Editor’s note: Updated January 2020.

Writing effective cold emails is a challenge because you have no prior relationship to your target audience. Marketers get frustrated with this tactic, because feedback is nearly non-existent and the messages are often lumped together with spam.

Nevertheless, personalized cold emails have a higher-than-average open rate, which makes them an important tool for sales prospecting and customer outreach.

In fact, when journalist Shane Snow sent out 1,000 unpersonalized cold emails to executives across the U.S., he received just 12 replies. By ditching the template and taking a more genuine approach to email writing, Snow saw much better results.

Before you start writing to prospective customers, let’s discuss how cold emails are unique and what separates the good from the bad.

What is a cold email?

Here’s a quick definition: A cold email is an initial form of contact sent to someone for a particular purpose.

If that definition seems broad to you, it is. Cold emails aren’t just for salespeople. They’re used by anyone who needs something from someone they don’t know very well or at all. For instance, job seekers use cold emails to HR managers to ask about potential opportunities.

Generally, cold emails propose an agreement that will be mutually beneficial to the sender and receiver.

There is always an element of uncertainty when sending cold emails. Many recipients are unwilling to open messages from people they don’t know. At other times, you may not have all the information you need about potential recipients to keep them engaged. In other words, there’s always a risk of failure. Personalization, professionalism and a dash of human psychology help reduce that risk.

Types of cold emails

Every salesperson has his or her own style when approaching prospects, and the same goes for cold emails. You may want to help prospects warm up to your sales pitch by giving them free content. Alternatively, you may decide to get straight to the point and deliver your sales pitch immediately.

The types of cold emails you send will depend on your sales cycle, buyer’s journey and personal style. Whether you prefer the slow approach or go straight for the hard pitch, we’ve got four cold email templates to help you get started.

Before you hit the send button, make sure your email subject line is highly engaging. Without a great headline, it doesn’t matter how good your email copy is, because no one will see it.

How to ensure your cold emails avoid spam filters

If you write great, personalized copy, your messages won’t get blocked by spam filters … right?

Maybe. Modern spam filters are sophisticated, but they’re not intelligent. A spam filter doesn’t understand what your emails say or what they’re trying to convey. Rather, filters use a series of signals to determine how likely your message is to be spam.

Email providers don’t publish their spam signals for obvious reasons, but here are a few signals that we can assume have a significant impact on spam filter algorithms:

  • Open rates: If many people open your emails, it signals that your messages are not spam.
  • Replies: People don’t generally respond to spam, so replies to your messages are a good signal.
  • Junk folders: If people move your messages to the junk folder, it’s bad news. However, if people move your emails out of the junk folder to the inbox, they’ll be less likely to be labeled spam in the future.
  • Deletions: If your messages get deleted without getting opened first, it signals they aren’t worth reading.
  • Address books: When people add your business email to their address book, it’s a clear signal they want to see your messages.

Many of these signals are out of your hands. Here are few important elements you can control:

  • Segment your email list. Sending out one email to thousands of recipients isn’t just bad marketing, it could get your messages flagged as spam. Instead, segment your list by customer type, interests or some other criteria to lower the number of people who receive each unique email.
  • Use an active reply-to address. A rookie mistake is sending messages from an email address like “noreply@example.com.” All that does is tell the recipient that your communication is one-way only and you’re not interested in hearing from them. Make sure that someone is actively checking the account for replies.
  • Send emails from a business domain. You should never send mass emails from a personal email account. Set up your emails to come from your business domain. For example, “hello@brafton.com.”

Finally, one of the best ways to avoid spam filters – and legal trouble – is to only send marketing messages to people who have agreed to receive them. The CAN-SPAM Act is a law requiring marketers to:

  • Accurately identify the person or business who initiated the message.
  • Use subject lines that reflect the content of the message.
  • Disclose messages as advertising.
  • Give recipients a clear and conspicuous explanation of how to opt out of future emails.

Complying with these regulations is an absolute must for all email marketers.

What makes a subject line great?

If you want prospects to read your emails, you need attention-grabbing subject lines. That could mean including a question, name, benefit or call to action directly in the subject line.

Considering 55% of customers say they like when marketing emails include relevant products and offers, it’s safe to say personalization is an effective tactic. Of course, that means you need to know something about your sales prospects. For B2B marketers, that typically means you’ll need to know what challenges your prospects face and what solutions they may be interested in.

As you write email subject lines, ask yourself these questions:

Will my subject line make the reader curious?

