Copywriting Basics: Sales Letters and Direct Mail Tips

Updated on August 11, 2019
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Prachi has been working as a freelance writer since 2012. When not writing, she helps people with web designing and development.

In this article, we will focus on writing sales letters and other direct response materials. This is one of the most common types of job for a copywriter.

The article begins by examining the many uses of sales letters. We reveal how the AIDA principle applies to sales letter writing, and follow this up by examining a real-life sales letter, looking at how it works and ways it could be improved. The article continues with in-depth advice and guidelines on sales letter writing, covering content, style, and appearance. Finally, we analyze the importance of sales letters in direct mail. We examine how this works, and look at other direct mail items you may be asked to work on, from 'lift letters' to printed envelopes.

The Many Uses of Sales Letters

Although print advertising uses up the major part of many businesses' advertising budgets, sales letters fulfill an important, and complementary, role. Here are just some of the many things sales letters can be used to do:

  • Make new offers to existing customers
  • Stimulate sales by sending out vouchers
  • Invite customers to special events, e.g. one-day sales
  • Fight competition, e.g. by sending news of lower prices
  • Build customer loyalty, by keeping them informed
  • Send personalized messages, e.g. on a customer's birthday
  • Get feedback from customers
  • Encourage former customers to return
  • Bring the business to the attention of new potential customers (whose names may have been obtained from list brokers)
  • Reply to people who have contacted the business as a result of an advertisement

In addition, if a business sells its products via retailers or wholesalers, letters can be used for keeping in touch and letting them know about new models, sales promotions, point-of-sale materials, and so on.

A sales letter may or may not ask for an order straight off – the aim may simply to be to bring the customer into the shop or get him to send for a full information pack. The letter may be sent on its own, or it may form part of a package including a leaflet, price list, samples, etc. Here we are getting into the area of direct mail, discussed later in the article. But before we discuss this, we want to spend some time looking at the sales letter itself, focusing on three main areas: content, style, and appearance.

Four Things the Content of a Sales Letter Should Do

A good sales letter meets the AIDA specification. To remind you, this means that it:

  • Attracts ATTENTION
  • Arouses INTEREST
  • Stimulates the DESIRE to purchase
  • Prompts the reader to take some ACTION

Let's look at this in more detail.

1. Attract Attention

A sales letter does not need to grab attention as vociferously as an advertisement. Whereas an advert may be competing with dozens of others on the same page for readers' attention, when someone opens your letter you have, however briefly, his undivided attention.

Nevertheless, it is the easiest thing in the world for a reader to throw your letter away unread. So, many sales letters begin by gaining the reader's attention with an arresting heading. In a sales letter, the usual place for this is after the salutation ('Dear Customer' or whatever). Here are a few examples of attention-grabbing headings from actual sales letters. Notice, incidentally, how they all incorporate the word 'you'.

  • Are YOU paying too much for your phone bills? (Letter from the telephone company)
  • Up to $3,000 to help you when you need it most. (Financial services company)
  • Throw this away and you are throwing away a potential $1000 a week! (Business opportunity offer)
  • Make this summer one you will always remember. (Conservatory company)

Not all sales letters require headings. One example would be if you are writing to a business's regular customers about a special offer. It is reasonable to assume that these people will be at least mildly interested in what you have to say, so you may judge that there is no need to 'shout' to get their attention. When a letter is being sent to new prospects, however, giving it a heading is often a good idea.

2. Arouse Interest

Having assured yourself of the prospect's attention, the next step is to gain his interest. To achieve this, your letter must (as ever) answer the question, 'What's in this for me?' As we have emphasized throughout the course, people buy products or services because of the benefits they think they will enjoy from owning or using them. Some possible benefits might include:

  • increase income
  • save money
  • be healthier
  • live longer
  • be more attractive
  • overcome obstacles
  • improve career prospects
  • raise self-esteem
  • help your children to learn
  • be more popular
  • outdo others ('snob value')
  • protect your home and possessions

The opening paragraph of your letter should show clearly the main benefit you are offering. You could begin with a quotation, a question, a statement or an instruction. You might even begin by suggesting the complete opposite of what you want your prospect to do. Here are some examples of opening paragraphs, each referring to one particular main benefit.

