The Ultimate Cold Email Outreach Guide for Recruiters

We know what you’re thinking: “Cold emails? More like ‘Cold’-blooded emails,” right? Well, guess what? They don’t have to be. 

People have built careers and launched companies with little more than cold emails. Recruitment shouldn’t be all that difficult then, right? The challenge with cold email outreach in recruitment comes down to two factors – you don’t have a relationship with your prospects yet, and you lack non-verbal feedback to modify your approach in real-time.

Data around cold email success in recruitment varies considerably based on what sources you look up; the more widely accepted average ranges between 1% and 5%. However, this may not always be the case; we’ve seen campaigns with response rates under 1% and emails with reply rates over 50%!

What did emails with higher response rates do differently?

The short answer is they spoke to the candidate. Yes, we’re talking about personalization – one of recruitment’s most overused yet least understood phrases.  

Personalization is more than just using a candidate’s first name to address them in an email. Think of it as your secret weapon, your backstage pass into their world. It’s about developing a ‘theory of mind,’ understanding what makes them tick, and showing them that you’ve put in the work to get to know them. And when you show genuine interest, you’re not just sending an email—you’re opening the door to a real connection.

Like Howard Luck Gossage, the legendary adman, once said, “People don’t read ads. They read what interests them. Sometimes it’s an ad.” So, the more you understand them, what they like and need, the more likely you will get their attention.

Let’s set the stage right from the get-go – this article won’t serve up those cookie-cutter recruitment email templates. Nope, we’re all about the personal touch here, and that’s something you just can’t cram into a template. So, what you’ll find is a set of principles, frameworks, and the science behind winning cold emails, not generic recruiting templates. 

Cold Recruitment Emails or: How I Quit the Spam Game and Learned to Love the Candidate

As a recruiter, delving into the minds of prospective candidates isn’t just a bonus – it’s table stakes. According to the Holmes and Rahe Life Stress Inventory, career events have the highest impact on people’s stress and happiness after family and health.

A table representing the life stress inventory by life events and corresponding mean values
Source: The American Institute of Stress

But here’s the kicker: These career events span the entire stress spectrum, from minor tweaks in working hours to full-blown boss troubles. Believe it or not, a change in job responsibilities can be as nerve-wracking as sending your kid off to college. And it doesn’t stop there – venturing into a different line of work, the prospect of retirement, or the dreaded dismissal from work all rank as some of life’s most anxiety-inducing experiences.

So, as a recruiter, you’ve got quite the superhero cape to wear. You’re in the business of guiding people through these seismic shifts, ushering them into new opportunities. It’s no walk in the park, as the stress of job transitions often clouds the path to brighter horizons. Candidates tend to focus on the potential pitfalls when contemplating a career change, often neglecting positive outcomes.

Occupational psychologists suggest that when weighing a decision’s pros and cons, we tend to make two classic mistakes. First, due to our negative bias, we magnify the chances of failure in a new direction. Second, we downplay the benefits of change because we fail to vividly envision that change’s results.

Understanding candidate concerns to tailor email messaging is key to winning trust and inspiring confidence. The numbers back it up, too - a recent BCG study found that only 38% of candidates prefer to be contacted by recruiters when not actively looking for opportunities. In contrast, 50% of passive job seekers would welcome recommendations from friends, and 44% would be open to personal outreach from someone in their professional network. 

A bar chart representing job seeker preferences along their candidate journey
Source: What Job Seekers Wish Employers Knew

Trust also stems from social proof. Whether it’s meeting someone new in person or receiving an email from an unfamiliar sender, we naturally want to understand who this person is and why they should matter to us.

When you find yourself in the role of a newcomer, it’s crucial to establish your credibility. Even though you’ve diligently researched your prospective candidates, remember that they may know little about you.

One of the most effective forms of social proof you can provide is a mutual connection. If you share any direct connections with the candidate, mention them. Having a mutual friend instantly transforms you from a stranger into someone more familiar and trustworthy.

Lacking that, find a commonality – hometowns or hobbies, add warmth to your cold outreach. Adam Grant says, “Similarities matter most when they’re rare. We bond when we share uncommon commonalities, which allow us to feel that we fit in and stand out at the same time.” 

Steer Clear of the Spam Trap

When designing your cold email outreach messaging, remember that your candidates continuously get spammed with irrelevant emails. Every spam email chips away at the probability of your email getting a response or being opened in the first place at all. 

Take this email, for example. 

Subject: Urgent! We need you!

Dear [Name],

We are a staffing firm that specializes in placing highly qualified candidates in top jobs. We have a very urgent need for a [Position] at one of our clients. This is a great opportunity for someone with your skills and experience.

