What is a sales letter and how do I write one?

in Top copywriting tips

Let’s start with the definition of a sales letter. It is, quite simply, a letter you send to a customer or prospective customer.

Snail mail has rather fallen out of favour in recent years, but don’t dismiss direct mail such as sales letters as old-fashioned or ineffective. Sales letters are an interesting option to consider when you think that (a) we’re overwhelmed by email and (b) GDPR makes ‘cold’ email communication trickier. Plus Royal Mail says that more than 92% of direct mail is opened and 48% of UK adults took action as a result of it, so it’s clearly effective.

Preparing to write a sales letter

As the saying goes, it’s all about the preparation. Before you start to write your sales letter you need to know:

  • Who you’re writing to. I don’t mean John Smith or Jessica Owen – we’ll come on to that later – I mean the type of person you’re writing to. You’ll find having a clear persona helps.
  • What you’re writing to tell them / sell them.
  • What you want them to do as a result of them reading the letter; in other words, the call to action.
  • What you’ll need to cover in order for them to be convinced to do the thing you want them to do – there’s more on this in the next section.

The structure of a good sales letter

A good sales letter has a tried and tested structure. It follows the AID(C)A structure (that’s attention, interest, desire, conviction and action). For each section, keep your reader in mind so you’re writing about the things that matter to them in a tone of voice they will be comfortable with.

The most important piece of the sales letter is the headline. Get it right and people will read on. Get it wrong and they won’t. The headline should be clear and straightforward – this is not the place for clever word play or opaque copy (not that there’s ever place for opaque copy but you take my point). It should encapsulate the reason for the letter and mean the reader wants to read on. This Copyblogger post has a great rundown of good headline formulas.

The next section is the body of your sales letter. It’s the section where you tell your reader everything they need to know about the subject you’re writing to them about in order to be convinced to take action. It should focus on the benefits not the features. Put yourself in the shoes of your reader and ask ‘What’s in it for me?’ then make sure you answer it. The ‘conviction’ element of the letter is the element that gives your reader peace of mind that if they do what you want them to do they’ll be making a good decision. Think testimonials from customers, third party reviews, money back guarantees and so on.

In terms of length, it should be as long as it needs to be to make all the points you need to make to overcome any barriers to purchase. As a quick rule of thumb, the length of your sales letter is likely to be in direct proportion to the value of the thing you’re trying to sell. So if you’re asking your reader to buy something relatively low value, the sales letter is likely to be relatively brief. If you’re selling something that’s worth thousands then it’s likely to be a lot longer because the reader will need a lot more convincing to make the purchase.

The conclusion of the sales letter is the call to action. Make it as clear and easy to do as possible.

Sales letter top tips

Address it well. Once the letter is in your reader’s hands, the headline is the thing that will make or break the chances of it being read. But you need to consider how the letter is going to get into the right hands in the first place, especially when you’re writing a business to business letter. If you possibly can, make sure the letter is addressed to a person – i.e. John Smith, Marketing Director or Jessica Owen, Managing Director rather than simply The Marketing Director or The Managing Director – because it’s more likely to make it into John or Jessica’s hands rather than be discarded at reception as junk mail.

Get the layout right. A sales letter should look like a letter. It should start with a ‘Dear…’ and end with ‘Yours sincerely’ or ‘With best wishes’ or another similar sign off. You could consider using your standard letterhead for the layout but do also consider using the skills of a graphic designer to give the letter maximum readability.

Don’t forget the PS. It’s an often stated fact that the PS is one of the most-read elements of any sales letter (because most people will instinctively turn to the end of a letter to see who it’s from, at which point they’ll see the PS), so always include one, no matter how cheesy it might feel. A PS should reiterate the headline. You can even use a PPS to add a further supplementary note – this is particularly useful if you’re using a special offer such as a discount if you order by a certain date and want to have a separate reminder about this.

There is a wealth of theory behind writing successful sales letters, so a blog post can only scratch at the surface of what’s required. If you want to take your knowledge a step further, my favourite resource is How to write sales letters that sell by Drayton Bird.

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