  • Increase income: How would you like to run your own business? A business you can start for less than a few hundred pounds. A business with low overheads. A business which is totally home-based. And a business which can be operated part- or full-time.
  • Save money: If you live in a hard water area, you could be literally pouring money down the drain. (Letter advertising water softeners.)
  • Be healthier: 'If you lower your blood cholesterol you will halve your risk of a heart attack,' says Dr. Elizabeth Forbes. (Letter advertising low cholesterol diet book.)
  • Improve career prospects: Don't bother to read this letter – if you have no interest in obtaining a better job. (Letter from correspondence college.)
  • Raise self-esteem: Are you a normally confident person who becomes tongue-tied and awkward when asked to make a speech, proposing a vote of thanks, or take the chair at a meeting? Then you are one of the people for whom this book has been specially written.
  • Outdo others: As someone who appreciates the good things of life, we felt you should be among the first to receive news of our finest yet range of exotic foods and wines.
  • Protect home and possessions: Every ten seconds somewhere in the UK, another private house is burgled. (Letter from the home security company.)

3. Stimulate the Desire to Buy

Having aroused the prospect's interest, you must now stimulate his desire to buy. To do this, you must show how your client's product or service will benefit him personally. It's important to describe your product from the prospect's point of view, painting pictures in his mind of how much better his life is going to be as a buyer of the product concerned.

Vague, hackneyed descriptions such as 'great value', 'superb opportunity' and 'best on the market' are unlikely to be effective. Instead, it's important to highlight specific aspects of your client's offer that make it stand out from its competitors. If your letter is selling a correspondence course, for example, you might stress the quality of the course material (so the prospect will find it easy to study and apply), the helpfulness of the tutors (so he won't have to worry if he encounters any difficulties), the unconditional money-back guarantee (so he won't risk any money if the course turns out to be unsuitable), and so on. The example below shows one possible approach.

Our comprehensive 120,000-word course is divided into 32 study modules, each of which was written by an acknowledged expert in the field. Our tutors are all working professionals and have been specially selected for their enthusiasm and ability to pass on their expertise to their students. We are confident you will enjoy studying with us, and offer this unique guarantee – if you have not earned back your entire course fee within a month of completing the course, your money will be refunded in full...

An alternative method is to include a list of points, each preceded by a dash, an asterisk or a bullet point (as often used in display ads).

Description can be particularly effective if it is accompanied by comparison. We do not, in general, recommend comparing another company's products unfavorably with your client's. (This is known as 'knocking copy', and can backfire badly if the competitor decides to retaliate in kind.) However, if you can in some way compare your client's product with another that is well known and respected in a different field, some of that other product's reputation can rub off on it. For example, if your letter is trying to sell fax machines, you might describe your client's top-line model as 'the Rolls Royce of the fax world'. This creates an impression of smoothness and reliability, which is very much the type of image you might wish to convey. A similar approach is to draw comparisons with well-known people. For example, a letter beginning 'Fancy yourself as another Richard Branson...' might strike a chord with many budding entrepreneurs.

Whatever claims you make about your client's product or service, it is important in a sales letter to provide evidence to substantiate them. This can take various forms:

  • scientific evidence
  • government statistics
  • facts and figures
  • quotes from satisfied customers
  • endorsements from experts
  • quotes from published reviews
  • guarantees
  • samples of the product

Your aim is to 'prove' to readers that everything you claim in your letter is true, and that they have nothing to risk by responding to your offer. Avoid, however, the temptation to embroider evidence, or make things up. As we have said before, not only is this unethical, it could damage your client's reputation if it comes to light, and land them (and you) in trouble with the Advertising Standards Authority.

4. Prompt the Reader to Take Action

At the end of the letter, you must make clear what action you want the reader to take next: place an order, visit your client's showroom, send for a free info pack, etc. Make it as easy as possible for him to respond, e.g. by filling in an inquiry or order form at the end of the letter. Even better is a separate, pre-printed, post-paid reply card, where all the prospect has to do is write down his name and address and put the card in a postbox.

You should also aim to give the prospect a good reason WHY he should respond. For example:

'If you send in the enclosed inquiry card [ACTION], we will send you a free information pack showing how the Better call fax/phone can revolutionize your business communications [REASON].'

It is a good idea to give readers a reason to act immediately. This may be a special discount for a limited period, or a free gift if they reply within 14 days. The aim is to get the prospect to respond NOW. If they decide to leave it for another day, there is a good chance that your offer will be forgotten about.

