Fairfax Cone once said, “Advertising is what you do when you can’t go see somebody. That’s all it is.”
He was so right.
There is no better way to sell something than in-person. Talking to someone face-to-face lets you have a personal conversation and get a feel for what someone wants and what it will take to make a deal.
However, since it’s not possible to have a personal chat with the billions of potential consumers out there, we use advertising media as a stand-in. And of all the traditional formats, sales letters come closest to the personal conversation you want to have.
A well-written sales letter remains one of the most effective means of speaking to people, sparking an emotional response, and motivating them to buy. It’s simple, personal, easy-to-read, and effective.
It’s hard to explain what makes a good sales letter. It’s sort of like good art: you just know it when you see it.
However, there are some basic steps for writing a sales letter. Here are 14 of them.
1. Consider using a headline or Johnson Box. Not every letter will have these elements, but they are ideal for telegraphing your offer or a clear benefit statement. Just remember that they make your letter look less personal and more like advertising.
2. Use an appropriate salutation. Personalization is best when you can do it. Otherwise, use a salutation that connects with the reader as closely as possible. “Dear Friend” is safe but general. “Dear Cat Lover” is more targeted and specific. If you’re mailing to a business audience, use the occupational or professional title.
3. Make your first sentence short and attention-grabbing. Don’t waste time with a long windup before your pitch. Involve the reader immediately. Make a startling statement. Start an interesting story. Hit an emotional hot button. Or just state the offer and get to the point. This last approach is often the best tactic and offers the least room for error. The following sentences can expand on this first sentence to pull the reader into the body copy. Here are 30 sales letter openers for inspiration.
4. Present your offer on page one. If you don’t give your offer in the headline or first sentence, you should put it somewhere early in the letter text. The better your offer, the earlier you should mention it. Be clear and specific about what your reader will get by responding.
5. End the first page in the middle of a sentence. 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 turn the page, finish the sentence, and keep reading. You can also use this technique on successive pages.
6. Keep your copy on track. You’re not writing a novel, but your main idea should be a thread that weaves through the whole letter. At minimum, present your theme on page one and end on a similar note on the last page.
7. Make the body of the letter work hard. Once you’ve grabbed your reader’s attention and generated interest in your offer, follow immediately with benefits, details, word pictures, testimonials, and proofs to eliminate doubt.
8. Call for action. Quickly restate the main points of your offer and ask for the response you want clearly and directly. Restate information on involvement devices, motivators, incentives, etc. Restate the big benefit.
9. Make response easy and clear. How should the reader respond? Give your toll-free number. Explain the ordering process one-two-three.
10. Guarantee your offer. Assure the reader that there is no risk. State your guarantee in strong terms. This should directly follow your call to action.
11. Stress urgency. Why should the reader respond now? Is it a limited-time offer? Are supplies limited? Are prices going up soon? Give a logical, sensible, and honest reason why this is the best time to respond. And be clear about what will happen if the reader does not respond. Mention the lost opportunity or the consequences.
12. End the letter when you’re finished. Just as your letter shouldn’t have a long windup at the beginning, it shouldn’t prattle on at the end. End a letter as bluntly as it began. Often this is a quick restatement of your instructions for responding or a simple “thank you.”
13. Have the right person sign your letter. Your letter should be signed by the highest-authority person available or by someone relevant to the reader. Ideally, the signature should be in blue ink. (Hint: Consider how the signature looks. Does it suggest confidence and believability, or is it shaky and uncertain?)
14. Use your P.S. effectively. The postscript is one of the most-read parts of a letter. It 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. Some call the P.S. a headline at the end of the letter. Ideally, it should be short, about one to three lines.
Got it? Okay, now here’s why everything I’ve just told you could be wrong.
These 14 steps can help you craft a solid sales letter. But they won’t necessarily turn you into a master copywriter. The fact is, great letters often break the rules. Why? Because there are no rules, just rules of thumb.
For example, if you ask me about the first sentence of a sales letter, I’ll swear to you it must be short. That’s always the way I start a sales letter. But I’ve seen great letters with a long opening sentence.
I’ve also seen great letters with no P.S. Letters that seem to do their best to hide the offer. Letters that never break a sentence at the bottom of the page. I’ve even seen letters that don’t include a clear call to action.
Here’s my point: It’s easy to analyze a sales letter after it’s written. In most letters, you’ll see most, if not all, the above 14 steps. But just as great art can’t be paint-by-numbers, great sales letters can’t be formulaic.
Sometimes you have to break the rules or make up your own rules. Sometimes you have to take a chance. A letter is a conversation, and no conversation ever follows a set path. That’s why great sales people don’t follow a script. They just know how to go with the flow and arrive where they want to be … with a signed order.
Follow the 14 steps. But remember that you’re not conducting a lecture. In a good sales letter, you’re having a conversation. A sales letter is what you write when you can’t go talk to someone.