The ideal candidate will have:

  • [List of qualifications]

If you are interested in this position, please send your resume and a cover letter to [email address] immediately.

We look forward to hearing from you soon!

Sincerely, [Staffing Firm Name]

This email is poorly written for several reasons:

  • The subject line is too spammy. It uses all caps and exclamation points and doesn’t tell the recipient anything about the job or the company.
  • There is no personalization beyond the candidate’s name. The email would be more effective if it mentioned something specific about the recipient’s background and experience or introduced some form of social proof.
  • The email doesn’t provide any information about the job. It doesn’t say what the company does, what the job responsibilities are, or what the salary range is. This makes it difficult for the recipient to decide if they’re interested in the position.
  • The email has a sense of urgency. It says the position is “very urgent” and that the recipient should send their resume and cover letter “immediately.” This puts pressure on the candidate to decide without having enough information.
  • The email doesn’t include a call to action. It doesn’t tell the recipient what they should do next. 

Let’s look at what foundational principles make for powerful cold recruiting emails that work.

Foundational Principles for Cold Recruiting Emails That Get Responses

For recruiters and staffing firms, Generative AI (Gen AI) will be a game-changer – its ability to produce clear and coherent content can help scale communications like never before. That said, recruiting and candidate engagement demand a sensitive human touch. While Gen AI tools like Chat GPT, Bard, and others can help you craft meaningful messaging, they do require human oversight and a supporting strategy to be effective. 

What sets the best recruiters apart is their ability to focus on unpacking the candidate psychology. The “theory of mind” concept in your cold recruiting outreach is integral to your overarching strategy. Personalization shouldn’t be an afterthought; it should be woven into the very fabric of your approach. Focusing exclusively on the tactical aspects of cold emailing can be dangerous.

Here’s the bottom line: If recruiters solely rely on executing email tactics without a deep understanding of the candidate’s mindset, they risk becoming indistinguishable from automated algorithms. To develop a winning cold email sourcing strategy, it’s crucial to grasp the candidate perspective. 

Where to Start?

  1. Get the basics right

Build a list of your target candidates and segment them by skills, experience or other shared attributes (pro-tip: we’re big fans of Kanban-style visualization!). This allows you to focus on tailoring your email for some real personalization. 

  1. Personalize, personalize, personalize!

We couldn’t possibly overstate the importance of candidate research. Go through their LinkedIn and/or X pages – look at what they typically engage with (we’re particularly fond of recruiting comics) and weave those insights into your outreach. We’d say avoid using up your precious InMail credits and get right into their inbox – it makes for a more intimate affair and often enjoys higher visibility.

  1. Seal the deal with social proof

Think about how you can establish credibility and trust. It could be a mutual connection that you helped get a job, or you know of a beloved sandwich spot in the candidate’s hometown that you can mention. Get creative! As social creatures, we naturally look to others for cues on how to interact and connect.

Rules of the Road: Building Effective Recruiting Messages

It’s time to turn what we’ve learned into action.

Rule #1: Use a compelling subject line

Use a short (ideally, less than 50 characters) and powerful subject line that is relevant and related to the job you’re pitching to the candidate. Avoid using salesy or clickbait-y lines – no exaggerated claims or false information. We’re all familiar with the fate of the recruiter who penned the subject line, “Urgently hiring for best-paying jobs in the Bay Area.” Let’s just say their second email remained untouched and unread.

On the other hand, a simple and upfront subject line like, “Senior Java Engineer – VC backed – 120K+Equity,” is more likely to resonate with a prospective candidate. It tells them that the job is at a well-funded company and that the salary is competitive. It also lets them know that you’re already familiar with their skillset and have put in the work to understand what they do. 

Rule #2: Brevity is key

While there are no hard-and-fast rules about email length, it’s important to note that the average amount of time people spend reading an email is declining. Your candidates will give it less than 9 seconds. Since people process information at different speeds, it’s helpful to visualize how this happens. Smartphones dominate email browsing, and the typical phone screen accommodates about 100 words spanning from the subject line to the signature. So, keep your email short and place the structure front and center. Be clear and easy to understand, and avoid jargon if you can.

Rule #3: Practice the principle of reciprocity

Reciprocity is a powerful psychological principle that says people are more likely to do something for you if you do something for them first. This is why it’s so effective to offer value upfront in your cold emails. When you give people something valuable, they’re more likely to feel obligated to ›reciprocate by giving you their time or attention. It could be offering the salary range upfront, a compelling value proposition, or even a piece of industry insight that your candidate would find useful. 

