As this site has gotten more popular, I’ve received more inbound from readers like you who want to talk to me directly about any variety of things. Some people do an excellent job reaching out, some do fine, and some do such a terrible job that it makes my girlfriend worried for my safety.
So while I know I’m risking getting way more inbound by talking about this, it’s worth letting you know what works and what doesn’t to get my attention, or the attention of anyone else online you want to reach out to and learn from or be friends with.
These are the tactics that have worked for me, and that have worked the best on me, and I’m fairly confident that if you used them with me or anyone else who has some form of online presence you’d get a good result.
Before we get into the tactics for reaching out, we need to cover a few mindset shifts. Because I don’t want to hurt your feelings, but the sooner you realize this the sooner your outreach will improve:
I know the feeling. You read everything someone puts out, you subscribe to their newsletter, you like their tweets, you have a rough idea of their travel history over the last few months, and so you feel like you deserve a response to your messages and desires to hang out and be best friends forever.
Unfortunately, you don’t. Here’s why.
First, you may know a lot about who they are, maybe more than some of their friends, but they have no idea who you are. I’ve had this experience a few times meeting up with readers of this blog where they reference things I’ve said or done or worked on that I haven’t talked about in person with them and it feels… odd. There are very few relationships we’ll have in our life where one person knows a lot about the other but not vice versa, and so we assume that if we know X quantity of things about someone then they know X quantity of things about us.
But this isn’t true for people you follow online. No matter how much of their stuff you’ve read, they have no idea who you are or why they should like you or help you, so you have to prove to them why they should care about you. Your ability to rattle off their past works doesn’t mean that you’re automatically friends, and them publishing things online doesn’t mean that everyone who reads them has the right to their time.
I personally see this play out a couple ways. The most common is when someone sends a terrible email, and then bumps it a few days later. They’ll send something like “Hey I wrote this thing that I think you and your audience will like, how about you read it and then share it everywhere and also raise my firstborn?” and then I archive it.
A few days later, they’ll bump it with an email saying something like “Hey, did you get a chance to read my article yet?” This makes the whole experience even more annoying since it’s incredibly presumptuous to email someone you don’t know asking them if they’ve had time to do something completely self-serving to you.
The only acceptable follow up would be along the lines of “Hey, sorry if I came off too strong in the first email, let me try again…” and then say something not so presumptuous.
You can’t assume you’re entitled to their time, you have to show them why they want to give you time. Which feeds into the second mindset piece…
Even if you do have a good pitch for their time, you’re going to be competing with everything else they could be doing with their time. The more popular someone is, the harder it will be to get a response from them, simply because of how many other great people are reaching out. While you might only be sending off a few emails, they could be getting dozens per day or week, so you have to assume that there are at least 10 other people like you reaching out to them.
This also means that you can be more competitive by requesting less of their time. Reaching out trying to get a 30 minute coffee date with them is going to be EXTREMELY hard, that’s a massive commitment, but tweeting them something they can respond to in less than 140 characters is a very small ask that they’d be more likely to oblige.
A big part of this is the kinds of questions you ask. I had someone message me on Facebook the other day asking me what I think the meaning of life is, and while I’d love to give him an answer, I don’t have one, and could easily spend hours talking about it. Extremely broad questions that will take a lot of time won’t get a response. You have to give them a way to respond quickly, especially when you’re first reaching out to them, and you have to show that you’re genuinely interested in talking and don’t have an agenda. Since…
The common theme among outreach messages that I immediately send to the trash is that whoever sent them seemed to assume I have nothing better to do than sit around and dole out free marketing, sex, writing, or life advice. Or, that just by sending me a few nice messages and asking a couple questions that I’m going to link to them or email my list about them and share them on all my social media.
For example, every now and then I’ll get a message from someone who wants to quote me in an article or do some sort of profile of me on their site. That’s fine, and I love the links and exposure, but it’s not fine when they turn around and get pissed that I don’t promote the article like crazy.
Once they do that it becomes clear that they were only working with me in the first place to leverage my audience, and I’m unlikely to ever want to do anything with them again. It’s usually doubly awkward, too, since part of the reason I won’t share it is that they didn’t write something that good or valuable. I’m not going to be a complete dick by saying “sorry, no, your article is bad,” I’m just not going to do anything. (If you want an example of someone doing a profile well, read this one by Tomas).
Your desire to reach out should only come from one of two places: to learn from them, or to be their friend. Anything else is going to be obvious and leave a bad taste in their mouth. If you’re drafting your email thinking about how great it’s going to be when they tweet about your article or product, delete the email and go sit in the corner and think about what you’ve done.
All of this is to say that before you reach out to anyone online, make sure you’re doing it out of a genuine interest to connect with them (not get something from them), that you can do it in a way that’s compelling to them, that you aren’t asking for too much of their time, and that you aren’t assuming you deserve a response.
Once you have someone you want to reach out to and you’re thinking about it the right way, the question then is what to reach out about. You may have some bigger, grander question that you want their input or advice on, but if you lead with that then you’ll likely ask for too much and not get any response at all.
The trick is to take whatever you want to know about and distill it into something they could answer in a few sentences. It needs to be straightforward enough that they can answer simply, while also interesting enough of an extension of their work that they want to answer it. You’ll also do much better if you can ask them something that shows you know what they’ve already said about it and how you’ve used it.
Here are a few examples of good ones I’ve received:
“Hey Nat! I’m a guy from Sydney, Australia doing my best to escape my office job, and your blog and Twitter have been really helpful, so thank you for that, you’ve given me hope that it’s achievable ?
I’m following your advice on starting a lifestyle business, I’ve created a hand lettering design course, and am following your steps. I gained 1000 enrolments in the first weekend, and Lesson 4 of the first 7 gets sent out tomorrow! It’s very exciting.