The primary goal of any subject line is get the reader to open the email. From there, it’s up to the body copy to encourage further action. If your subject line doesn’t raise the recipient’s curiosity, he or she is likely to delete it before ever reading its contents.

Is my offer clear?

Your subject lines should give readers some idea of what they can expect from the message. Though some cold email subject lines use humorous non sequiturs to capture attention, most subject lines should be easy to understand.

Is this message currently relevant?

You may have a great offer, but it might not be the right time for the customer to hear it. B2B marketers should have a clear sense of their prospects’ buying cycle before they start making offers. For example, your pitch could be perfect, but if the customer hasn’t yet determined their budget for the year, it may fall on deaf ears.

Am I creating a sense of urgency?

Ideally, you want your email recipients to open your messages as soon as possible. If readers see your subject line and decide to wait before opening the message, they may never come back. By the time they return to their inbox, your message will likely be buried beneath a pile of other messages.

Have I added an element of personalization?

Personalization is one of the best ways to increase your open rate. Using the recipient’s name in the subject is a good way to capture his or her attention. If you don’t know everyone’s name, then you should at least ensure the appeal is relevant to their needs or interests. No two cold emails should ever be exactly the same.

Writing catchy email subject lines

As you can see, there are many dos and don’ts when it comes to cold emails. In addition to all the rules of digital etiquette, legal requirements and best practices, you also need to be aware of the types of devices on which people will read your messages. Some people will read them from the comfort of a desktop computer, others will read them on a smartphone while standing uncomfortably close to other subway commuters.

A great email subject line should work no matter what environment your message arrives at. For that reason, we recommend keeping your subject lines below 60 characters and below 10 words in length. Likewise, try to keep email preview text under 55 characters.

20 cold email marketing subject lines to try

Combined with a catchy subject line, personalized cold emails can increase your response rates.

Here are 20 cold email subject line examples that leverage human psychology and tested marketing strategies to inspire your next campaign:

20 cold email subject lines that actually get responses - infographic

1. “Let’s talk about [topic/idea]!”

If you’ve done your research, you should know what topics interest your prospect. This subject line should spark some curiosity when it appears at the top of the prospect’s inbox. Everyone enjoys discussing their favorite subjects, which makes this subject line so enticing. Consider playing around with this, using business and personal topics, depending on the tone you want to take.

2. “A [better/smarter/faster] way to [reach a specific goal]”

Everyone wants to be able to achieve their goals faster and more efficiently. The key to this cold email subject line is your understanding of the recipient’s most pressing business pain points. Rather than coming to him or her asking for something, you’re coming to the conversation as a giver – a bringer of solutions. Who wouldn’t want to engage in that conversation?

3. “Can I help you with [reaching a specific goal]?”

This subject line takes a similar approach as the previous one, but with a slightly more submissive tone. Rather than outright offering your services, skills or expertise, you’re asking the recipient if they require your help. To be effective, you should know what challenges with which the prospect is currently struggling. This tactic shows that you understand their situation but does not make any overt assumption about their ability to solve it.

4. “Quick question regarding [project]”

With this prompt, you’re doing two things: You’re placing the recipient in the position of the expert and you’re showing that you value his or her time. When you start with the assumption that the prospect holds the answer to a key question, you make them feel good. People like to be helpful, especially when they can show off some niche expertise.

5. “Hey [name], check this out”

Have you ever heard your name shouted in a room of strangers? You look around expecting to see someone you know, but really there’s just someone else in the room with the same name as you. This is the cold email subject line equivalent of that shout. It piques the reader’s interest using a familiar tone and practically begs them to open the email.

6. “[Name], looking forward to seeing you at [event]!”

If you know your prospect will be attending an industry event – perhaps they’re a speaker or brand representative – this prompt will certainly grab their attention. It assumes a certain level of familiarity, but that’s the whole point of networking at events. Showing that you’re going to the event also shows that you likely share the same interests and goals as your prospect.

7. “Where do I even start?”

Start with what? Your target reader will be curious to know what has you so exasperated. Is it a problem they can help you with? There’s only one way to find out – by opening the email. Since this subject line is abstract, you’ll want to make sure the first line of your email is just as eye catching – and much more specific.

8. “Are you prepared to overcome [specific challenge]?”

Once again, this is a subject line that indicates your understanding of the recipient’s challenges. You’ll have to do some research to make an informed guess at what challenges are most pressing to him or her. If you have that information, you’ll be able to spark the prospect’s interest in a potential solution.

