Cold Outreach Basics: Foundational Guidelines to Engage Passive Talent

Engaging passive talent

This is a post by Lever’s technical sourcer, James Briggs. 

The emergence and popularity of social networks and social media over the last several years has had a significant impact on the way many of us approach sourcing talent. The main question faced within the sourcing process has shifted from “how do I find great talent?” to “how do I engage these folks once I’ve found them?”  It’s become an ultra-competitive market for talent out there, brimming with recruiters who are all searching for the “best and brightest.”  As a result, recruiters must be adaptable and tackle passive talent outreach with a creative and thoughtful approach regardless of what resource is used as the means for that outreach.

I know that a question many recruiters out there are asking, especially those new to sourcing, is “So what does an ideal outreach message look like?”  Unfortunately, there is no “holy grail” of messages or messaging formats; no ultimate solution to default to.  Remember that at the heart of our work as recruiters are people; who, by nature, are generally unpredictable, react differently to things, and have wildly varying interests and needs.  However; based on my experience as a sourcer over the past few years, I’ve come up with a few generalizable tips for crafting an initial “cold” outreach message that can help you engage with that top-tier prospect you’ve been looking for.

1. Understand your audience

The flavor, or tone, and content of your messaging will differ depending on the type of individual you’re reaching out to.  Effectively engaging an engineer versus engaging a salesperson, for example, calls for different tactics.  Think about what tends to matter most within the domain your recipient is a part of, as well as what you’re able to glean from their social profiles, Twitter feed, etc.

 2. Use your own voice 

There’s no need to be too formal or professional.  Remember that you’re one human reaching out to another.  Many recruiters’ reach-outs end up sounding overly templated (even if they’re not) and robotic.  Let your outreach reflect your personality.

3. Lead with an engaging subject line

The subject line heavily influences whether your recipient will even open your message – you’ve got to make them want to open it.  Find a way to be engaging; whether it’s a personal touch based on their interests/background, a catchy phrase, etc.  Let’s say you want to stay general, and write something attention-grabbing like “Ready to make a global impact?”  Or, you can be more specific and personal. For example, if you find someone who you notice loves The Karate Kid movies, you can reference them something like “Sweep the leg!”  The sky’s the limit, so be creative!  

4. Introduce yourself 

Let your recipient know who you are, where you work, and what you do.  This may seem simple and obvious, but it goes a long way towards personalizing your message and establishing that you’re a real person, with a genuine purpose, reaching out. 

5. Make a connection  

Find a way to tap into what motivates them, what they’ve accomplished, what they’re interested in, etc.  This doesn’t necessarily have to be related to work: maybe they enjoy cooking, or went to the same college as you, for example.  Personalization towards your target audience can go a long way towards eliciting a response. 

6. Be concise

Find a balance between communicating necessary information and avoiding unnecessary length.  The longer your message, the greater the odds the recipient won’t read the whole thing. You’re not trying to hire someone with your message; you’re simply trying to motivate them to talk further.

7. Be clear 

If you want to initiate a conversation about a role, be clear about it.  If you’re simply looking to make a connection or initiate a dialogue, be clear about it.  Whatever the intent of your message is, don’t force your recipient to guess or assume what your intentions are.

8. Answer the question “why me?”  

Find a way to address the “why should I be interested?” question for your recipient to help them understand what sets your opportunity (and company) apart from the rest.  In today’s competitive recruiting landscape, people are being presented with a variety of “opportunities” with no real substantial reasoning as to why they should be interested.  

9. Leave an action item

Closing with an actionable request (i.e “let me know what your availability looks like next week” or “do you have some time to chat this Friday afternoon?”) can be impactful in motivating your recipient to respond, even if it is to say “no.”  Close strong!

10. Follow up

It’s no secret that timing plays a big part in someone’s willingness to respond & engage in communication with you.  One of the biggest mistakes many recruiters make is failing to follow up with someone who’s unresponsive beyond the initial outreach.  Not only does following up every so often increase the odds that you’ll ultimately catch someone at a good time, but it also demonstrates persistence and attentiveness.


This is by no means an exhaustive list; nor is it a firm set of rules or directions.  These are simply guidelines; “food-for-thought,” if you will, in the vein of being creative & thoughtful.  Ultimately, the specifics of messaging are up to you.  Find what works best for you, always be willing to adapt and experiment, and be yourself.

Source on! Passive talent awaits…

More on the Lever blog, Here’s What Engineers Hate About Your Recruiting Emails.