How to Write an Effective Sales Letter for Your Business

by Ernest W. Nicastro

Is your sales letter a killer? Or is it killing your business? Find out what makes a good sales letter and read the latest sales letter makeover by Ernest Nicastro.

It’s the middle of the night and your phone rings. You pick it up and mumble a half-asleep hello. It’s your brother-in-law, Bob, who owns a small business. “Look,” he says, “I’m sorry to be calling you so late but I’m looking at our month-end numbers and they are terrible. Truth is, they’ve been in the tank for the last several months. And, well, we need to do something quick to generate leads and sales. So I was wondering if you could write a good sales letter for us?”

Now here’s the question: Which of the following two responses would you be most likely to give brother-in-law Bob?

  1. “Sure I can Bob. I’ll have a killer sales letter ready for you in the next 24 hours. Now go to bed and stop worrying.”
  2. “Bob you know I’m always happy to help. But sales letters aren’t my area of expertise. If it’s this important to you, what you need is a good copywriter. Someone who does this type of thing for a living -- and is darn good at it.”

My point is this: Unless you chose response number one, and did so with the heartfelt conviction and steely confidence that you can write Bob a compelling sales letter that will quickly turn things around for him…you probably shouldn’t be writing your own sales letter. That said, we all know that thousands of small business owners -- for better or worse -- choose to be their own copywriter.



In the “better” department are those business owners who invest a substantial amount of time, effort and money in becoming very good copywriters. In most cases these are people who have a passion for marketing and writing. And many of them go on to build highly successful companies.

In the “worse” department are those folks who, while very smart and very competent in other areas, don’t understand that their intelligence and expertise don’t carry over to marketing and copywriting. In short, these very smart, very competent people aren’t smart enough to get out of their own way. Nor are they likely to be the types to put a lot of time and effort into educating themselves about the art and craft of writing effective sales copy. “After all,” these very smart people think, “how hard can it be?” As a result, their businesses aren’t nearly as successful as they could or should be.

OK, now that I’ve covered “better” and “worse” let me address everybody else. Everybody else is the vast majority of small business owners who choose to be their own copywriters. They aren’t as good as the best and they aren’t as bad as the worst. But they could be a lot better. If they worked harder at it.

How much time and effort are you willing and able to invest?

My pointed observation from reviewing hundreds, if not thousands of self-penned sales letters from small business owners is this: A majority of these otherwise by and large hard-working and conscientious people…don’t put nearly enough time and effort into doing what is required…in order to write effective sales copy. Maybe they don’t have the time or they haven’t divined a good process. Most likely it’s a combination.

Well, I can’t give you more time. Whether your name is Bill Gates or Bill Bailey we all get just 24 hours every day. But I can help you with the process. For the sake of illustration what follows pertains to sales letters. That said, most of the tips are applicable to any type of sales copy.

For the business owner who chooses to write their own sales letter: A proven process for writing effective copy. 

1. Document your knowledge of, and experiences and interactions with your customers - Think about your best customers, the 20% in Pareto’s 80/20 rule. Compile a collective psychographic and demographic profile of them. Age range, education, predominant personality type, job title (if you’re a B-to-B marketer), income, political views, the magazines they read, the books they read, all of this and more should be in your written profile. You’ll also want to review responses to your customer satisfaction surveys and study your “white mail.”

Most importantly, you should list and rank the key motivators that drive your customers’ purchasing decisions. In most cases it will be one or more of the following: Fear, exclusivity, greed, guilt, ego-gratification, salvation and anger. And finally, if you have a sales staff involve them in this process as well. Their help and input can be invaluable.

When it’s all said and done you’ll have a good understanding of who your best prospect is, and what likely goes on in their mind when considering the purchase of a product or service in your category.

2. Study the work of successful copywriters and their sales letters - Alexander Hamilton wrote, “All the genius I have lies in this; when I have a subject in hand, I study it profoundly.” One of the most effective ways to learn anything is by studying how the most successful people in a given field do what they do. Fortunately, we live in an age when all you need to study great sales letter copywriting is a connection to the Internet.

For example, Google the phrase “greatest sales letters” and with just a couple of clicks you’ll be able to download a free PDF containing the complete text of 5 of the most successful sales letters ever written. Included in the file is the famous “Two Young Men” sales letter for the Wall Street Journal. Conservative estimates are that this one letter generated over a billion dollars in revenue, making it arguably the most successful single piece of advertising in history.

