Plenty has been written about outbound email. We won’t go into the details of the pros and cons, but the truth is it’s one of the best channels tops get in front of your Ideal Customer Profile (ICP) and reliably scale your pipeline. There are very few b2b SaaS businesses that don’t give outbound email a shot at one time or another.
We’ve run hundreds of outbound email campaigns – generally achieving 70%+ open rates and 20%+ click or reply rates – and successfully managed to scale outbound email to the number one customer acquisition channel in dozens of SaaS start-ups.
I wanted to share our best practices so you can learn from them and win more clients you’re your business through outbound email. Keep in mind you should have a clear understanding of your ICP to make outbound email work (although this channel can be a great learning school for you to finetune your ICP and your Value Prop & USPs).
This guide is aimed at b2b SaaS businesses that want to automate their outreach to more than a couple of hundred companies a month (If you’re an Enterprise solution doing uber-targeted ABM, you’ll probably have SDRs doing this manually).
#1. Data Mining
Finding the Companies You Want to Target
Getting a good list or database with accurate data will be responsible for at least 70% of your success with cold email. A lot of companies trying to set up cold email seem to miss this point.
There are plenty of databases out there where contact data seems very easily accessible. Examples include Apollo, Lusha, Crunchbase, etc. These sources can be used, but in our experience, the lead quality here is often mediocre and engagement is low (probably because these leads are so easily accessible and thus get 100s of cold emails every week).
We prefer to gather our own leads and do our own data mining. Hereby, we guarantee our data is correct and we get in front of leads that are less exposed to cold outreach.
The directories we’d use vary a lot (they should since everyone’s ICP is different!), but often a simple Google search will help us find them. Targeting agencies? Clutch.co has one of the most extensive directories on the web. Targeting dentists? Check out CDSBC. Whatever ICP you’re targeting, there’s bound to be a directory for them.
Once you found a good directory you’ll most likely need to scrape the data (check out Fiverr or Upwork to get someone to scrape it for you)
A great source and help for building your lead database are technology profiling tools like BuiltWith. These tools will detect technologies being used by your leads. Does your ICP use HubSpot and Quickbooks? BuiltWith will allow you to find them. Do you have a competing technology you want to target? Easy.
Once you’ve found the best source of your leads you are likely to end up with a list of company names, urls, and some additional info like company size, subindustry, location etc. Filter these further with your ICP criteria (e.g. location, # employees, etc.).
Another great way to find companies or people to target is using Linkedin to create highly targeted segments and extracting data from these lists with a tool like Spylead.
Further Data Mining
Now that you have a list of companies to target you’ll want to start with some data cleansing. Excel is your friend. Use it to:
- Cross-reference and exclude any existing leads (you don’t want to cold email existing customers)
- Exclude domain names or company names that don’t seem good quality (e.g. too long/ short or containing too many digits)
- Get rid of strings like “llc”, “limited”, “AG” from the company name. You want your outreach to seem authentic and not written by a bot.
Once you’ve cleaned your list it’s time to find the right people within those companies to reach out to. Use a tool like Hunter to find contact persons and emails for them. Focus on personal emails only and avoid emails like info@. Hunter will allow you to look for employees within specific departments. If you are targeting very small companies you can opt for “personal emails” without further companies.
Once you’ve downloaded your list you have a good base to start off with but it will need further data cleansing. We generally only reach out to prospects for which we have a first name. This is because the extra personalization increases engagement and helps keep your outreach under the spam radar.
Again, use excel to look for and clean first names that have special symbols in them, are unnaturally long or short, etc. Email finder tools like Hunter are good but their data is still flawed.
As I mentioned we’d only do cold outreach to prospects of which we also know their first name. Problem is that email finder tools will often only have first names for 30-50% of the leads they return. A cool trick to increase this rate is by using excel to extract first names from the email addresses. Here’s how:
- Split the email address at the @ sign (e.g. firstname.lastname@example.org becomes elon)
- Split any strings that contain a “.” (e.g. elon.musk would become elon)
- Use a database with the most common first names (google it) and perform a vlookup to see which strings correspond with them
This trick will often lead to an extra 20-30% first names.
If you went through all previous steps you’d have excluded any domains that are already in your database. If not, make sure to cross-reference and exclude any individual emails.
Depending on the company size of your ICPs you might now have dozens of different prospects per company to reach out to (ideally, if you have been thorough with selecting the right departments or roles you’d have less). We generally never reach out to more than 5 people within the same company. Filter based on roles and exclude the ones that fit the least with your ICP.
We often mention in the email copy that we reached out to their colleagues. In order to do this, just add another column in your lead database called “colleague” and fill it out (again, Excel is your friend and will let you automate this).
Depending on the product you sell and the ICP you are targeting you can, and should, personalize your emails as much as possible. Since we’d eventually want to scale the outbound outreach to hundreds of new contacts every week, manual research is simply not an option.