Style

Almost as important as the content of your sales letter is the style in which it is written. This should be warm and friendly, almost conversational in tone. The letter should flow smoothly from start to finish, so that reading it is an effortless process. The ten tips below will help you to achieve this, whether you are writing the letter yourself or editing it on behalf of your client. In fact, the tips below apply to all business correspondence, not only sales letters.

1. Use short words

Most people have an average vocabulary of around 5,000 words, less than 3,000 of which they use regularly. If your letter uses long, unusual words such as 'provenance' or 'contemporary', a proportion of readers will not understand what you mean. Rather than make the effort of looking in a dictionary, they are much more likely to give up.

For this reason, use short, simple, familiar words wherever possible. So instead of 'endeavor' write 'try'; rather than 'accede', put 'agree' and instead of 'remittance', write 'payment' or 'fee'. As well as avoiding problems of comprehension, our eyes take in short words faster, making reading a quicker, less laborious process, especially for those with limited reading skills.

2. Use short sentences

Short sentences are easier to understand than long ones. They give a letter pace and improve its readability. Many long sentences are simply a set of short sentences which have been strung together. For example:

Further to your letter of the 7th April and fax message of the 19th April, I have to inform you that the items you requested were not in stock when we first received your order, but you will no doubt be pleased to hear that we have just taken delivery of a fresh consignment from the manufacturers, and your order is being despatched to you later today, with apologies for any inconvenience caused by the delay.

This long-winded example is fairly typical of much modern business correspondence. See how much more effective it is when rewritten using short, reader-friendly words and sentences.

Thank you for your letter dated 7 April and fax of the 19th. I am sorry the items you asked for were out of stock when your letter arrived. We received new supplies today, and I am glad to say your order will be sent this afternoon. I am very sorry for any problems caused by the wait.

Long Words
Alternative Short Words
We acknowledge receipt of
Thank you for
In view of the fact that
Since, as or because
In conjunction with
With
For the purpose of
To
In accordance with
In line with
It is our understanding that
We understand
Under separate cover
Separately
The undersigned
I or me
We are of the opinion that
We believe or we think
With reference to
About, concerning
With regard to
About, concerning
Advise us as to
Let us know
In order to
To
At which time
When
Are not in a position to
Cannot
In lieu of
In place of
Notwithstanding
Even if, despite, still, but
In the event of
If
If this is not the case
If not
If this is the case
If
For the duration of
During
Cognisant of
Aware of, know about
As a consequence of
Because

As a general guideline, when writing a sales letter aim for an average sentence length of 15 to 20 words. This does not prevent you from writing some sentences which are longer or shorter than that (indeed, varying sentence lengths can help create a natural, conversational rhythm). However, if you can keep to this average, your letters should automatically become much more readable.

3. Use short paragraphs

Few things make a letter appear more off-putting than huge blocks of type. Such paragraphs look like hard work, and human nature being what it is many people will decline the challenge. For this reason alone, it is a good idea to break your letters into short paragraphs containing no more than four or, at most, five sentences.

There is, however, another reason for using plenty of short paragraphs, and this is that it will make your letter easier to understand. A paragraph is a unit of meaning and should concern just one main topic. When a reader comes to a paragraph break, he is conditioned to expect some fresh point to be made or a change in the subject under discussion. If such a change comes in mid-paragraph, the reader will not be mentally prepared and may experience a jolt. Consider the example sales letter from an insurance broker below:

As you will no doubt know, motor insurance is a highly competitive sphere, but with our modern computerized system, we can check the prices from hundreds of different insurance companies in seconds and find the best deal for YOU! Whether you are a new or old driver, have an unblemished record or a few 'blips', drive a Rolls Royce or a Reliant Robin, we are confident we can get you a better deal. House insurance is another area where we may be able to help. Many people remain year after year, with the company which provided the insurance when their mortgage was taken out. If this applies to you, the odds are high that you are not getting the best possible value for money...

Did you notice a jolt when the writer suddenly switched from talking about motor insurance to house insurance? A paragraph break at that point would have signaled the change of subject and avoided distracting the reader's attention.

4. Avoid slang, jargon and (most) abbreviations

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Almost every trade and profession develops a jargon of its own. Computer people talk blithely about RAM, ROM, 'booting up' and bytes, while for those in PR it is photo calls, press releases, media briefings, and press packs. When addressing people with a similar background to yourself, jargon can provide a quick and convenient way of sharing information and avoiding long, unnecessary explant ions. However, misunderstandings can arise when communicating with people who do not share your specialist knowledge. When writing a sales letter, therefore, it is important to put yourself in readers' shoes and ask whether you (or your client, who may have produced the original draft) have used any words or expressions which some readers might not understand.

