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Maybe the most unwelcome piece of mail people receive--besides a jury summons or an IRS inquiry--is a sales letter. It's the pulpy intruder in cheap black and white that's always trying to peddle something. But why should a well-meaning purveyor's honest effort to sell you his or her wares draw so much flak?
First, it's unsolicited. Like a salesperson at the door or a telemarketer on the phone, it's an intrusion and a nuisance. Second, sales letters are routinely boring, presumptuous, clichÃ©-ridden, overwritten and undermotivating. Thus, most end up in the nearest trash can.
But there was a time when sales letters were more welcomed. That was when they were a more sincere, often folksy, art form that charmed the reader. What kind of language did they contain? A lot of it was similar to that used in this sales letter I found in an old advertising book:
"Dear Customer: People do the darnedest things, don't they?
"We know of a man who hadn't kissed his wife in five years . . . and then shot another man who did.
"By the same token, I overheard two businesspeople grousing the other day because their customers were so disloyal. Yet neither person ever bothered to thank customers for their business or wish them happy holidays. Maybe loyalty and friendship are only supposed to work one way. But I always figured that a person couldn't expect to receive friendship unless he or she gave friendship in return.
"That's why I feel that a warm, personal, wholehearted message to customers during the holidays is one of the best investments a firm can make."
Unfortunately, such warm letters have become rare. Most people who write sales letters assume they can say "Here I am--love me." That doesn't work in matters of the heart, nor does it work in that other great flirtation: selling. You need an opening gambit that draws favorable attention, followed by a wooing that sustains interest. That means using words that pull the reader in instantly. This is my message to Tyrone Childs, who wrote recently. Childs runs Taylor Communications, a distributorship in Antioch, California, that offers a rather unique communications device called Telechron 2000. According to the product literature, Telechron 2000 automatically routes phone calls to the lowest-priced carrier morning, noon or night, seven days a week.
Childs says of his own efforts, "My low-budget, homemade marketing material and cover letter are absolutely terrible . . . Help!" Actually, Childs' product fact sheet is meaty and interesting. However, he's left a lot of room for improvement in his cover letter. Let's discuss some of the changes he can make.
This letter has the essence of a good sales argument, but it needs to be more personal.
1. The letter is much too "quick and dirty." The sales points are solid, but it looks like it was dashed off in fifteen minutes.
2. The writer doesn't address the reader directly anywhere in the letter. Letters need to be me-to-you to be effective. The missing salutation and signature make the letter even less personal.
This revision attracts attention with a provocative lead-in and then proceeds with a me-to-you message.
1. This letter hooks readers with a scenario virtually everyone can relate to -- annoying calls from telemarketers.
2. You can never go wrong by using "you" and "your" as much as possible in a sales letter; that's the reader's favorite subject!
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 "Ad Workshop," Entrepreneur, 2392 Morse Ave., Irvine, CA 92614, or e-mail him at Jerry228@aol.com
The Yoo-Hoo Factor
An absolute must for a sales letter is a kick-butt idea at the beginning to flag the reader down. I sometimes call this the yoo-hoo factor. It's an element that says "Hey, look here! I'm saying something special!" My suggested yoo-hoo headline for the opening of Childs' letter is: "Hang up . . . on high phone rates and those annoying telemarketers from phone companies!" A paragraph of further explanation follows: "Plug in the Telechron 2000 and your calls are automatically switched to the lowest-cost provider, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week."
With a little luck, the headline and the subtext that follows will draw them in to the letter's opening, which starts out: "Dear Mr. Wagner, It's noontime. You've got a mouthful of tuna melt and the phone rings. Sure enough, it's one of those telephone companies again trying to sell you on its latest rate plan." The letter continues in that whimsical vein for a few more lines and then offers the solution to the problem of high phone rates and annoying telemarketers. The gastronomic opening to the letter is unexpected and gets people to finish reading the entire sales pitch.
Note that the letter has an airy look, with lots of open space and short paragraphs. This look tells the reader the letter isn't going to be hard to read. A letter with long, dense paragraphs (over five lines each) would leave the opposite impression. If possible, avoid paragraphs longer than three lines. One-line and even one-word paragraphs are preferred because they're unexpected and they contribute to the more desirable open look.
These suggestions should help Childs give his cover letter the dose of provocativeness and punch it needs.
Exercising increases creativity.
Regular readers may remember my July column, in which I asserted that one of the best ways to come up with original advertising ideas was to put down your pen and put on your sneakers. Pull yourself away from your desk, and go someplace where you can exercise and get your creative juices flowing. Playing amateur biochemist, I claimed that jumping up and down sluiced up the right half of my brain--the creative/intuitive lobe--and as a result, I was able to dream up ideas I wouldn't have had otherwise.
My assertion prompted an e-mail message from a reader who offered some backup data on the claim. From Brian Hile comes this:
"You spoke of how exercising clears the cobwebs and never fails to produce a new imaginative twist you couldn't recreate while in your office. You suggested the reason might have something to do with the right [side of the] brain. I thought you'd be interested in something I read in Runner's World magazine. While running down a road, for example, your left brain is occupied with the logistics of running (Will my current stride avoid that pothole? Is it too dark to continue running under these trees?). With the left brain occupied, the right brain dominates your thinking--bringing new ideas that would have otherwise been squashed by your left brain. So you're right. Studies show exercising conjures up more imaginative thinking." Thanks, Brian.