That doesn’t end up in the trash

Dear Reader,

Have you ever written an email or message to a stranger and never gotten a response? Perhaps you had the best intentions to inquire about a product or service you wished to buy, and no one ever got back to you. What lousy customer service!

Maybe, maybe not. Perhaps your email just didn’t look legit, and either a automated filter or human recipient mistook it for some spam or a scam. I get a lot of dodgy scams and spams in my inbox, so if I get a message from someone I don’t know, I tend to analyze it before deciding if it’s worth the time to respond.

Tell me who you are

First, your name and email address. I don’t want to be a domain snob, but email from doesn’t exactly inspire professional confidence. (I, too, have @hotmail AND @yahoo addresses, but I don’t send email from them.)

You know who does send email from random addresses from free domain sites? Every scammer on earth.

Also, it looks suspicious if the name used in the message doesn’t match the email address in some way. Like those phishing emails that tell you’ve won a foreign lottery or claim to be from an FBI agent in London investigating tax fraud (Why? I don’t know.). Delete.

How do we know each other?

“Hello, my name is Marshall Mathers, and I’m writing to you because …”

  • you have an item for sale on Craigslist
  • I saw your website
  • our friend So-and-So said you could help me
  • etc.

When approaching a stranger, it helps to let them know who you are and where you came from. It’s not a wasted sentence, I promise. Even the scammers don’t just launch into what they want; they try to establish a relationship first.

If you are legit (see: matching name and email address), this will help your email get read, because the recipient has some real-world frame of reference for you.

Ask for what you want

We all get a lot of email. Most of it wants us to do something – work, buy something, donate to a cause, or otherwise do something. We kind of have to triage it based on how much (extra) effort the sender is asking for and whether we want to do it at all.

So the trick is to quickly outline what you want while making it attractive and easy for this stranger to respond. For example, maybe you are looking for someone to write copy for your website or edit your book:

Hello Christine,

I am writing to you because I found your website and thought you might be able to help me with a project. I am creating a new website about dogs, and need someone to help write blogs about puppy cuddling. I need about X posts a week, with pictures and YYY words long. I am looking to launch on [date]. Please let me know if you are interested.

Thank you,

Kind Stranger

[email signature stuff]

This email contains everything I need to know at this point – who you are, the basics of what you want, and approximately when you want it. And I give bonus points for proper salutations and sign-offs, because I’m Canadian and that’s just polite. (If someone starts with just my name, that’s the digital equivalent of snapping your fingers. It’s an instant turn-off. No soup for you!)

Money talk can make people walk

You don’t necessarily have to discuss the budget or payments in an opening message to a stranger. Both can be red flags.

If you’re writing to someone about something you wish to buy, it is assumed that you are planning to pay for it. Stating that you have no or a small budget can be a turn-off.

If you must, ask for rates or a quote instead, and expect it to be worked out as the recipient gets to know you and your project.

Being overly concerned with payment in an initial email tends to be the mark of the scammer, who is trying to appeal to greed with offers of money, instead of getting me interested in their actual project.

Spelling counts

Again with the snobbery, but when you’re approaching a stranger, appearances matter. Even if sending an IM, don’t let the medium make you overly casual. Strive for spelling, grammar, punctuation. Punctuation in texts is like wearing a fine suit. Paragraph breaks are sexy.

Again, bad spelling and weird grammar is the mark of scams and spams. And even if you’re not, extra time and work to decipher your message may mean it just doesn’t get responded to.

Please just be real

In the end, remember that a) we are all busy people, b) there are a lot of scammers and bots out there trying to fool us into handing over our information and money, and c) almost every message we get is trying to get us to do something. But if you look legit, make a reasonable request and are polite, you might just get what you want, or least a response.