I just wanted to ask – I’m seeing a drop off in engagement since the first lesson. Is this something you also experienced? I’ll send a screenshot of my Mailchimp admin.
The landing page is here: https://lettering.studio and I’d love your advice/feedback on it if you have time.
Thanks again for writing the post in the first place, and your time reading this ?”
There’s so much good going on in this outreach. He talks about what interests we have in common, how he’s been following my writing, and what he’s already done with it. Then he gives a VERY specific question about engagement, one I can answer really quickly, and though he also asks for advice on the landing page he gives me an easy out on it (if you have time), and it wasn’t the main ask. Also smileys help a lot.
I responded in a few sentences, and he sent a few more very precise follow up questions and we kept talking about it. It didn’t feel like he was asking for much, just genuinely curious about how he could reproduce some of my results. And he made me feel like I was helping, which everyone likes.
Here’s a less-good one, but that I ended up responding to anyway:
Hey Nat, just found your website and am already a huge fan. Hope you continue to build/grow it. Amazing stuff!
Was reading where you said you were some-what introverted. Given the esoteric health and nutrition info, I figured you may have some good methods in your arsenal for being for more extroverted.
Eat a paleo diet at the moment, fast 24 hours once a week, good exercise etc. Was wondering if you had any advice or tips for that if you don’t mind.
Also curious about your favorite books, or which onces you’d recommend someone to read.
First, the good. He’s clearly read my stuff and is interested in it, and is curious about something I haven’t talked about much (being extroverted as an introvert). Where it’s bad is the big ambiguous question on diet, and then asking for books I’d recommend when I have an entire section of my site dedicated to it and an article on it. But I still responded, mostly to call him out for the ambiguous questions which he took well:
“Hey man! Lots of questions, so I’m gonna be short. For books: nateliason.com/lessons. For being more extroverted, live in a country where you don’t speak the language for a while, it gets you used to speaking without feeling insecure about it. For the diet fitness advice, no idea what kind you’re looking for ?”
And then we went from there.
Now, here’s an example of a bad one:
I am making a list of the best must read water diet blog posts and I want to feature your blog post called – “I Consumed Nothing but Water for 5 Days. Here’s Why, What Happened, and Why it Was Awesome.”
Once the article has been published you will get an award badge (fully customizable) to put on your site that will link back to the post.
If you agree, my “best water diet blog posts” article will include a link to your site and will be heavily promoted on social media.
Please let me know if you’re happy to be included, the article will be finished by the end of this week.
It’s extremely obvious what he’s doing here. He wants me to include a badge linking back to his site for the SEO juice, while offering a link and a bit of promo on his end. But since his audience is much smaller… that link and promo isn’t worth nearly as much. This article drove maybe 10 visitors to my site, and while it’s nice that he did give me the link and shout out, that’s something you do in an article anyway if there’s a good source you’re referencing. His outreach was all about him, and so I told him he could include me but I wouldn’t be adding a badge or promoting it or anything.
Now, here’s a REALLY bad one:
My names is James and I’m a freelance designer and helped worked on an infographic entitled ‘[removed]’. I think this is something that your audience would really enjoy so I thought I’d share with you. I would also really like to hear your thoughts?
You can view the infographic here: [removed]
And then, of course, 5 days later….
I’m just checking that you got the infographic I suggested in my last email? Please let me know if you didn’t.
Look forward to hearing from you soon 🙂
Pretty much everything is wrong here:
Basically, please never send anyone an email like this. EVER.
Here’s a terrible one I get every now and then (this must be a template somewhere):
I am currently working with a leading international healthcare organisation. I noticed your site has published a very interesting article, [article], which is why I think a collaboration between us could work well.
We would like to feature a bespoke piece of content on your site, which we think would be of great interest to you and your audience. For the privilege of being featured on your site, we would be happy to offer you a fee of $50.
We hope to hear back from you soon.
Ugh. First, I very clearly have no guest posts on my site. Second, who wants to read a $50 article. Third, not personal at all, clearly a template. Need I go on?
Hopefully, this gives you some idea of how you can reach out, but it’s also worth considering where you do it. This will vary based on who you’re reaching out to, but most people have one or two channels that are the best for them beyond email.
For me, that’s Twitter. I’ll almost always respond to a good question on Twitter. Followed by my Facebook page, followed by email. I’ll pretty much never respond on LinkedIn, as evidenced by my job title there as “Aspiring Professional Tea Taster.”
What I (and most people) won’t respond to is people who reach out in a bit too creepy of a way, such as:
The creepiest experience I’ve had is one evening when I was in the car home with my girlfriend after dinner and opened my phone to see I had about a dozen text messages from an unknown number. He had figured out my personal email address and then used that to send me iMessages asking about hour long ejaculations his father talked to him about as a teenager (I can’t make this shit up, folks).
Now, obviously, that’s a massive breach of privacy. I was extremely annoyed by it and immediately called him out, but worse, my girlfriend was now worried that someone could show up at my apartment if they were particularly crazy and inclined. We had to go home that night and clean up the ways people could find me online since it was so unsettling. Did he have good intentions? Probably, but his desire to get as close to me as possible in his outreach resulted in his number and email getting blocked from all of my accounts. Don’t be that guy.
Do reach out, though. It’s always a great feeling when someone reaches out with how my work has benefitted them, and if they do it in the ways talked about in this article, I’m usually more than happy to talk with them. It’s fun, and gives me ideas for other articles, so don’t assume that the people whose work you follow don’t want to hear from you.
Just do it effectively, and don’t be creepy.
Then consider joining the 30,000 other people getting the Monday Medley newsletter. It's a collection of fascinating finds from my week, usually about psychology, technology, health, philosophy, and whatever else catches my interest. I also include new articles and book notes.