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The Secrets of Successful Sales Letters

Start counting — one, two, three, four, five.

Time's up! Experts say you only have a few seconds to grab a reader's attention with your sales letters. "Writing direct mail letters can be a mental game of cat and mouse," writes Mark Bacon, author of Do–It–Yourself Direct Marketing. "Your purpose is to snare the reader's interest even though his defenses — sales resistance and skepticism — are up."1

Fail to accomplish this feat and your letter is likely to end up in the trash.

An outcome you want to avoid as "the business letter is the biggest opportunity for expansion that you have today. Employed intelligently, it will find you customers, [and] it will sell your goods," assures Yanik Silver, author of Instant Sales Letters.

In fact, direct mail can be a power tool for businesses, typically generating an $11 return for every dollar spent.2 Bacon goes one step further, calling direct mail an equalizer for small businesses. "Giant corporations can afford to spend thousands of dollars for color ads in dozens of magazines, $50,000 per second for commercials on the Super Bowl, and millions of dollars for celebrity endorsements,"3 writes Bacon.

As small business owners you probably don't have the same gargantuan advertising budgets, but your direct mail campaigns can appear equally as professional by employing some of these proven letter–writing tactics.

Reel 'em in quickly

One of the best ways to catch a reader's eye is to start a sales letter off with a powerful headline. According to Silver, anyone reading direct mail has one thought: "What's in it for me? Why should I pay attention and so what?" Silver says the headline of your sales letter should answer these questions immediately. He recommends keeping the headline to 17 words or fewer. When your lead caption gets any longer, you're usually addressing more than one point; the headline should spotlight only your top selling point.

Remember to set aside a significant chunk of time for headline writing; coming up with a catchy lead sentence can be harder than it sounds and you don't want to settle for the first headline that hits you. Brainstorm dozens of headlines. You might even pick the best three and test them. Divide your mailing in three and put a different headline on each batch. Then track the one that generates the most interest.

"Once you present the offer, then tell the readers what you want them to do — buy today, call now... order now!"

Keep 'em reading

Once you've hooked the reader, you must keep their attention. So says Danielle Kennedy, author of Seven Figure Selling, who also urges business owners to use "a get–to–the–point, cut–to–the–chase style of writing."

Don't waste the precious space of your first paragraph tooting your own horn, rambling on about your company's history, or expounding upon the many awards your business has won. Silver stresses, the first paragraph "should be about the customer's [needs] and what the product [or service] is going to do for them."

Concentrate on benefits

The body of your sales letters should stress customer benefits first and product features second. For example, saving time is a benefit, being IBM compatible is a feature. Include at least three benefits and more if space allows. Many experts recommend you keep your letters to one page or shorter, so be sure to choose the selling points that will best showcase the value of your product or service.

When explaining the benefits use powerful words that may motivate your readers. Experiment with persuasive words like amazing, save, free, best, exclusive, and guaranteed. Compelling phrases include make money, work less, relieve pain, save time, stay healthy, be a leader, and own a home. Appealing to customers' pocketbooks or emotions, asking a question, playing to fear, or including inside information may also incite customers to take action.

A word to the wise — choose words and phrases that accurately describe your services. Avoid exaggerations and do not make promises your products cannot fulfill.

Make an offer... they can't refuse

Though the primary goal of a sales letter is to sell, a common mistake people make is not to include an offer, such as a discount, giveaway, coupon, or free consultation.

In your sales letters, make your offers clear and concise. Once you present the offer, then tell the readers what you want them to do — buy today, call now, come into your store, order now!

Surprisingly, your readers may be disappointed if they don't find an offer. "People expect offers ... they look for offers. Without an offer, readers have no incentive, no sense of urgency to take action. They don't even know what action, if any, the advertiser is hoping to elicit," says Bacon.4

Consider strengthening your offer by providing a money–back or no–risk guarantee. Also supply multiple ways for potential customers to contact you, such as a toll–free phone number, Web site for online ordering, email address, or reply card with pre–paid postage.

Convince readers to trust you

Once you've demonstrated value, Kennedy says businesses must "prove past record and credibility. The best way to do that, is if [businesses] can quote past customers who have been satisfied with their work."

If you decide to use testimonials from satisfied customers, choose ones that aren't too long or too glowing. You don't want readers to think your dad, favorite aunt, or best friend wrote the avowals. To lend more authenticity to the testimonials, include the customer's full name and title when possible. (Note: Be sure you have the customer's written permission to use their name in advertising materials.)

