How to Sell (Not Tell) With Sales Letters

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You've probably heard it a thousand times: The letter sells; the brochure tells. But what exactly does that mean?

One advantage of a direct mail package is that it has various components, each with a specific job. A mistake many mailers make is that they try to do everything with every component. They end up with the same information and message repeated over and over but printed on different pieces of paper.

To take full advantage of the package format, let each piece do its own, unique job. And the job of the letter is what this installment (and the next) is all about. We've added 55 direct mail tools to your creative toolbox so far in this series, and I know your back is breaking under the weight. But we have 44 more to go. So take a deep breath and hang in there.

56. Use your letter to sell. Your letter is your salesperson. Its job is to deliver a one-to-one sales pitch. It should aim for the gut or for the heart, not for the head. Use your brochure to relay factual or logical supporting information.

57. Make a personal connection. A letter should be personal, honest, easygoing, warm and friendly. It should sound like one friend writing to another, not like the guy selling slicer-dicers in the mall.

58. Make your message clear. The No. 1 rule for any form of communication is to be crystal clear. Don't be cute. Don't try to impress. Don't preach, rant or ramble. Try this: Call a friend and explain in 30 seconds what you're selling. Then hang up and write down what you said. See how clear and straightforward you are? Why be any other way in your letter?

59. Be persuasive. A common mistake of writers with little direct marketing experience is that they forget what a direct mail package is supposed to do. You can't be ashamed to sell. Your letter must be powerfully persuasive. It must engage readers, hold their attention, create an overwhelming desire to buy and initiate an immediate action. You must ask for the order.

60. Ensure your letter looks like a letter. There are lots of ways you can play with the design of a letter, such as adding pictures, big type and eye-catching design. I've done it. And so should you, for certain mailings. However, most letters work best when they look like a simple, personal message. Don't be afraid to just write a good, solid, plain-looking letter and mail it. It works.

61. Talk about your prospects' wants and needs. Prospects don't care a jot about you or your company, which is why you shouldn't spend time in your letter beating your chest about your capabilities. Tell your prospects about what they want and how their wants can be fulfilled as soon as they reply.

62. Use Dean's "Stop or Go Test." Circle references to you in red ink (words and phrases like "we," "us," "our," etc.). Then circle references to your customer in green ("you" and "your"). If you see mostly red, stop. Your letter needs a rewrite. If it's mostly green, go with it.

63. Don't overdo the personalization. Using a person's name in the salutation is one thing. Using it in every other sentence makes people feel like they're getting a slick sales pitch. People aren't impressed by your knowing their name. A few might even be annoyed that you use it so freely, as if you actually know them. Be personal, but don't get too cozy with people you don't really know.

64. Follow a logical sales sequence. There are as many kinds of sales letter styles as there are writers, but I suggest this basic sequence for most letters: 1) Start strong with an attention-grabbing first sentence or headline. 2) Identify a problem or need that is important to your prospect. 3) Promise a solution to the problem or fulfillment of the need. 4) Prove the superiority of your product or service and its ability to solve the problem or fill the need. 5) State a clear, strong offer for what you're selling. 6) Ask for a specific action, such as a phone call, mail response or Web visit.

Remember, the point of this series is to give you an overflowing toolbox. Like any good craftsman, you'll have the tools at hand when a certain job comes up. Of course, you don't have to use all the tools all the time. And just because I've limited this series to 99 doesn't mean there aren't more. I just wanted to finish sometime this millennium. Actually, this series should extend into next year with a brief pause around Christmas when I'll have a special article about the greatest marketer of all time. Who could that be? Hmm.

We have a few more sales letter tools to go over, then it's on to the brochure, the order form and even the lowly business reply envelope.

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