We’re continuing our series on some of the most common mistakes committed in the pursuit of building out a professional network. Check out our previous posts on making introductions and sending follow-ups.
Cold outreach. It’s the third rail of relationship development: some people hate it, others swear by it. So what’s the deal with this controversial networking tool? Cold outreach is when you try to get connected with someone out of the blue. You don’t know them and you don’t even know anyone who knows them. Somehow you got their contact information and decided to shoot your shot, trying to make something out of nothing.
It’s worth noting that cold outreach has been around forever. It’s not an artifact of a digital world and surface-deep connections on LinkedIn. In fact, before the hyper-connectivity of the 21st century, cold outreach was an even more important tool for building up your professional network. The reality is that for many people looking to make something of themselves, cold outreach may be the best (or only) tool at their disposal.
So if it’s such a vital tool for so many — especially those who don’t have much else — why is it so maligned? Let’s examine a couple of the ways that cold outreach so often falls flat.
We all know it on sight. Whether we’re being sold on accounting services, outsourcing, or biological enhancement, our inboxes are stuffed with emails trying to sell us things we don’t want or need. Spam is a good thing gone wrong: cold outreach torn apart and reconstructed into a Frankenstein creation of ubiquitous digital availability.
While inhuman software-manufactured emails full of typos and strange symbols may be the final form of spam, the reality is that a lot of otherwise-well-intentioned cold outreach can fall into the “unwanted noise” category for the recipient. So how do you avoid this trap? A few tips:
- Be very careful before you copy and paste. A generic, templatized outreach to numerous people runs a high risk of feeling like exactly what it is.
- Be relevant. If nothing else, spam is defined by being unwanted. Whenever possible, figure out what your recipient wants and deliver it (or at least the promise of it).
- Find connection. Even when you may not have a relationship in common, you almost certainly have some point of commonality with the person you’re trying to connect with. It could be a sports team, a geography, or an interest. Do a bit of research and find that connection.
Consider your ask
Once you get through the spam filter (both automated and human), you have another hill to climb: making a request that the other person actually wants to fulfill.
The first risk with your ask is one that most people don’t even think about: asking for so little that it’s either uninteresting or beneath the recipient’s notice. For instance, the classic “can I pick your brain?” request. Not only is it a phrase that creeps people out, it’s just not interesting. Instead, make a specific request to learn about something they’re an expert in. They’ll at least be a bit interested in talking about their domain and be pleased that you recognize their capability.
Because it’s a more intuitive risk, fewer people run afoul of the pitfall of asking for too much. Still, it’s a real risk. Making a pointed request for 30 minutes of someone’s time to ask specific questions is probably reasonable. Asking someone to commit to being your mentor for the next decade isn’t. Take the context of the relationship (or lack thereof) into account when you’re considering your ask. Make sure it’s something that the other person doesn’t have to think too hard about before accepting.
So what to do
It’s important to keep in mind that cold outreach is often the least efficient method of seeking connection. When at all possible, try to have a mutually connected third party foster the introduction. But if you absolutely must, there are some important best practices to follow in sending your email from out of the blue.
- Be concise. Busy people aren’t going to read your two-page dissertation on why you need to talk to them. In fact, they’ll probably be creeped out.
- Be specific. Don’t make a generic ask for help or connection. Tell them why this connection makes sense for both them and you.
- Find connection. Even if you don’t know someone they know, you almost certainly have something in common with them. Figure out what it is and mention it briefly and organically.
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