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Creating A Powerful Sales Letter                                               Home

When businesses need to get in front of their customers, the best value for money marketing tool available is a simple sales letter. Email marketing may be quicker and cheaper, but only if they are done badly. A well executed letter will pull a better response and will grab the attention of the potential customer in a way that email never can. Some of the best marketing books written, are on the subject of creating powerful sales letters, so there is only a limited amount of justice that you can do to the topic in an article. However, this is a short introduction to the planning and execution of a simple direct marketing campaign.

You need to approach your direct marketing campaign letter on two levels. The first level is concerned with the planning of the format and campaign management issues - the structure of the letter and how you use it. The second level is concerned with how the campaign grabs the attention of your prospective customer and how you get your reader to respond in the way that benefits your business.

Planning your letter structure

1 Keep things simple

Firstly, keep your creative instincts under control. Too many letters and direct marketing pieces are exclusively about how good they look. The campaign succeeds or fails on the ability of the letter to draw attention to itself. They contain too many graphics and use fonts that are decorative, but do not hold the readers attention. There are two problems with this approach. Firstly, all people are not attracted to the same things, so by definition a good portion of your audience will be alienated immediately. Secondly, these designs are the equivalent of pop-ups on a website; they distract the reader from your content. You have a business proposition that you want to make to your readers, and the best campaigns will let the offer be the persuader. Any other approach will mean the reader is confused by the compromises that you are forced to make. In summary, a simple hard-working letter will out-perform a pretty one any day!

2 Choosing your format

One of the longest debates in the direct marketing industry has been debate about how long a sales letter should be. This requires a lot of thought, and the context of the campaign drive the decision. That means that it is almost impossible to generalise. However one key factor that needs to be taken into account is the target customer group. In general, consumer letters should be no more than four pages and business-to-business letters no more than two. The most common mistake that I see is that writers stick with the convention of one page and they do not give themselves enough space to get their message across. If you look at samples of great sales letters, they will always use longer sales copy than their shorter inferior counterparts.

A4 sized letters, folded to meet sized-based postage pricing are generally a good idea. If you are UK based, the bizarre restrictions of the Royal Mail regarding postal charges. Arrange the letter fold so that when the envelope is opened, the reader can see your headline text immediately. Research indicates that the Courier typeface is the most readable and the one that best aids retention of your message. Never justify the body text of of the letter. It makes the body text look daunting and boring and it increases the chances of your reader not finishing it to the end. Left align the copy like this article. Never use paragraphs longer than 8 lines and try to vary the paragraph lengths for the same reason. Your objective is to make the letter body visually interesting. One word of warning - these rules have been derived from research into readability and response rates, however each case requires it's own judgement of what is best. Do not follow these rules if they break up the flow of the copy.

Otherwise follow them. This is marketing, not an English class. Forget what you have learnt about private correspondence, grammar, and letter formats and conventions. If it sells or persuades, do it!

3 Measure everything

This is direct marketing and a key feature of this discipline is that you must test and measure everything if you are to succeed. It is fundamental to how and whether these techniques work. It is also gloriously transparent, because you can tell precisely how profitable everything you do is. Your letter will need to carry a call to action, usually a special offer. Assign a specific offer code to this campaign and ask your readers to quote the code to redeem the offer. If your systems will accept offer codes then processing the data will be relatively simple. If they do not, you need to set up a manual process to capture how much demand is created by the letter. Use a new code for every version of the letter and for any other similar promotions that you run, so that your data is not corrupted by demand created by other sources. This will allow you to track orders and measure your response. If this is difficult, assign a separate phone line to this campaign and only put that phone number on your letter.

The key measures that you should look at using this data are your response rate, the cost per response, and the profitability of each order that you send. This profitability figure should include any reduced margin associated with your special offer, rather than using an average gross margin across your entire business. Also do not mix data from new and from existing customers as they will vary considerably.

When you have gathered this data, you can then look for ways to improve the campaign if you run it again. The elements that you could test include:

   - The product offer you made. Would another product category work better?

   - The format of the offer. Would a discount work better than a two for one offer?

   - The price point used. Would a heavier discount produce more demand for the offer?

   - The creative style used. Would longer copy work/more images work better?

   - The campaign timing. Vary the day of the week, time of the month and check the response?

This may seem like a tedious and complex process, but it can be simplified if you talk to your customers. Ask responders about your letter. What did they link and dislike? Even better, phone some non-responders and try to get the same data. If this seems impossible, find some friends who match the profile of your customers and test the mailing on them. Make sure to do it in every detail, otherwise they will not be able to give you all the feedback that could help.

It is worth remembering that those who succeed in this business are just 5-10% better than everyone else. That is why testing and measurement is critical. None of us are lucky enough to guess what the market will like every time. Instead we need to structure our campaigns so that they improve each time we send them. This is the source of the 5-10% edge that the best companies in each market maintain year after year,

4 Personalise everything where possible

Time is short when someone opens a direct mail letter. At best, you have 20 seconds to persuade the reader that they should read your letter to the end. The first way that you can do this is to address them personally. It is a first step to showing that your letter is relevant to them.

The next element of personalisation is to make the letter as relevant to them as possible. If you are mailing customers that you met at a trade show 6 months ago, why not mention this in the letter and link it to your offer.

Research shows that it is vital to personalise a sales letter as much as you can, as the impact on response rates is significant. For prospects, spend as much as you can on getting their details, and when selecting lists, prioritise sources which can provide full information.

5 Focus you efforts on the critical elements of your letter

There are volumes of research data on how a letter is read when it is opened and this shows us the elements of the letter that need most attention and that should always be included. Normal eyeflow goes in the following sequence:

                            Headline and addressee
                            The signature block
                            The P.S.
                            The first paragraph

The reasons for this are the reader is asking the following questions:

   - Is this letter really for me or is it a poorly targeted circular?

   - Who has sent me this letter - how much attention am I obliged to give it?

   - How can I find quick clues to see if the content is really of interest to me (eg headlines)?

   - I will test the first paragraph to see if will justify the time that I give it.

Knowing how a reader will approach a sales letter means that powerful sales letters are constructed differently from standard business and personal letters. Sales letters are not correspondence. Think of a sales letter as a sculpture with writing on it. To work well it has to be visually attractive to draw and keep the customers attention and to make the copy easy to read. You must have each element of the format, you must stick to the rules of typefaces, copy length, paragraph justification, just to stop readers subconsciously giving up on your letter before the have read your offer. Finally, you need to plan your campaign to gather information on the effectiveness of your efforts and you need to plan tests to improve the various elements of your direct marketing over time.

Apart from these structural campaign efforts you will need to write a letter that grabs the attention of your reader. There are other articles in our library which offers more details on this element of producing a winning sales letter.



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This article was written by Brian Wilson a Partner at Markmedia, a B2B marketing consultancy. Brian has over 15 years experience in all aspects of marketing. If you have a particularly challenging marketing assignment, Brian would love to hear from you at interested@markmedia.org.uk. This article is copyright and all rights are reserved.

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