How I Write a Sales Letter
The method and my madness!
This week I am working on a letter. Not a love letter where I am trying to seduce a lover or any ordinary letter to my bank or any other other crumbling empire but a sales letter that has one and one purpose only - to sell!
I’m working on a direct mailer. This means I have to do a ton of research Through boxes pages and other reference points. I must write piles and piles of notes and then the biggest part for me – a lot of thinking, walking, reading, thinking, dreaming, thinking and of course a little more thought.
Before I tell you how I do it let me set the standard for writing sales letters or copy these days.
The copywriter gets an assignement. He quotes and offers to do it. He or she will send over a form for you the client to fill out and then he will get on the job and produce a letter of sorts.
They will say things like
I'm working on a headline a sub headline body copy, strong bullets and a call to action of all calls to action. It'll be awesome!
The font will be the same old font.
The layout and paper the same old layout and paper.
They will avoid images as copywriters in general freak over the thought of images in their copy.
They will tell you brand isn't important and as far as positioning goes most won't have a clue.
How do I know that about sales letters?
I worked with any many copywriters over 20 years and can still count on one hand those like Michel Fortin, Clayton Makepeace and one or two others that I would trust with my life if the sales letter copy had to be done right.
My personal sales letter anti-methodology.
The truth is I am not sure if I have a method so I will share with you what I am doing right now. Every letter, every cleint and every project is unique for myself and I treat it accordingly so here is what I am up to now. You'll quickly see its anything but standard.
It all starts with a contact from my client, a conversation, a question sheet to be filled out and then I start to create what I call a 'war room' scene where everything is slowly prepared and ready for the campaign.
A sales letter starts here ...
When I create a direct mail piece I like to create an initial mind thought I can actually see in my mind's eye. That simply means I imagine it as good as finished right at the start and then it is created around certain loose rules from my own 20 plus years experience in copy or elements to be added to the letter.
I will list them below for you and this is exactly how I am working on this letter today. Nothing is set in stone it just is the way it is for today. The angle – it should be unique, fresh and compelling but most of all pull the customer in whilst giving the customer what they are looking for.
The first thing I like to do is compile a series of words. I like words that stand absolutely alone so if you read that one word - that single word should be able to describe in most part what the product may be or it should give enough reason and power to force the reader to read through into the letter. Once I have the words I will then work on images but mostly single images that are powerful and match the words well.
Pulling those two elements together can come quite quickly but it takes me around two weeks to get them what I would call absolutely right.
At this stage of thought I'll jump on my motorbike and ride out for an hour or two or three to give myself some time to think. It's amazing what the wind in your face a bad truck stop coffee and a fly or two in your mouth will do for a campaign.
I then get back and maybe sleep for an hour and then back to the images. To get them right takes reading many reference books (mostly non business), looking through tons of non marketing materials, a lot of bed reading, many times getting up in the night to write and think and literally pages upon pages of hand written drafts.
As time passes I gradually scribble out what I don’t need and build up what I do think I might use by transferring them into a word document and formatting them to size to give me a rough ‘feel’ of how they will finish.
Once those two parts are created I then build in a strong headline with some other lines or words to create a more powerful, compelling entry into the sales letter piece.
Time to head to a coffee shop to think things through and kiss my darling woman gently on her cheek.
The story so far is ...
So at this stage I have
- The angle
- And all must tie closely to the brand, the position and the overall purpose of the mailer.
And now all I have to do is choose fonts.
A lot of people have their favorite fonts but I choose mine very carefully as I do believe and testing has proven certain fonts can invoke certain feelings. Feelings to buy and feelings not to buy. Feelings of quality and feelings of low quality. Yes just through a font! I will spend a few days researching fonts according to the project I am working on.
The font must be a target match and a product match. The font must be in harmony with the brand. For example 'Garamond' feels high end where 'Arial' can feel lower end.
That is part one if there is such a thing as part one in my world ... done!
Once the first part is complete something incredible takes place. I can see the whole thing in my mind finished although it is a few weeks away yet. If my client asks for an update I don't send them anything because at this stage everything can still change and if everything can still change it clearly isn't complete in my mind and my client will see through that. I have created a full package for a direct mailer before only to dump the lot before it got used and started again so at this stage unless I feel absolutely sure - I don't send it over so ... Don't ask me!
