How to Be Sweet as Honeysuckle, Tough as an Auger
Letter Writing Tips From the Pros
By Noelle Skodzinski
All things can be tested in direct mail. But there are some things that shouldn't benamely the inclusion of the letter. "I think I would carefully consider going to Iraq before suggesting that someone remove the letter [from a direct mail package]," says direct response veteran Mal Decker.
As most experts will tell you, the letter is what gives a direct mail piece its legs. "The sales letter is the master salesman in the package," stresses Decker, who has created direct mail packages for clients such as The Wall Street Journal, Phillips Publishing and the National Trust for Historic Preservation. "The entire package depends on it."
But what the experts don't often tell you are the secrets behind their letter-writing success. Anyone can read the many books available exploring the logistics of a direct mail lettereven on how to approach the tone and concept. But as Decker points out, "I think every writer has his or her own way of working."
Fortunately, several experts agreed to share their philosophies on the direct mail letter and their personal approaches to writing a best-seller.
Ain't No Thing Like the Letter
The letter stands alone in its ability to "speak" to prospects. "Without the letter, there's no personal link that gets the writer in the same place his reader is, [nothing] that says, 'I'm talking to you individually,'" explains Decker. "Without that voice, I've got nothing."
Pam Linwood, a direct response writer/creative consultant whose clients have included Time Warner Cable, Blue Cross/Blue Shield and Mutual of Omaha, agrees. "The letter has a specific role in a ... package. It's the personal one-to-one voice in your communication. ... If there's only one piece in the envelope, make it the letter. It's king," affirms Linwood, who also is on the faculty of the Professional Direct Marketing Certification Program.
Despite being revered as royalty by many, some marketers still overlook the letter's potential. "I firmly believe letters are still an underused tool in marketing," says Jeffrey Dobkin, author of "Uncommon Marketing Techniques," and direct response writer and speaker.
"Almost everything you send in direct mail should go out with a letter," he says.
If you're still not convinced, Dobkin says, "A tight, well-written letter can increase the response of your direct mail package by 30 percent to 40 percent," or more.
Not too shabby for a bunch of words on a piece of paper.
A Pre-Writing Exercise in Sketching
This is why the words you choose to craft your letter are as important as the letter itself, and why the process of
selecting the right words often begins well before picking up the pen.
"I begin with a self-taught crash course on my client's product and market, where he stands in it, his key competitors, and what strengths and weaknesses differentiate my client's product or service from his competitors," explains Decker.
Dobkin also starts "writing" off the paper. "Before I write a letter, I ask my client for a one-page write-up of the product's 'features and benefits,'" he explains. He asks the client to list the features on the left side of the page, and the benefits of those features on the right. (For an explanation of the differences between features, benefits and advantages, see the box at left.) This forces the client and Dobkin to see what benefit the product or service will have for the consumerthe main focus of the letter's content.
But Decker takes his pre-writing research even further. After his crash course, he says, "I want a bushel of actual white mail (not a summary) to get a feel for my client's customers that his demographic studies alone can't begin to provide. Step by step, the person I'll be writing to is beginning to take shape. My notes are starting to fill in the outline."
Direct mail copywriter Josh Manheimer, who has created mail packages for consumer and publishing clients such as Consumer Reports, Playboy and Writer's Digest, has his own tactics for creating a "sketch" of a client's prospects. For publishing, for example, he says, "You want to capture the tone of the publication in your sales letter. One way is to read the 'Letter from the Editor' [in a number of issues]." If the editor is doing her job right, she knows how to talk to the audience, he explains. "My job is to steal shamelessly from these letters."
Manheimer also admits that he has "become a lurker, hanging out in chat rooms, listening to how people speak and what their concerns are. It's the rhythm of speech that makes for a great letter," he says. "You want to learn how to sound like sweet honeysuckle when giggling with Southern belles, and pull out your Milwaukee power auger voice when rolling in dirt with men in camouflage."
"There are many ways to fill in the outline," says Decker. "Studying the cards for the lists that will be tested is essential. Employees in the client's customer service department often offer valuable insights."
Ring Them Bells
When you finally sit down to write, most experts suggest that you take a conversational tone. What better way to do this than to have a conversation? "I put the prospect in the chair next to mine and begin 'talking' to him or her about what has now become my product or service. ... That conversation is my free-ranging rough draft, and I address it to someone I know who resembles the prospect in some wayeven though it ends up a 'Dear Friend' letter," he explains.
Linwood agrees, "The more I can find out about that composite person, the better. I'll take everything I can getclient research findings, random phone calls into the target audience, my neighbor ..."
Linwood adds that it is extremely important to determine the gender of your audience. "Men tend to head toward bulleted copythey want 'just the facts, ma'am'so I make features easy to spot. Women are more likely to respond to a paragraph of benefit-laden copy. If the audience is evenly mixed, so is the mix of copy type," she says.
The more you can "push their buttons [with] things that ... make the prospect think, 'Yeah, I can relate. Yes, that's me. Yes, this person understands my needs,'" the better, says Debra Jason, direct marketing and online communications specialist with The Write Direction. "Show them that you understand their wants, needs, challenges ... then, offer them the solution (your product or service)."
The Four 'R's: Reread, Rewrite, Review, Then Rewrite Again
Once the letter is fleshed out in tone and message, says Decker, "I reread it out loud, looking for static, as many times as I have to. All writing is rewriting."
Finally, Decker reviews current and previous controls, as well as current competitive packages, he says, "scouring them for anything of interest and benefit to the prospect that I've overlooked."
The letter's sales techniques"riveting leads, striking cross-heads and sales-clinching 'P.S.'s"says Decker, "all come out of this process as naturally (and sometimes as dramatically) as chickens hatching. Consumer or B-to-B, the basic one-to-oneness of a 'personal' letter doesn't change; only the fine tuning."
Letter-writing Mistakes to Avoid
Direct mail guru Malcolm Decker points out six mistakes that are commonly made when writing a sales letter:
Previewing the offer. "Tease or hint at it, but don't let the cat out of the bag; you want to get the prospect to read on with curiosity, to get a chance to sell him."
Writing subheads that stop readers in their tracks. "Don't write subheads that stop the forward motion of the reader (such as a price discount that has no relevance to what came before or after)."
Putting new information in the close. "Don't put anything new in the closeperiod. If you've got a sale to make, make it before the close. You hope that by the time they get to the close, they are going for their wallets; and you don't want to ring the doorbell again or do anything funny at the last minute."
Not saving a benefit for the P.S. "The P.S. might be the first thing they read, so don't forget to save an additional benefit for it. If they like what they read, they will go on to read the letter. Save something of importance."
Settling for the vice president. "Get the president to sign the letter. Readers should hear it from the boss."
Not engaging the reader in the opening paragraph. "The opening paragraphthe leadhas to engage the reader. There are a million leadsastonishing, narrative, straight-ahead, negative, charming, challenging, etc.and the one you select has to do its job quickly. If it doesn't hook the reader in the first line or two, you've probably lost him."