100 Easy Ways To Begin A Sales Letter (Part One)

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100 EASY WAYS TO BEGIN A SALES LETTER (PART 1) 

by Herschell Gordon Lewis

Every writer knows the one great truth of direct response letter writing. At the moment reading begins, you're at point blank range. You'll never again have that big an advantage over the reader.

This is why such developments as handwritten overlines have leaped to popularity. It's why our tired old friend, 'Dear Friend,' is phasing itself out.

That isn't the subject of this article.

How many 'pet' openings do you have? Over the past five years or so, as I've watched the oh-so-slow evolution of letters, I've isolated about 80 openings I regard as: 1) easy to construct and 2) not yet cliches.

The benefit of this laundry list of openings: Having a list at your elbow may help you, as it has helped me, get started on those emotionally cold mornings when the muse of creativity isn't resting on your other elbow.

We'll start with my personal favorite.

1. 'IF YOU'RE LIKE ME...'

My high regard for this opening stems from two bases: First, it strides across all barriers of consumer/business, highbrow/lowbrow. Second, it establishes immediate rapport. This works as a receptivity softener for messages from an anonymous signatory; better yet, it adds arm-across-the-shoulder 'buddy binder' to a communication signed by a recognizable power name.

I sometimes use 'If you're like I am' instead of 'If you're like me.' Why? 'If you're like I am' seems just a tad less presumptuous than 'If you're like me' because it's a tad less all-inclusive.

Usually, the word following 'If you're like me' is an automatic 'you' or, to complete a parallel, 'you're.' You can see why this opening is implicitly reader involving.

I take a parental view toward this opening, and I'm torn between statesmanship-directing me to share it with those who haven't yet sampled its joys, and proprietorship-predicting application of the deadly rule:

Overuse = abuse. Statesmanship wins out, because I suspect, from my own incoming mail, word is already out.

A letter from a scuba diving organization begins:

Dear Diving Enthusiast:

You and I are part of a remarkable group.

Someone who's never been on a scuba dive could never understand it.

See the exclusivity building here? See how much stronger this opening is than 'You're part of a remarkable group'?

A variation on the you-and-I theme is 'The source from which I got your name tells me . . .' This opening isn't as convivial nor as personal, because it separates writer and reader instead of welding them together, and the writer runs the risk of antagonizing the reader instead of drawing him/her into the net. The value of this variation is its sidestepping of circumstances in which the reader thinks, 'Who the hell is he to think I'm like that?'

A recent letter within our industry begins:

Dear Direct Marketing Colleague:

The source of your name given to Bob Stone and me indicates to us that you're obviously deeply involved in direct marketing and want to continue learning about it.

I don't like that word 'learn' because, sent to professionals, this approach suggests the writer thinks they aren't quite professional: but the concept is arresting.

2. ASK A PROVOCATIVE QUESTION.

This one isn't as automatic as the first suggested letter opening because it doesn't indicate what the question is. Nor does it help point out that the question depends on what we're selling.

I'm guessing that thousands of direct response writers sense the value of an interrogative opening . . . but don't recognize the qualifier, provocative. Some uses of this opening are ludicrous; others are preposterous. What destroys their value is their disregard for the reader's own experimental background.

Lack of understanding leads to reader rejection because the writer opens the letter with a question whose relevance the reader dismisses without analysis.

For example:

If I open a letter with, 'Do you know the name of the ninth incarnation of Vishnu?' your response has to be, A) 'Are you nuts?' B) 'Who cares?' or C) 'Something is wrong with you, and if I did there'd be something wrong with me.'

Now, suppose I open that same letter with, 'Why do I think you might know the name of the ninth incarnation of Vishnu?' I've added the element of provocation. You're involved even though you haven't the foggiest notion of where I'm heading. (Neither of us has the foggiest notion of what the name of the ninth incarnation of Vishnu is.)

Would 'Why should you know the name of the ninth incarnation of Vishnu?' be as on target? Certainly not. You at once penetrate my veil: I'm taking a superior position and I'm selling something, both positions perilous in establishing rapport.

Questions are easy, and that may be why they rank number one as misused openers. A letter from a trade magazine opens with a double question:

HAVE YOU NOTICED IT?

Dear Business Marketing Reader:

Have you noticed the major commitment that Business Marketing has made to help you do your job better.

The lack of a question mark is the letter writer's, not mine. But that isn't the major flaw here. What's wrong is the thrust of questions: They're totally, badly self-serving. The all-caps first question takes off the mask too soon. This opening parallels the windbag dinner partner who says, 'I've talked about myself long enough. Now let's talk about you. What do YOU think of me?'

3. 'WHAT IF...'