Of course the Internet isn’t the only place to find successful sales letters. Some of them will come directly to you in your mailbox. That’s why, if you write your own copy and seriously aspire to be better at it, you shouldn’t automatically toss any mail not of immediate interest to you. Give all of it a quick look and save those few pieces that grab and hold your attention. Make a “swipe file,” and when writing your own letter pull out that file and look through it for copy and techniques you can swipe and use.

In addition, there are several sales letter compilation books, each of which constitute a huge swipe file in and of itself. Because all of these books include word-for-word reproductions of some of the most profitable direct mail packages ever created. In most cases they also include expert commentary from the copywriters and designers who worked on those packages. Three such books that I have found to be of great value are -

  • Million Dollar Mailings by Denison Hatch.
  • World's Greatest Direct Mail Sales Letters by Herschell Gordon Lewis & Carol Nelson.
  • The Greatest Direct Mail Sales Letters of all Time by Richard S. Hodgson.

Another good book to have in your library is a compilation of letters from a single writer, The Robert Collier Letter Book. Originally published in 1937 this book is a timeless classic of highly effective sales letters by an all-time great copywriter. Better yet, almost all of these letters can be easily adapted for use today.

Finally, if you want to study very recent successful direct mail efforts pay attention to those direct mail pieces that turn up in your mailbox multiple times. The fact that you’re getting a letter a second or third time means that it’s a proven money-maker. In addition, you may want to subscribe to Who’s Mailing What! Who’s Mailing What! maintains the world’s largest library of direct mail, archiving information on over 130,000 packages in nearly 200 categories. And it’s all searchable by any number of parameters. For more information go to www.whosmailingwhat.com.

How to get the most benefit from your study
It’s not enough to simply read a letter or two a few times and think you have the hang of it. To maximize the benefit from your study I recommend that you pick a proven response-producing letter and, at a minimum, do the following:

a. Read the letter a minimum of five times, preferably once a day over a five day period. Pay attention to every word, every sentence. Why did the writer use that word, that phrasing? Make note of the transitions from one thought to the next, note how the copy is all about the reader and not the product or service. Note the motivational buttons being pushed and how the writer pushes them. This intense study and repetitive reading will help the copy embed itself into your conscious and sub-conscious mind.

b. Do the same thing, but read the letter out loud. Why? Because people read with their ears as well as their eyes. By reading the letter out loud you’ll get a better sense  of the rhythm and flow of the copy and how it sounds to the person reading it.

c. Sit down and write the letter out by hand at least once. Again, by doing this you’ll get a better feel for every little nuance of the letter. Because the copywriter chose every word and placed every comma, colon, dash, ellipsis and period where she did for a specific reason.

So, to sum things up. If you’re a business owner who chooses to be your own copywriter and you expect your sales letter to have a snowball’s chance of success, you should, at a minimum (1) Get a good handle on who your best prospects are, how they think, and what motivates them when considering a purchase in your category (2) Profoundly study successful sales letters by engaging in visual, auditory and kinesthetic learning behavior. I repeat, this is the minimum you need to do before you’ll be ready to commence with your first draft.

When you’re done with draft number one, print it out (to see how it looks on paper), read it over several times (at least once out loud), stick it in a drawer, and forget about it for a couple days. Then pull it out again and look at it with “fresh eyes.” Things will jump out at you that you’ll want to edit and your edits will make your copy stronger. Print out the revised version, read it over several times, stick it in your drawer, come back to it again in a couple days. Repeat the process. Then, after a few more rounds of revisions you may finally have a letter suitable for mailing.

Now if all this sounds like a lot of work -- well, uh, it is. But if you’re going to be your own copywriter, and copywriting isn’t your core competency or a natural strength, to think that you can just sit down at the keyboard and bang out an effective sales letter, or for that matter, any type of sales copy, is foolish. You are doing yourself, your business and your employees an extreme disservice.

OK. Let’s take a look now at the following sales letter to see how it can be improved.

Black = Original letter copy.
Red
= Ernest’s critique/commentary 
Blue
= Ernest’s suggested copy

Quite frankly, 80% of all businesses fail in the first five years …A pretty well known fact that doesn’t shock anyone anymore. And what’s the deal with quite frankly?

And, 80% of the businesses that make it to 5 years will fail by the 10th year.

Do you know the number one reason businesses fail? This would have been a better starter for the headline than what the writer chose. Questions, good questions, are engaging. And this one, targeted at a business owner, has some stopping power.

