Cold Outbound for Product Managers

Cold outbound email is typically viewed only as a tool for salespeople. At Incendium, despite the fact that we are generally marketing consultants, we believe that cold email is an even more useful tool for product managers, early-stage company leaders, and others tasked with determining the overall direction of a startup’s disruption. 


The basis of this theory is that cold email is not a sales activity at all, because unlike true sales activities, cold email is not best used to persuade someone to make a decision. Email, no matter how well-written, is a very difficult medium by which to make someone change their mind, primarily because it is unidirectional--not conversational. Persuasion is a dialogue. Cold email is a megaphone. We operate our campaigns under the assumption that almost anyone who responds positively to cold email was already going to say yes before they received the email. The email succeeded because it found them. 


So what is cold email really? It's a discovery mechanism. It works like a mapping tool (almost like sonar) sent out to all corners of a potential market in order to pick up buying signals. The “geography” of these buying signals (i.e. titles of those who respond positively, business models of their companies, qualitative responses received on how they will use the product) provide information to drive feature prioritization. 


When they work, cold emails initiate revenue. Even when they don’t, they allow for highly effective customer discovery. A true win-win.


With that in mind, below are some suggested frameworks for product managers thinking about how to deploy cold email as a diagnostic tool. These can be used to structure campaigns built to maximize learning and customer discovery. 


1) A descriptive cold email is your true MVP.


Lean product design will be familiar to PMs reading this newsletter, and it is well accepted that gathering feedback on a lightweight version of the ultimate product is essential to learning and iteration. What is the absolute lightest weight version of a product? In most cases, it's actually just a plain text email describing the product itself.


To be clear, it is never good to pretend to have built something that you have not (or that you cannot quickly), but the highest-fidelity test of a product or feature’s value is to ask someone to pay for something that you know you can build quickly or simulate manually. 


This already happens unintentionally as part of a sales process for most startups: It’s not uncommon for a good startup salesperson to "make a balloon animal” of the product they have in order to meet the particular needs of a prospect by overemphasizing what had been believed to be minor features or by offering to manually fill in the gaps where the product falls short. Sometimes, these adapted versions of the product (which often require some extra manual work “behind the curtain”) necessitate different feature prioritization or even wholesale pivots. Good companies will keep a direct line of communication between the sales and product teams such that the product folks can then take the “balloons” they are producing and shape them into the “animals” that customers are requesting.


Cold outbound email simply provides an opportunity to do this at scale, with more data, and earlier in the process. If you notice that you’re being asked to build the same balloon animal again and again, that’s the market telling you what to do with your product.


2) Cold outbound doesn’t persuade your prospects, it finds them (and gives you data on who they are).


As described above, cold email is a discovery tool more than it is a persuasion tool. The world can broadly be divided into three types of prospects:

  • People who will always buy your product or service regardless of the sales process
  • People who will never buy your product or service regardless of the sales process
  • People who could be persuaded to buy your product or service depending on the sales process

“Sales” as a broad category is generally concerned with the last group. Cold outbound email, on the other hand, is about finding the first group. That makes it a lot like product development for early-stage companies.


3) There is no better medium for quick, iterative tests for product & feature development.


Everyone has an email address. Everyone checks it whether they want to or not. Tools such as Mixmax allow you to send emails to hundreds or thousands of people at once rather than posting an ad and hoping that someone sees it.


The main substitute for this motion has usually been focus groups or user interviews of some sort. These are helpful, but can provide too much of the wrong information if not used correctly. Email’s scale allows thousands or tens of thousands of data points to quickly be collected in order to assess the overall shape of the market. At a certain point, it’s more valuable to get a fairly shallow thumbs up/thumbs down reaction from 2,000 people than a deep-dive into use cases for 20.


There are likely even more nuanced advantages to using cold email extremely early in a company’s journey, even (or especially) before product-market fit. When used correctly, it is at least as powerful a tool for product managers as it is for sales leaders.

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