The inbound vs outbound dichotomy is overrated.
As it turns out, to build an inbound organic traffic engine that actually works, you need to build links. How do you do that? Typically, unless you’ve already got a massive audience, that’s going to involve some cold outreach.
On a broader level, beyond backlinks, it’s valuable to be able to secure favorable mentions and placements in the media. A core component of doing so is making sure your cold outreach is responded to.
There’s hardly a human out there working in marketing that wouldn’t value from improving their cold email skills. It’s a powerful lever to boosting any digital channel you’re invested in.
I’ve done my fair share of link building and digital PR, and now I do so at scale with my content marketing agency. Through repeated iterations and years tweaking my tactics, I’ve learned a lot, and I’m going to spill my tips and principles here.
What do I mean by Digital PR?
Quick, let’s get on the same page. When I say “Digital PR,” I mean getting brand placements and backlinks on high-value websites.
Whether you want a story in Entrepreneur or a backlink from a SaaS company blog, I put all of that under Digital PR. Any time you’re reaching out to an editor to influence some part of their story or the links or resources they mention digitally, that’s Digital PR.
That out of the way, let’s get into some tips and principles!
8 Cold Outreach Principles for Digital PR
While there are a variety of blog posts with ready-made digital PR templates, and they can certainly help get the ball rolling, I highly recommend approaching it from a principles-first perspective.
We’ll cover tips and baseline strategies here that you can use to craft your own creative email pitches. Putting your own spin and personality in your PR outreach will be much more effective than cutting and pasting someone else’s template.
- Have some value to justify your cold email
- Talk like a human
- Automate what you can, but not at the expense of quality
- Cut to the chase
- Respect your recipient
- When in doubt, stand out
- Follow up appropriately for the context
- Measure to the extent that it’s useful to do so
1. Have some value to justify your cold email
Your first question before sending any email to anyone should be: “is this worth sending?”
Now, depending on how ethical you are or how self-critical you are, that may be a high bar to pass. At the very least, then, you must answer the perennially useful marketing question, “what’s in it for me?”
Especially in a cold email, begging isn’t a strategy. Asking someone to give you free advice or feedback isn’t valuable either. What do *you* and your email bring to the table? What can you offer?
Here’s the truth, however: value is subjective. That’s partially why cold email templates tend not to be effective; they apply blanket values at scale when each and every recipient may be looking for something unique.
So, the real cold email pros end up spending the vast majority of their time researching their prospects and then the remaining time writing the emails.
For example, our agency has been experimenting with outbound sales, and we’ve found a high response rate when we do a preliminary content gap analysis for our prospects. We type their domain into Ahrefs, compare their site to competitors, find a few dozen keyword opportunities, and offer this up as both proof of our expertise and as a valuable document even if we never work together.
Value in your case could be anything – reciprocity, a good story, or even just a friendly ask from a genuine person. It could be as easy as buying someone lunch (I took the lunch meeting, by the way):
Finding and aligning the value you offer to your recipient is the hardest but most important part of cold outreach for digital PR.
2. Talk like a human
When you do send an email, make sure you sound like you’ve actually written the thing.
At the risk of making this article a giant rant against templates, it’s just incredibly obvious when someone sends a stock cold email. It’s not only ineffective, but it’s incredibly annoying.
The above email, for example, was sent not once but twice with the same text. It also, notably, asks me to add a backlink to an article that I didn’t write.
Side note: your number two perogative (outside of asking “what’s in it for me?”) should be eliminating obvious errors. Via negative principle: you get more value from removing the bad parts than by any addition of brilliant persuasion.
That example is a fairly obvious example of a bad stock template, but there are others that aren’t so egregious. Still, they feel stale when you read them. You know the person doesn’t know you or care about what you’re working on. It feels… cold.
Now, you can still use templated components, but you should make it as personalized as possible. Here’s a great example of a sales email I got recently:
This is one of the best sales emails I’ve received, I think. It’s studded with interesting copy that sounds like it was written by a human, but it’s also basically pulling all of these references from a blog post on my personal site about travel tips. I also love post-impressionism and Van Gogh, so that PS hit me.
I, however, don’t work on account-based marketing, so the only thing they could have done better was research more and find the correct contact.
One might also note that small exhibitions of empathy, gratitude, and friendliness go a long way. Send a thank you when you achieve your desired goal with cold outreach (whether that’s a link or a story placement or whatever).
3. Automate what you can, but not at the expense of quality
Automation: As a marketer, I love it. And nowadays, there’s an absolute abundance of email outreach tools to help automate pretty much any aspect of the process.
As a human and recipient of outreach, however, I’m ambivalent.
When done well, it should be invisible. You shouldn’t be able to tell that someone is automatically triggering emails or sending them on a schedule. It should all feel natural.
Here’s what you can automate:
- Certain aspects of the outreach target research (which blogs you want to target, who is in charge, etc.)