Answer: The business owner’s strengths at one stage of growth become company crippling weaknesses in a new stage of growth. I dislike this “answer” for two reasons. First, without citing a respected source, the answer isn’t believable. Second, the copy has an esoteric, high-level ring to it -- like something you would hear in an MBA class.

Could this happen to you? I’d revamp this headline entirely. Based on a trip to this company’s website, I’d go with something like this: Now -- in just three hours -- you can gain the four most powerful sales-multiplying, profit-boosting secrets we’ve uncovered during a lifetime of work helping companies grow. What’s more, we guarantee you’ll be able to put this new knowledge and know-how to work immediately -- on your own -- or we’ll gladly refund your investment. Coming up with a great headline typically takes several hours and my suggested headline is far from great. But it’s an improvement.

Dear Business Owner,

Why not guarantee your company’s success by taking three hours to attend – with a select group of Colorado Springs business owners – the workshop: There is nothing attention-grabbing, thought-provoking or motivating about this opening. And the use of the word guarantee is meaningless. Here’s a suggested opening. Which, by the way, I swiped from a letter I found on the Internet: Have you ever questioned, as I have, what makes a business either a success or a failure? Hint - it isn't what you think. Then from this point the writer can segue into pitching the workshop.

Turn Your Growing Business Into A Great Business Titles for workshops and seminars are all-important and this one is just so-so. But with a couple of tweaks it could be vastly improved. As in, How To Turn Your Growing Business Into A Great Business: It’s Easier And More Difficult Than You Think

That’s right. If you can spend just three hours with Origin Institute on April 27, 2006 from 1:30 – 4:30 p.m. at the Colorado Springs Sheraton, we’ll guarantee you’ll walk away with 4 critical business tools you can use the next day to start turning your growing business into a great business. NOTE: A guarantee is worthless unless you back it up. This one, while it may sound good, means nothing. It’s just another claim.

What separates the business owners who excel from those that struggle? How can we make this sub-head a more intriguing? How about this: What separates those business owners who are raking in the profits from those that are just getting by? Interestingly enough, very little. But that little bit makes a huge difference.

Our research at Origin Institute – the leading provider of consulting, training and research for growing businesses Who, besides you, says so? The phrase, the leading provider of, is bandied about by so many companies in the same meaningless way there should be a law against it unless you can prove it.– has shown successful CEO’s step, not stumble, in the same growth direction Is it just me or is there anyone else out there who doesn’t have a clue as to what the terms growth direction or profit design (see below) mean? Look, don’t get me wrong. I have no doubt that the principals of this company are smart, savvy, experienced business consultants that can do a lot of good for a lot of businesses. So maybe when they’re sitting in front of a prospect or even talking with them over the phone they can make terms like growth direction and profit design energize and motivate people. But to paraphrase the great copywriter Herschell Gordon Lewis, in direct mail marketing clarity is paramount. as their company – at the right time. There’s no logical progression of thought connecting these two sentences. No matter which of the 7 growth stages your company is in – it’s the CEO’s leadership that determines success, or failure. There’s nothing motivating or interesting in these two sentences. How about we try something like this, with additional information drawn from the company’s web site: Drawing on over thirty years of multi-faceted, hands-on experience guiding and helping grow more than 600 companies…Origin Institute principals have identified and documented 7 distinct stages of growth. And each stage calls for a subtle difference in the owner’s or CEO’s leadership and management style. At this fast-moving, information-packed workshop you’ll discover these unique styles as well as (1) What stage of growth your company is in (2) The most profitable moves you can make at your stage and (3) The most common missteps to avoid.

Our workshop, Turn Your Growing Business, into a Great Business will fundamentally change how you think about your business. And by attending you will discover our proven, innovative 9-step program that will help you build a Profit-Driven, People-Centered, Growth-Smart company.

Turn Your Growing Business into a Great Business will give you proven tools to:

  1. Improve your decision making and make, or save, hundreds of thousand of dollars in the next six months.
  2. Discover thousands of dollars buried in your profit design.
  3. Know how to set company priorities that improve resource allocation and efficiencies.
  4. Know the 12 critical qualities that make a great employee – and never settle for less in hiring again. Decent benefit-oriented copy, except for the esoteric “profit design.”

