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January 07, 2010

How to get someone you don't know to help you. Hint: send a personal email.

I ask many people I don't know to help me -- to share numbers, interviews, etc. Often they say yes. I am grateful.

Many people who don't know me ask me for help. Often I say yes. But many of those requests are presented so poorly they make me cringe.

Basically, if you want my help, take a few moments to know who I am. If you send me what is clearly a mass email asking for help, forget it. There is a right and wrong way to do this.

This post is about the right way.

First off, use email. Yup. The old standby. I read my own emails; 95% of the people you want to reach do, too. It's fine to use LinkedIn or Facebook or Twitter, but generally those are just a prelude to email anyway. I respond much more slowly to queries on LinkedIn and Facebook -- does the person you are seeking help from act that way, too?

If you don't have the email address, you can often track it down off a blog or on a site like ZoomInfo.Or, if you can reach someone through a social network, ask them for their email address there.("Hey, I have a proposal for you. Can I get your email and email it to you?"). Generally people will say yes.

Forget the phone, too interruptive, hit or miss, if you get the person in a bad mood you're dead. And sending unsolicited stuff through the mail is a really bad move and marks you as way behind the times. (Yes, people still do this -- I get letters all the time.)

The email should include the following elements, in roughly this order.

Subject line: A short description of what you want. Yup. Get to it. Don't hide it.

"Would like to interview you this week regarding your Twitter strategy for my new book"

"Want your input on my career change."

"Are you available to speak at our Web Developer conference on January 21?"

Greeting. Short. Start the body of the email with this. If you have a connection, use it.

"Hi, Josh"

"I saw you speak at the Web 2.0 Conference."

"We spoke briefly in Atlanta at Home Depot"

Who you are. Also short. The recipient doesn't want your whole life story. You can include a link for more info:

"I'm an MBA student at Harvard"

"I'm CMO of a small Web services company"

"I am a recruiter at the American Red Cross."

"I am the coauthor of the bestselling book Groundswell. If you want to know more, see my blog here: http://blogs.forrester.com/groundswell"

An indication you are familiar with the recipient's work. This shows respect, it also shows that you put a little effort in. This makes all the different. Don't be a sycophant, but you can certainly be respectful. DO NOT OMIT THIS -- since it really shows you are not a mass emailer.

"I have been really impressed with your online community for credit scores -- it's amazing you can get people to connect around this."

"I read your book and I found the section on customer service to be extremely helpful."

"I was amazed that a company like Coca-cola was able to reach out to its fans through a Facebook page -- I saw you were in charge of that effort in Advertising Age."

What you want. Brief, and to the point. Be respectful but neither pushy nor presumptive nor reticent. Ask in a straightforward way. (I get emails all the time that omit this. And I think "why are you bothering me?" No, I don't want to just be friends -- just tell me what you want.)

"I would like to interview you this week about your activities; it will take about half an hour."

"Can you tell me quickly whether you think a marketing person should bet their career or social media?"

"Can you share any statistics on traffic for Facebook pages?"

Statements of mutual benefit. Why should we work together?

"Many of the companies we profile come off looking great -- I think our readers would love to hear your story."

"We will include your company name in our article and attribute credit properly."

"I think based on my background that I'd be a great fit. You seem to need more people with industry experience."

Details. Keep it short, include what's necessary. If you have to include more information don't send a long email, don't paste in graphics, and for lord's sake don't include an unsolicited 3MB attachment that clogs up people's connections and email stores. A deadline is a good thing to include.

"Our conference attracts over 500 senior people and has included speakers like Barry Diller in the past."

"I will provide opportunities to review all the quotes for accuracy before we publish."

"I don't think this will take more than 15 minutes."

"I really need to complete this before the end of the week; I'm sorry about the rush, but the editors insist on this timing."

Friendly close and repeat important elements. By this point you can add a little flattery, just a little.

"I really hope you can help me -- you are clearly a marketing leader whose activity deserves to be highlighted."

"Thanks for your help with this conference. I hope to see you the next time I am in Boston."

