June 2, 2023 / Esther Choy

When it comes to networking on LinkedIn, most people are repulsed by cold outreach. Networking has been described as “getting to rub elbows with people who like to geek out about the same things you do.” As accurate (and as fun) as that sounds, growing our network virtually often lacks this joy. Most people are repulsed by cold outreach — both the act of doing the outreach and receiving it.

This fear of cold outreach exists for a reason: it has a history of being done so poorly. On a daily basis, I receive terrible cold outreach emails via LinkedIn. Here are just a few examples I’ve received in the last few months.

Would you consider responding to this one?

Failed Networking Cold Outreach On LInkedIn

No. And here’s why: there’s no personalization or specification. What “transaction” is he talking about? The phrase “I appreciate meeting and networking with successful people,” is as vague as it is cringeworthy. It makes the sender sound desperate to ingratiate himself with successful people when he cares neither their business nor them personally. Further, half the message is about the sender’s assistant Alan. The forced formalities and phony “I’ll have my people call your people” language make it appear that the sender is parading around in attempts to sound important—important enough to have an assistant named Alan.

No thanks. There is nothing sincere or inviting about this message. So let’s look at another example that isn’t quite as generic as the one above, but that still earned the same treatment: complete disregard. Here it is:

Esther, Our businesses and passion for storytelling have a lot in common. You can learn more at <link to my website>. I would like to see if you have an interest in being on our podcast. My background is in pharma, coaching, teaching and I have a PhD. I look forward to connecting. 

The first sentence, even though awkwardly phrased, does make an attempt to show some connection between the sender and recipient, but it’s vague. It’s almost like saying, “We both ate breakfast this morning, so we have a lot in common.” And then, painfully, it only gets worse from there. The rest of the message is all about the sender. Their website, their degrees, their podcast, their interests.

This message is cold and transactional. I need X, you have X, I’ve got credentials, so give me X. There’s no joy or geeking out. There’s no conversation. What’s more, the message is shallow; it’s likely this exact message was probably sent to every other person on LinkedIn who has used the keyword “storytelling” in their bio. Who would want to respond to this message?

Let’s look at one more example of a failed cold outreach email. This one attempts to be more conversational and makes gestures toward personalization, but it is just as poorly received as the prior messages.

Incredible. You are an incredible inspiration to me.

We are all human however when I started to write this I hesitated multiple times. You are a wealth of knowledge. Which you know. My story is one of great sadness and over doing. Would you have time for a call?

I’d love to learn from you. Hopefully we can connect. I had to ask you …. especially after reading your book.

In this message, the sender again fails to make a convincing case that they know anything about the person she is trying to connect with. “You are incredible” and “You are a wealth of knowledge” fail as flattery because there’s no follow up with specification. What is so incredible? How has the sender come across this wealth of knowledge? What on earth is she talking about?

The second failure (beyond the poor grammar and run-on sentences) is that the self-deprecation raises red flags. While humility is a virtue that helps people connect, proverbially slouching through LinkedIn removes any joy or desire for connection. Why would someone want to connect with a person who seems to value their own potential so poorly?

The third failure is the call to action, “Would you have time for a call?” is as vague and meaningless as the sender’s flattery. If someone were to respond to this LinkedIn message, what would the phone call even be about?

From these three examples, we’ve learned what not to do:

  • Don’t be vague
  • Don’t be transactional
  • Don’t be pompous, listing your accomplishments and your personal assistants
  • Don’t be self-deprecating, apologizing for bothering the person

The Secret to Successful Online Networking

Think of a time when you were waiting in line at the airport and you struck up a conversation with the person in front you. The conversation flows easily. You discover you both travel frequently for your jobs and you trade tips on which airports have the best food choices. When it’s time to go through security, you part ways smiling. What was so pleasant about that interaction? You felt seen and understood. This is the scenario you want to create when networking on LinkedIn. How can you make the person you want to connect with feel seen and understood?

Let’s look at some real examples of networking experiences that received responses. In a prior article, filmmaker Bryce McNabb, shared how he networks on LinkedIn by commenting on posts. He observes that authenticity is key to cold outreach: “I didn’t want to be seen as fake and trying to get something from you. You can totally feel that and it’s offensive. So I didn’t force it. I made a point to only ever comment if I genuinely had something thoughtful to contribute.”

Unlike the cold emails above, commenting on a person’s posts is inherently more conversational. By default, you demonstrate your interest in their subject matter by reading their work and expanding on it or asking a good follow up question.

Another successful example of cold outreach also highlights authentic interest in the work of the person being reached out to:

Dear Jennifer, 

Last night I was elated to read about your book, We Need To Talk: A Memoir About Wealth in the NYT article by Paul Sullivan. Serendipitously, I’ve been working with a research partner the last few months interviewing twenty-two first generation wealth creators.

What’s remarkable about your book is that you’re telling your story openly, something that is extremely hard to find. My interviewees were all either trusted friends or trusted friends of friends. We promised confidentiality and anonymity. And even then they were tentative to talk about their stories involving wealth.

The one thing I have going for the research is that no one had ever asked them the questions I am interested in. So they’re intrigued and ready to reflect. 

I just ordered your book and am so looking forward to reading it. You must constantly be pinged by people. I hope you don’t mind my outreach. I hope to learn from your story so that the research report can be all that more enriching for the public.

The differences between the failed examples and this example, which elicited a response within hours of sending the message, are drastic, but let’s take a look. Here’s why this cold outreach email worked:

  1. The specificity demonstrates sincerity. It is clear the sender of the email has a genuine interest in Jennifer’s story. The sender compliments Jennifer, but it’s authentic, personalized and specific. The sender shows why her work is so meaningful to her own work.
  2. It’s about relationship building, not transaction. The sender is not asking for her to be on a podcast or to give her a free consultation. The sender is simply reaching out to say, I see you and I appreciate what you are doing.
  3. When the sender does share about herself, it’s neither pompous nor self-deprecating. Rather, she is demonstrating her own personal investment in the subject matter.

Let’s take a look at the third example of networking that is short and simple.

Successful Networking Cold Outreach On LInkedIn

Like Bryce’s approach, this example of a cold-outreach email focuses on carrying the conversation forward, simply and briefly. She acknowledges the recipient’s work and provides her interpretation in a way that demonstrates what she appreciates about it. In just one sentence the sender makes the recipient feel seen and understood.

The secret to successful networking on LinkedIn is this: Be human.

Humans thrive on conversation that is meaningful, specific, and demonstrates genuine interest and authenticity. So don’t be afraid to geek out and share authentically with a person you really want to connect with. You won’t regret it: You may find a new collaborator or business opportunity, or even a new friend.

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Esther Choy

Esther Choy founded Leadership Story Lab in 2010 to help others leverage the art of storytelling to create extraordinary opportunities.
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