By Tobias van Schneider Published December 10, 2018
When reaching out to a company, whether you’re seeking a job, introducing your product or pursuing some other opportunity, a personal connection is always best. If you can get introduced by a friend of a friend, you will be 100x more likely to receive a response (a stat I made up, but I promise it's true).
Even if you don’t have a friend on the inside, you can make one by interacting with them in a personal way on other platforms. Follow and engage with their work. Have a casual conversation on Twitter. The internet makes almost anyone accessible to you.
But there are times when you just don’t have that inside connection and a cold email is your best option. It will take more work, but sending that email can still pay off.
In almost 20 interviews (and counting) with top companies and studios in our How to Get a Job at X interview series, we ask this question: “Say we decide to reach out directly and send a cold email. What kind of message gets a reply? Any secrets for us?”
And we got a lot of useful advice. Their suggestions speak to contacting a company while job hunting, but can apply to anyone trying to network via email. Here are the highlights.
Be personal, not formal
“I love when people share their personal stories,” says Maitê Albuquerque, creative director at Mother LA. “To be honest, hyper-professional emails get lost in the sea of other emails and portfolios we receive.”
I couldn’t agree with this more. Any email that seems copy/pasted or filled with buzzwords automatically goes in my “no” pile. I may still respond, but you probably won’t get the response you were hoping for.
“We can’t speak for all companies, but emails that make us feel something are ones that sound like they were written to a friend,” says Unsplash. “Words that sound like they were written by a human, not a machine. Everyone making anything today is in the business of creating a connection. An impersonal subject line or words like ‘Dear Hiring Manager’ signal not only laziness but a lack of understanding for what connects.”
Have a point of view
“The [emails] that really stick out are the ones from folks that have put a little effort into it and show a POV,” says Katie Dill, previously director of experience design at Airbnb. “For example, I am always impressed by those who took it upon themselves to redesign an aspect of Airbnb to show us their skills, ideas and interests. We’ve seen a lot of great work this way and we’re always happy to talk to someone with that kind of passion and hustle.”
Or as Elyse Viotto and Kevin Clark, design leads at Shopify, put it:
“Do you want any job or do you want a job at Shopify? I know you’re probably applying to many companies, but can you tell us why you’d like to work here?" Elyse and Kevin say in our Shopify interview. "Do you have your own online store? Do you use our product? Did you take a stab at building a theme with Slate? What is your opinion on Polaris or the latest articles our UX team published?”
Show you have a point of view by expressing your curiosity and motivation. Share why you want to work with or for not just any company, but THAT company.
“Some things are better to save for an interview rather than putting your whole life story in the introduction email.”
Let your work speak for itself
“Let your work do the talking,” says Erik Ortman, lead UI/UX designer at Electronic Arts. “It is at the end of the day an extremely competitive marketplace for designers wanting to work in games, and there is really nothing that can beat high-quality work. If you can manage to convey a true passion for design and games through both your work and your words, that is the secret sauce.”
Simon Mogren, head of design at BBDO, echoed this advice.
“Some things are better to save for an interview rather than putting your whole life story in the introduction email. Let your work speak for itself so you can speak about yourself in person.”
Of course, you will want to share what makes you (or your product) the right choice. My advice: Do so in the least sales-y way possible, and follow the other tips here by keeping it short and personal. If your readers even sniff a sales pitch, they will run.
Be concise but sincere
Getting to the point quickly is the most important and consistent advice we’ve received in these interviews. Be clear about what you want, right from the start.
“I’ve seen many people, especially juniors, approach me in elaborate ways, from personalized goodie bags to hand-drawn record sleeves,” says Bart Mol, VP creative director at BBDO. “To me, this is the equivalent to a well-practiced pick-up line: meaningless the moment you look one step further. Just show me the real person I should hire as concisely and convincingly as possible, no bells needed.”
James Cabrera, senior product designer at Refinery29, agrees.
“Keep it short and sincere,” says James. “We like to find people who are truly passionate about our mission, already know a lot of the little details about our brand, have a genuine curiosity for our business and are always full of positive energy. Keep it conversational, yet pointed.”
"It’s really about showing why you’re the best person for a specific role in the quickest possible way.”
Keep emailing until you get a response
“I am always open to people staying engaged with me, but there are a lot of emails and people to respond to all the time,” says Shine Thomas in our interview with Nike. “Sometimes, it’s hard to respond to everyone at the speed you desire… but keep emailing until you get a response.”
I understand we don’t want to be annoying, but as someone who receives a lot of cold emails, I know this approach can pay off. Instead of sending a passive “Hi, did you get my last email?” message, just copy and paste the same message you sent before with an optimized intro or subject line. Read more tips for emailing busy people and getting a reply right here.
Be humble and have a sense of humor
There’s a difference between sharing your accomplishments in an effort to make an impression, and just sounding like an asshole. You need to sell yourself (or your product, etc.), but you can do so in a humble way. Carefully phrase your wording to show your passion and appreciation without flat-out bragging.
“The best cold job emails convey that the person is smart and humble, that they have a sense of humor, excitement about Fuzzco and an understanding that we work hard,” says Helen and Josh in our interview with Fuzzco. “They should talk about something interesting the person is doing that helps us get to know them and shows they are passionate, curious people.”
Just send it
You may be surprised by how many people, especially in the design industry, want to help you out if they have the time. Take Michael Bierut, partner at Pentagram. If there’s anyone in the design industry who receives too many emails and has zero time to respond to them, I would imagine it’s him. But his answer surprised us.
“I reply to every message I get,” says Michael. “Even the ones with misspellings.”
Andrea Trew, art director at Flywheel, also makes it a point to respond to cold emails from creatives.
“As a rule of thumb, I love to help other creatives to achieve their goals, even if it means just setting aside some time to chat and give them pointers on their portfolio,” says Andrea in our interview. “Asking for advice and an opportunity to meet in person (even just 30 minutes for coffee!) is always welcome.”
As does Luisa Mancera, brand designer at Invision.
“A few friends of friends have reached out to me who are curious about what it’s like to work remotely. I’ll usually talk with them,” says Luisa. “I’ve also had a few people looking for career advice and I’ll try and talk with them as well. If people reach out with specific questions I’m generally happy to answer — I usually give them my phone number and ask them to give me a call.”
Michael Stevens, head of creative and design at Virgin Atlantic, sums it up nicely:
“My advice? Go on, be brave and just do it."
There's a lot more career advice where this came from. Catch up How to Get a Job at X series to read the full interviews with Pentagram, BBDO, Flywheel, Nike and lots more.
Hi, I'm Tobias, a German designer living in New York. I'm the author of this blog, nice to meet you!