10 Tips for Writing Better Sales Letters

by Dean Rieck

A well-written sales letter is a thing of beauty. It is your voice. Your salesperson. Your pitch. And in many ways, the most important element in any direct mail package. I typically spend as much or more time on the letter as on everything else combined.

But giving advice on writing letters is difficult. Because let's face it, great letters come from great writers. However, I can answer a few specific questions that should help you create betters letters for just about every mailing.

Q: Should you use headlines or pictures in a letter?

A: If you want your letter to appear businesslike, I would say no. However, many letters can benefit from this approach. I often use it for straightforward consumer mail. In a recent newsletter subscription offer, for example, I showed a large photo of the newsletter at the top left of page one, with a bold benefit headline on the right side. I also included a reference to the offer and perhaps even a call to action.

This accomplishes several things. It livens up the letter. It draws the eye. It telegraphs the offer and main benefit. And it pushes the letter text to the lower half of the page making it shorter and easier to read. If you can get someone to start reading a letter, you've won half the battle.

Q: What is the best salutation?

A: If your budget allows, go for personalization. Any letter I receive that starts "Dear Dean Rieck" is far more likely to get read than one with a generic salutation. But if you can't personalize, use a salutation that connects with the reader as closely as possible in the context of your list, offer, and product. "Dear Cat Lover" for cat owners, for example. If you're mailing to a business audience, you can use the occupational or professional title: "Dear Family Doctor" or "Dear Marketing Manager." But if nothing else works, "Dear Friend" is usually a safe bet.

Q: What's the best way to begin a letter?

A: There are an infinite number of ways to begin. However, I generally try to create something that's short, attention-grabbing, and maybe even a little startling. Here's an example from a letter I wrote to sell a home-buying book:

Dear Friend,

I could just kick myself!

A couple years ago, my wife and I bought a new home. After we moved in, our neighbor asked us over for coffee.

What a shock! He had the same house design, but it was full of all the extras we couldn't afford — like a fireplace, panel doors, tile, oak cabinets. It was stunning.

When I asked how much it cost, he smiled. "Nothing. I knew how to get the extras added on free." And it was so simple, I could have done it, too. If I had only known the secret!

Notice how punchy and intriguing the first line is. And how the copy plunges right into the meat of the sales pitch with a story chock-full of specifics. This was preceded by a headline and offer copy at the top of the letter so the reader would be oriented to the letter's subject. And it was followed by a call to action.

Here's another example; this time for a newsletter:

Dear Colleague,


That's how Diana Neeley, a secretary in Roseburg, Oregon, described it. And frankly, I think that says it all.

Because it's more than a newsletter, it's the world's most powerful office training tool. And it's written especially for you and your staff — managers, supervisors, assistants, and secretaries.

Even punchier. And it gets to the point even faster. In all cases, you must instantly involve the reader. Make a startling statement. Tell an interesting story. Hit an emotional hot button. Or just state the offer. This last approach is often the best tactic and offers the least room for error. I used this with great success in a business-to-business lead package for a high-tech company:

Dear John Doe,

I have a FREE Demo CD you should see. May I send it to you?

It demonstrates (the product) and how dozens of leading companies are using it to revolutionize the way they work.

The letter is on company letterhead with no frills. It's personalized. And it slams the offer right on the table. It's followed by a bullet list of very specific success stories.

Q: Where should you first introduce the offer?

A: Page one. I've seen wonderfully persuasive letters where the offer is presented later on, but my rule is to always present the offer in some form on the very first page. When I use the headline approach I mentioned earlier, I usually present the offer after the header material and before the salutation. Then I try to include a reference to the offer again in the letter text on page one.

Q: Where should pages break?

A: Whether it's curiosity or an urge for "closure," cutting a sentence in two at the bottom of a page helps encourage the reader to flip the page and finish the sentence — and, you hope, keep reading. I always use this technique on page one, and, whenever possible, use it on odd-numbered pages that follow. (For multi-page letters printed one side only, you might consider doing this on every page, though this could turn annoying on letters longer than four pages.) Anywhere the reader must physically turn a page, consider adding typed or handwritten kickers, such as "More" or "Over, please."

Q: What should the body of a letter accomplish?

A: If you've gotten the reader reading at the beginning of the letter, the body of the letter should expand on this beginning with benefits, details, testimonials, and specifics of whatever kind required. However, letter writing is an art, so there's just no one way to do it. The overall idea, though, is to make a personal connection with the reader and make your offer in a one-to-one way. If you have an enormous amount of supporting information, consider putting it in a brochure. Letters and brochures should not duplicate each other. As they say, "Letters sell; brochures tell."

Q: How long should a letter be?

A: This question always reminds me of a story about President Abraham Lincoln who, when asked how long a man's legs should be, replied, "Long enough to reach the ground." A letter should be just as long as it needs to be. No more. No less.

Ideally, you should write a letter, edit it, see what sort of length you have, and work from that. Most sales letters will end up running four to eight pages. Longer letters can work for information-intensive products. Shorter letters can work for lead generation and very simple offers. An experienced writer will usually have a pretty good sense for what's needed to do the job.

Tip: If you want to cut costs by trimming your letter, I suggest writing a longer letter first and testing it against a shorter version of the same letter. A fundraising letter I wrote, for example, tested equally well at eight and six pages, so we knew that the cut would save money without hurting response.

Q: How should a letter end?

A: With your offer, sweeteners, guarantee, and a clear call to action. You can be a bit artful and end where you began, bringing the letter full circle. I ended the gardening letter referred to above like this:

Pretty soon, your neighbors will be marveling at YOUR lush flowers, delicious herbs, and sun-ripened vegetables.

However, the most important thing is to stop when you're done selling. So it's often best to just sign off immediately after your call to action. Here's how I ended that business-to-business letter:

Ask for your FREE Demo CD today! It's ready and waiting. I just need your OK to send it to you. There's no cost. No obligation.

Just go to (company website) and ask for it. I'll send your FREE Demo CD as soon as I hear from you.

Q: Who should sign the letter?

A: Your letter should be signed by the person from whom your offer makes the most sense. Often this is a person of high authority, such as the president of the company. But it could also be a vice president, editor, publisher, inventor, marketing director, spokesperson, or anyone, really. This shouldn't be a political decision. Ask yourself, "Who would make this offer? Who would people expect to make this offer? Who would people be most inclined to listen to and believe?"

When possible, print the signature in blue to make it appear more personal. And pay attention to how the signature looks. This is a pet peeve of mine. You can tell a lot about a person just by looking at a signature. So if it's shaky and ragged and looks like the signature of a mass murderer, have someone else sign the name. I often just have my designer forge signatures to create a more confident look. And it has the side benefit of added security — you won't be revealing your actual signature to anyone.

Q: Do you really need a P.S.? What should it say?

A: People like to know who a letter is from, so they'll glance at the signature at the end of the letter. Therefore, because of its proximity, the postscript is in a visual hot spot. And traditionally, a postscript represents an important afterthought, so it's inherently intriguing. Therefore, it's a good idea to include one on every letter.

However, if you use a P.S. on the main letter, I think it's best not to use one on any additional letters, such as lift notes. It robs the original P.S. of its unique quality. And a secondary letter is akin to a big postscript or afterthought anyway, albeit written by a different person. So to me, a P.S. on a secondary letter seems awkward.

A postscript should be relatively short — ideally three to five lines — and should present an important message, a prime benefit, a restatement of the offer, a reminder of the deadline, a sweetener, or whatever you feel is most effective in this prime spot.

Copyright © 2000 Dean Rieck. All Rights Reserved.
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