Direct Marketing, Mail Order, and E-commerce News from the National Mail Order Association
Want More Sales? Send a Letter! by Stan Holden
Award-Winning Direct Mail Copywriter, Stan's e-mail: HoldenDM@aol.com
Guess what the following all have in common:
• A dog trainer in California
• IBM • A bird cage importer in Illinois
• A deli on Long Island
• A tree care service in Texas
• An offset printer in Florida
• An architect in New Jersey
• United Airlines
• A shoe manufacturer in Massachusetts
• Chicago Sun-Times
• A small bank in Wyoming
• Sears Mortgage Corporation
• A house painter in Wisconsin
• Encyclopaedia Britannica
• A newsletter publisher in Missouri
• GMAC Insurance
• A chiropractor in Iowa
• Montgomery Ward
• An inventor in Canada
• Océ-Industries •
A distributor of industrial wiping cloths
• Amoco Motor Club.
If the title of this article provided a big clue and you guessed, “They all used sales letters
to get more sales,” you’re absolutely right! (Also, they all used sales letters written by me, but
I’m the only one who would know that.)
It’s obvious from the diversity that no matter how small or large your company may be, and
no matter what you sell, sales letters can help you sell more of it, to more people, in more places,
more often. (Assuming, of course, that you can obtain appropriate mailing lists and/or you send
your letters to people who answer your ads.)
During the past three decades, I’ve written hundreds of sales letters for companies of all types
and sizes—as noted above—selling everything from books, boots, and photo equipment to
insurance, computer software, and home business programs.
But despite the diversity, all of those sales letters had at least three things in common. And if you,
too, would like to use sales letters successfully—to attract more new customers or sell more to
current customers—here are those three things:
1. Feature a strong offer.
Claude Hopkins, a pioneer direct response copywriter and sales strategist, supposedly said:
“Make your offer so powerful, only an idiot would say No.”
(If, that is, everyone you contact could benefit from your product or service, and could afford to buy it.)
Your offer is what prospects receive when they respond.
Since the word free—or, even better, FREE!—is no doubt the most powerful word in the English
language, many sales letters feature some kind of a free offer. Such as a free trial, free catalog, free
survey, free exam, free gift, free price quote, free installation, free demonstration, free seminar, or
“one free when you buy two.”
Or perhaps your offer is a discount off the regular price, or a generous trade-in allowance
(even if you toss out the trade-ins), or an extra-long money-back guarantee.
Whatever your special offer may be, it’s best to make it contingent on prospects responding by a
specified deadline date or “while supplies last,” so they don’t put off responding until “later”
(which, all too often, never comes).
If the objective of your sales letter is to attract new customers, make your offer extra-generous.
Many direct marketers—book clubs, magazine publishers, insurance companies, vitamin sellers,
etc.—are satisfied to just break even, or even lose money—on their introductory offers, because
their profits come from repeat business.
However, your offer may simply be an announcement that your product or service is now available.
If what you’re selling is brand new, better than the competition, or lower priced
(without sacrificing quality), so much the better.
2. Emphasize customer benefits.
When prospects read a sales letter, they have just one thought in mind: “What’s in it for me?”
So emphasize customer benefits—not only product/service features—throughout your letter, with
the primary benefit promoted immediately. Don’t tease readers and keep it a secret until the second
or third page; most prospects won’t read that far unless they know what you’re writing about.
Think of your sales letter as an ad, with a headline and perhaps a subhead at the top of page 1,
and with one or more pages of body copy after the salutation (if any).
For example, back in 1973 I wrote a four-page sales letter introducing Hewlett-Packard’s HP-65
“pocket computer”—a revolutionary, pocket-sized, programmable calculator for engineers, scientists,
and a variety of other professionals.
Using tiny (1/2” x 3”) pre-recorded program cards, it was too sophisticated and, at $795.00, too
expensive to sell in stores, but not expensive enough to be carried around and demonstrated by HP’s
sales reps. And it needed a lot of explanation, with reader-friendly copy “translating” technical features
into easy-to-understand terms, as the reasons why all its user benefits were possible.
Therefore, the company decided to sell it entirely via mail order, using a copy-heavy approach.
