Posted 24 June 2021
Written by Creative Lives in Progress
Illustration by Greg McIndoe

A guide to writing and sending cold emails

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Emails, emails, emails. Writing and sending a decent message to a new contact can be laced with traps and trip hazards – which is where some essential tips can set you on the path to email enlightenment. Whether it’s for a job application, networking, or asking for some advice, in this guide we’ll be running you through the ins and outs of how to put together a great cold email.

Why are we talking about emails?

These days, there are many ways of starting up a conversation with a potential contact – from Instagram DMs and Whatsapp to Slack, to name just a few. But the fact of the matter is, a well-crafted and thought-through email is still the most popular – and most professional – way to communicate, with 3.9 billion email users globally, compared to 1 billion on Instagram and 660 million on Linkedin.

In fact, the average office worker receives 121 emails per day! This is why it’s so worthwhile to consider how to make a message stand out

Why it’s important to get good at emailing

Sending a great email to the right person can lead to a host of different opportunities:

• Landing a job or internship
• Meeting a new mentor
• Being featured by press
• Receiving some advice
• Collaborating with a creative you admire

When you’re starting out, you’ll be contacting a lot of people you’ve never met before, so making a good first impression counts for a lot. We all know what can happen if we’re too hasty with the ‘send’ button – firing out half-written messages, forgetting an attachment, spelling someone’s name wrong or sending it to the wrong person altogether – and these are the kinds of bloopers you’ll want to avoid where possible.

Who to email and how to find them

The email possibilities might be endless, but how do you know who to email in the first place?

While this really comes down to what you’re after, as a general rule, it’s essential to email people rather than places. Addressing your email to a specific person not only allows you to personally tailor your email, it proves that you’ve done your research and paid enough attention to care.

Plus, while reaching out can feel scary, you might be surprised to hear that people do actually want to help! For every creative superstar who might be too busy to get back, there are countless other industry experts ready and willing to answer your questions or offer their advice.

Here are some places to search for contacts and email addresses:

🖥 Studio or company websites

While most studios or agencies have a general ‘[email protected]’ email address, you stand a higher chance of getting a reply if you pinpoint a specific person. You might be better off asking a junior designer for a coffee rather than the CEO, for example, as senior staff tend to be the most busy.

‘Contact’ or ‘About’ pages sometimes include specific emails for team members, or you could even email or call up the studio to ask who the best person to contact might be. Some studios also have an email address specifically for asking about career opportunities.

🔍 LinkedIn

Searching by company or brand names on LinkedIn is a great way to see the range of people who work there and the roles they do. For example, typing in ‘Vogue’, and then clicking on ‘People’ will list anyone on the platform who works there, their location and job title.

Some will include their email address as part of their contact details, but if not, you could always request to ‘connect’ with them and start up the conversation there.

📲 Social media

If you’re still out of luck and can’t find someone’s personal email address, you could try asking them for it on other social media accounts, like Twitter or Instagram. Just make sure you explain why you want their email address, and take note of their bio, as some people explicitly ask for no DMs.

A few timeless email tips

There isn’t really a one-size-fits-all standard or template to follow. However, there are some universal timeless pointers that apply to most emails, and good to keep in mind.

😳 What’s your email address?

Firstly, check the email address that you’re sending your message from. Where possible, keep it professional and use your name or a minor variation, e.g. [email protected] or [email protected]; avoiding anything that has a spammy ring to it, like [email protected].

✍️ Write a clear subject line

A good subject line will get your recipient to click on it. It should spell out exactly what it says inside of your email-shaped tin. This is particularly important if you’re submitting a project to an online publication or magazine for press.

👋 Use the right greeting

It’s best to stay away from any generic and impersonal email openers like ‘To whom it may concern’ or ‘Dear Sir or Madam’. But if you have to resort to the general studio email, consider a safe but friendly alternative like ‘Hi there’ or ‘Hi to all at [Studio Name]!’ – emailing an all-female magazine with ‘Dear Sirs’, for example, is not going to get you a response.

🔊 Be clear about what you want

Ask yourself why you’re emailing someone. Knowing what you want out of the exchange will help you decide who to send your email to, how you write it, and what you include.

Are you applying for a job or internship, or asking to meet for a coffee? Are you emailing for press, or looking to show your portfolio? Be clear about this in your email, and try not to ask for too much in one go. It’s always a good idea to ask for something specific in the first instance and then build the relationship from there.

💌 Make it personal

Something that rarely goes amiss is a good old-fashioned bit of flattery. Let the person know why you have chosen to contact them specifically. The trick is to make your message thoughtful and personal.

Give some context as to how you have interacted with their studio, company or platform. Enjoyed something they made? Tell them. Inspired by how a design director has evolved the look of your favourite magazine? Tell them!

🥸 Don’t copy and paste

With all this in mind, do not – and, we repeat – do not copy and paste the same email to everyone. One generic email cannot possibly cater to the various people and reasons you could be emailing. Plus, more often than not, copying and pasting will leave your formatting exposed; swapping out names and pasting your message will leave a trail of different typefaces, spaces, and sizes of text.

Know that sending a few personal, well-considered, well-researched emails is far more likely to get results than a generic email to 50 people.