Jargon terms often become second nature, and it is easy to forget that some people may not understand them. The same can apply to acronyms (words which are made up from the initial letters of a phrase, e.g. BAFTA– British Academy of Film & Television Arts) and abbreviations. For someone working in agriculture, for example, the words CAP and AWB may be second nature, but someone working in a different sphere might be unaware that they stand for Common Agricultural Policy and Agricultural Wages Board. If there is any doubt in your mind as to whether the recipient of your letter will understand any particular abbreviation, it is best to write it out in full.

Finally, beware of terms borrowed from Latin and other languages. People sometimes use these to make their letters look more authoritative or learned, but there is more likely that you will simply confuse and irritate a proportion of your readers. Try to avoid using terms such as 'modus operandi' and 'circa'. Use plain English alternatives such as 'way of working' and 'about' instead.

5. Write as you speak

Remember the WAYS principle! For some reason, many business people feel obliged to write in a stilted, formal style quite different from their normal, everyday speech. Whatever they might intend, the result can be highly off-putting for readers. Consider the two examples that follow:

A. Welcome to your new home! Right now, we're sure that buying new windows and doors is the last thing on your mind. But (dare we say it?) with winter only a few months away, now is the time any work should be done.

As we well know (having moved to larger premises ourselves only last year), moving is an expensive process. So to help, we've put together a special package which will help to spread the cost of any work you might want doing...

B. RE: 16 Park Crescent. We note that you have recently taken occupation of the aforementioned property. As a local business of thirty years' standing, we are therefore taking this opportunity to draw to your attention the comprehensive range of products and services provided by our company. We can supply replacement window frames, porches, and conservatories, all at highly competitive prices...

Which company would you rather do business with? In all probability, it is the one which sent the first letter. The tone comes across as helpful, friendly and informal, while that of B is cool and remote.

So how do you ensure that any sales letters you write have this conversational quality? Following the advice given earlier about avoiding long words, sentences and paragraphs will help, as will cutting out abbreviations and jargon. Varying the length of sentences and paragraphs will give a more natural conversational tone and help prevent monotony.

In addition, feel free to start some of your sentences with 'And' or 'But'. We all do it in day-to-day speech and, despite what your English teacher may have told you, there is nothing grammatically wrong with this. (You will, incidentally, be in good company, as Shakespeare, the Bible, and Dickens all begin some sentences this way.)

Finally – and we make no apology for repeating this once more – aim to write from the reader's point of view. Give him the facts, avoiding exaggerated claims, superlatives ('the greatest ever!'), advertisers' clichés ('highly competitive prices') and 'hype'. In all selling, the aim is to build a relationship of trust with the customer. By adopting a style which is both friendly and factual, you will reassure the reader that he will receive good, honest service from your client.

6. Use the active rather than the passive voice

Source

The following is an example of a sentence written in the active voice:

William drove the car.

And here is the same sentence in the passive voice:

The car was driven by William.

Placing the subject of the sentence – the person or thing performing the action – in front of the verb (the 'doing' word) will usually ensure that the sentence is in the active voice. The active voice is more concise, more personal and easier to understand. The passive voice, in contrast, tends to be associated with the dead hand of bureaucracy:

PASSIVE VOICE
ACTIVE VOICE
It has been decided that...
We have decided...
A decision has been made that...
We have decided...
Your enquiry is being dealt with by...
We are dealing with your enquiry...

Sales letters should use active rather than passive voice most of the time, as this will help produce the friendly, conversational tone required. Just occasionally, however, the passive voice can be useful, e.g. when you want to focus the reader's attention on the object of the sentence (the thing which is acted on) rather than the subject. For example:

Our new model Samphire was voted Car of the Year by motoring journalists.

7. Use connecting words and phrases

Connecting words and phrases help readers by showing how sentences and paragraphs are connected with one another. Examples used in speech include 'what's more', 'so', 'in any case', 'apart from that', 'anyway' and 'otherwise'. More formal connectives, used mainly in writing, include 'however', 'in addition', 'furthermore', 'in spite of this', and many others. Letters making good use of connectives flow smoothly and logically, carrying the reader effortlessly along with them. Those with poor use of connectives, in contrast, seem to stutter from one point to another, causing readers great difficulty in following the thread of what is being said.

