How NOT To Write a Prospecting Email

Update 6/16: Guess who sent me another email this morning (less than 24 hrs. after publishing this post)? My favorite content strategist! And she mostly repeated her act, including many lines directly from the message she previously sent me on Sunday night (yes, two days ago). The subject line, opening line and closing line were all retreads, as was most of the body. The only difference: One message linked to a case study, the other didn’t. The best part? She opened again with the robot line, but this time added the word ‘automated’ for emphasis: “[Name] from [company] here (human, not an automated robot).” I must ask a second time, is she not a robot if she repeats the same long message mostly verbatim? Bonus: Fathom is actually a recent former customer of this company, and never once has a message referenced this fact or even assumed it indirectly. To the contrary, all her message content has implied that I am unaware of their basic offering. This means even the robot is dropping the prospecting ball, because the machines should know that my company is a recent past customer and therefore, not in the same communications category as an unfamiliar prospect.

I love my job. Every day, countless emails pour in to my work address from different organizations looking to sell me—and Fathom—on their ideal solution. As a writer and editor who works in the marketing field, I take great pleasure in evaluating these messages. They occasionally give me great ideas for things I can try in my own emails … or avoid like the plague.

Consider a recent message I got from a content strategist at a popular marketing technology company. (Names redacted to protect the guilty.)


Subject line: Let’s take it from the top. Paul, you’ve been checking us out? Not bad. It’s true I’ve been to this company’s site fairly recently to view a webinar. The question is appropriately informal and slightly provocative, suggestive of language you might see on an online dating site. It did make me want to read more. But let’s declare right now that using someone’s name in the subject line is overdone. I get that you want to demonstrate personalized attention, but putting names in subject lines is usually almost always unnecessary. Plus, it makes the sender appear to be trying too hard: Hey, we know your name and can automatically put it in a subject line! How cool is that!? Not very. Grade: C+.

First sentence: Moving into the body, here’s where things get interesting. Where to begin? How about with the first sentence, where she introduces herself and reassures the reader she’s “human, not a robot.” Great start: Brief, informative, and I love the disarming wit. Grade: A.

Sentences 2-5: If only she stopped at the robot reference, because beyond the first sentence, keeping the message brief (max: 5 sentences) was all she had going for her.

1.) She likely already used robots to put my name in the subject line along with the thousands of other people who received this message.

2.) Verifying my company name is Fathom (vs. Fathom Delivers) would take an Internet-savvy adult human 5 seconds; assuming otherwise could be an obvious mistake when relying on a machine that would detect my company name as an exact match with its website domain and email addresses (which it isn’t).

3.) What person uses 3 different fonts in their first 3 paragraphs? I’m no graphic designer, but even my severely nearsighted eyes can tell when wildly different fonts clash, which not only makes a message appear unprofessional, but also machine-generated. Using 3 fonts in a haphazard fashion tells me that she either did some hasty copying/pasting or auto-generated each snippet from a database. (In either case, not bothering to preview the message and manually clean up the fonts is sloppy and suggests the sender doesn’t know the message looks weird or worse, doesn’t care.) Again, the robots win. Grade: F.

Final grade: F.

All these errors share in common the violation of D.J. Waldow’s first rule of email marketing: Be human. Nothing quite says ‘automated’ like a message containing 3 different random fonts and an obviously incorrect version of the recipient’s company name. How ironic, given that she makes the effort to state immediately that she’s not a robot. If she only made these errors without declaring her non-robotic nature up front, I would have had less occasion to laugh. But the fact that she took pains to announce her humanity while revealing 3 distinct tells of a robot-generated email is too delicious to ignore.

And her email signature states she’s a content strategist:

strategist signature


The content strategist who wants to create the personal touch but gets my company name wrong as she mixes and matches fonts in a way no human would is giving all content strategists a bad name. What’s the strategy employed by this strategist, confuse your reader into thinking machines posing as marketers have taken over the world? That’s the only conclusion I can make.

I know, you might be thinking Anybody can make a mistake, let’s not be too cruel. Well, it’s true that humans (myself included) make mistakes, and I can forgive mistakes. I’m sure at some point somebody will gently correct this wayward content strategist, and she’ll grow and improve. Maybe one of her other prospect-recipients will see this blog post and pass it along to her! At any rate, I hope we all learn something from the best prospecting email I’ve ever received.

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