How to Start a Cold Email: The Best Subject & Opening Lines

illustration of writing an email

Tell me if this story sounds familiar to you. Someone in your office finds a creative subject line in a blog post. They get a 38% open rate after using the subject line for one month. You begin using the same subject line, but your open rates are not as promising.

I just spent ten minutes reviewing the top ten Google search results for “best cold email subject lines”. Do you know how many subject lines were listed on the first page of Google? 517 cold email subject lines.

How is a salesperson such as yourself supposed to choose 1 of 517 subject lines?

You and I both know that using Google for finding the next best subject or opening line for cold emails is an outdated best practice. 

Luckily for you, this blog post is going to put the power of 50% open rates and 15% response rates straight into your hands.

Let’s get started!

What is a cold email?

If you’re new to this, cold emails are outbound messages sent to any prospects, leads, or customers that have never heard from you before. This initial outreach is the core challenge of cold emailing.

Where there’s a will, there’s a way, and we’ve been optimizing cold email outreach for the past seven years. In that time, we’ve found that cold emails work best when they have the following:

  • intriguing subject line
  • personalized first sentence
  • open ended question
  • value-added content
  • clear call to action
illustration of an email subject line

The best cold email subject lines

The success of cold emails begins with subject lines. If you can’t get someone to open the email, what you say in the email body goes to waste.

While I’m not going to give you subject lines that you can copy and paste, we are going to give you quick activities that will double or triple your open rates.

The best cold email subject lines use the following roadmap:

  • personalization
  • a curious question
  • a reference to moments in time

Personalized subject lines

You just got a new list of prospects. The list has names, email addresses, phone numbers, and a few other pieces of demographic information.

When I say “personalization”, I’m referring to individual or account intelligence. The knowledge the buyer actually wants you to know and come to the table with every single time. This includes job promotions, solution seeking, and other individual or company activity.

There are two ways to accomplish personalization.

  1. Use Lead411 or ZoomInfo. By spending just two minutes in your lead intelligence software of choice, you can acquire information about the prospect that can be used to personalize the subject line and email body.
  2. Use LinkedIn. This is my favorite path. With a quick two-minute glance of a prospect’s LinkedIn profile, you can discover their collegiate institution, latest post comment, and previous job history.

Here’s a subject line for a recent prospect that has history with the Special Olympics. I’ll share the email’s opening sentence later in this blog post.

  • Congrats on 22 years as a Special Olympics coach

You can stop with a personalized subject line, or you can move on to the next two steps to further enhance the personalization.

Subject lines with curious questions

Now that you’ve spent two minutes reviewing the prospect’s account intel and LinkedIn profile, you can add even more curiosity by asking a question.

Here’s another example. I found a prospect who graduated with two degrees from the University of Michigan. Plus, she also had background activities as a booster.

I quickly used this information to craft the following subject line: Will Michigan beat OSU again?
At first glance, there is no way that the prospect would think, “Oh, another cold email—delete.”

Her curiosity would get the best of her, and to her surprise, the opening line would also reference the school rivalry. This makes the transition from a hyper-personalized introduction to a value-added offer smoother and less conflicting.

Referencing a moment in time

When you’re sending cold emails, expecting an open and response after the first send is a little too optimistic. This is why we A/B test with personalized subject lines.

Using words that reference a moment in time forces the email recipient to flex their memory.

For instance, if you used the subject line, “last month’s sales training?”, the prospect would likely generate one or more of the following thoughts:

  • Was this person at the training?
  • I need to address the next steps from that event.
  • Why are they posing the training as a question?

Curiosity and urgency builds in the prospect’s mind, driving them to open the email and likely respond to your email. Timeliness is an all too valuable communication tactic, especially in cold outreach.

illustration of an email opening line

Starting a cold email

Subject lines are half the battle. Now it’s time to move on to the opening line, aka first sentence.

The reason I’m saying this is half the battle is because you’ll likely use the same guts of a cold email for most if not all sends.