📑 Write a draft and check your formatting

We’ve all mistakenly sent a half-finished email flying into hyper-space. While Gmail has an ‘Undo Send’ browser setting that lets you get your email back within 30 seconds, you can save yourself the mini heart-attack by drafting your emails in a word processor like TextEdit.

The other benefit of this is that TextEdit can help clear your text of any rogue formatting like unwanted spaces, links or random typefaces. Clicking Format > Make Plain Text (example below) will mean your text will look crystal clear when you eventually paste it into your email application or browser.

📧 Three example emails to send

To help put some of these tips into context, we’ve drafted three of the most common types of emails needed for starting out as a creative: emails for job applications, networking, advice and seeking press.

Again, we do not advise simply copying and pasting these examples, but feel free to use the below as a guide to help you come up with your own!

1. Emails for job applications or internships

If you are enquiring about internship opportunities, let the recipient know why their work or mission inspires you. It can be helpful to include links to your work or a PDF portfolio, so make sure your email points to this, too.

You might also want to add a line at the end to suggest meeting up for a coffee in case there are no current internship opportunities at that time.

Plus, if you’re applying for a job, keep in mind that some applications will request that you use a certain phrase in the subject line to make it easier for them to filter through later. Check the job ad just in case.

2. Emails for advice, networking or coffee

Looking for some advice, a chance to grow your creative network, or just some feedback on your work?

When looking to make a new connection, as with the previous example, let the recipient know why you’re looking for their input or thoughts. What about their work or practice is most inspiring to you?

And if you’re looking to meet virtually or IRL, always try and give them a specific time to aim for – that way it’s easier for them to check their calendar and get back to you.

3. Emails for press

Emailing magazines and publications can be a great way to get your work in front of new audiences, especially if there’s a project you’re particularly proud of.

Magazine inboxes can be especially busy, so be sure to put some extra thought into your subject line – it should be specific, but also interesting enough to stand out.

If you’re emailing to show someone a project, think of it like a trailer for a movie: you want to capture their attention, and make them want to see more. Show them the bits they need to see, without you having to explain it in full.

Include a short description of the work or project and include a few screenshots or low-res JPEGs of the project (either within the email or attached) – enough to capture a sense of what it’s about. You can always include a link underneath with the option to ‘read more’ about the project.

Before you click ‘send’: A checklist

🧐 Check your spelling

It sounds obvious, but this piece of advice is often neglected in practice. You won’t lose anything from double-checking you’ve spelled someone’s name right, and it can make the world of difference.

🗂 How big are your attachments?

Whoever told you that size doesn’t matter was lying – particularly in this case. Destroying someone’s inbox is rarely a great way to kickstart a professional relationship. If you’re sending across a PDF portfolio, for example, you want to aim to keep it to your very best projects (maybe three to five), at no more than 5MB.

🔚 Sign it off at the end

While an email signature is not always necessary, it can be an easy way for someone to find your details if they need to.

You can add a short descriptor (for example, whether you’re an illustrator, photographer, designer and so on), your mobile number, relevant social media handles or your website. A word of warning: if you include your website, make sure it’s live. For example:

Jane Doe
Freelance designer and art director
+44 (0) 1234 567 890
www.janedoedesign.com

⏰ Wait, what time is it?

You may have spent the entire evening or even weekend crafting an email – but that doesn’t mean 3am on a Sunday is the ideal time to send it.

Generally speaking, Tuesday morning is a good time to send emails; by then most people will have fought off the Monday morning wave of messages, and have a little more time to respond.

Following up: When and how often 

While it can feel like you’re pestering someone, the reality is that people’s inboxes fill up quickly, and chances are they just haven’t had time to reply yet. So wait up to a week or two, and then follow up. This is a normal thing to do. Keep it short and to the point; they might even appreciate the gentle nudge as a reminder.

As a general rule, we recommend following up a maximum of two times before moving on. While you won’t hear back from everyone, do remember that it can sometimes take a good while to hear back.

🙏 Say thank you!

It might sound a little obvious, but it is also one of the most overlooked rules of thumb out there. If you do get to meet up with a creative you admire, they’ve fed back on your work, or shared some advice or pointers over email, be sure to thank them for their time. It can be the smallest things that give off a much bigger impression of who you are and what you’re like to work with.

💔 Don’t get disheartened

It’s painful when you don’t get a response. Sadly, that’s life: we all have our own stuff going on, and the stars don’t always align when you need them to. But don’t give up after just one email! Stick to a maximum of two follow-up emails, and if they still don’t reply, put them on a separate contact list and set reminders to get back in touch in six months’ time.

Remember, people are far more likely to respond when they’ve met you, or if you have a contact in common – so keep an eye out for opportunities to get in touch with those nearest first. Some of your most supportive professional contacts are likely to come from close to home; people know people, and being recommended is your best chance of making those all-important connections.

🔔 A reminder

If you do end up sending a few dud emails, remember that even seasoned professionals make slip-ups every now and then. Forgive yourself and learn from the experience – the chances are you won’t make the same mistake again. More often than not, these just make for funny stories later down the line. So go forth, channel those succinct email-writing charms, and gift those lucky inboxes!

Written by Creative Lives in Progress
Illustration by Greg McIndoe