3 Lessons Spammers Taught Me About Marketing to Strangers

marketing to strangers

By Mars Dorian, {grow} Contributing Columnist

I get lots of spam mail. So much, I could open a spam factory, sell it back online, and make a profit. But what do those spam trolls want? They’re usually trying to sell something. They want me to review/share/buy whatever they cram into my inbox without building a relationship with me first. I condemned that behavior until I started doing it myself.

Um, say what?

I’ve recently launched a sci-fi book. And in order to make sales, you need good reviews. And to get reviews, people have to read your book. Sounds simple, unless you’re a nobody in the (indie) book world. So to get started with a few initial reviews, I’ve approached readers on Goodreads and asked them to read my novel for free in exchange for an honest review. The challenge?
I’m approaching people I don’t know and I’m asking for a request in the first email, just like the spammers that invade my inbox.

But thank goodness I’ve received so many spam messages, because now I know how NOT to approach perfect strangers. Out of the ten people I asked on Goodreads, four of them replied to my email and actually asked for the book. In the paragraphs below, I reveal the top three lessons I learned from spammers for marketing to strangers.

Address like an ace.

Nowadays, I decide within a second whether I’m going to read an email based on how they address me. Yep, with my time being more precious than the one ring to rule them all, I check the title and determine whether I should read the next line. When I read a subject like ‘Dear marsdorian team’ I know Mr. Spam’s magic is at work. The drone/human who penned this cut-and-paste email didn’t spend one second crafting a personal message, so why should I care about their offer/request?
Here are other failed subject lines that people have used to address me:

  • To whom it may concern (seriously)
  • Hey You! (spot the exclamation mark, this email must be important!)
  • Hello (no addressing whatsoever)
  • and my current favorite: Dear mr. marsdorian.com (.com must be my family name)


Whenever I write to someone I don’t know, I want to make sure I know how to address that person. To figure that out, I check out their Twitter bio, or their about page, and try to figure out whether they are solo, part of a team, or carry a PhD.

Sounds easy, but more often than not, laziness gets in the way. Don’t let it.

Make it relevant to me and wait for my answer.

This is another no-go step that should blink like a red stop sign in front of your tormented eyeballs. I often get requests from perfect strangers. The terrible template goes as follows:

Hey (blank), I have (blank), can you (blank)?

If you’re a good writer, maybe you could get away with it, but probably not. Here’s the problem with this template:

  1.  Usually, what they’re selling is not relevant to my interests or audience.
  2. The seller has already attached the image/infographic/ebook they want me to share/review/read before I’ve had a chance to reply. So if you ask if I would be interested in sharing your infographic, at least wait for my answer and don’t sent the infographic in the same email.

This seems obvious but too many people screw it up. Here are a few examples:

“Hey Mars, can you review my ebook? I’ve attached it in this email.”
(no, I can’t and I won’t, because I don’t read Paleo food diet ebooks)

“Hey Mars, are you interested in sharing my infographic with your audience? It’s relevant to your readers. PS-I’ve attached it to this email.”
(If you knew my audience you’d know I never share infographics)

“Hey Mars, I’ve written a round-up post with the 30 best bloggers. I’ve included you of course and posted the link below. Please share it on your social media channels.”
(No, no, no. That’s like knocking on my door asking for donations while you’re pulling the money out of my wallet.)


First, make sure your pitch is relevant. I only write to readers on Goodreads who not only like sci-fi, but also dig indie space opera with a military flavor, because those are the the category keywords of my novel. Second, ask and wait for the response before you send the object you’re selling, it shows you care about the recipient’s response.

Leave in style.

Politely reply even if the person you write to has denied your request. This is another simple and yet effective way to deal with a first timer request. In the rare cases I DO reply to spammy-ish mail and decline the offer in a polite way, I don’t get an answer in return. This shows the mail was 100% spam and that the person behind it didn’t care about my answer in the first place. So when I’m on the other end of the computer and writing the requests, I try to be as courteous as possible.

When a potential reader on Goodreads declines my offer, I always follow up with something like:
“Ok, no problem. Thanks for replying, I appreciate you taking the time,” or “Thanks for getting back to me. It means a lot” — something along those lines.

This shows I’m thankful for their reply and the time it took to write it. Why? Because I don’t take it for granted that perfect strangers might reply to an email from me that comes out of nowhere. When they do, it shows they took the time to consider my offer, which is a sign of respect in itself.


It’s 2015 and people still spam like it’s 1999. Making requests without building a relationship first is tricky business, but if you follow my lessons above, you can craft a courteous message that will get results.

How do you approach perfect strangers online with a request?

Mars Dorian draws funky illustrations and pens sci-fi thrillers for the Internet Generation. His latest novel is a mix between Star Wars and Silicon Valley called Attack Planet
which you  can check out on Amazon for just $2.99! Consider his artwork for your next project: http://www.marsdorian.com
Original illustration by the author.

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  • Absolutely right on Mars!!!!!! Great post, everyone should be thinking this way.

  • There’s been a lot of discussion in my various groups about marketing. Mostly that it makes them want to pull their hair out or jump off a roof. LOL it’s always good to hear from other authors about what works/doesn’t work. Thanks for sharing (though I don’t consider what you’re doing is spamming. grin) Not when you take so much time to figure out who to send to. Good luck!