Connectives are often used at the start of a sentence or paragraph to show how the information which follows is related to what came before. For example, if a paragraph begins with 'Furthermore' the reader is alerted to the fact that more information supporting the writer's argument is about to be given. But if the new paragraph begins 'On the other hand', he immediately knows that a change of direction is coming. For this reason, connectives are sometimes known as signposting phrases.

Readers do not normally pay much attention to connectives, but their presence helps them follow your argument and understand the case you are presenting. Although connectives are unobtrusive, changing one can totally alter the tone and meaning of your writing. Consider the examples below:

  1. Our latest instructional DVD-ROM has many brand new features. Indeed, it includes ten interactive quizzes.
  2. Our latest instructional DVD-ROM has many brand new features. However, it includes ten interactive quizzes.

The first of these examples suggest that the interactive quizzes are new, while the second suggests the complete opposite. These two examples demonstrate the power and importance of connectives in ensuring that your writing flows smoothly and logically.

8. Use vertical lists

We have already mentioned the value of lists in letters. They help break up solid blocks of text on the page and make complex information far easier to read and assimilate. In the sample sales letter reproduced earlier, a list was used to set out the main features of the tutorial. If instead the features had been set out in a conventional paragraph, few readers would have bothered to wade through the resulting raft of text.

The items in a list can be introduced with a bullet point, an asterisk, or a dash followed by a space. Each point should, however, follow logically from the lead-in phrase or sentence. The example below shows the kind of mistake which is frequently made by non-specialist writers.

The aims of our company are:

  • to provide a first-rate service to all our customers
  • generating sufficient profit to finance future investment and research
  • while remaining at the forefront of technological innovation
  • staff training and development is a top priority
  • constantly expanding our range of products and services

This reads awkwardly, as only the first of these five points follows logically (and grammatically) from the lead-in phrase. To read well, each of these points needs to begin with the word 'to'. The list could then be rewritten as follows.

The aims of our company are:

  • to provide a first-rate service to all our customers
  • to generate sufficient profit to finance future investment and research
  • to remain at the forefront of technological innovation
  • to train and develop staff so that they may achieve their full potential
  • to constantly expand our range of products and services

There is no generally agreed 'correct' way of punctuating a list. In general, however, we advise introducing lists with a colon as above (and NOT a colon followed by a dash). If the list consists of a series of short phrases, each one should begin with a lower case (non-capital) letter; no punctuation is then needed at the end of each item. But note that if your list consists of complete grammatical sentences, you should start each item with a capital letter, and end each with a full stop.

The Chairman made the following main points:

The gross turnover of the company had increased by 15 percent during the last year.

Profits had increased by 20 percent, due mainly to greater efficiencies in the use of plant and improved terms obtained from suppliers.

To counter a slight downturn in sales, an aggressive marketing campaign was planned to begin in the spring.

9. Use simple punctuation

In a way, this follows from our earlier point about keeping sentences short. If you use mainly short sentences, then most of the time simple punctuation is all you will need.

The most valuable punctuation marks of all are full stops. They should be used freely. Commas can be helpful where they make your meaning easier to understand, but if you use mainly short sentences they should not be needed too often. The only other punctuation mark you are likely to require on a regular basis is the question mark – which, of course, must be placed at the end of any direct question.

Is this the opportunity you are looking for?

May we help you with your decorating requirements?

How many boxes do you wish to order?

Other punctuation marks can be useful from time to time. The last sentence of the paragraph above included a dash. This can be a handy device if you wish to show that a sentence is taking off in a new and perhaps surprising direction ('The Dustmaster cleaner costs just $25.99 – less than half the price of other leading models').

As already mentioned, a colon (:) should be used to introduce a list (without an accompanying dash). Semi-colons (;) are unlikely to be needed in most sales letters – not least because many people are unsure how to read them. If, nevertheless, you wish to include one, make sure you are using it correctly. A semi-colon should normally be placed between two independent clauses – which, for practical purposes, means two separate sentences. A good test is that it should be possible to replace the semi-colon with a full stop (but then, why not use a full stop in the first place?)

Finally, be careful with apostrophes. They are, of course, required in contractions such as can't and won't, where they show that one or more letters have been omitted. They are also needed in expressions showing possession or association (the customer's choice, five years' service). Apostrophes are NOT required in present tense verbs (runs, walks, sells) or in plurals (taxis, videos, bananas, bargains). Many business people struggle with apostrophes, but if you are addressing a professional readership, in particular, this can create a poor first impression. In any event, as a copywriter, you will be expected to get this right even if your client doesn't.