At the top of page 1 of the letter, next to a life-size photo of a program card (or, in some preliminary
tests, next to an actual card glued on), my headline read:
This little card
enables you to solve even extremely complex,
lengthy or repetitive problems in seconds
…when you feed it through the first and only
fully-programmable pocket calculator!
Introducing: The HP-65 Personal “Computer”
The opening paragraphs explained how the HP-65 worked (in any of three ways), and then, throughout
the letter, additional benefits were promoted and dramatized (as shown here in bold type):
Whichever way you use the HP-65, you’ll be amazed at how much time and effort it saves you, and how
it helps to reduce computational errors.
Equally important, it enables you to handle complex, lengthy or repetitive problems that would
be inconvenient, difficult or time-consuming to handle without using devices many times larger,
much more expensive and nowhere near as portable as your personal “computer.”
Even its power supply was dramatized:
Because it operates on rechargeable batteries as well as on AC, the HP-65 can be used literally
anywhere—at a meeting, out in the field, up in a plane, down in a mine—wherever your work
takes you. It delivers the answers you need the minute you need them—not hours or days later.
When there’s a lot to say, some direct marketers prefer to use sales letters that are eight pages long
(or even longer). But the HP-65 letter was kept to four pages (printed on both sides of an 11”x17” sheet)
and went out with an illustrated, 16-page, 4/color brochure (which I also wrote) in a 9”x12” outer envelope,
complete with order form and business reply envelope.
3. Make your letter reader-friendly and easy to read.
Don’t send out sales letters packed from edge to edge with tiny type or with less-than-perfect printing
(or photocopying). If it’s hard to read, it won’t be read.
Think of your sales letter as a friendly, but persuasive, one-to-one communication. As you write, keep a
mental image of a typical prospect in mind. Why would someone like that want to buy your product or
service? What would he or she want to know about it before making a buying decision? What would it
take to persuade that person to order it right now?
Make your opening paragraph brief and attention-getting. Keep it to just one or two lines of type or,
at most, three or four. Get the law of inertia working for you. Once prospects start reading, they’re more
inclined to keep reading than if they never start reading at all. (Unless, of course, your letter is so boring
they almost fall asleep reading it.)
Forget what your English teacher told you about constructing sentences and paragraphs. Don’t hesitate to
use incomplete sentences with only a word or two. Like this. And don’t be afraid to start a sentence with
And or But, or to end a sentence with a preposition, as you do when speaking. Just don’t overdo it.
Have adequate (3/4” to 1”) margins at the left and right of each page. Vary the length of your paragraphs,
and leave a half-space or full space between them, so there’s not a solid mass of type. For a friendlier look,
Don’t justify (line up) the type on the right side of the page. Leave it ragged right—uneven line lengths—as
you would in a letter to a friend or relative. Go easy on hyphens. If a word won’t fit at the end of a line, put
it at the beginning of the next line. Or use a shorter word.
Be sure to proofread and correct your letters before they go out. Your credibility will suffer if they contain
misspelled words, improper punctuation (e.g., know the difference between it’s and its), poor grammar, or
And, most importantly, use plenty of you words—you, your, you’re, you’ll—and a minimum of I, we,
we’ll, we’re, our, us words. Throughout the HP-65 letter, for example, there were nearly 80 you words,
without being obnoxious about it.
If you’d like to see the complete HP-65 letter, it’s featured in two books (out of print,
but in many public libraries): The Greatest Direct Mail Sales Letters of All Time (published by Dartnell)
and World’s Greatest Direct Mail Sales Letters (NTC Books). Or, on request, I can send a copy of it to
you as an E-mail attachment. Incidentally, during 1973 the HP-65 mailing brought in orders in excess of $20
million—that’s like $80 million today—and won the Direct Marketing Association’s highest award, the
coveted Gold Mailbox.
Yes, sales letters can really pay off!
Stan Holden has specialized in direct response copywriting —especially sales letters—for more than 30 years.
He also writes ads, articles, newsletters, booklets, etc. (One of his two-page ads, introducing Bob Stone’s
now-classic book on DM, won the DMA’s Gold Medallion as “the best print ad of the year.”)
His E-mail address is HoldenDM@aol.com.
Read Stan's re-created award winning sales letter for the HP-65 here: HP-65 Letter
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