The overall purpose of a sales letter is to motivate people to take action, either now or in the future. If you intend to inspire future action, the letter really functions to build an ongoing relationship that will remind customers to call you when the time to buy is near.
Most small businesses that have had success at using direct mail are not using large, impersonal mass-produced mailings. Rather they are using letters on a smaller scale with more customized, specialized and personalized mailings. Before your start planning the copy and graphics of your sales letter campaign, first think about the unique selling proposition (USP) of your business. What is it that you offer that is better and different than what your competitors provide? Use this USP in your letter -- and in all of your promotional efforts -- to sell yourself.
How to Begin
Today's consumers are so inundated with mail and promotional messages that a large portion of their mail never gets opened. Even when your prospect does open your letter, you still may not have his or her undivided attention. Think about how you open your personal mail. Does it receive your undivided attention? Probably not. Most of us open our mail while talking on the telephone, making dinner, chatting with a family member or watching television. Just because someone has opened your envelope and is looking at it doesn't mean that he or she is actually comprehending it.
The key to success in any sales letter is to motivate prospects through effective layout, copy and message. The trick initially is to grab their attention and subsequently to keep their interest. One way to do that is with provocative copy at the very beginning of the letter. Here are several ideas.
Ask a probing question related to your prospect's need for home fashions. For example, "When you look around your house, are you pleased with the entire look, or are there are few new purchases that could complete the image you want?"
Ask a personal question to focus your prospect on thinking about his or her own life situation and to create a person-to-person bond with your prospect. For example, "Are you confused by all the choices in window coverings?"
Ask a thought provoking question. "Have you ever wondered why some houses look beautifully put together and others don't?" Such questions force your readers out of the reality of the moment (the television, the kids, etc.) and help them focus on what you're presenting.
Make a promise that is difficult to ignore by guaranteeing solutions to your prospects' problems. Doing this will ensure high readership. It's important that your guarantee ties in with the benefits that your customers are searching for when they purchase from you. For example, "We guarantee easy selection and ordering in your own home and complete no-hassle measuring and installation service." First, you may want to perform informal question-and-answer research with existing customers to discover just what the problems and solutions might be.
Be genuine and personal. Often the best opening for a sales letter is one that makes it look personal and not mass-produced. If you are sending a letter to a prospect recommended by an existing client, you can start with: "You have been recommended to me as a possible client by Jane Jones." Even if the letter is not to a truly personal referral, but to a list of names provided by another local business, you can personalize it by starting with: "You have been recommended to me by one of your friends."
Use this technique only when it is honest because your prospect may ask where you received his or her name. By keeping accurate records, you can let him or her know how you acquired the lead, even it is from the local dry cleaner or real estate agent.
Be casual and playful. Even though you may be writing to a stranger, beginning your letter on an informal note can disarm the reader and penetrate his or her protective armor against an expected promotional appeal. An example is: "I think I understand how you feel about interior decorators."
Suggest that the prospect think about an interior design problem in his or her house, and then have the reader imagine the problem solved. Your letter can follow up with a link between the imagined solution and your product or service. For example, suggest they think about what they are lacking to achieve the lifestyle or home image they'd like. Then have them imagine the solutions. Follow up by showing them how you can create the solution for them.
Surprise your prospect. This approach, like many of the other opening strategies discussed, helps to shatter through your readers' barriers and focus on your letter. For example, start off with a one-sentence paragraph, "I want to get personal." Then follow up by describing how "getting personal" is the strength of your business by providing products with customers' tastes in mind. Another surprising start is, "If you're like most people, you'll wait until your current window treatments are a disaster before you purchase new ones." Then follow up with how you can help your clients be different and update their window fashions.
If you use sales letters on a frequent basis to generate new business, it is important to try different types of opening sentences and measure the results of each letter. Only through this type of evaluation can you learn what works best for your own customer base.
The opening sentence methods described above attract prospects through use of written words on a page. Other attention grabbers are visual in nature and attract through the graphics on the page. The goal is to present something different, then use your copy to follow up on the unique graphic element. Initially readers often do not understand the graphics, so they feel compelled to begin reading your letter to find out more. Some ideas are:
Imprint several fingerprints on your letter. Then say, "Your fingerprints are personally yours, just as your interior design can be," or "Does it pay to try to do your own dirty work in measuring and installing your window treatments? Let a professional help you."
Include a foreign coin or bill of small denomination in the envelope. Your opening sentence: "Does it pay to try to save a few pesos on your home decor? Let a professional help you."
Cut off a corner of the letter. Then say, "Some window treatments suppliers cut corners to get your business. The missing corner on this letter is the only way we would ever do that."
Punch a couple of holes randomly in the letter with a hole punch. Follow up with this opening sentence: "Some window treatment suppliers provide products with something missing. We don't do that."
Use a handwritten letter. This is a successful attention grabber because so few of us receive handwritten mail. To gain even more visibility, use paper smaller than typical business letterhead and use an invitation-size envelope. If a handwritten letter is too time consuming to produce in large numbers, at least hand write an accent in the margin, a postscript or a special note to call attention to one part of the letter.
Use underscores, call-outs, circles, yellow highlights and arrows. Your printer can print these accents in a second color ink, or you can accent each letter personally depending on the quantity you are printing.
If you use business-to-business mailings to generate commercial sales, include a handwritten pink telephone message slip with a message to call you regarding a product or promotion. Because many business people's mail is opened by assistants, they see only the contents and may actually think you mail piece is a real telephone message.1
How to End
Key to any selling letter is the action step. In this step, you must let your prospects know what to do next. How can they take action, or what can they expect next from you?
To ensure the success of a sales letter, it is important to make an offer, even if the offer does not involve money or discounts. The offer can be something you already provide at no charge, such as a free initial consultation, free cost estimate, free sample or brochure. Or, the offer can be the availability of a new product just introduced.
Including a time limit on the offer motivates prospects to act now, rather than delaying their response. For example, "Don't delay, this is a once-in-a-lifeteime opportunity," or "Buy now and we'll throw in something extra -- free pillow, free valance, free gift with purchase, etc."
Prospecting for new sales and for new customers with sales letters is an effective way for small businesses to gain a competitive advantage over larger, impersonal stores.
1 Several of these ideas are adapted from "How to Get Big Results from a Small Advertising Budget," Cynthis S. Smith, published by Carol Publishing Group, New York, NY.
Kay Pegram is founder of Kaymar Communications, a Playa del Ray, CA-based independent marketing services firm for companies in window fashions and other industries. Pegram's previous window coverings industry experience includes serving eight years at LouverDrape and as director of marketing for the Tempo companies.