Friday, 14 January 2011

Writing a sales letter

Sales letters can be either very easy or very hard to write.  For me, it depends on who I'm writing them for.  If it's for a client, it's ridiculously easy.  I talk over the letter with my client, determine what his message is, note any slogans or tag lines to include, learn the "voice" the client uses or create one, gather the relevant facts and talking points, and then stare at my blank computer screen with a look of panic and pure hatred for six hours while I wait for it all to gel somewhere inside my cerebral cortex.  Then inspiration hits (Or I see the clock; the effect is much the same) and I'm on a roll.  Out come the words and in a few hours I have a rough draught that I then let sit overnight before revising in the morning.  However, when I'm writing sales letters for my own company, the process evokes images of Humphrey Bogart hauling the African Queen through leech-infested swamps.  I don't know if that's because I have a personal stake in what I'm saying or because writing for myself sends my internal editor into overdrive, but it becomes a week-long slogging match where every word comes with the ease of trying to pass a kidney stone.

The upside of this is that it sends me back to the books to review how to write a sales letter in hopes of finding inspiration or a new angle.  This not only has the effect of forcing open the creative blockage, but it also gives me more ammunition that I can use in the service of my clients for their sales letters.

Sales letters are the most intimate form of advertising we've come up with so far.  Adverts are usually intended either for a mass audience or to target a specific demographic group.  That's true if you're talking about a television commercial or a magazine advert or a web banner.   In each of these cases, the advertiser is trying to appeal to a group of people.  With a sales letter, the advertiser is appealing to just one person.  That's why a sales letter is the only advert that starts with "dear".  Because of this intimacy, sales letters require a lot of attention to detail and should be designed so that they can be tailored to the person that they are addressed to.

The function of a sales letter can be summed up in the acronym AIDA.  What you want your ales letter to due is to draw the reader's Attention,  Spark his Interest,  create a Desire, and persuade him to take Action–in this case, to contact you about your product or service. Put in simple terms, what you want to do is to get the person to read the letter, show him that what you have to offer is relevant to his needs, pose a problem that that what you present solves, and agitate that problem until the person is convinced that the best way out is to contact you.  The goal is to create a vivid image of what will happen if he doesn't contact you, how awful their present situation is, and how you can provide the solution.  This isn't badgering or hard selling.  It's not (necessarily) saying that if they don't buy your product, their house will burn down.  It can something as everyday as persuading someone that if they don't book their flight through your website, they won't have as much fun on their holiday than if they did. 

Because of the steps that a sales letter must take, their format is fairly standard.  What sets them apart is their execution.  A basic sales letter generally includes the following:
  • A  headline.
    • This is a bold statement  that grabs the readers attention.  A few years ago, this was regarded as optional, but because modern attention spans are so brief, the headline is vital during the three seconds expected to get the get the recipient to read the letter rather than bin it.
  • A salutation 
    •  This is the traditional Dear Mr/Mrs/Ms plus the person's surname.  If at all possible, address the letter to person–especially if your trying to get business from the decision maker at a company.  In a pinch,  Dear Sir or Madam. may be used.
  • A statement of your credentials.  
    • It's extremely important to show why you, your company, or your client is the one to go to for this good or service instead of some competitor.  The purpose here is to lay the essential groundwork by instilling confidence in the recipient.
  • A how and why statement.  
    • This is the meat of the letter where you put your case forward and tell the recipient what is missing from his life, how dreadful his situation is without it, and how you'll fulfill that need. 
  • A call to action
    • Tell the recipient how to make it all happen.  Pick up the phone, fill out the form, visit the website; whatever is needed to get the ball rolling.
  • The sign-off
    •  Wrap it all up, thank the recipient for his time, and close the letter.
  • The P.S.
    • Many people think this is optional and even counterproductive if the recipient is a senior officer in a company,  But the P.S. is the one part of the letter that is certain to be read.
But what should you say in the letter itself? Here we get into marketing itself and that is a whole new subject.  What you say depends on your product, your service, your client, your recipient, and your message.  You can use all the techniques of marketing from offering some premium to working with basic needs, to forming a new need, but the one thing to remember is that this is a very personal appeal.  You aren't persuading a million people or a thousand, or even ten.  You're trying to persuade one person, so you must remember to address that person's needs, concerns, desires, hang ups, and quirks.  If you manage that, then you're halfway home.

One final point: length.  How long should the letter be? Should it be long and detailed or short and sweet?  The answer is, to make it interesting and informative.  If you manage that, then the length is irrelevant.  People will sit and happily read a multi-page letter if they find it engaging, but they won't waste a second on one that's short and boring.  The trick is to engage their attention and then reward them for their time.

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