Bottom line: Make your email relevant and valuable to the candidate. By doing so, you’re not just another recruiter in their inbox; you’re someone who’s invested in their success, making them more likely to engage with you in return. 

Here’s a framework that’s worked incredibly well for us as we’ve built ChatterWorks:

Capture attention Compose value proposition
1. Define job role 2. Outline ambitions 3. Focus on the upside 4. Engage with relevance 5. Close with a clear call to action
Senior Java Engineer Wants to move into a leadership role (Theory of mind) Build and scale your own team
(What's in it for the candidate?)
Java engineers received a 20% salary + hike on average moving into new roles in 2022?
(Industry insight)
Would you be available to speak on the phone this Tuesday to learn more about the role?
(Concrete and easy to follow closing)
Junior Marketing Analyst Wants deeper visibility into future career trajectory
(Theory of mind)
Access better career and skills development opportunities
(What's in it for the candidate?)
The company just announced a tie-up with premier business school for executive management programs
(LinkedIn Company Announcement)
If this opportunity sounds like a good fit, could you share your resume with me by Friday, the 13th?
(Propose clear next steps)
Capture attention
1. Define job role Senior Java Engineer Junior Marketing Analyst
2. Outline ambitions Wants to move into a leadership role (Theory of mind) Wants deeper visibility into future career trajectory
(Theory of mind)
Compose value proposition
3. Focus on the upside Build and scale your own team
(What's in it for the candidate?)
Access better career and skills development opportunities
(What's in it for the candidate?)
4. Engage with relevance Java engineers received a 20% salary + hike on average moving into new roles in 2022?
(Industry insight)
The company just announced a tie-up with premier business school for executive management programs
(LinkedIn Company Announcement)
5. Close with a clear call to action Would you be available to speak on the phone this Tuesday to learn more about the role?
(Concrete and easy to follow closing)
If this opportunity sounds like a good fit, could you share your resume with me by Friday, the 13th?
(Propose clear next steps)

Rule #4: Inspire action

What is the ultimate goal of your recruitment outreach? You used personalization to build rapport and understand your prospective candidate’s needs and desires. So far, so good. What’s next? What do you want them to do? Send you their resume? Or meet for an interview?

The most common mistake recruiters make besides forgetting to include a call-to-action (CTA) is a poorly articulated CTA. 

Remember that simple is actionable – eliminate any complexity, decisions or even choice to hook your candidate’s lizard brain. For example, instead of asking, “What’s a good time to speak with you?” you could write, “Does Tuesday between 9 am and 12 noon sound good?”

Similarly, asking for action instead of permission when closing your email is always more impactful. Avoid asking open-ended questions such as “Would this role be of interest to you?” Rather, use a more concrete next step like “If this role seems like a good fit, please share your resume with me by Monday.”

Always be Winning: Developing a Reliable Recipe for Cold Emailing Success

Once you’ve crafted the perfect email, how do you get the delivery right?

Get the Timing Right

You don’t want your email to land in the candidate’s spam box or add to the clutter in their inbox. That’s why timing is crucial to getting your timing right. Research indicates that no matter the time zone, the morning (specifically between 10 am and 11 am) is the best time to generate engagement.  

A image representing the most popular and east popular open times for emails across regions
Source: 2022 Trends in Email Engagement

Here’s a deeper dive into estimated open times by region:

United States: 11 am

In the United States, 11 am EST was the most popular time for email opens, followed by 10 am. Estimated open rates in the U.S. slowly decrease with each passing hour after that point – but jump again slightly in the 9 pm and 10 pm time frame. 

United Kingdom: 10 am

In the United Kingdom, 10 am (UCT) is the most popular time to open in 2022, followed by 11 am. This is a change from the past two years when 9 am was the most popular open time. Opens increase again at 4 pm and decline steadily– until another slight jump at 10 pm. 

Germany: 10 am 

Consistent with open data from the past three years, 10 am remains the most popular estimated open time in Germany, followed by 9 am. Open activity increases once again at 5 pm and 6 pm. 

Australia (AEDT): 11 am 

11 am (AEDT) remains the most popular estimated open time. In stark contrast, 10 pm is the second most popular estimated open time. 

Spain (CET): 10 am 

In Spain, 10 am is the most popular open time, followed by 11 am, which is consistent with past open data. A second wave of open activity begins at 4 pm.

Canada (EST): 10 am

Consistent with 2020 and 2021, Canada's most popular open time is 10 am (EST) local time, followed by 11 am and 9 am. Open activity increases again at 5 pm.

