Articles - 29th October 2020

The Art of The Follow Up, or how to send that second email

Words by Jem Collins
Illustration by James Merritt

When I first met my partner two and a half years ago, our first date was essentially the result of a follow-up message. Drunkenly DMing someone to ask them for a drink, before sending an almost identical message immediately afterwards might not sound like a use case for the professional world, but there is a lot we could learn about follow-ups from our personal lives.

Follow-ups are everywhere. Whether it’s chasing down the best time for dinner plans or trying to get everyone committed to the family Secret Santa, we’re actually pretty well-versed in following up. We know the right method of contact and we generally know how to get the tone right. However, when it comes to doing it for work, we often throw out everything we already know.

There are good reasons to be nervous. Unlike when you’re badgering friends and family over the group chat, as a freelancer you’re contacting people you don’t know and depend on converting these connections to create income. Plus, you’re competing with a lot of other noise in people’s inboxes.

Tech editor Gina Clarke tells me that when she leaves the office at 5pm, she’ll find herself with some 200 emails to plough through by the time she returns to her desk at 8am. Even outside of the world of journalism it’s a busy field – the average office worker will receive about 120 emails every day, though they’ll only get time to reply to about 40. So, just what should you be doing to make sure your messages are standing out?

 

It’s actually your first email you need to worry about

Before you even think about sending a follow-up to a speculative email, you need to take a closer look at your original message. “Make sure you’ve got a good pitch in the first place,” says Francesca Baker, who runs And So She Thinks, which offers PR and marketing services. “If a story stands up it stands.”

In short, there’s little chance of a follow-up email succeeding if you didn’t get the basics right the first time you contacted someone. For Dr Holly Powell-Jones, who runs training company Online Media Law, the key is to actually know what you’re asking of people.

“I think the thing that is difficult, is when somebody reaches out to you, and they want your time, but they haven’t really explained why or what the purpose is for. Sometimes I get people [asking] if we could meet and just talk. But, I think if you are going to ask for somebody’s time, you should be really specific about what you want to know and why you’re asking that.”

With your first email you should know exactly what you’re hoping to get from the exchange, have done your research on the person you’re contacting, and be writing a genuinely personal and tailored email. It might take longer, but without a firm base, a follow-up email is all but useless.

“You’ve got to set yourself a goal of quality rather than quantity when you’re making connections,” adds Holly. “Rather than trying to treat it like a numbers game, it’s much better to have one or two really good warm leads than just trying to get 20 people to follow up with you.”

 

Accept that follow-ups are part of the job

When you’ve gone to such efforts to craft your first email, chasing up can feel like a demoralising task. But it’s vital to accept that they are just part of the hustle as a freelancer. “I’m a super anxious person, so I do get a bit nervous before sending up a follow-up email,” says freelance journalist Jaishree Kumar.

“I get pretty bummed too when they don’t respond, but then I realise that editors, especially now, are overburdened with work, so it’s nothing personal.” It might sound small, but realising that good ideas can be missed, is a vital mental hurdle to clear.

Similarly, Gina encourages all freelancers to give their idea another push. “I would always say try and pitch again. Emails get lost, I get distracted, and, to be honest, I’d rather get reminded than lose out on a good story.” It’s clear you should be following up – but when you follow up and what you say are also crucial parts of the equation.

“Keep it short, succinct, and nice,” advises Jaishree. “As for the timing, I guess it really depends on the pitch. If it’s not a time sensitive piece I wait around seven business days. If it is a time sensitive piece, I usually follow up with them in a day or two.”

If you’re sending out a lot of speculative emails, it’s also worth sorting out an admin system that works for you. While Gmail often gives you helpful reminders to follow up on unanswered messages, it’s worth looking at a more structured system. Tools like Trello or Basecamp can be used as a basic customer relationship management (CRM) system, or even an old school spreadsheet.

 

The key is to put yourself in the mind of the receiver

With a second email it’s not a case of moving a pitch on or re-phrasing, but checking in with someone to see if they’ve had a look yet. A brief few lines should do it, but it’s also vital to keep the tone positive. “Recognise that journalists [or whoever you’re emailing] are humans too, and busy ones at that. Don’t get grumpy or annoyed, they genuinely might have missed an email,” says Francesca.

However, remember there’s a fine line between succinct and cliché – your second email still needs to sound as authentic as the first. Journalist Sian Elvin advises staying away from tired phrases such as “just floating this to the top of your inbox”, “just reaching out”, or “touching base”. If you wouldn’t say it in real life, don’t put it in a chaser email.

The main thing to avoid is going in too quickly – while it might seem like a pressing issue to you, a cold pitch probably isn’t the top of someone else’s to do list. “Do not phone them three minutes after you’ve sent an email,” stresses Francesca. “I’ve been on the side of being a journalist and it’s the most irritating thing in the world.”

All in all, if I was rating my drunken dating messages, this is probably the only place I fell down. It was a genuine, personal message and I knew exactly what I was gunning for. But I probably should have waited longer than 48 minutes to chase up a response. If anything, it just goes to show the art of a great follow-up is probably you’ve already learnt without realising.

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