- Finding email addresses (get a good virtual assistant or just use a service like ContactOut or VoilaNorbert)
- Follow up reminders (Boomerang is a classic tool)
- The actual sending of the emails (Mailshake is a great tool)
- Measurement and reporting
Outside of that, you should write your own emails and know something about the person you’re reaching out to.
Automation can and should eliminate the boring tasks, but it shouldn’t come at the cost of reducing the effectiveness of your campaigns.
4. Cut to the chase
Time and love are the only resources that matter, but time is finite. Respect people’s time. That means a few things.
First, don’t beat around the bush and try to cleverly or coyly get what you want. If you have a request, just spit it out. If you work in digital marketing, you get requests all the time. Those who cut to the chase also cut through the noise. If your request is valuable (see point #1) it will warrant a response. If not, whatever – just send an email to the next person on your list.
Second, brevity is your friend. A couple sentences will suffice. Don’t write a book (and for the love of all things holy, don’t attach like five documents on the email).
Finally, don’t waste time asking the recipient if you can ask for a favor. Just ask for the favor. This is all simpler than we’ve made it out to be.
I’ve started many long term relationships from simple emails that offer a guest post. Sometimes I include a link to past articles, but sometimes I just pitch the post:
That particular guest post pitch got me a nice link to one of my new projects, a content site about kava tea.
5. Respect your recipient
Brevity in mind, that doesn’t mean you should just reach out with an ambiguous two word message – “link, please?” – and then run away. It also doesn’t mean you should try to wrap your request in any sort of persuasive obfuscation.
Give value, be clear, and respect your recipient’s intelligence. Persuasion tactics and games tend to be short lived at best and, more likely, completely ineffective from the start.
Here’s an example of an outreach email I used to send when building links for Service Hub at HubSpot:
Nothing special, I get it. But also, it was quite effective.
This may have been partially because the HubSpot brand name is well known. But it’s also quite apparent that I’m asking for a link, and I’m also offering undeniable value in the form of a guest post offer (these were writers we were reaching out to after all).
In your guest posting outreach strategy, providing value first is one of the most important tactics you should employ.
The opposite of the above email would be one of those super cheeky emails written with chatty copy where, after reading 400 words, you still don’t know what they’re asking for. Sometimes they ask for “feedback on their article,” and don’t even include the link. This is not cool, because it’s hiding the real request: they want a link.
All I’m saying is you shouldn’t think that your recipient lacks the intelligence to see through your ruse.
6. When in doubt, stand out
My friend David Kemmerer wrote an excellent article on how he got his startup featured in Entrepreneur. He learned that there are agencies who basically have relationships with contributors at all of these ‘trustworthy’ sites like Forbes, Entrepreneur, etc. These contributors take cold hard cash from these agencies, who charge big bucks to brands for the arbitrage.
Scumminess of these free lunch publications aside, David thought, “why not just go straight to the source?” He wrote this email:
It’s a long email, but it worked. He got a response and a placement.
You learn the rules so you can break them. When in doubt, come up with a creative strategy and try it out. Nothing to lose!
7. Follow up appropriately for the situation
Follow up is clearly important with cold email outreach. I actually enjoy it when someone sends me a respectful nudge to make a decision, provided that the value is there and it’s an offer I’m interested in. We all have too many emails in our inboxes, and things can get lost. Also, the data on follow up emails for sales is clear: it typically takes several touchpoints to get a response and/or a sale.
However, if you’re asking for a backlink, you might want to chill out a bit on the seventh “just following up here” email. It should be abundantly clear that your offer has gone noticed yet ignored.
Hang up the towel and move on to the next row on your outreach target spreadsheet.
8. Measure to the extent that it’s useful to do so
I’m a measurement junky, so when it comes to cold outreach, I love to know the numbers:
- How many emails are you sending?
- How many of those are opened?
- How many of those are responded to?
- How many achieve their desired result?
This should act as your “funnel” of sorts, which allows you to A/B test different components of your cold outreach strategy, especially seemingly minute yet impactful aspects such as the subject line or the “From” field.
That said, applying science where art prevails is a cursed habit for well-meaning marketers. Because of external factors, it’s actually somewhat difficult to parse the signal from the noise with regards to response rates and close rates. At a high scale, you can determine which is working best, but that’s not possible if you’re sending only dozens of emails.
So your best bet, if you’re like most marketers, is to over-index on your qualitative insights, your creativity, and your perseverance. Cold email is a slog, but it’s so worth it, and you’ll improve with practice and time.
Cold email is mostly art with a little bit of science mixed in. Through probably thousands of iterations, I’ve distilled my thoughts on cold outreach for digital PR into some broadly applicable principles, listed here in the article.
These generally guide my communications, though it has to be stated that you should also seek to find your own ‘rules,’ tips, and best practices. Tactic fatigue is real, so don’t rely on others’ templates or persuasion tactics. Tinker and find your own voice. Best of luck!
P.S. If you need an all-in-one tool for PR outreach, you’ll love Prowly.
Cover photo by Yannik Mika on Unsplash