There are plenty of ways to automate personalization though. Think outside the box and use any data you can find. Remember you can use Technology Profiling tools to find out which techs your leads are using.
Some examples of data points that can easily be used for personalization.
- Company name, First name, Country
- Industry, Competitors
- Technologies used (e.g. Google Analytics, HubSpot)
- LinkedIn data like interests
Keep in mind the data point does not necessarily need to be used as a string in the email copy. You can use smart copy to convert properties to full sentences too.
Now that you have your cold email database with all the data points you’ll use and you’ve made sure the data is clean the last step is to verify the emails. You want to make sure the emails you have are still valid (employees move on and inboxes get disconnected). If you send too many emails to invalid inboxes you’ll be blacklisted in no time. So avoid this at all costs.
There are plenty of tools out there that will check for you if the inboxes are valid. Hunter.io offers this feature. These days, most outbound email tools will also include a feature to do this.
That’s it. You should now have an extremely clean database of prospects to reach out to. Depending on the size of your TAM and you’re filtering this could be a couple of hundred leads or thousands of them.
Clarifying your USPs
Before starting to write the copy for the outbound emails you’ll need to have a clear understanding of your ICP and your USPs. If you don’t exactly know what your USPs are you’ll have a tough time convincing prospects to talk to you or check out your product.
Go through the effort to clearly write down your USPs and pick the 2-3 most relevant ones to focus on in your outbound email sequences.
Picking the Right CTAs
After you’ve clarified what the right USPs are to focus for the ICP you’re targeting you’ll need to decide which Call-to-actions you want to use. Depending on the length of the sequence you’ll be sending out we’d recommend to pick 2-3 max.
Try to limit the number of CTAs per email to just 1 as this has proven to be more effective, but don’t shy away from trying out a different CTA in a different email. We generally try to mix in a top of funnel CTA with bottom of funnel CTAs. As an example; we’d offer a free trial or demo in the first emails, mention a relevant content piece in the following email and finish with another email trying to get them on a call.
This way, we often still capture some engagement from prospects which are not far enough in the funnel yet to get on a call or sign up for a trial.
Read More: SaaS Content Marketing: 6 Tips for Success
Deciding Which Email Sequences to Use
In terms of the length of your email sequence you’ll want to find a balance between having enough emails to give you a good chance to get through to a prospect, but at the same time not be too intrusive (and risk getting spam complaints).
We generally build sequences with 5 emails, spread out over 3-4 weeks. You’d want to make sure people get taken out of the sequence after replying, both for people saying they are not interested as well as people that reply positively. Most tools will have a feature to do this automatically.
Make sure to write unique emails for every step in the sequence. Don’t just clone the previous email and resend it. Offer some new value or try a different angle in every step.
If you put in the effort during the data mining phase, you should now also have the data on your prospects to really personalize your emails. At the very least, make sure to use their first name & company name. Additionally, try to use other data points like other technologies they are using, custom pain points, their colleagues or relevant people, etc.
Make sure to test the email copy and subject lines. Ensure your tests are actually significant though. You’ll need lots of data to actually to have reliable results, so it’s best to test for larger differences and not overdo it.
#3. Set-up and automation
There are many different options to send out cold emails these days. The 2 core elements you’d want to get right are 1. Deliverability and 2. Automation.
In order to have good email deliverability it’s best to use your own domain to send out the emails. If you have a fairly new domain consider using an email warm-up tool which will help you get new inboxes up to speed. Most outbound email tools will have a feature for this in their product.
If you want to scale outbound email you should consider using an alternative domain to protect your actual domain’s reputation. Instead of using xyz.com, consider buying and using e.g. xyz.io or getxyz.com. This way, your real domain is protected from the potential negative effects of cold email. Just keep in mind a good warm-up is even more important if you pick a new alternative domain.
#4. Further Tips
– Go for Quality Over Quantity
Make sure to target the right ICP and optimize the email copy over time. The shotgun approach is very difficult to pull off with cold email. You’ll get blacklisted very quick if you come over as spammy. Only scale your efforts once you’ve seen good engagement.
– Consider Using an Alternative Domain
Many people will use their actual domain to send out cold email. This can be done but definitely carries a certain risk. If you overdo cold email with your own domain you can hurt your domain reputation and destroy years of work to build SEO. Only consider using your own domain if you have one that has lots of email activity already. If you’re not already sending out thousands of warm emails a month (e.g. to newsletter subscribers, existing customers, etc.) better use an alternative domain for cold outreach.
– Warm Up Your Inboxes
When starting off with outbound email it’s important to do it slowly. Ramp up the volumes over 4-6 weeks and consider using a warm-up tool. These tools will simulate engagement to give your inbox a better deliverability score.
– Track Your Results
Make sure to look at KPIs and that you can the right metrics all the way down the funnel. You’d want to know which leads come in through outbound, which emails convert best, etc.