I was at the airport, ready to board my flight to Peru when I got the phone call.

Daniel: Are you interested in collaborating on a conference in San Francisco, held 12 weeks from now? 

Me: If we can confirm the speakers by next week, I think we can make it happen. 

There I was, committed to booking 30+ Silicon Valley executives as speakers for an entire conference. Even though I had zero connections and never met any of these speakers before. And I only had five days to make it happen.

... Oh yeah, and I had to do it all from my hotel room in Peru ...

Thankfully, by automating my "prospecting" process, I managed to get a 70% response rate on my introductory email to 250+ Silicon Valley executives … in just five days.

I approached the task like a salesperson closing in on my quota with just a few days left in the month. I identified the right prospects, developed a specific outreach formula, and worked as hard as I could to touch base with as many prospects as possible. 

As a result, I booked all of those executives who responded to my emails as speakers for Traction Conference. A few of those include:


Again, I've never met ANY of these executives (and I had zero referrals). But they get a LOT of emails every day, so how did I catch their attention

Well, I used an automated system that helped me:

  Scrape databases (using a tool called Kimono) to find 250 Silicon Valley CEOs to email in 15 minutes

  Find email addresses for those CEOs in 30 minutes (by outsourcing this task using a program called Mechanical Turk)

  Send personalized one-to-one emails to all of those CEOs, by composing only ONE email

I know, I know. It sounds too simple to be true. How can automating my outreach result in a 70% response rate?

Allow me to explain, as I walk through the specific steps in more detail.

Step 0: Set Aggressive Timelines

In mid-July, I was on my way to Peru.

It was a few weeks after the inaugural Traction Conference in Vancouver when I get a call from AppDirect’s co-founder, Daniel Saks. He wanted to create Traction Conference in San Francisco ... and host the event three months later on October 8th.

My friends who've hosted events before told me I was crazy. There was no way you could finalize an entire conference in just three months, let alone book a speaker line-up in five days. 

Five days later, we had the entire speaker line-up finalized.    :)

I learned that by combining aggressive deadlines with my passion for this project, it was possible to book this conference with such a tight turnaround.

Step 1: Research Your Target Market

One of the most common mistakes I see many business development reps making is not clearly identifying their target market. And by clearly, I mean crystal clear.

First, I identify exactly who I’m targeting, including demographic research and material I can find online. This includes:

  What role are they in?

  How long have they been in this role?

  What social networks are they active on?

  Who is in their circle of influence?

  What is a typical career path for this person?

After understanding who I’m specifically targeting, I talk to a few people in that group to understand their psychological behaviors. Here I focus on:

  What are their needs and goals?

  What does success mean to them?

  Who do they aspire to be? Who do they look up to? Who do they follow on social media? What blogs do they read? Who are their role models?

Once I have a firm understanding of who I’m targeting and their innate behaviors, the next step is building a list of prospects to contact. In this example, I'm targeting speakers for Traction Conference, so I'll explain step-by-step how I did that next ...

Step 2: Scrape databases using Kimono to build a list of prospects.

When we ran Traction Conference in Vancouver a couple months ago, we were targeting growth hackers. So most conference attendees and presenters worked in the tech industry.

As a result, I followed this easy three-step process: 

1. I went to websites such as CB Insights, CrunchBase, and AngelList to find companies in the tech industry. 

2. I used a free data-scraping tool called Kimono to scrape data off those websites, then dump the data into an Excel spreadsheet. 

3. After Kimono was installed, I navigated to this page on CB Insights to scrape the data. The following video demonstrates how simple it is to scrape data using Kimono: 

In less than one minute I had a list of 140 companies I can contact.

I repeated this three-step process, scraping data across other tech-focused websites such as CrunchBase and AngelList. Then I had a massive data set of prospects from all websites, and grouped them into one spreadsheet. 

Next, I had to find their email address ... 

(p.s. if you’re wondering where you can scrape data for your industry, ask in the comments below and I’d be happy to help brainstorm ideas). 

Step 3: Use Mechanical Turk to find their email addresses.

Last week, I explained how to outsource the task of finding multiple email addresses, but here is a brief recap:

1. Create an account on Mechanical Turk (an outsourcing website by Amazon). 

2. Set up a “Human Intelligence Task” for someone to find the email addresses of everyone you need.

3. Sit back and relax while 250+ email addresses are gathered for you. 

Again, check out this article, which explains the entire process in detail. After you learn that process, come back here for the next step.

Step 4: Send personalized emails in batches (without an email marketing tool) in about 15 minutes.