Nancy Michaels, an independent small business consultant suggests taking testimonials one step further. "I think the best sales letter you can write is the one you don't have to write yourself." Michaels recommends an endorsement letter, written by a pleased client and sent to his/her colleagues. Mail the letter on the client's letterhead, not yours. Let the client tastefully sing your praises; include information on how your accounting skills reduced your client's tax burden, how your decorating advice jazzed up your client's hair salon, or how the Web site you designed increased your client's sales 25%.

Whether you write your own sales letter or ask a client to do it, keep this advice in mind: "Suggest that you can help the reader in your letter and you have his attention. Tell how, and you have his interest. Prove it, and you are likely to have his signature," says Silver.

Be conversational

Let's be honest — your sales letters aren't going to win any literary awards, so they can be relaxed and chatty. To accomplish this tone, sit down and write your letter as if to one customer, even though the message will be sent to hundreds or thousands of people.

Your sales letters should be friendly and straightforward. Bacon advises staying away from technical jargon and language that "is too cute, clever, or humorous, it can detract from your offer. Use contractions, simple language, and other techniques to sound friendly and slightly informal."5 Bacon recommends short, pithy paragraphs no longer than seven lines.

Trade secrets

A number of other industry tricks may also help improve the response rate to your direct mail letters.

  • Most important of these tips may be to include a P.S. at the bottom of your letter. Experts say after the lead, postscripts are the most likely part of a letter to be read. When crafting your postscript, quickly reiterate your key points and offer. Do not introduce any new ideas or concepts.

  • If possible address letters to consumers using first or last names. Personalized salutations like 'Dear Susan' or 'Dear Mr. Fisher' may be better received than generic 'Dear Resident' letters. Addressing letters to the 'Office Manager' or 'Technology Director' is more acceptable in business–to–business letters. Generic salutations and addresses may actually work in your favor as people come and go from jobs.

  • If appropriate, tell the recipients of your letters that they will be hearing from you. Then, "when you do make the follow up call, which I do think is part of the process here... you can say with some legitimacy that Mr. So–n–So or Ms. So–n–So is expecting a call from you," suggests Michaels.

  • Sign your letters in blue ink, by hand, if possible. Experts believe customers prefer blue ink to black ink. Signing each letter individually provides a personal touch that may spur recipients to buy.

  • Enclose a copy of a relevant and timely newspaper or magazine article with your letter. Attaching non–sales related information might ingratiate you with your clients.


  • Clearly state a deadline and let prospects know that your offer will be available for a limited time only. Deadlines create a sense of urgency and may spark action.

  • If you receive a sales letter that incites you to action, save it. Study letters that impress you and draw on some the tactics that motivated you.

  • Add a little mystery to your letter, recommends Kennedy. Imply that you possess a secret that will only be revealed to them if they take action. "Leave something to be desired, give them a reason to want to call," says Kennedy. Offer a free gift to anyone who orders before a certain date, but don't divulge what the gift is. If you're a nutritionist tantalize readers with a line like 'make an appointment today and discover the three workouts that will help you burn the most calories.'

  • Don't despair. Direct mail response rates are typically low; "your responses are going to be closer to one percent than to 90 percent, or 50 percent, or perhaps even five percent," cautions Bacon.6 A low response rate suggests that you may need to revisit your offer, selling points and benefits, or mailing list. You may be sending an outstanding sales letters to the wrong people. Click here for tips on how to buy the right direct mail list.

Be prepared

Before you drop your sales letters into the mail, determine how many responses your company can handle efficiently. If you can only manage twenty new customers a week, don't send out a thousand letters at a time. Remember you can always mail out your campaign in batches. If you've hooked readers with your letters, the last thing you want to do is lose customers because you couldn't fulfill their orders quickly enough.


1Bacon, Mark S., Do–It–Yourself Direct Marketing, John Wiley & Sons, Inc. ©1997, pg. 184–185.

2The Economic Impact of Direct and Interactive Marketing on the U.S. Economy, 1999, Direct Marketing Association

3Bacon, Mark S., Do–It–Yourself Direct Marketing, John Wiley & Sons, Inc. ©1997, pg. 7

4Ibid., pg. 13

5Ibid., pg. 188

6Ibid., pg. 21

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