We’d say consider these open times as directional data points to refine your outreach strategy. The study quoted here analyzed open patterns across a wide of industries, audiences, email content types and brands – so these times aren’t exclusive to cold recruiting emails but serve as guidance for most email campaigns. 

Measure what Matters

You’ve invested time, money, and resources in sending out that perfect cold email. Your reliance on responses to drive your sourcing and revenue efforts makes measuring its impact a logical next move.

While we don’t expect you to transform into marketing experts overnight (after all, you’re recruiters, not marketers), understanding how your cold outreach emails perform remains pivotal. It’s the key to shaping your future strategy and enhancing outcomes for improved response rates.

For years, we’ve used metrics like open rates to gauge cold email success. Open rates became the gold standard for a few reasons:

  • They’re easy to obtain, included in most recruitment marketing tools and email service providers (ESPs)
  • They’re straightforward and easy to understand
  • They make your email campaign dashboard look a lot more impressive

Some email experts have long argued that the open rate is little more than a vanity metric – opens do not indicate if your email was read. 

The game changed significantly when Apple unveiled its iOS 15 privacy updates, most notably Apple’s Mail Privacy Protection (MPP), back in September 2021. This development casts a considerable shadow of doubt over the reliability of open rates. The stakes grow higher when you realize that Apple Mail reigns as the dominant email client, commanding over 50% of all email traffic in the US in 2023.

If open rates aren’t the metric they once were, what is? 

Because open data is leveraged in many aspects of emailing, like informing email deliverability and disengagement, it may never cease to be part of your email analytics entirely. But, these changes create an opportunity to focus more on other aspects of your strategy, including response rates and engagement.

It’s time to reconsider the email metrics that truly matter for your sourcing efforts and determine which ones warrant the most attention. Ultimately, the goal is to witness tangible outcomes from your cold recruiting email initiatives, and there are plenty of email metrics beyond open rates that can offer valuable insights. Consider what specific actions you desire from prospective candidates when they receive your emails, and structure your list of key performance indicators (KPIs) accordingly.

This also presents an excellent opportunity to realign the KPIs of your staffing agency or recruiting team with those of your email program. Consider which metrics will contribute to your long-term objectives, including the acquisition of more zero and first-party data to deepen personalization efforts, retention, and engagement. 

To kick start that shift in thinking, consider which of these metrics might help achieve that. (And use these handy formulas to help calculate them!)

Email read rate/read time

The read rate is how long someone has spent reading your email. Now, the precise definition of “read” can vary based on your email tool, but generally, it’s having an email open for eight seconds or more.

Why does the read rate matter? Well, it delves deeper into the behaviors of your prospective candidates. Are they merely opening to swiftly delete? Are they just scanning the content? Or perhaps you’ve stuck a chord, and they’re having their sweet time with it? Understanding the read rate offers valuable insights into your candidate’s engagement levels.

Pro-tip: With ChatterWorks, send emails directly to your candidate’s verified personal IDs  to boost read rates! 

Click-through rate (CTR) 

The click-through rate (CTR) serves as a crucial engagement metric, revealing the number of candidates who clicked on an element within your message, such as a hyperlink, a call to action, or an image. You can calculate it with the formula: CTR = (number of emails clicked / number of emails delivered) x 100.

What sets CTR apart is its independence from email opens. This means it remains steady and unaffected by factors like MPP or Gmail prefetching, providing a more reliable measure of email performance.

Bounce rate 

The email bounce rate is how many of your sent emails weren’t delivered. 

Bounce rate = (number of emails bounced / number of emails sent) x 10 

Pro-tip: Dig into your bounce rate to distinguish between hard and soft bounces. (Your follow-up may differ depending on which is higher).

Deliverability rate or inbox placement rate 

The deliverability rate is how many of your emails land in the inbox vs. the junk or spam folder. A high deliverability rate means your emails often make it to the inbox. 

Deliverability rate = (number of non-junked emails delivered / number of emails delivered)  x 100 

Pro-tip: If your inbox placement rate is less than 80%, go back to reframing your foundational principles!

Prepare to Follow-up

#1: Follow-up over the phone

So, you’ve got everything right. Your email is well-researched and tailored to your candidate, and you’ve got your timing right. But what’s your next move if the candidate doesn’t hit you back? Well, here’s where the odds might not be in our favor. A significant chunk of cold emails from recruiters and staffing agencies go straight to spam. This is despite your best attempts to navigate spam filters and create meaningful messaging. 

But this is hardly the moment to give up. 

Since sourcing and recruitment are still very much about the human connection, the best way to lay the foundation of your cold recruiting outreach strategy is to follow-up with a call. Psychologists suggest that an in-person request is 34 times more effective than an email. The underlying theory is that we tend to overestimate compliance with direct requests over email and underestimate compliance when making a request in person. 