Act NOW on this invitation to attend:

Turn Your Growing Business into a Great Business

for a special reduced rate of $179 (a $594 value) What makes it a $594 value? Unless the writer answers that question she should leave that information out. It’s just another meaningless claim. and you’ll also get – as a FREE bonus – our 55 minute audio CD “An Introduction to the 7 Stages of Growth”. This CD walks you through each of the 7 stages of growth and provides critical information about managing at each stage. Good idea, offering a bonus. But I’d rework this paragraph to read like this after the subhead’s lead-in: From now until April 15 we are offering special early bird registration for only $179.  That’s $116 off the regular $295 workshop price.  What’s more, with your early bird registration you’ll also get a valuable FREE bonus: The 55-minute audio CD, An Introduction to the 7 Stages of Growth.

“Thanks for all the wonderful information you packed into the three-hour seminar I attended in Boulder, CO in November. I put the tools to use immediately. I am happy to announce my profits are up 25%. Thanks for a great seminar; a great value.”  Beth Clark, CEO, Clark Insulation, Cleveland, OH Excellent. A meaningful, specific testimonial. But it should have been presented much earlier in the letter. How about on page one? For example, we make our opening line of text read, What if you could boost profits by 25%? This business owner did. Then we double space and present this quote.

Date:  April 27, 2006
Time: 1:30 – 4:30 p.m.
Location: Colorado Springs Sheraton

My colleagues and I at Origin Institute want to share our 10 years of research with over 700 small business in Colorado and California with you. Our research helped us develop the 9-Step Program you’ll explore at this exciting business event – research that uncovered the key reasons some growing businesses fail … and other flourish.

Find out:

HOW businesses survive, profit and grow through 7 distinct stages of enterprise growth
HOW adhering to the 5 different rules of the road for each stage of growth insures that your business will thrive
HOW following a few common success traits can make all the difference in a growing business:

            Learn how to select a strong profit design
            Learn how to select the right employee
            Learn how to create an effective decision making method
            Learn how to define and set the right priorities

This is not bad copy. But it would be much more motivating if it were more specific. For example, here is copy from a sales letter I wrote promoting a workshop that my company helped put on:

Here’s just a sampling of the results-enhancing case studies, ideas and tactics you’ll learn about at What’s Working NOW -

  • How one company’s 3-step marketing campaign produced a 34% response rate and $1,700,000 in sales from a $10,000 marketing investment
  • How a Fortune 100 medical supply company was able to generate 50,000 qualified visitors to their web site – at a rate 600% faster than they had originally planned
  • How to make sure salespeople don’t waste time on unqualified leads
  • How smart use of the phone helped one financial services firm rake in over $1,000,000 in commissions – in just TWO months

Register now at our special reduced rate of $179 and in addition to our FREE audio CD, An Introduction to the 7 Stages of Growth”, you’ll also receive a FREE copy of Origin Institute’s Founder, James Fischer’s new book: Good. Another bonus. But as with the first one it should have been mentioned much earlier.

“Navigating the Growth Curve: 9 Fundamentals that Build a Profit-Driven, People-Centered, Growth-Smart Company.”

To register, visit us at www.origininstitute.com or call us now at 303-588-1286.

Yours in Growth, Nice closing. Personal, warm, benefit-oriented.

Laurie Taylor, co-founder
Origin Institute

P.S. Don’t delay – space is limited for this one time workshop in Colorado Springs. Call 303-588-1286 to register or visit us at www.origininstitute.com and be sure to receive our FREE audio CD and James Fischer’s book, “Navigating the Growth Curve: 9 Fundamentals that Build a Profit-Driven, People-Centered, Growth-Smart Company.”

Summary: In 1984 Wendy’s Hamburgers ran a series of TV commercials featuring elderly actress Clara Peller. In these ads a tiny hamburger patty sits atop a huge bun. As many readers will recall, Clara would look down at the patty and say the catch phrase, “Where’s the beef?” That’s what I found myself thinking as I read this letter. It needs a lot more beef, as in meaningful, meaty, specific and clearly stated, easily understood benefits.

Got an opinion on Ernest’s opinion of this letter? Agree? Disagree? Email him at enicastro@positiveresponse.com

Want Ernest to critique your sales letter? Send it to us at clinic@businessknowhow.com as an attached Word document. We'll choose one sales letter each month to publish along with the revisions.

© 2006 Ernest Nicastro

About the Author:
Ernest Nicastro, a direct marketing consultant, copywriter and lead-generation specialist, heads up Positive Response, an award-winning marketing firm specializing in B-to-B marketing and lead-generation. He also publishes a free monthly newsletter, AIM For Positive Response. For more information visit http://www.positiveresponse.com/. Contact Ernie directly at ENicastro@positiveresponse.com or by phone at 614.747.2256.
 
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