9. “[Name], I need your advice”

This is the email equivalent of Princess Leia’s famous plea to Obi Wan Kenobi. Stopping just short of saying the prospect is your only hope, this subject line indicates that you respect the prospect’s expertise on a given subject. But note that it doesn’t specifically call out the topic. That’s intentional. The reader has to open the message to find out what he or she is needed for.

10. “Have you been to [local establishment]?”

This tactic requires some (light) cyber stalking. If you know where the prospect works from, you can search for a highly rated restaurant near his or her office. Then, you can request a meeting with them at this neutral location. If you’re lucky, you’ll land on the prospect’s favorite lunch spot, and it will be that much harder to turn down the invitation.

cold email subject line

11. “Request to connect”

In the modern business landscape, networking is everything. When you have the right connections, doors open more easily for you. This subject line plays on the recipient’s desire to expand his or her professional network. Of course, it works best if you actually want to include him or her in your network – this isn’t a good option for a sales email.

12. “Goodbye, [Name]”

Goodbyes are difficult. They can also be confusing, if you don’t quite remember when you met the person in the first place. This subject line triggers a basic human response, prompting the reader to open the email to see just who exactly is saying goodbye. Using the prospect’s first name makes this tactic especially effective.

13. “You missed it”

Millennials call it FOMO – the Fear of Missing Out. It is a particularly potent form of ennui, a feeling that you are just not having the types of experiences you should be. This subject line is short and to the point – it tells the reader they missed out on – well, something. The only way to find out what is to open the email and read.

14. “Essential resources to help with [challenge]”

Searching for resources to overcome a business challenge takes time that business professionals may not possess. This subject line indicates that you not only understand that the prospect’s time is precious but also that you’re prepared to help them out. The more specific you can make the challenge, the more likely the prospect is to open the message.

15. “Free to talk at [date]?”

By using a specific date and time, this subject line creates a sense of urgency without being overtly alarming. Prospects are less likely to leave an email unread if they perceive a deadline. You needn’t stick with the time mentioned in your subject, however. You could list a number of available times within the body of the message.

16. “[Name] said we should connect”

For this case, you’ll need the name of one of your prospect’s colleagues – or better yet, the name of his or her superior. It’s best if the person is an actual mutual connection. Using a reference’s name establishes a certain level of trustworthiness from the very beginning. If you share a mutual connection, it shows that you’re someone worth talking to.

17. “Let’s cut to the chase”

This is another subject line that creates a sense of urgency and respect for the prospects time. It’s also short, and doesn’t supply much information. In this case, a lack of context may work in your favor – it shows you don’t want to waste even a millisecond of the prospect’s time. Busy executives can appreciate that.

18. “Have you solved your [challenge] yet?”

Use this subject line when you know for a fact your prospect hasn’t solved the pain point you’re referring to. After all, if you’re shooting in the dark, there’s a good chance the reader will simply say to themselves, “Yep, I have.” And then your email will disappear into the trash folder like the junk mail of old.

19. “You’ll love this article, [name]!”

This prompt works because it attempts to immediately give the reader value. It shows that you understand some part of his or her business and you’re prepared to engage with him or her on a specific topic of discussion. People enjoy sharing articles online, and using that fact could increase your click-through rates.

20. “I am the walrus!”

Sometimes, the best emails don’t need to make any sense at all. A humorous phrase or non sequitur can give the reader pause long enough to consider opening your message. This tactic works best if you can’t find much information about your prospect online. It’s still better to send something, rather than nothing at all.

Test your subject lines with these tools

At the end of the day, your instincts as a marketer or salesperson will help you craft the best headlines, but that doesn’t mean you should forgo objective help.

A/B testing is likely to be your best bet when experimenting with email subject lines. That means picking two or more subject lines that are likely to convert and testing them on different audience segments. Then, you measure email open rates and conversion rates to determine which subject line performs better. Over time, A/B testing will help you hone your email marketing campaigns.

To quickly check the effectiveness of your email marketing subject lines, try these free tools:

  • Is Not Spam: Once you’ve completed your email, send it to this free service. Within seconds, you’ll get a free report that shows you how likely your message is to get caught in a spam filter.
  • Touchstone: If you’re looking for an enterprise-grade subject line tester, touchstone offers a paid service that compares your text against a database of 21 billion emails.
  • Email subject line grader: This free tool gives your subject line a score based on its character and word count, word balance and passivity.

Successful cold emails combine catchy subject lines with personalized content. Use these examples to inspire your future messages. Let us know how it goes in the comments below!

Alexander Santo is a Brafton writer living in Washington. ​He enjoys searching for the perfect cup of coffee, browsing used book shops and attending punk rock concerts.