Here's a simple rule you can use to ensure you always place possessive apostrophes correctly. Rewrite the expression using the word 'of'. The correct position of the apostrophe is after the final letter in this rewritten version. So if you're not sure where to place the apostrophe in the boy's room, and you're talking about a single boy, the rewritten version would be, 'The room of the boy'. The final letter here is 'y', so the test shows that the expression should be written, the boy's room.

But if you are talking about two or more boys, the rewritten version would be, 'The room of the boys' – so in this case, the apostrophe would go after the 's' in the shortened version. The boys' room would, therefore, be correct. This rule also works with unusual nouns such as people. For example, the people's choice = the choice of the people, so the apostrophe should go before the 's' in this expression.

10. Polish, polish, polish

Lastly, remember that copywriting to a professional standard is difficult; nobody can expect to get it all the right first time. Be prepared to go back over your letter, checking for spelling and punctuation, and revising for the other qualities described in this article. The more time you can devote to your sales letter (within reason), the better the finished item is likely to be.

APPEARANCE

Along with effective content and style, appearance is the third ingredient of successful sales letters. Let's start with the first thing a prospect sees when he opens the envelope.

The letterhead

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Letterheads are an area where far too many businesses are willing to compromise. Many people use simply their business name, perhaps with the initial letters picked out in bold type to give some semblance of design. This is a waste of a good opportunity to advertise. Of course, as a freelance copywriter, you may have no choice but to use your client's letterhead. If your client asks for suggestions about this, however, here are a few guidelines you may want to suggest to him:

  1. If at all possible, include an illustration showing what the business does. A plumbing firm could use a tap, a website design company a computer, and so on.
  2. If this is not possible, at least spell out in words what the company does ('FJ Sampson – Sanitary Engineers').
  3. An alternative is to use an illustration of the business premises. This is obviously most appropriate if they are somewhere attractive and/or prestigious.
  4. Make sure all the information customers need is clear and conveniently set out. This applies especially to phone and fax numbers, website and email addresses.
  5. Consider using a short phrase or slogan which sums up what the business does or (preferably) the main customer benefit. For example:
  • The finest wines from around the world (wine merchant)
  • Putting words to work (advertising copywriter)
  • Keeping the wheels of industry turning (lubricants company)
  • Keeping your business safe (private security company)

There is little point in using heavyweight paper with silver- or gold-embossed lettering unless perhaps you are trying to appeal to a very up-market clientele. Recipients will only conclude that you have money to burn (and hence are charging too much); or alternatively that the business is desperate to project a successful image, and either crooked or about to go under.

Salutation

How you greet your prospect is worthy of consideration. If at all possible, personalize the letter to each recipient (your client should be able to tell you if this can be done or not). If you can't do this, try to avoid 'Dear Sir or Madam' as this has a cold, impersonal ring. Better alternatives include 'Dear Colleague', 'Dear Sports Lover', 'Dear Parent', 'Dear Friend', 'Dear Business Opportunity Seeker', and so on.

Sub-headings

Long letters often benefit from being broken up by sub-headings. Magazines and newspapers do this, and it can be instructive to study their technique. The best such examples pique the reader's curiosity and defy him NOT to want to read the article itself. Use this technique in your own letters, choosing sub-headings which will intrigue the casual browser and 'hook' him into reading the letter itself.

Sub-headings can also help make long letters more readable, by providing a visual break and a point of reference readers can come back to. On the other hand, they can also interrupt the smooth flow of a letter, and in certain cases (for example, when you are presenting a complete story, or arguing a single, complex case) it may be better to dispense with them.

Giving extra emphasis

Important phrases and sentences in your letter can be given extra emphasis by a variety of methods. These include single, double and triple underlines, capitals, italics, emboldening, different/larger typefaces and color. Experiment with different effects until you find out what works best.

It should go without saying that the words and phrases to be given such treatment must be carefully chosen. As a general principle, highlight the main benefits you are offering. Guarantees and incentives to act immediately should also be given extra emphasis. Another popular technique is to highlight the product name so that it leaps out at the reader, hopefully fixing it in his mind. Forcing your product name down the reader's throat does, however, carry the risk that you will simply irritate him.

