Best PracticesSourcing & Outreach

The Anatomy of a Great Cold Recruiting Email

Lauren Shufran

Lauren Shufran

Content Strategist

Posted on

August 19, 2020

With 80% of the workforce considered “passive” talent, it’s hard to prompt engagement. Here are the six essential elements of a great cold recruiting email.

If you’re in the business of sourcing, you’re probably also in the business of routinely tracking response rates. According to Senior Recruiter Ariana Moon at Greenhouse, an ideal average response rate falls somewhere between 30% and 50%. At Gem, our users fall into that optimal range, with an average reply rate of 35% for a 4-email sequence. This is an achievement... but we’re always trying to figure out how to help our users see even better numbers. With around 80% of the workforce considered “passive” talent, it’s no small feat to prompt engagement—let alone action—in talent that’s content enough just where they are. But the right cold recruiting email, along with a few best practices, might help create that spark with talent who didn’t think they were looking—further maximizing your response rate.

Below, we discuss the six essential elements of a great cold recruiting email. (We’re talking about that first email; your follow-ups will demand different strategies.) As you read, keep in mind that we use the word “template” loosely. You’re reaching out to inspire a response and initiate a relationship; and you know your target candidate—what they want to hear, and how they want to hear it—better than we do. So think of your outreach as an expression of curiosity and excitement at the possibilities—with some structure in place—rather than a formal letter.

The Subject Line

There’s no getting a response from a prospect unless they first open your email. And you’ll only see an open if you offer them a good reason to do so. Given your outreach is competing with the 120 other emails your recipient will receive that day, we recommend your subject line do at least one of the following to stand out:

  • Flatter the recipient. Studies have shown that even overtly manipulative flattery is remarkably effective. That’s because compliments trigger reward centers in the brain. Subject lines that appeal to the ego (“Are you our next top-tier data scientist?”) will leave recipients wanting more of the resulting “mini-high,” prompting them to click in.

  • Personalize. This often goes hand-in-hand with flattery. Showing you did your research as early as the subject line—by mentioning a mutual interest or a recent accomplishment (“Loved your recent Medium article!”)—shows them they’re important enough to have done the work for. But even mentioning prospects’ names (“Liz, are you our next VP of Sales?”) or locations can be enough to get them to click.

  • Spark their curiosity. Curiosity releases dopamine, which is associated with motivation—in this case, the motivation to clarify what is ambiguous, uncertain, or partial (“How we do things differently at [company]”). Remember, you’re reaching out to top problem-solvers who already possess an instinct for inquiry. So leverage that instinct.

  • Mention a referral or shared connection. If you have a connection, refer to it as soon as possible. It’s an instant endorsement; it piques curiosity (see above); it gives you a jumping-off point for conversation; and it minimizes the sense of risk associated with a career change.

Play with, and test, other strategies as well (humor, questions, appealing to values). Just notice we said nothing about length. That’s because our data shows there’s no real correlation between subject line length and open rates. Of course, mobile clients account for somewhere between 24% and 77% of email opens; so ensure your subject line is short enough that candidates see the whole of it on their phone screens (fewer than 45 characters).

Paragraph 1: Tell Them How You Found Them… and Prove You Did Your Homework

(And by “paragraph,” we mean just a few sentences!) Your outreach strategy begins long before you sit down to write that email. It begins with research. That means checking out social profiles on LinkedIn, Facebook, and Twitter. It means discovering work samples online—through Dribbble if they’re designers, Medium (or personal blogs) if they’re writers, GitHub if they’re engineers, and so on. Most prospective candidates leave digital footprints in multiple places. Find them.

What’s their past (and current) work experience? What projects have they undertaken, and what roles have they played in those projects? What skills do they possess? What awards have they won? What do they do outside of work (charitable work, hobbies, side projects)? What do their career goals—and life goals—appear to be?

With this information in hand, use your opening paragraph to do two simple things: 1. Introduce yourself and tell them how you found them; and 2. Explain why you’re sending them a cold recruiting email—of all the people you could have reached out to. This is where your “cold” email gets warmer.

