Complete the Sales Process
How to Write Better Direct Mail Letters
By Lois K. Geller
A great direct mail letter can do wonders for your campaign. Last month, I discussed the prep work required to write a direct mail letter that generates response. This month, my Creative Director Mike McCormick and I will examine the writing, editing and approval processes.
You've already done most of the work. You know what to avoid. You've done all the research, so you have information. You have a road map for your structural flow, and you know who you want to be. Now the letter will write itself—if you let it. It's in your head. Just write.
Don't worry about getting a great lead right off the bat. You're writing your first draft. As you write, picture your prospect as one person. Get an image in your mind of what he or she looks like.
Write as if you were speaking directly to your prospect in a conversation. Keep writing until you can't think of anything more to say.
Now comes the hard part. Editing. Great copywriting is the result of great editing. Organize your draft logically by following the AIDA (attention, interest, direction, action) road map, then check for consistency of language, tone and personality throughout the letter. Put benefits in order of importance.
Eliminate 50 percent of the words. Once you've done this, reread your letter, and then cut it in half again. Somewhere in what's left is your lead sentence. Usually you'll find your best lead hiding in the third or fourth paragraph. Move it to the beginning. Now you have a draft letter you can work with.
Read it out loud. Better yet, have someone else read it to you. Clunkers, too many words, tedium—all that bad stuff will jump out at you when you hear it. Get rid of anything that doesn't move the letter along.
Look for illogical jumps between paragraphs. Each paragraph should flow naturally from the previous paragraph.
Eliminate boring adjectives and adverbs. Instead of "John is tall," say "John towers over everyone else in the room." Same idea, but it paints a word picture.
Change dull words to action words. Action words are selling words and include: suddenly, immediately, now, surprising, savings, discount, free.
Eliminate the passive voice. It kills copy. It's boring, slow.
Add details. People love details, but there's a fine balance, and it depends on what you're selling and what your strategy is. You need enough detail to be credible and generate a response.
Replace $5 words with 5-cent words. Some words are just wrong, but people use them because they think they sound fancy or educated. Perhaps the most common is the word "utilize." Say "use." Another common one is "persons." Say "people."
Keep sentences as short as possible. Eliminate connectors.
Remember, this isn't creative writing. This is selling. That's what direct mail letters do: They sell.
Ask people you respect to read your letter to see if it's clear to them. If anything is not clear to a semi-intelligent person, change it—no matter how much you love it.
Then review your letter to make sure:
>It has a strong lead, a grabber with a benefit. Do you stress benefits rather than features? (Think of a teapot with a spill-proof spout. Feature: the spout. Advantage: You don't spill tea when you pour it. Benefits: You don't ruin the tablecloth, don't burn your hand, etc.)
>It urges response both subtly and blatantly. Blatantly might be: "Please act before July 15 when this offer expires." Subtly might be: "When you call, be sure to ask about …" That's subtle in direct mail. Urge response several times.
>The offer is fully-stated and clear.
>You are writing to one person, and you are writing as one person rather than as a company.
>You've gotten rid of any unnecessary words.
>Your letter feels honest. Claims have to be believable and guarantees can't be hedged.
Complete the Process
Do a final rewrite and edit. If you can, put your very last draft away for a day or two, and then look it over again. You'll probably rewrite it.
Think about layout while you're editing. Layout is important. If people see a big block of gray, long paragraphs and it looks like hard work, they're not going to read it.
>Use a common serif computer font such as Century Schoolbook or Times Roman. Please don't even consider a sans serif font for your letter. People can't read it. Make sure the font is large enough, at least 12 points, but no larger than 14 points.
>Break up a long letter with subheads about important benefits. People will scan a long letter quickly and read the subheads. If you grab them there, they'll read the rest of the letter.
How long should a letter be? Once you've finished editing, and there are no unnecessary words, that's how long your letter should be. I've seen winning letters of four lines and of 64 pages. There's no rule.
>A signature should be in blue so it looks as if a real person signed it. Never use two signatures.
>Feel free to use a Johnson box—sort of a reverse P.S. that goes up at the top of your letter.
>Use handwritten notes in margins, making sure it's the same "hand" that signs the letter.
>Use emphasizers sparingly (e.g., underline, bold, italic). When you emphasize everything, you emphasize nothing.
I hope this helps us all get better letters soon. If you have any comments, questions or quibbles, please feel free to e-mail me.
Lois K. Geller is president of Mason & Geller Direct Marketing, a full-service direct response agency in NYC. She is the author of "RESPONSE! The Complete Guide to Profitable Direct Marketing." She can be reached at loisgeller@ masongeller.com.