  • Hey Pauline, to be honest, I had serious issues with my approach. I mean, I personally HATE when people I don’t know ask for a request in their first mail. But I can’t possible build an intense relationship with every (possible) reader, so I wanted to find the most respectful approach. So in a way, I’m glad for my spammers, lol. Guess you DO learn from everyone.

  • LOL You really can learn from everyone. I know, when I can, I pause to read my spam comments, just because they make me laugh. I particularly like the ones that tell me I wrote “a great post” but the comment is posted to a photo. LOL So yes, you really CAN learn from spammers. The big lesson: don’t be clueless. LOL

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  • Wait what? How are you getting quality spam like that? My inbox has been inundated with fantabulous offers of unclaimed money in the millions that can be miraculously deposited into my financial institution in exchange for my name, birth date, social security number, underwear size, a count of how many times I fart daily, etc.

    Seriously though, the steps you outlined above to properly and respectfully ask a stranger for a favor are the work of an evil genius. Reverse engineer the junky emails to create an honest, relationship forming non-spam laden email is brilliant. Way to go Mars! Posts like these are the reason I keep coming back to Grow!

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  • Definitely. Interesting how all those spam messages have the same characteristics. It’s easy to stand out among all the junk, from where I sit anyway.

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  • They seem to all automated, judging by suspicious subject lines as “Dear mr. marsdorian.com”, I mean no internet-savvy human would write like that;)

  • Colleen, thankfully, the million dollar bank transfers have stopped for a while, but maybe it’s Google sorting them out, heh. I sometimes wonder what goes through a person’s mind to spam someone like that.

  • I can really relate to that as I used to work for a startup which relied almost entirely on “cold mailing.” When I worked for them my first thought was: well it doesn’t work like this. It’s annoying for the recipients and it doesn’t help us at all. It rather hurts the brand…

    I focused on building a reputation in the country I was in charge of and from then on it took off. Spam Mails work much better when people know the name behind the Mail, when it’s customized (some people don’t even bother…).

    Yesterday I received a mail from someone which started with “I noticed you write about email marketing…” and the person told me that I should post this great infographic from a big company. I mean, c’mon… I don’t event write about that. Never have.

    It’s just common sense to invest a couple more minutes into customizing the Outreach mail… Will work much better.

    Very interesting read 🙂

  • I think it always comes down to the time they invest in you (or don’t). Most ‘spammers’ don’t check out your blog/about page because they don’t care, and that’s how they come across.

  • Hello Mars,

    Your article is important in many ways. It brings to light one issue I have had with emails: the lack of courtesy. Many messages I receive are devoid of “hello Cendrine” or any other kind of polite phrases. Sometimes, I feel like a number on a list…

    I can totally relate to #2. It’s one of my pet peeves. People assume that, because I am a social media writer, I will review their books, curate their infographics on my blog, and share whatever they think my audience likes.

    And yes, #3! Happy to see it covered! People don’t even take the time to follow up. That doesn’t make you want to support them afterwards.

    Months ago, someone who had mentioned one of my articles in their book contacted me to review it. I said yes, received a copy, and read it. I would have loved to write a review on Amazon, but couldn’t. The book was not solid enough. So, I spent an hour writing an email full of constructive feedback. Guess what happened next? I receive no follow-up message to acknowledge my message. Not even a quick thank you. Nada.

    Thank you again for this!

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  • Jessica

    Hi Mars!

    Your article is very helpful, and also very timely for me as I have been tasked with marketing my company’s videos to strangers (ahh approach anxiety!!).

    I know you don’t like people you don’t know including attachments, but I’m curious what you and others think about including links (to a website or YouTube video)? Is that viewed the same way as an unsolicited attachment, or is a link less aggressive? Also, if you don’t mind sharing an example of a great way to “cold email” someone I’d really appreciate it (and I promise to not be a spammer and acknowledge it!).

    Thanks a bunch!!
    Jessica O’Brien

  • Hi Mars,

    Great piece!

    I had the wonderful task of reaching out to people (very successful ones) recently for a collaboration effort. In the end, I had 25 replies out of 50 emails (which is a pretty good success rate) and that included some great names like Neil Patel and Joanna Weibe so I was reaaaaaaaally happy/surprised/terrified.

    I think one of the reasons that I got such good feedback from my attempts is that I took the time to look through their work and made sure that I commented on it / complimented it in the email I was sending them. I was already a fan of most of the contributors’ work, but I went to their blogs and looked at some of their pieces and mentioned them in the email. I think this showed that I was a genuine human being (I don’t think bots are quite that advanced yet!) and it also started the conversation off in a friendly/relaxed vibe. Again, it seems like a lot of work, but if you’re really determined to be successful in these kinds of endeavors, you’ll just have to accept that it’ll take a bit of effort.

    Thanks for sharing your experiences!

    – Sarah

  • That’s a fifty percent conversion rate, so that’s actually stellar;)
    You also showed a genuine interest, which probably 99% of the ‘cold-callers’ DO NOT do. Congrats to that–it shows that you can do almost break any principle (i.e. don’t ask for a request with your first message) if you do it with respect and interest.

  • Cendrine, it’s sad how many people forget/don’t care to reply with a thank you note. I thought it’s part of net-itiquette now 😉

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