After receiving the email addresses, I send personalized one-to-one emails to all 250+ executives by composing only ONE email.

No, I don’t use a sales automation tool. I actually send all emails straight from my Gmail account, using the hidden “Mail Merge” feature available on Google Drive.

Before we dive into how this mail merge feature works, here is the best-performing email I’ve used when emailing Silicon Valley executives:

Invite to speak at Traction Conf SF on Oct 8

Hey ,

How's it going? Traction Conf last month was hugely successful - we had a solid speaker lineup including the CEO of Marketo, Twilio, Hootsuite etc., almost 1,000 attendees, plus reporters from BBC, TechCrunch, Bloomberg and more. Here's the highlight video.

We'd love to have you speak at Traction in SF on Oct 8 at the InterContinental Hotel. Hoping we can make it work as we’re local this time.



Notice how the tone is personal and friendly? That’s intentional. I also use social proof and credibility indicators (ex. “CEO of Marketo, Twilio, Hootsuite, etc”) that help get that 70% response rate.

Using that template, here's how the mail merge feature works:

1. Open a blank Google Spreadsheet, then go to Add-Ons, then Get add-ons:


2. A new window will pop up. In the search bar, type “mail merge" then click the FREE button:


3. It will then ask for permission to your Google account. Click Allow and the add-on will be added.

4. Go to Add-Ons > Mail Merge With Attachments > Create Merge Template. This will dump in new stylized columns into Row 1 that looks like this:  


Here you can customize the columns to whatever custom field you want to be sent to each person. I like to keep it simple, so the only fields I need are (1) First Name, (2) Last Name, and (3) Email Address.

5. After the email address data is filled in from Mechanical Turk, I go to Add-Ons > Mail Merge With Attachments > Configure Mail Merge.

6. Then I fill out the fields with my sender's information, and click Continue


7. This will prompt a new box to compose your message. Select the dropdown that says Write your own template here using plain text or HTML:


8. You'll then get a screen that looks like this: 


Here you’ll be able to write your subject line and body copy for the email. However, it’s important to note that you need to write in HTML code for each section. You can NOT just write the plain text.

Thus, if you don't know how to write HTML code, copy the code below, and paste it into the section of Email Message Body: 

Copy this code ...

Invite to speak at Traction Conf SF on Oct 8

Hey ,

<p>How's it going? Traction Conf last month was hugely successful - we had a solid speaker lineup including the CEO of Marketo, Twilio, Hootsuite etc., almost 1,000 attendees, plus reporters from BBC, TechCrunch, Bloomberg and more. Here's the <a href="https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sVLIIQqoJzE">highlight video</a>.</p>

<p>We'd love to have you speak at Traction in SF on Oct 8 at the InterContinental Hotel. Hoping we can make it work as we’re local this time.</p>


... And paste it like this:

9. After the code is pasted, just customize your email. Any part of that email can be customized using double curly brackets that match the name of that column. For example,, just pulls the data from the First Name column in the spreadsheet.

After the new subject line and body copy is written, click Run Mail Merge and you’re finished:


You’re allowed to send 50 emails per day as a free user. To send more, you can upgrade to Mail Merge Premium.

Step 5: Run A/B test experiments to optimize response rate.

As noted in the previous step, I typically send batches of personalized emails in about 50 emails per batch. This allows me to test different things, such as:

  What subject line gives me the highest open rate?

  What introductory sentence gives me a higher response rate?

  What length of content gives me the highest response rate?

Over time, I’ve ran enough experiments to get that 70% response rate, thus here are a few things I've learned in the process: 

  • Being concise helps boost the response rate (no more than 6 sentences total). 
  • Opening with “How’s it going?” creates a personable impression like I'm emailing someone I know, thus increasing response rate (I’ve actually had people ask if we’ve met before since I started using this opening line).  
  • Referrals typically result in the highest open rate. 

In general, I send casual personable emails like I would email a friend. People do business with people, yet many of us tend to be mechanical when sending those initial emails. Just send as much information as is needed to get to generate interest and get to the next step (i.e. a response for a call or connection to the right person on their team or for more information).

But let’s be clear — this is my audience. Your audience will respond different to different email styles. The biggest takeaway here aren’t my results, but that you should be gathering data and running prospecting tests on your own audience.

It's critical to understand that your audience will respond differently than mine. And as a result, you should always be testing and experimenting until you find solutions that stick. 

Eventually, you'll be able to start compiling your own statistics and facts on what works for your audience. 

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Originally published Sep 30, 2015 12:25:01 PM, updated August 31 2017


Sales Automation