Psst! The Secret's Out

Hook 'em with the one word that leaves 'em begging for more.
Magazine Contributor
6 min read

This story appears in the November 1997 issue of Entrepreneur. Subscribe »

Nudging itself onto the list of advertising's most magnetic words is an irresistible bonbon that few of us can pass over. That word is "secret." Others in the top five, in no particular order, are: "free," "new," "you," and "sale," with "sex" a steamy sixth.

I feel safe in saying that if you use the word "secret" in the headline or title of your ad or promotion, your ad is almost guaranteed to get noticed, which is half the battle.

Of course, you need to eventually reveal the secret, and it has to be a satisfying payoff. But that shouldn't be difficult. Any useful information that is not widely known to the general public could arguably be designated a secret. And the titillation created by promising to divulge such valuable yet little-known data is simply too enticing to pass up.

Who can resist sneaking a peek into a supermarket tabloid with the headline "The Secret Life of (fill in the blank)"? Who can deny having felt compelled, some time in the last year, to peek into a book, magazine article or ad that purported to offer the secret to larger, smaller, better or healthier versions of something we felt we were lacking or had too much of. Secret is surely the word of the decade for publishers in the natural health/alternative healing field, who lead off their promotions with high-decibel headlines such as "Amazing Fat-Burning Secrets from Nature!" "1,749 Astounding Self-Healing Secrets!" and "137 Startling Pet Health Secrets!" We are enticed by secret recipes, secret remedies, secret formulas, secret ingredients, secret sources, secret anything and everything. The reason is simple: We are innately and insatiably curious about anything hidden or unexplained.

The point I'm making here--especially to an entrepreneur named Brian Beswick, who wrote recently--is that the discriminate use of this magnetic term can give your advertising just the draw it needs. I say discriminate because Beswick, an insurance broker from Baldwin, New York, has already used the term in his sales letter headline, but it could be implemented a lot more deftly--and certainly pay off more rewardingly.

The Big Payoff

Using the "secret" theme in advertising requires that it truly refer to some specific information most people are unaware of. That's the only way to retain credibility for your product or service. Beswick needs to work on his current use of the term. And he's got great ammo, as I see it. This broker is just 20 years old, an insurance whiz kid who was among the youngest insurance brokers licensed by the state of New York. His letter sounded to me like he's out there taking big swings of the bat every day to try to promote his fledgling brokerage. He's apparently doing some TV advertising, advertising in local papers and the Yellow Pages, and has also put together a Web site. But, writes Beswick, "I haven't gotten the results I wanted or expected." That situation will change, I think, if he leverages what I feel is his most distinguishing benefit--his youth and the enthusiasm it brings to his image and business.

My idea is to make this aspect the big "secret" hinted at in his advertising, with a headline that reads "Revealed . . . a 20-Year-Old Secret to Lowering Your Insurance Premiums." The first words of the letter play off the headline:

"Dear friend,
It's me.
I'm the secret.
Twenty-year-old Brian Beswick."

The letter goes on to explain just what a fuzz-faced 20-year-old insurance broker has to offer that more experienced people in this field may not. This approach is--to use the marketing term currently in vogue--Beswick's Unique Selling Proposition, the benefit that separates him from the rest of the pack. Insurance salespeople typically need to sell themselves as much as, or perhaps even more than, the coverage they offer. And I think Brian Beswick's "secret" qualifications give him the edge he can use with great effect in his advertising efforts. He says he now wants to concentrate on the use of direct mail to reach prospects, and I would certainly endorse that approach as a way to talk one-to-one about his unique credentials. However, it's important to observe a few letter-writing secrets to ensure that his one-pager gets read.

By the Letter

I've offered innumerable tips in this column for writing effective sales letters, but none are more important than the two I utilized in Brian Beswick's revised letter. One is to use a headline that draws the reader into the body of the letter to discover a payoff to the curiosity-piquing headline . . . and hopefully to continue reading the rest of the sales copy. If you read this column regularly, I hope you're long past the notion that you're somehow defacing a letter to use a headline at the top. If the words tantalize and entice, as every advertising headline should, they will help you get your letter read--and responded to.

The second tool is an extremely short opening sentence or paragraph. Why? Because it looks oh-so-simple to read compared to the three- or four-line paragraph most people mistakenly use to begin a sales letter. A big, fat paragraph sends the signal that "this is going to be difficult to consume." If you can, come up with just a few words that play off the headline and pull the reader in with their simplicity.

As an example, I once introduced a weight-reduction product with the letter headline "Announcing the Chocolate Pie Diet." The letter then began with the single-word opening paragraph "Shocked?" to draw people in. I then went on to explain how a diet of moderation allowed for the most sinful of foods while avoiding cravings and yo-yo weight gain. (Come to think of it, would I have gotten more attention with a headline that introduced a Secret Chocolate Pie Diet?)

I later developed another sales letter promoting data recovery software that used as a headline the single word "Whew!" in large type. That was followed by a one-sentence paragraph explaining "That's usually what you say when recovering a diamond from a dish drain." The second paragraph elaborated: "But it's also the typical response of Norton Utilities users who've used our software to recover valuables of another sort: lost data."

You get the idea. Lure readers with just enough information to get them interested. Then, once you have them safely hooked, feed them the rest of your sales pitch.

Jerry Fisher is an advertising copywriter, consultant and author of Creating Successful Small Business Advertising ($39.95), available by calling (800) 247-6553. If you'd like Jerry to consider your materials for a makeover in this column, send them to "Advertising Workshop," Entrepreneur, 2392 Morse Ave., Irvine, CA 92614, or contact Jerry via America Online at

Contact Sources

Brian Beswick, (516) 868-4336,


More from Entrepreneur

Get heaping discounts to books you love delivered straight to your inbox. We’ll feature a different book each week and share exclusive deals you won’t find anywhere else.
Jumpstart Your Business. Entrepreneur Insider is your all-access pass to the skills, experts, and network you need to get your business off the ground—or take it to the next level.
Discover a better way to hire freelancers. From business to marketing, sales, finance, design, technology, and more, we have the freelancers you need to tackle your most important work and projects, on-demand.

Latest on Entrepreneur