Sales Letter Makeovers

Quit sending out sales letters that leave your prospects yawning. Time to wow them with a letter that gets results.
Magazine Contributor
12 min read

This story appears in the September 2002 issue of . Subscribe »

You're ready to market the world's greatest product or service. So you find a mailing list, let everyone on it know you're open for business, and sit back and wait...and wait...and wait. What went wrong?

Dozens of you wrote to ask me that exact question after reading my article " Creative Marketing on a Shoestring ." Nine times out of 10, my response was "Your sales letter."

The sales letter is the face you'll present to every potential client who receives it. If you're not absolutely certain you'll do a smashing job, you might want to hire a professional copywriter who specializes in direct mail. However, you can write a sizzling letter that floods you with business if you learn the rules as well as when to stick to them or break them. Just remember that the success of a sales letter isn't measured by cleverness or originality; it's measured by the response rate. We're going to work on crafting a letter that pulls responses.

Start by reading the following "Before" version of the sample sales letter, which contains some of the most common mistakes I see in the letters entrepreneurs send me for makeovers:

Only $199.99!

September 3, 2002

Mary MacDonald
Renaissance Romance
#3-333 Crescent Dr.
North Vancouver, Canada V7M 2M2

To Whom It May Concern:

The holidays are fast approaching, and it should be a joyful, relaxing time. But it's so easy to focus on unimportant things that distract us from our enjoyment of the season.

We at Renaissance Romance want to make your holiday more pleasurable-and social occasions are so much more fun when you're not worrying about how you look in your clothes Yet is it extremely difficult to find garments which are attractive, reasonably priced, and properly fitted. Why not let us make a custom-designed garment for you? Our designs are inspired by the graceful lines of the Renaissance. Their perfect for the woman who wants a unique evening look. It's even affordable. Research has shown that the average woman spends a fortune every year on clothes that never get worn. It's better to own one item that you love than dozens that will hang in the closet untouched. We can ensure that you can be beautifully dressed even if you don't have hours to spend on shopping-all for the price of an off-the-rack garment you'll wear once or twice that doesn't reflect your personality and looks like everyone else's. We'll make couture gowns to your specifications starting at only $199.99. Up to 3 fittings are included.

Help make this season perfect. We hope you find our offer of interest. If so, please feel free to contact us. We look forward to hearing from you.


Mary MacDonald

Problem 1: The Headline
Opinions are divided as to whether your letter should have a headline at all. Pros: You have a chance to grab a reader's attention and put your most important offer upfront. Cons: It immediately gives your letter a "salesy," less personal feel.

If you've got a product that needs a complicated or bulky marketing package (brochures, article clips, technical specs, etc.), a headline will probably work to your advantage by putting the main offer where the reader can't miss it. If you do use one, your readers will use it to judge whether they want to keep reading, so make sure to bait the hook with the best you've got.

Don't use an idea just because you like it-you're not objective about your own product. Write at least a few dozen different headlines, then ask people which ones they find most compelling.

"Only $199.99!" sounds like a great headline to Mary MacDonald, because she knows it's a great price for what she's offering. But the person who just picked up the letter can't know that.

Never put price before the offer; price is meaningless until they've read your letter. (The only exception is for special offers along the lines of "Get 10 books for just 99 cents!")

Problem 2: "Dear Faceless Masses..."
"To Whom It May Concern" is enough to convince your readers that the letter certainly doesn't concern them. Nobody likes to be reminded that they're just another face in the crowd.

Other openings I often see that don't work: "Dear Sir or Madam" (pompous and old-fashioned), "Gentlemen" (liable to backfire even in male-dominated fields), and "Dear Friend" (my surveys tell me that readers find it pointlessly insincere at best and offensive at worst).

Obviously, addressing each letter individually is best, but it's not practical for large mailings. Just address your reader as specifically as possible, and use the singular form ("Dear Single Mother" pulls more responses than "Dear Mothers"). "Dear Holiday Clothes Shopper" would work for our sample letter.

The Most Important Paragraph

Problem 3: The Most Important Paragraph
You wouldn't show up at a business meeting ungroomed and tell unrelated anecdotes, then hope to impress clients later. So don't start your letter with a haphazard, rambling introduction and expect readers to wait for the point to come along later.

The sample letter makes a very common error: a generic, meaningless preamble. Think how many more responses it would pull if you just replaced the flabby first paragraph with this one sentence: "How'd you like to make jaws drop and eyes pop every time you walk into a party this holiday season?" Readers' only concern when they pick up a sales letter is "What's in it for me?" Answer them or lose them.and start with your very first line.

Avoid the deadly sin of saving the best for last. Put the biggest hook you have upfront, or readers won't read far enough to see your best offer. Keep it short, specific and to the point. Home in on the most important reason the reader will want to buy rather than the product itself--focus on peace of mind instead of the insurance package, the time they'll save rather than the automatic apple peeler.

Problem 4: The Filling
Break up the text: The entire middle of the sample letter is one long, unbroken blob. Never mind your English teacher; break up paragraphs whenever they start looking intimidatingly long. Nobody will prosecute you if you present one idea in three paragraphs. In fact, if you don't, your message may get lost, because a reader's eyes tend to slide right over long blocks of text without actually perceiving the meaning.

The royal "we": The letter is a personal message from you to your reader, so refer to yourself as a person, not a group entity. Whenever possible, use "I" and "my" rather than "we" and "our." The only exception is when more than one person will be signing the letter ("Sincerely, Mary and James MacDonald, Consultants").

