Writing the Perfect Sales Letter

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Despite the variety of formats we have available to us and all the hoopla over new media these days, the letter remains one of the most effective means of delivering a powerful sales message. At its simplest, it's little more than a personal message from me to you.


Here are a few basics for writing the perfect sales letter:


* 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.


* 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.


* Make your first sentence short and attention-grabbing. You must instantly involve the reader. Make a startling statement. Tell 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. Following sentences will expand on this first sentence to pull the reader into the body copy.


* Present your offer on page 1. If you don't give your offer in the headline or first sentence, you should put it somewhere on page 1. Be clear and specific about what your reader will get by responding.


* End the first page in mid-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 flip the page and finish the sentence -- and, you hope, keep reading. You can also use this technique on successive pages where the reader must turn a page over or go to a separate sheet.


* 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 1 and end on a similar note on the last page.


* Make the body of the letter work hard. If 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.


* 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 and incentives. Restate the big benefit.


* Make response easy and clear. How should the reader respond? Give your toll-free number. Explain the ordering process: one, two, three.


* 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.


* 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, honest reason why this is the best time to respond. And be clear about what will happen if the reader does not respond -- the lost opportunity, the consequences.


* End the letter when you're finished. Just as you shouldn't have a long wind-up at the beginning of a letter, you shouldn't prattle on at the end. End a letter as bluntly as you began it. Often this is a quick restatement of your instructions for responding or a simple "thank you."


* 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?)


* 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, one to three lines long.


Dean Rieck is president of Direct Creative, Columbus, OH, a direct marketing creative firm. His e-mail address is DeanRieck@ compuserve.com.
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