hasn’t had a data breach in the last 12 months. But two of their major competitors have. It’s a top-of-mind risk for them.

Then role…

Specific roles will have their own specific concerns. Data breaches horrify marketers because they besmirch brands; CEOs think of the P&L report.


Your prospect is a CIO. So the issue of data security is very close to their ulcer heart. You can’t stop them getting hacked, or DDoS’d – but you know your offering could take document security off their plate permanently.

Finally, individual

Knowing who your prospect is on a personal level doesn’t require you to know where they go on holiday or how they like their steak. But the things that matter most to people aren’t tough to track down, and understanding their personal and professional priorities lets you craft a better email.


Your prospect is a female CIO with a postgraduate education…

cold email opened


…who’s interested in cloud computing and SaaS…



…and sees a big role for AI in what she does.


You can garner this info from publicly available social posts and other material, including her company’s about us page. Don’t hire the Pinkertons, but do look around.

The email itself…

4: The Subject Line Gets Cold Email Opened

Your subject line is often described as the headline of your email. Next thing is usually to reach for that Ogilvy quote about the headline being 80 cents in your advertising dollar.


Yeah, that one.

So far, so true.

But to read an email, a person has to take an action, not just continue to scroll or read down a page.

They have to want to read on enough to give active assent and actually click open. An email subject line is actually asking for a lot more than an old-school ad headline was.

And the subject line has a lot of other jobs to do too. In chronological order, an email subject line has to:

  • Get into primary inbox, not spam or an ‘updates’ or ‘promotions’ folder
  • Stand out among the other messages there
  • Communicate indirectly that the message is to be trusted and is valuable

And you’ve got a maximum of around 75 characters to work with here.

The subject line is your chance to earn a place in your prospect’s attention for long enough to sell them the rest of the email. Think of it as an equivalent of the first ten seconds on the phone, when you sell them the rest of the call.

(Yes, there’s preview text too, but the subject line is still what’s responsible for most of the heavy lifting.)

How do you get there?

Getting into primary inbox

Don’t use spammy words or phrases, have a good sender reputation and avoid heavy HTML use, images, a super long email and a bunch of links. That will all help you get past automated spam filters and stop you getting redirected into ‘promotions’ or ‘updates’ in Gmail inboxes.

Stand out among the other messages

What grabs people’s attention?

The average business email account receives over 100 emails every day. The owner of that account opens about 23 of those emails and replies to just two of them. At the very least, we want to be in the 23%, right?

HubSpot has a pretty good list of great email subject lines. If you’re not investing a lot of effort into your subject lines and you switch to using these, you’ll see an uptick for sure.

But the subject line is really where your research starts to pay off in terms of relating with the prospect.

Let’s take HubSpot’s number one suggestion:


True. But you’ll have to know a bit more about them than their name to know what their goal is. The more specific you can be, the more powerful that subject line will be, and the more likely the recipient will open the email. If you can’t do better than ‘save time and money,’ you’re relegating yourself to the bottom of the deck.

It’s the same for any email subject line ‘hacks’ or suggestions: their success relies on knowing enough about your prospects to make them work. This is where your research and personalization efforts make it easy to fill in the blanks.

Communicate value indirectly

Which of these subject lines communicates more value?

1: Hey Mike, quick question?

(Assuming for the moment that your name is Mike.)

2: Open NOW for your chance to WIN a BRAND NEW IPAD!!!

One of these directly offers something valuable, the other just asks for something, with nothing in return.

Yet, none of us would click on that second one. Who knows what thinly-disguised .exe files, iffy pixels or scammy BS lies within? One thing’s for sure: any time spent on it beyond clicking ‘Spam’ is time you’ll never get back.

The communication of value here is indirect. We know that most of our communication when we’re in the same room is non-verbal – body language and how we say what we say account for up to 55% and 38% of communication respectively, says Jeff Thompson, PhD.

Those things indirectly communicate things about status, likeability and a lot more besides. When you want to radiate calm authority, you wouldn’t say so to people. It has to be done indirectly to be credible and effective.

But in an email subject line, you have only words, and only a few. So we have to choose words that imply trustworthiness, value and a certain level of personal trust.

That last one might account for the immense success of Barack Obama’s ‘Hey’ subject line. It sounds like a real person, who you can trust.

Doesn’t mean you should start email subject lines with ‘yo’ or whatever – just that coming across indirectly as a trustworthy individual and not a faceless corporate clone is pretty vital to establishing the kind of trust that gets emails opened.

Matching the tone of voice to the values and expectations of your prospect can be tricky. I’ve answered emails that began ‘dude’ – not everyone would.

This is one reason why you should have your emails, including subject lines, written by a copywriter.

As good as sales people are at communication, the odds are that they’re not going to be good enough to match up tone and expectation at this early a stage.

5: What about preview text?

If you’re sending HTML emails, consider preview text. Preview text is displayed right under the sender name and subject line. It’s a short snippet that gives a prospect some insight into what the email’s going to be about.


You really want to be on this.

If you don’t insert preview text into your email, basically all email clients, except older versions of Outlook, Lotus Notes, and Blackberry – will automatically pull preview text from the first 75 to 100 characters of the email body.

That can work, but be aware that a tweaked version as header text might be more effective.

Not all email clients support preview text. Here’s the list:


It’s often better to send plain text emails, but if you’re planning on using HTML, here’s one way to stand out and increase open rates.

The same rules apply as to subject lines: match expectations and interests and offer value.

After you sent it…

6: Whose Data?

Your data.

Test everything you send, come up with alternates and test those.

That ‘Hey’ subject line that made a pretty big contribution to putting Obama in the White House wasn’t pulled out of the air: it was one of a large number of alternates that varied tone, length, the pitch made in the subject line and more – and it was extensively tested:


Yes, it was a marketing message. No, you’re not trying to get your product elected POTUS. The point’s still valid: test, test, test. The only data that’s really worth anything is yours.


Cold emails don’t need to be inefficient and ineffective. We achieve super high open and reply rates compared with industry averages.

But we don’t do it with a special clever tactic or trick: we do it with a deep base of research and preparation, carefully-crafted messaging and constant, slightly obsessive testing.

That’s the only way to make cold emails really worthwhile.

They can be an awesome way to get new business – but a big, low-quality list, haphazard messaging, little knowledge of prospects and poorly-crafted copy add up to not much.

You’ve got to go to quality every step of the way to make it work.

What’s your biggest cold email challenge – and how did you solve it?

If you liked this post, check out some additional awesome content below!

Cold Email Templates, 56 Elements & Examples that Get Responses and Sales in 2018