Length

Sales letters can be as long as necessary to tell your story. If you need four or six pages to do justice to it, then that is the length you should write to. But bear in mind that for business people time is money, so if possible it is sensible to avoid putting them off with multi-page epics. Householders usually have more time and may be more responsive to long letters.

One other point is that most people tend to overwrite initially. So before you assume that your letter has to be six pages long, go over it carefully first looking for ways in which it could be trimmed down, cutting out long words and sentences, removing repetitions, and so on. If available, show your letter to a trusted friend or associate; a fresh pair of eyes will often see further cuts which could be made.

Postscript

Postscripts may be frowned upon in general business correspondence, but used carefully in sales letters they can be a powerful asset. Studies show that many people read a postscript before they have even read the letter itself. Use your postscript for a good purpose: to re-emphasize your strongest benefit, or to underline why the reader should respond to your offer now.

Direct Mail

Sales letters are generally used as part of a so-called mailshot sent to customers or prospective customers. This method of generating sales is described as direct mail. The term direct marketing is also sometimes used in this context, although strictly speaking this term also covers other methods where individuals are contacted directly by a company, such as telesales.

A huge range of products and services is sold by direct mail. They include:

  • Insurance
  • Savings schemes
  • Pensions
  • Computer programs
  • Business opportunities
  • Magazine subscriptions
  • Health plans
  • Hobby items
  • Electronic equipment
  • Educational products
  • Diet plans
  • Health foods
  • Training seminars
  • Correspondence courses
  • ...and more

A direct mail campaign involves sending advertising material through the post to potential customers in the form of a mailshot. In recent year there has been a trend for mail shots to become bulkier. The reasoning behind this is that most people, when they receive a mailshot, will look at every item in it, however briefly. It follows – in theory at least – that the more items you include, the more opportunities you have to persuade your prospect to buy.

In any event, a mailshot will normally include at least four items. These are:

  1. Sales letter
  2. Leaflet/brochure
  3. Order form
  4. Return envelope

The aim is to provide all the information needed to persuade the prospect to order (or take whatever other action the client desires), and to make the actual mechanics of doing so as easy as possible. A separate order form and envelope – preferably reply-paid – obviously assist as far as the latter is concerned. The leaflet or brochure will provide more detailed information than there is space for in the sales letter, perhaps including photos or illustrations.

The most important item in a mailshot is the sales letter, as this is where you set out the key benefits you have to offer the prospect. At a pinch, you could omit any or all of the other items, but the letter is crucial. Other items which can be added include testimonials, case studies, samples, free gifts, competitions, money-off vouchers, press coverage, lift letters (see below), and so on. These can all help to capture a prospect's attention and persuade him to buy, although you (or your client) may need to watch that the added weight of enclosures does not push the costs up too much.

As a copywriter, you may be asked to create various items for a mailshot as well as the main sales letter. We will discuss some of these in more detail below.

Leaflets and Brochures

As mentioned above, these provide more in-depth information than the sales letter. Although the terms are sometimes used interchangeably, strictly speaking, leaflets (also called flyers) are printed on a single sheet, either one or both sides, and folded to yield multiple panels. A brochure consists of several sheets that are stitched or stapled together. Either way, the assumption is that people will read the sales letter first, and if their attention is captured by this they will then go on to look at the material in the leaflet or brochure.

The style used is usually a bit less sales-oriented, a bit more information-based than the letter. You are still, of course, trying to sell your client's product or service, but you can assume some level of interest from the reader. Your job in this part of the mailshot is to build on that interest by providing more detailed information about your client's product or service. The brochure or leaflet is often where supplementary material designed to convince the reader to buy appears, including case studies, testimonials, press coverage, and so on.

In general, the advice we provided about writing sales letters earlier on applies to write leaflets and brochures also. This includes such matters as using short words and sentences, avoiding the passive voice, using connecting words and phrases, avoiding jargon and slang, and so on. As leaflets and (especially) brochures tend to be longer, however, it's even more important to include plenty of sub-headings, vertical lists, graphics, and white space. Although you can assume a moderately interested reader, it's essential to avoid deterring him with long, slab-like paragraphs that look hard work to read.

Your client will normally brief you if he wants you to create a leaflet or brochure for his mailshot. In other cases, he will have one he already uses for other purposes (e.g. as a handbill) and wants to include in the mailshot as well. You will need to ask for a copy of this and ensure that your sales letter will work in concert with it. If the leaflet is not really suitable for this purpose – which may well be the case if it was originally designed for stuffing through letterboxes – you may need to advise your client that he needs a new leaflet or brochure as well to get the best results from his campaign.

