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Article: Money making letters - 2   

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Money making letters - Part 2:
Secrets of a successful
sales letter


George Demmer

Grab ’em by the throat!

Don’t let go until they’re ready to do exactly what you want.

That’s the goal of every direct mail sales letter and in this article we’ll take a look at some of the elements which make for a successful one.

Some of these tips are extremely simple for anyone to do while others require nothing short of artistry to achieve. Your first challenge is to be honest with yourself in appraising your abilities to create a letter which will make you proud and achieve the results you desire. If you aren’t sure, hire a professional - its an investment that will pay off.


The most important feature of a great direct mail letter is that it contains one single coherent thought. It sets out on a mission and doesn’t deviate from it—beginning to end.

To accomplish this the writer has to decide exactly what the goal is at the outset. What is the product or service being offered? (Ideally it should be ONE product or ONE service only.) After reading the letter, is the reader supposed to make a purchase directly, go to a store, call for an appointment, or return a reply card?

Then a consistent train of words leading the reader on a journey to the desired result must be formed. Begin by getting to the point. Don’t get all artistic and creative and meander around leaving the reader wondering what the heck you’re talking about. They’re giving you a chance by starting to read your letter. If you don’t grab them right away they may not bother with the second paragraph.

Now that you have their attention, keep firing with both barrels. Stick to the point. Make a passionate case for your product or service. Tell them everything needed to motivate them to carry out the action you want—and ONLY the action you want. If you only want them to call for an appointment, don’t try to close the sale in the letter.

Finally, make sure that you tell them exactly what you want them to do. Don’t be shy. Don’t keep them guessing. Tell them!


Although the following applies to all marketing communications, it is especially important in letters because—by their very nature—they are such a personal contact.

Speak to the individual reading the letter and tell them what your product or service will do for them. Personalize your message. Make it interesting reading. Speak in the reader’s own language about the reader’s own life. How will their life be better for dealing with you?

The final result should be no less riveting than a good novel. The words you use, the pictures you paint, the happy ending you promise, should all keep your reader eagerly turning the pages to the very end. 

Facts and logic will not succeed here. Yet most advertising and sales messages focus on the features of the product: facts, specifications, statistics, comparisons, and so on, ad nauseum. The problem is that people don’t buy for those reasons. They buy for emotional reasons. They don’t buy a car for the number of horsepower or the decibels of engine noise; they buy one that makes them feel sexy or successful. If you ask them why they bought it they’ll tell you about the decibels and horsepower because the emotional reasons don’t make sense, and in many cases are embarrassing.

What is more likely to sway people: detailed statistics about the exact number of defective washers and dryers per thousand or the image of the lonely Maytag repairman? The lonely repairman conveys the message much more clearly and powerfully by driving home the benefit at an emotional level.

Keep the message simple, personal, and focused on the benefits. Reach out and touch someone.


There are two special areas of a direct mail letter that—if done right—dramatically increase the response generated.

The first of these is called the overline, a letter’s version of a headline. It is placed above the greeting of your letter and is the single most read part of the letter. Everyone who opens the letter will read the overline. If it’s a good one they’ll keep reading; if not you can forget it.

The most successful overlines appear hand written in the same style and colour as the signature. The idea is to make it look like you had a special thought you just had to share before you sent the letter. Limit yourself to just a few words, and make sure you don’t give away the punchline by summarizing the offer contained in the rest of your letter. Saying “Save 20% on your home insurance!” gives away too much and will lose many readers. Saying “I want to give you $200!” is much more likely to keep them reading. Whatever your overline,  make sure you pick it up quickly in your letter. Don’t leave it dangling out there all by itself. Explain how they’re going to get that $200.

The second most important extra—and the second most read part of the letter—is the P.S. Yes that’s right, even though it has been used on every direct mail letter in the last twenty years a P.S. still works.

The key to a good P.S. is to reinforce one of your key selling points or mention a special benefit or time limit. You want to give the reader an extra little push in the direction of the action you want them to take. At the same time remember that some people read the P.S. right after the overline and before they decide if they want to read the rest of the letter. A strong motivational point will succeed on both counts.


Now let’s discuss the physical characteristics of a successful letter. These are the easiest to carry out yet they still have a powerful impact on the results you achieve.

The envelope: Enough has been written about envelope copy to justify a whole separate article. Yet there is one thing that has remained constant throughout the changes in envelope fashion: the most likely envelope to be opened is the one that looks like a real letter! A simple white business envelope with a stamp and an address could be just about anything, and is therefore unlikely to be thrown out without being opened. A bright colourful envelope with all kinds of copy on it is obviously advertising and is the most likely to be garbaged immediately.

The paper. There is general agreement that different paper quality or colour has minimal impact on the results of a mailing. The only exception to this would be a high ticket item being sold to upscale or professional clientele where a quality paper stock befitting the offering would be well advised.

The type. The most successful letters are those that look like they have been typewritten. Although the significance of this is likely to decrease as people get used to computer printing I would continue to use a typestyle which looks like an old fashioned typewriter. In staying with the motif you should capitalize and underline instead of using bold or italics. Overlines and signatures should appear handwritten, and if using a second colour, blue works well (make sure it looks like real pen ink).

The spacing. Lines should be single spaced and paragraphs double spaced. Bonus tip: make sure you end the page in the middle of a sentence (except the last page of course). People are much more likely to turn the page and keep reading to find out how the sentence ends.


The beauty of letters is that the results are quick and measurable. Simply by coding them, you will know exactly how well you succeeded, or how one variation did compared to another. The challenge is to keep testing until you create a truly successful mailing which can be repeated over and over again. Although it may take much effort and refinement, there is nothing closer to a license to print money than a proven successful sales letter.

You’ve got the tools.

Now go write that letter.


©1995 George Demmer
This article was published in the January 1996 issue of the Ad-Network




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