Your introduction, information on your solution, and your call to action won’t change too drastically. However the subject line and first sentence is where things should always evolve from one prospect to the next.

Recommended reading: 5 Best Cold Email Templates (inspired by a cold email expert)

The email's first sentence

Don’t overthink this. You already discovered the personal intelligence to focus on when crafting the subject line. Now all you have to do is expand on that same topic for one to two sentences.

This should be a fluid process. While the body of the email will be more professional in tone, the email opening should offer a hint of formal communication. Because who wants to work with a boring stiff, am I right?

Personalize the first sentence with LinkedIn

Remember when I shared the following subject line:

Congrats on 22 years as a Special Olympics coach

I discovered this information with a quick visit to the prospect’s LinkedIn profile. This helped me quickly and easily write the following casual opening:

Hey Paul,

Thank you for being a Head Coach for the Special Olympics. I’m a big advocate for unified sports at local high schools, so I wanted to applaud you for transforming lives for 22 years.

In addition to accomplishing personalization, I’m relating to the prospect, demonstrating that the two of us have something in common.

I’m also reassuring the prospect that if and when we speak over the phone, the conversation will not be all about business. Like the email, we’ll share stories on the special olympics and other related topics, helping me eventually pivot to the business conversation.

LinkedIn has really come a long way in recent years. You can now discover your prospect’s personal interests, unique LinkedIn certifications, and post activity.

photo of a man reading a cold email

Personalize the first sentence with lead intelligence

As I’ve mentioned before, prospects won’t open the first email, so you’ll need to pivot to other talking points to discover what’s at the forefront of their mind.

By using lead intelligence tools like Lead411 and ZoomInfo, you can uncover company news, job postings, solution searches, and other intelligence that your prospect may be interested in or involved with.

Furthermore, your prospect is likely already exchanging emails with people in-house on these very same topics. Timeliness is key to cold outreach, and getting mixed into the conversation is a great way to eventually get involved in the conversation.

Lastly, as discovered in Salesforce’s State of Sales Report, 72% of buyers expect sellers to personalize outreach to their exact needs. So, if you’re reaching out cold, there’s no better way to discover these needs than by using Lead411 or ZoomInfo.

How you should NOT start a cold email

As referenced earlier, never start a cold email with a “popular” subject line. I’ve spoken with hundreds of sales leaders, and they share how they’ve become smart to overused subject lines.

Trendy subject lines such as “Should we talk?” and using the prospect’s first name but without a capital letter, are experiencing lower and lower open rates with each passing year.

And don’t go halfway with personalization. Just because your prospect opened the email doesn’t mean you should jump right into your pitch or business messaging. Your prospect will presume that you’re merely tricking them into opening the email.

Extend the personalization to the first sentence. Inspire the prospect to relate to you so they’ll more than likely want to connect with you.

Personalization only takes 1 to 2 minutes. The juice is worth the squeeze!

Don’t rush the cold email writing process with copy and past techniques.

One BIG secret to cold emailing

photo of a woman using email tracking

Now that you’re better suited to succeed with cold emailing, I have one more tactic for you that will likely add even more opens and responses to your outreach KPIs.

Email tracking. Using the right subject line and first sentence strategy is a great move. Enhance it by discovering your prospect’s inbox behavior.

Yes, by using Veloxy (a Top 50 Sales Solution according to G2), you’ll learn when your hottest prospect is opening and engaging with email content. By sending personalized emails when they’re going through all of the other inbox junk, they’ll further appreciate your personalized approach to outreach.

We’re all buyers, and as buyers we want to buy from people we like and can relate to—so be sure to always open cold emails with a personalized subject line and one or two personalized sentences.


Sauvik Sarkar

Sauvik Sarkar

Sales AI is transforming selling activities for companies of all sizes, and one of the leaders in this movement is Sauvik Sarkar. While artificial intelligence can be intimidating to most, Sauvik helps improve adoption with one-on-one training, insightful blog articles, and more.

Sales Insight Webinars