Learn More: Want some more pointers? Check out " 7 Tips for Writing Dynamic Sales Letters ."

Keep it informal--but grammatical (to a point): Stilted language used to be synonymous with professionalism. No longer. Would you rather buy "garments which are attractive, reasonably priced, and properly fitted" or "a stunning, sexy gown designed just for you that fits you like a glove"?

Write the way you talk, with a caveat: Watch your spelling. A surprising number of people will dismiss what you're selling if your letter is riddled with obvious mistakes. And some errors will actually change the meaning of your message! Did you catch the use of "their" instead of "they're" in the sample letter? Other errors I see most often include "its/it's," "alot" instead of "a lot", "adapt/adopt," "accept/except," "by/bye/buy," "lie/lay," "onto/on to," "affect/effect," "your/you're," "were/where," and "lose/loose." Learn to use these properly. And whenever possible, get someone whose skills you trust to proofread your letter.

Highlight the benefits: The sample letter mentions the benefits of ordering a custom dress (it saves you time, it's affordable, it's unique, and you get to pick the style yourself), but they're so scattered and hidden in the text that they're all but lost.

Before you begin writing, make a list of the objections your reader might raise, and the benefits you can use to refute them. Then use that list in your letter. Don't be subtle about it. Make it specific, and don't be afraid to back up your claims. "You'll get a gorgeous gown made to your measurements for the price of an off-the-rack knockoff" makes much more of an impact than "It's affordable."

Address readers directly: The sample letter keeps referring to "women." But readers don't care about some theoretical woman; they want to know how this affects them.

Avoid talking about people in general--don't say "All great gardeners need..." or "The best teachers find that..."; say "You need..." or "if you've ever found that. ."

Also, get away from abstract language. Would you be more likely to hire me if I said "Good sales writing improves business," or "If you let me write your sales letter, you'll double your business within three months!"?

Watch the passive voice: Too much of the passive voice saps your writing of energy and can make even exciting information come across as tired and dull. Look at the sample letter: "Research has shown us that..." Why should readers care what research has shown you? Instead, it could have said "If you're like two out of three women in North Vancouver, you spend $2,000 a year on clothes you'll never wear."

Whenever you catch yourself using "have/has/is/are" ("It has been determined," "Once the tax returns are completed..."), check for a way to replace it with an active verb (I've determined," "Once you've done your tax returns..."), and see how much more lively and personal your letter becomes.

Problem 5: The Last Paragraph
Abandon hope and cut the clich é : Is the last paragraph of your letter infested with "hope"? Get rid of it when you can--the word "hope" ends your letter on a tentative, timid note, and worse, it takes the focus away from your reader's needs and puts it on yourself.

Note the other tired clichés at the end of the sample letter. Avoid them all in your letter. Try for something crisper, more intimate and more reader-focused, like "Questions? Call (800) 123-4567 and ask for Mary, and we'll talk." Or "Just give me the word, and I'll rescue your house from termites, anytime between 9 and 5 weekdays and Saturdays."

Ask for action: Don't leave the reader wondering what to do after reading your letter (exactly what are they supposed to do to "Help make this holiday season memorable"?). Ask for something specific--place an order; call for more information; send for your free catalogue.

Use the magic word, "FREE." If you've got a free offer, a free sample, or free anything, tell them how to get it. "Call me and I'll mail you a free sample tomorrow" pulls infinitely better than "I hope I'll hear from you soon."

Now that the dissection is over, here's the sample letter the way I might rewrite it:

September 3, 2002

Mary MacDonald
Renaissance Romance
#3-333 Crescent Dr.
North Vancouver, Canada V7M 2M2

Dear Holiday Clothes Shopper,

How'd you like to make jaws drop and eyes pop every time you walk into a party this season?

When you try on clothes, they never feel quite right--if it fits around the middle, it's too tight in the hips, and why are sleeves always an inch too long on you? And you really don't have hours to spend on shopping. Besides, good clothes are so expensive these days, and how do you know someone else won't walk in wearing the same dress? And everything looks so boring!

This year, skip the hassle and get right to the magic. If you've ever dreamed of looking like a fairy-tale princess, you've got to try my graceful, sensual gowns inspired by the romance of the Renaissance. I promise you nobody will be able to tear their eyes away from you.

You get to pick the design and fabric you want, so you can be absolutely sure you'll love them. Everything I make will be made to your measurements, so it will fit you like a glove. No one else in the world will have anything like it. Because it's so unique, it's immune to fad, and you'll be able to wear it year after year.

Best of all, all of this--including a consultation and up to three fittings to ensure an absolutely perfect fit--will cost you less than most cookie-cutter dresses you buy at the mall. My prices start at just $199.99! And instead of another ordinary, ill-fitting dress that you wear only once, you'll get a one-of-a-kind couture creation lovingly made for you.

Call me at (800) 123-4567 between 9 and 6 on weekdays, and we'll set up a time for you to come over for your free consultation. You'll be under no obligation whatsoever afterwards, and I'll never pressure you. What have you got to lose but some holiday stress?


Mary MacDonald

Isabella Trebond is a freelance copywriter and entrepreneur who specializes in small-business promotion and image consulting. She enjoys running advertising response studies in her spare time and uses the results to craft sales letters that get measurable results.

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