'What if' openings are often the instruments of choice for a touchstone opening:

  • 'What if you had bought Miami Beach property in the 1920s?'
  • 'What if you could go back to the day you graduated from college?'
  • 'What if you had been in the audience at Gettysburg in 1863 when Lincoln gave his speech?'

'What if' also fits a 'hurl down the gauntlet' approach:

  • 'What if I could prove you can make a thousand dollars before sundown today?'
  • 'What if you could double your reading speed?'

Obviously the word you is a significant factor in a 'What if' opening. Without you, the reader has the option of translating 'what if' as 'So what?': 'What if every member of Congress were to resign?' (Yeah, I know- good idea.)

4. SUGGEST A CATACLYSMIC DECISION.

This one bursts with power; but of the five presented here, it's the only one requiring the professional laying on of hands.

At the fingertips of an amateur or dilettante writer, cataclysm can degenerate into comedy. 'The decision you make today can...' is a grabber if the recipient of your message at once agrees with two precanned conclusions: first, you're in a position to judge and guarantee; second, the decision is possible and logical.

A fund-raising organization has this cataclysm as its opening:

Dear Friend,

I've enclosed a Life or Death Seed Catalog for you.

OK, what's wrong with that? Right! We just can't think of a seed catalog as a life-or-death determinant. Had they asked me, I'd have tied an acknowledgment of the mismatch into the mix:

Dear Friend of [name of organization],

I know it's hard to believe. But what you do with the little seed catalog I've enclosed could literally make the difference between life and death for a helpless child.

The same organization follows the formula more logically-if with a mildly contrived device-in this opening:

In the 10 seconds it took you to read this letter, five children died from the effects of malnutrition or disease somewhere in the world.

I'd have left off 'somewhere in the world,' which shifts the reader somewhat out of the arena. And, yes, the opening is a mite trite. But it grabs.

Cataclysmic declarations should have two mechanical components: a cut-off date and a suggestion of exclusivity. If the reader concludes the entire world has the opportunity to profit from the identical decision, the argument doesn't work because the cataclysm is too universal to generate a head of steam.

5. 'I [WE] NEED HELP.'

At one time a generic fund raising opening, this one suffers from overuse and from sociological evolution (devolution?). Among fund raisers it's just as poplar as ever, even though the impact isn't as formidable as it once was. Its use is actually growing, because it no longer is the exclusive property of fund raising.

'We need help' flourished during the 1950-1980 period-a kinder, gentler time, when guilt was a more automatic motivator than it has become in the self-centered 1990s. Many of today's old-line donors are holdovers from 'We need help' recruitment campaigns of 15 to 30 years ago.

Oh, sure, fund raisers still use 'We need help,' and it still pulls well enough, for some, to maintain position. That's one reason it's on the list. But another reason is the spillover from fund raising to commerce. A paradox! Business mailers have discovered need for dominance as a burgeoning motivator. By appealing to this need for dominance . . . by putting their target in a position of make-or-break supremacy . . . shrewd mailers have picked up the slack.

Few commercial mailings use the words 'We need help,' because 1990s consumers don't buy from weaklings. Instead, the mailers use a form of primitive psychology we all recognize when it's used on somebody else and seldom recognize when it's used on us:

  • 'You're the one in thousands who can...'
  • 'I want your opinion on something. Will you tell me what you really think?'
  • 'I admit: I need a favor from you.'

So we have the first five of my own chosen 50. I'll be pleased to entertain candidates you suggest, letter openings that either have worked well for you or ones by others you find intriguing.

I'm not saying, 'I need help.' What if, instead, I'm saying if you're like me, the decision you make about this will have a cataclysmic impact on our mutual rhetorical future? The message has to work, because we have all five of this month's openings lumped together. Ugh. Don't try this at home.

Firing your biggest gun first might get you noticed, but see why credibility is the key to persuasion in these five rapport-establishing letter openings.

by Herschell Gordon Lewis

Do you agree that building rapport is the single most effective building block in letter writing? If you don't, I hope you're my competitor.

Many writers remember one minirule of direct response letter writing: Fire your biggest gun first.

But they sustain that rule at the expense of another, equally valid:

Credibility is the key opening the door to persuasion.

We in the vanguard of communications have the responsibility of sifting through evidence-our wonderful pasted-together combination of 1) what I like and 2) what I know has worked better than another approach. From this we assemble a 'What to do and what to don't' file.

Have you built a file of letters-letters that grabbed you, letters that left you cold, letters you know at once are a band-aid over a lie, letters in which the writer is showing off, letters you wish you'd written, letters causing you wonder about the writer's literacy, letters that don't match or explain or justify the offer, letters that bring a stupid offer to life, letters letters letters? If not, why not start? I've never seen such a curious potpourri of excellent and execrable letters as I've found, sorting through my own third-class mail, over the past year or so.