In fact, 85% of professionals believe they build stronger and more meaningful business relationships over the phone compared to email exchanges (yes, ChatterWorks allows you to access verified candidate phone numbers, too).   

Here’s an easy way to start a conversation when following up with a candidate on your cold email:

Hi [Name], this is [your name] from [your company name].

I am calling to follow-up on my email about the potential opportunity I shared with you on [date]. Have you had a chance to read it? In brief, [company] is looking for a [job role] with [required skills and experience], and I wanted to give you a quick call instead of troubling you via email, to find out if it makes sense for us to connect to discuss if it’s a good fit…”

#2: Follow-up with another email

If you’re not able to connect with your prospective candidate on the phone, a digital follow-up might be in order. 

Here’s a quick look at the messaging framework for following up on your cold sourcing email:

Rule #1: Add value through your follow-up email

As a recruiter, your role is to inspire prospective candidates with fresh opportunities, igniting their curiosity and prompting them to reevaluate their current circumstances as they envision a brighter professional future.

Offer a persuasive argument on why the candidate should consider the job. Add a link to an employee testimonial, video or industry coverage on how the company is the ideal place for professionals like them. 

Rule #2: Follow-up with an offer

Steer clear of bland follow-ups that merely state you’re emailing again because they did not respond to the last one. Here’s an example of what not to say:

Hi [Name],

I hope you are well. I’m just connecting to see if you have seen my previous email regarding a role at [Company]? What would be the best way to reach you?

I look forward to hearing back from you!

Kind regards,

This recruiter might find themselves waiting for a while.

Instead, an offer demonstrating value in your follow-up will get a higher response rate (the principle of reciprocity). But you don’t need to have a special offer up your sleeve to send a follow-up email. If the first email contained an overview of the role and the company, the second email could simply contain the job description or a more concrete call to action.

Dear [Name],

I hope this email finds you well.

I’m writing to follow-up on my previous conversation about the [Job Title] position at [Company Name]. I strongly feel that you’d be a great fit for this role.

Attached, you’ll find the comprehensive job description, offering a deeper dive into the role’s responsibilities, qualifications, and the perks it brings. Additionally, I’ve included a link to our company’s website, where you can explore our vibrant culture and values.

I understand that you may be considering other opportunities/or not actively looking to change employers, but I encourage you to give the [Job Title] position serious consideration. It’s a challenging and rewarding role, and you’d have the opportunity to work on cutting-edge projects with a team of talented and passionate people.

I’m available for a phone call or video chat next Thursday and Friday to discuss the role further and answer any questions you may have. Please let me know your availability.

Thank you for your time and consideration.

Sincerely, [Your Name] 

P.S. I understand that making a career change can be a big decision. I want to assure you that we’re here to support you every step of the way. If you have any questions or concerns, please don’t hesitate to reach out.

Rule #3: Limit your follow-ups to three to four emails at the most

Imagine your first follow-up message isn’t faring much better than your initial email. What’s the game plan? We’d suggest giving it another shot with one or two more emails, but we definitely wouldn’t advise exceeding the three or four follow-up mark.

Why? Because there’s a razor-thin line between persistent follow-ups that add value and becoming a bothersome presence in the prospective candidate’s inbox. If you still haven’t received any feedback after sending FOUR emails, it could be a sign that your prospective candidate isn’t currently considering a move from their current job.

As Robert Cialdini highlights in The Science of Practice, once someone has made up their mind, they tend to stick to their decision. This means that if your candidate has consciously chosen to disregard your emails, they’re likely to continue doing so, even if you bombard them with 100 messages (and trust us, you don’t want to go there!).

Follow-ups are about adding value, personalizing your email and persevering, and you should apply as much thought to the follow-up as you applied to the initial email. Another great way to follow-up is simply with a call.

Nail Your Next Cold Hiring Email: A Quick Summary of Takeaways 

Cold recruiting emails do not need to be devoid of emotions or personality. When done thoughtfully, they lead to phenomenal outcomes. We’ve stayed away from templates here because there is no one-size-fits-all approach to being earnest, authentic, and empathetic. 

We’ve deconstructed the science of cold email outreach for recruitment here, providing frameworks and principles that can be applied across all job roles – from entry-level hiring to executive search, industries, and markets. 

Here’s a quick summary of the key takeaways:

Having trouble getting started? Try ChatterWorks for free and get access to over 500 million candidate profiles, our web platform, multi-channel messaging and other tools that can help you source and hire the best in business.

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