Signature that's not some baroque object. Check your auto signature. Is that really what you want to be communicating to someone you want to ask for help? And how long is it? Are you really that important? Contact info is usually sufficient.

OK, let's put's it all together. Keeping it as short as possible is important, but with all these parts you get a moderate length email. Here's one I might send:

Would like to interview you this week for my new book, Groundswell Heroes


My friend Fred at Vendor Solutions has said you are one of his best clients. I was particularly interested to hear how you measure the value of community activity for your business -- that seems amazing for someone who sells greeting cards.

If you don't know me, I'm the coauthor of Groundswell, a bestselling book about social technologies. You can read more about it here.

We usually tell people to evaluate ROI for communities partly through sales. But based on your comments in Advertising Age, it appears you've got a unique way to measure ROI.

I'd like to include the story of what you did in Groundswell Heroes, the new book we are publishing this year with Harvard Business Press. I'd like do an interview with you by Wednesday of next week. It should take about half an hour.

The folks we interviewed for Groundswell were generally pleased to be featured as examples of best practices in their industries.

Once this is written up, we'll send it to you so you can check that the facts are correct and that we have quoted you accurately.

I hope to hear from you in the next few days -- I'd really like to include you. I think People-based Greetings is just the kind of company our readers will be able to relate to. (And I just sent one of your cards to my mom -- she loved it!)

Thanks again.

Josh Bernoff | Senior VP, Idea Development

Forrester Research (www.forrester.com)

Co-author of Groundswell


Blog: www.bernoff.com

Twitter: @jbernoff

Final Note: What do you do if you can't get through because the person is inaccessible? Go to the Web site and check the media relations and PR contacts --email them. And treat them with the same respect as you would the actual target. They are people too, they will respond to the human treatment. If it's not a media request, you may have to go through some other intermediary, but again, treat the intermediary with the same respect as you would the person you are reaching.


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Thanks for a great post, Josh. It's amazing how many people in professional world don't have a clue about how to do this. This is a very valuable primer for them--and a good refresher for the rest of us!

Carroll Lachnit
Executive Editor
Workforce Management


A smart article about a key subject. Thanks Josh!

Whitney Johnson

Good post! Sometimes I feel awkward identifying myself - it sounds stuffy. But I think you're absolutely right.


Trey Schaefer

Josh, this was one of the best blog entries I've read in a long time. Traditionally it has always been taught that email is not the way to communicate for the first time with someone, but to pick up the phone. I completely agree that phone calls are disruptive and you run into timing issues with busy people. This is a great template to use whether you are trying to get in touch with someone outside of your contact sphere, or trying to get in front of a new client. Thanks for the advice, I will definitely put it to good use.

Brett H. Pojunis

I think this is a great post. I too have the ability to get throughto the right people.

I do think you are discounting the phone. If I am reading a tech blog and I read a posting on a company that could be a potential partner or I see a clear JV I pick up the phone and dial. I usually get luck, but for comapnies in the social media space like mine, http://www.NewMediaPlus.net, it might be easier.

Great post!!!

Priyanka D

Good article, such tips are needed even when people contact via a social network to get the email! People can even botch that up!

John R. Carlisle

Sending a personal email is a great way to get through to people. Here at the John R. Carlisle Institute we try to make a personal phone call or personal email. Everyone seems to just be using Facebook, Twitter and texting as main forms of communication and phone calls and traditional emails seem to be falling by the wayside.

John R. Carlisle


Hi Josh,

Thanks for a great post. Sometimes all it takes is to ask nicely and people are willing to help. I've landed many interviews with people I don't know or don't know well by writing them a nice email.

P.S. Sometimes if people ask nicely in a comment in my blog post, I will help them just the same. I figure if 30 seconds of my time can point them in the right direction, I am willing to help.

Vitezslav Valka

Great post Josh, actually I'm doing all this in my emails to strangers and you're right.

It's all about feeling of the truth that we're humans and not machines :-) So kind word always does the right think...


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