It all started with an email.
Back in 2014, I was fortunate enough to work part-time as a Graduate Assistant while I completed my master’s degree. Now, there are many perks to being a GA, like unlimited Keurig coffee, redirecting freshmen when they stumble into your office lost during syllabus week, and of course, tuition assistance (more on that in a future post).
But in addition to these perks, along with the invaluable mentorship I received from my professors, there is one moment from my time as a GA that I now view as a pivotal in my early career: THE email.
Part of my duties as a GA was to monitor the department’s email account, fielding questions from students, administrators and Nigerian princes. One Tuesday, I received an email from a panelist that spoke at a communications industry event on campus earlier that week. To be honest, I can’t even remember the exact question she asked—it was something simple that probably took 30 seconds to answer. But I didn’t leave it at that.
Speaking on a panel is something I would love to do one day, and I was intrigued to hear from a real, live panelist first-hand. (Yes, I do realize how nerdy I sound!) So I did what any good millennial would do: I creeped her on LinkedIn, where I learned she was an alumna of my grad program. But more importantly, she worked at a company I was very interested in—one that’s notoriously difficult for recent graduates to get hired at. In short, she was successful, and only a few years older than me. I knew I needed to have a conversation with her.
So in the email, after I answered her question, I explained my situation. I shared that I was sorry to have missed the panel, but I looked up her profile and was impressed by her LinkedIn resume. I explained that I was interested in the industry in which she worked and greatly admired her company. Then I asked if she would be willing to meet for coffee to discuss her career journey.
I asked all of this from a complete stranger—and it worked out better than I could have possibly imagined!
She responded quickly and asked me for my resume, because she had a part-time job opening on her team. I, of course, jumped at this opportunity. At the end of my interview, she told me, “I had to give you a chance because you really know how to write an email.”
I got the job, and it all started with one email. Here are 5 tips to writing cold emails to strangers with the goal of a meeting over coffee—because you never know where a conversation could lead!
1) Do your research. Research should always be your first stop on the networking train. Use LinkedIn and Google to find out basic work information and career accomplishments from the person you’re contacting. The trick is to find at least one piece of relevant information that shows that you took the time to learn about them.
However, simply listing this information as a fun fact won’t cut it—you need to get specific about why you’re interested in chatting. This brutally honest article illustrates why it’s important to show that you’ve properly done your research before sending a networking email.
2) Be clear on what you’re asking for. (Hint: It’s not a job.) Messaging a recruiter on LinkedIn about a specific job opening is one thing; emailing a stranger who doesn’t work in recruiting to ask for a job is another. Think about it: how would you feel if a stranger emailed you, asking for a job? Personally, my reaction would be “There is absolutely zero chance of me vouching for you, stranger whose credibility I cannot vouch for. Be gone from my inbox!”— immediately followed by a swift click of the delete button.
Instead, ask for the opportunity to chat in person or on the phone to learn more about the research you dug up in step 1, whether it’s their career path from entry-level to manager; journey from company A to company B, or their field of study and how they decided on an advanced degree.
3) Add value—if you can. Ideally, a networking email provides value to you and the recipient, whether it’s introducing a new contact, sharing an industry case study, or inviting them to a relevant networking event.
For new professionals, it can sometimes be hard to add that value, simply because you haven’t had enough experience yet. Don’t fret—in time, you’ll be able to contribute that value! For now, let your admiration and interest in learning shine through.
4) PSA: A compliment never hurts. Just make sure it’s genuine and reinforces the fact that you took the time to learn about them.
Good compliment: “I came across your LinkedIn post on best practices in sales communications, and your point about getting to know your audience firsthand resonated with me.”
Bad compliment: “By the way, you look great in your Facebook photo which I found while Googling you!”
5) Manage your expectations. I hate to break it to you, but if you email a CEO of a Fortune 500 asking to chat over coffee, the odds aren’t in your favor that you’ll get a response. (But hey, it does happen!) Target people who are doing the job you want in 1, 5, 10 or 15 years. If they don’t respond, send a short follow-up to the original email about a week and a half later.
And if they still don’t respond? Don’t worry about it—move on to your next person of interest. I would love to hear your success stories (and not so successful stories) in the comments!