I'll tell you why I bring this up: This series of articles isn't about letter writing; it's about letter openings. The conclusion we form about a letter's impact and validity usually is at least 95 percent complete after we've read the first two paragraphs (which might be as far as we go in letters that don't fire their biggest gun first or establish rapport).

The first couple of examples this month are the most obvious of intended rapport establishers.

6. 'CONGRATULATIONS!'

In for a penny, in for a pound: If you're using that single word, I suggest following with an exclamation point, not a period. A calm congratulation has its uses, but calm doesn't match the single word. Mogul-to-mogul might be, 'I congratulate you.' That's not exclamatory. The single word is, which means you use it only if what follows justifies the exclamation.

A letter to one of my decoy names begins:

DEAR H. GORDON,

Congratulations! It's my great pleasure to welcome you to all the benefits and privileges of a Columbia House Club membership.

Your Pre-Approved MusiCard means you can receive our best offer to first-time members-not available through newspaper or magazine ads- but reserved for a select group of music lovers like you.

Opinion: Although I'd never use the indefinite article to describe the membership-I'd say 'your Columbia House Club membership' or plain 'Columbia House membership,' not 'a Columbia House Club membership'-this letter does maintain its congratulatory character. It adds automatic impact by capitalizing Pre-Approved MusiCard. Capitalization adds validation.

But 'first-time members'? If they have any kind of database, they've suppressed lapsed members, goniff members, and users of stolen credit cards; so if they want to build rapport with me, why not maintain the tone of invitation?

Anyway, the point isn't merciless dissection of a cold list letter. It's recognition of 'Congratulations!' as a dynamic opener, with the caution that you can't hit and run with it.

A properly used 'Congratulations!' letter, from a credit card, came to my wife:

Dear Margo E. Lewis:

Congratulations! Because of the exemplary way you have handled your account you qualify for our new low variable rate on your Norwest credit card account. It's our way of saying 'Thank you' and to show you how much we value your business.

The pitch is the standard credit card 'Transfer other balances to this account' sales argument, but couching it in a congratulatory message makes it both more readable and more palatable.

7. 'I INVITE YOU . . .'

This is the first cousin-no, closer than that, the sibling-of 'Congratulations.'

Need I make a point we all know (anticipating Opening #9 in this article)? The invitation has to follow through as an invitation. No, no, this doesn't mean locking into an invitation-size format and including an engraved enclosure-although some of the more thoughtful invitations do this. It does mean keeping the tone invitational throughout the letter, never lapsing into hard-sell or going out of character.

I have a letter from a publication which begins:

Dear Nominee Elect:

It is my pleasure to inform you that you have been elected as an Associate Member of the American Museum of Natural History.

We would request that you return the enclosed invitation as soon as possible, indicating whether or not you will be accepting this election. Your temporary Associate identification card is enclosed. You may sign it and begin using it immediately.

Except for the factory-like phrase 'identification card' instead of 'membership card' and the 'Mother, may I?' tone of 'You may sign it,' this is a model of its type. One clever touch: Moving into the subjunctive to avoid the appearance of pressure-'We would suggest . . .' instead of the more imperative 'We suggest . . .'

Text of the letter does point out benefits other than the opportunity to get the magazine, such as free admission to the museum and various discounts; and it closes with a reaffirmation of its point: 'We put a great deal of care and thought into the election process . . .'

Even knowing the ploy, who can resist an invitation that stays in character?

8. 'I HAVE A FREE GIFT FOR YOU.'

Over a long period of years, we've agreed that 'free gift' is a redundancy, and we've agreed it works. So free gift it is.

O.K., what is a free gift?

Two schools of thought on this. One is the voice of utter integrity: It's free only if it's free. The other is the voice of sales logic: It's free if you don't pay extra for it.

Neither of these addresses the matter from the proper point of view-reader reaction. We have another minirule: A free gift as a letter opening has impact in direct ratio to the reader's recognition of the value of that gift.

I bring this up because we all damage future impact of the much-scarred phrase 'free gift' by calling a sample issue of a magazine a free gift. It isn't. It's a free issue, or a free sample, or a free look. A token outside the arena of what we're selling is a gift.

A magazine renewal letter states in an 18-point overline:

Here's a free gift for you.

The letter is well-written, except for a mechanical decision with which I don't agree: Paragraphs aren't indented. And a curiosity: Except for the aristocratic putoff, 'We would now like to reward you for your loyalty,' the gi

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