Envelopes

The envelope in which a mailshot is sent is another very important component. Few professional mailings are sent out nowadays in plain brown envelopes. Most businesses take the opportunity to try to get the prospect's attention with an eye-catching message on the outside. This is something that you, as a copywriter, may be asked to help with.

Envelope copy should tease and entice the reader. One very powerful word you can use is FREE.

OPEN NOW TO SEE DETAILS OF YOUR FREE GIFT.

You can also offer a compelling benefit:

OPEN NOW TO SAVE 30% ON YOUR NEXT GAS BILL.

Unanswered questions can also be very effective as 'teaser' copy on the front of an envelope:

WHAT'S THE SECRET OF LIVING TO 100?

To find the answer, the reader has to open the envelope. The sales letter should then, of course, set about answering the question posed on the outside.

Mailshots also typically include a reply-paid envelope, to make it as easy as possible for the prospect to reply. There is no real point in putting a witty message on this.

However, one technique that has been used successfully by some companies is to put an actual postage stamp on these envelopes. Studies have found that response rates are improved by doing this, as presumably, the recipients don't like to 'waste' the stamps. This technique is obviously quite labor-intensive. It also costs more, as you have to pay for the stamps on ALL the envelopes, even those that are not returned (with standard reply-paid envelopes, you are only charged for those actually used). If this method produces better response rates it may be worth considering, however, especially when selling items with a high-profit margin. In any event, it is an approach you could suggest to your client if he is looking for additional ideas.

Lift Letter

A lift letter is a small, note-like memo that is enclosed with the main sales letter or attached to it like a Post-It note. They are used to reassure readers about making a purchasing choice and provide that little bit of extra incentive required for them to go ahead and order (you hope). Lift letters are usually 'written' by someone different from the author of the main sales letter. Here is an example:

Dear Mrs. Jones

Can't make up your mind?

When I first saw Carol Marlow's Creative Interior Designer Course, I was amazed by the breadth of detail it contained. Everything you could ever want to know about interior design is there, backed up with beautiful full-color illustrations throughout.

The course explains everything you need to know to set up in this field, even if you have no previous background in design. And, of course, your personal tutor will be on hand the whole time, ready and waiting to guide you on your first few steps to success.

Best of all, the Creative Interior Designer Course is currently available at a special offer price of just $74.95. That's less than half the normal price.

I do hope you will decide to enroll in the Creative Interior Designer Course. Now is the ideal time to be set up in this field, and I firmly believe that Carol's course is the best introduction you could possibly have.

I look forward to welcoming you as a student soon.

With all good wishes,

Lift letters are used by many of the top direct marketing companies today, as they have been proven to improve response rates. If your client is not familiar with this concept, it is well worth suggesting it to him.

Testing and Coding

Before we leave this subject, we should say a few words about testing and coding.

Direct mail can be an expensive method of marketing, involving substantial postage costs in particular. Companies will therefore normally perform a smaller-scale test mailing to check the response rate before committing to a large-scale mailout. This applies especially when they are testing a list and/or mailshot they have not used before. If they have bought a list of 10,000 prospects, for example, they might do a test mailing to 1,000 or 2,000 initially to test their responsiveness.

In order that the company can judge the success (or otherwise) of the test mailing, they will usually include some form of 'tracking code' on the reply coupon or (perhaps) the return envelope, so they know where any responses have come from. There might, for example, be a 'department' reference in the address (e.g. Department AB90), or some other code that means nothing to the recipient but tells the company where the inquiry originated.

As a freelance copywriter, this may not be something that affects you directly. However, your client may ask you to insert a tracking code into your mailshot copy, so at least now you will know what this is. And if you are working with a client who has not used direct mail before, you might want to remind him of the need for this, so that he will be able to evaluate properly the results he is getting. Even in full-scale mailings, a tracking code is often used so that the company can accurately assess the success of the campaign in question.

CONCLUSION

In this article, we discussed the many uses of sales letters. We revealed how the AIDA principle applies to sales letter writing and analyzed a real-life sales letter, showing how it worked and suggesting some ways it could be improved. The article continued with in-depth advice and guidelines on sales letter writing, covering content, style, and appearance. Finally, we looked at the role of sales letters in direct mail, and discussed some other direct mail items, from printed envelopes to 'lift letters', that as a copywriter you may be asked to work on.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

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