For example the letter I am working on right now is around six weeks in on the project. During those six weeks I would guess five weeks is thinking time and researching and reading and more thought.
The past few days have been designing and planning the layout.
It's starting to look like this
It is a four-page letter almost like small book. I decided not to do a full on full-length single column letter on this one for a very particular reason to do with the target audience. (if you want the same results as everyone else well do the same as everyone else - I am always chasing spectacular results!)
Front page is a full image with a little copy. Designed to intrigue and pull into the next pages. (think of a magazine cover)
The second page is a single page letter like a regular letter looks. It has added what I call trash boxes or snapshot boxes. These are very specific and set for a reason to powerful to write here, as it’ll take me too long to explain the mind-set involved.
The third page is set in three columns. Each column has what are bullet styled descriptors but are not actually bullets. They are fact based but much stronger than most bullets styled letters.
Page four isn’t quite done but it has strong images, strong copy and a detailed call to action with a five point guarantee that is very different to what I usually create but again has been done this way due to the nature of the target audience.
There are additional pieces that I am creating for this package.
- The envelope is A4 card in color with image and copy on.
- There are two what we call lift letters or grabbers in the package.
- There is also a hard object in the package with something very special in side it.
- All in this entire whole piece should take me around 3-months to complete so it is over halfway through.
- The package is mailing to around 10,000 to start with.
- Then 100,000 mailers after tests.
- Then it’ll run and run until the sales dry up – never before.
- Each mailer costs just under £2 to produce
- Each sale is worth around £12,000
- My client needs just 17 sales to break-even on his costs and then my payment also.
- We are aiming for a plus 2% response from 100,000 with each sale valued at 12k.
Do the math … not bad right?
So how easy is it to create a sales letter PROPERLY?
For myself - around 84 days to 100 days of putting the whole thing masterfully together.
I have a folder in front of me right now with over 310 files for this one letter. That will be around double once finished.
I write all my letters between 6-10 times before I am happy with a final. Once I have my final letter I then and only then do the edit. I believe that writing the letter the first few times is the warm up. Only after those few times can the best be produced, I suppose it’s a little like preparation for a marathon. A lot of running has to be done before the race is done.
Every image used along with the letter and any color has to be a tight fit at every point. The font has to create the right atmosphere and of course the couple of things I never mentioned are these. My letters have to
- Position my client and product as the best
- Offer presence for power
- Create and tie into the brand or create the brand
- Be compelling and hand holding
- Stay interesting and inducing of thought
And finally the packaging has to say everything whilst hardly saying anything but enough to get the package opened, read and acted upon.
So today and the past few weeks have been a little full on creating this package especially while I am in the middle of a new home and office with still no connection to the web.
And is it worth this endless time creating a direct mailer?
Yes absolutely. I have strong track record with my letters and clearly that’s no accident. You can get a cheap writer but you can never get a cheap craftsman.
So just to recap for you.
- The big idea
- The angle
- The words
- The images
- The copy
- The irresistible offer
- The packaging
- The colors
- The font
- The delivery device
- The response and measure mechanism
- AND The motorbike and coffee ... CRITICAL
And of course the big one most self-mailers miss out on and that is what is actually the big purpose of the mailer?
Finally I thought it would be nice for you if I share with you some of the old but brilliant books I still refer to when writing new mailers. These are my brain food to kick-start my mind as far as copy goes.
David Ogilvy on Advertising 1983.
Why? It takes me back to earth and back to the core of what I am doing.
John Caples Advertising 1938.
Why? These were adverts and letters written in the days when the mind was the king and tapping into the mind was also a much more specialist and detailed process.
Sales Letters That Sizzle by the brilliant Herschel Gordon Lewis 1999
Why? It reminds me of structure without complexity.
The Greatest Direct Mail Letters Ever Written by Richard S. Hodgson.
Why? Just brilliant - but it and you will see.
Thats it for now.
Hire cheap and believe me you get cheap results.
Hire average and of course - average results.
Hire premium and you will get a premium result.
Or try it yourself and just hope and pray your valuable time playing at a science you have no real idea about will pay off for you.
The bearded warrior.
Alan Forrest (genius) Smith