With automation, basic personalization (name, location, day of the week, job title, company) can occur at scale and in bulk. At Gem, we recommend using a token at the end of your first paragraph to further customize initial outreach—especially for harder-to-fill roles. After all, the further your outreach strays from the generic, the more likely you are to drive engagement.

Paragraph 2: Tell Them Who Your Company Is, What It’s Doing, and What Role You’re Looking to Fill

Believe it or not, this will be your shortest paragraph. If the prospect is familiar with your organization, a company description will be superfluous. If they aren’t, a detailed explanation will ultimately only sound like a variation of all the other company descriptions flooding their inbox. As in marketing, a good rule of thumb is to use “you” more often than “I” or “we”: This email is about them, after all. Tell them your company name and, if you’re not well-known, what industry you’re in. The more important part is how the open role supports the company’s mission and contributes to the company as a whole. Identify 2-3 details that would appeal to their interests. (You know what would appeal; you’ve done your research.) Use strong verbs: “build,” “lead,” “define,” “reinvent.” Mention impact. Leave the rest for them to research on their own… or to write you back and ask about.

Paragraph 3: Mention a Facet (or Two) of your Employee Value Proposition

The employee value proposition (EVP) is the unique set of benefits employees receive in return for the experience, skills, and other contributions they bring to your company. (Here are some great EVPs if you need inspiration.) It’s what makes working for you worth their time and effort. But prospects need to be convinced you’re worth their time long before they sign that offer letter. Why would they respond to you now? What makes you different than their current employer from the perspective of employee experience?

Whether it’s a flexible work schedule, gym memberships, tuition benefits, intellectual stimulation, personal development opportunities, working with the best talent in your field, or company culture, you probably offer quite a few things that collectively make up your EVP. Don’t list them all here. Again, you’ve done your homework: mention the elements that would be most compelling for them. If you’re reaching out to multiple people for the same role, you might stress different elements for each person.

Ultimately, this paragraph will be answering the question—from the prospect’s point of view—What’s in it for me? Asking yourself “so what?” at the end of every sentence will help you know what to cut and what to keep. If the benefit isn’t self-evident, make it so. If you discover there isn’t one, let that sentence go.

Remember that your EVP might take the form of collateral, which you’ll link to from your email. Maybe it’s a video of your female VP of Sales discussing diversity in your company. Maybe it’s third-party content: A recent article about your series B funding or your newest product to launch. Make use of the content that’s out there.

The Call to Action

The most compelling outreach in the world won’t be complete without a call to action. After all, if your prospect doesn’t know what to do next, they’re less likely to take any action… even if they’re interested.

Your goal with this initial outreach should be to get prospective candidates on the phone so you can have the real dialogue there. (If you’re asking them to send on a resume or apply for your job online, we’d recommend a different call to action.) Tell them you want to have a conversation about what they’d want in their next opportunity rather than pitch them a job. Tell them you want to find out if your position is truly aligned with their aspirations. Asking if they’re open to hearing more about the role is a low-commitment question. Then suggest the conversation—whether over the phone, over coffee, at the office, etc.

That said, remember the likelihood that your recipient will be reading your email on their phone. Going into their calendar and pitching you some times may be more than they’re willing to do. One strategy worth experimenting with is to tell them when you plan to call them (“I’ll try catching you by phone this Thursday at 1:30”), and ask them to reply only if there’s a time that’s better for them. The less energy they have to expend, the better.

The Signature

Your signature should hold every bit of information your prospective candidate needs to get in touch with you, to learn more about the company, and to get details on the position. Include your name and job title, and link to your LinkedIn profile so recipients can verify your humanity. Include your pronouns (she/her, they/them, etc.) as a way of affirming your allyship and showing that your company values diversity. Include the name of your organization and link to your About page or Careers page. If you’ve piqued their interest at all, your signature should make it easy for them to find out more.

Remember, this is your initial outreach (ideally you’ll have up to three follow-ups); so it’ll contain more information than the other emails in your sequence. Still, it’s possible to include all these elements—how you found them, why you want them, what the role is, and what your company can offer them in return for their skills—in a message that takes less than a minute to read. Remember, the point is to generate enough curiosity to get them to respond. Anything more than that is probably too much.


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