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


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by Herschell Gordon Lewis

76. Quick: What if. . .

We're really in the provocative neighborhood with this one, which hurls down an irresistible gauntlet. 'Quick: What if. . .' challenges the reader without the dangerous suggestion of superciliousness we see in other challenges.

The reader is forced to reach a premature conclusion, and the benefit to us is the reader's recognition, even while reaching that conclusion, that we're about to present a better solution.

A computer software company makes good use of this opening:

Quick. What would happen if the power went out right now?. . . Would the date on your PC be safe. . . or would you have to 'start all over?'

Most people don't back up their data every day. I'll admit that I miss a few days here and there-and sort of take my chances. I'm in a hurry, or in the middle of something else - or I just plain forget, so my files sit vulnerable to all kinds of 'outrageous electronic misfortunes. . .'

Yep, this one sags a little after that powerhouse opening sentence. Putting 'safe' before 'start all over' (question mark should be outside the parenthesis here) is inside-out psychology. (You or I would have bypassed 'safe' altogether or written a killer second sentence such as, 'Ugh. There goes that brilliant letter or the four hours you've just spent on a financial projection.') But even with the slight loosening of the reins, it holds the reader long enough for the sales message to kick in.

77. Isn't it nice to know [STROKING, FLATTERING RECIPIENT]?

I'm enamored of this opening because it thrusts deep into the core of human reaction. The difference between 'We love you' and 'Isn't it nice to know you're loved?' is one of projected apparent sincerity. The second approach is more credible because it's a step beyond the declaration of love. Love is taken for granted, and the writer has moved beyond the statement to invite your reaction. Wonderful!

Why, then, isn't this delightfully effective opening more widely used? Simple: It isn't as universal as so many of the other openings we've discussed, such as #1 ('If you're like me') or #41 ('Visualize this scenario') or even its more mundane cousin #46 ('You're important to us').

A call for volunteers, from a nonprofit organization, makes perfect use of this opening:


Isn't it always nice to feel you're wanted?

Well, you are wanted. . .

I like 'Hi!' too. It's much in keeping with the tone of the letter. . . and it doesn't require personalization to be personal. A nice touch.

78. Today I found out that you. . .

This opening is highly effective for (1) subscription renewals, (2) fund raising, and (3) highly targeted follow-up mailings.

Without the word 'Today' or an even tighter 'This morning,' this opening doesn't work. Here's an example:

Dear Member,

This morning I learned that we have not yet received your annual Membership Renewal.

See how weak this would be if the opening were, 'I recently learned that...'?

The danger of #78 is the occasional necessity to include passive voice, because the letter writer is reacting, not acting; action, or lack of it, is on the part of the message-recipient. So whenever possible, replace words such as 'receive' with harder verbs. . . which are more jarring to the reader.

79. You want it. We have it.

How assumptive and straightforward can you get?

The effectiveness of this opening depends on the validity of the list.

The advantage 'You want it. We have it' has over #66 ('We can do it where others can't') is its total reader involvement. That's the key to its potency. . . and to its incredible ability to annoy if you're off-target. This is the stuff heavy response, coupled with heavy white mail, is made of.

A subscription letter for an adult publication begins:


Dear Reader,

The word is out! Gallery Magazine is not a secret anymore, and you should know what almost 4 million yearly readers have known for 20 years. Gallery is the hottest men's magazine available anywhere.

I know, there are hundreds of magazines out there making the same claim, but only Gallery delivers, with every issue, 13 times a year.

Yes, it's mildly incoherent. If 4 million readers have known about this for 20 years, it can't be much of a secret. (Is it number juggling? The '4 million yearly readers' might be a 13-issue total, which means just 307,692 readers per issue.)

This writer placed the opening above the greeting. It certainly is strong enough to justify that position. If it had been under the greeting, I'd have retained the capital letters.

If you're hung up on dignity, forget this one. If you're hung up on response, it's a perfect test against a more staid opening.

80. In the time it took you to open this envelope. . .

This venerable opening is useful for both positive and negative news. Followed with 'you could have,' the time could have been profitable; followed with an ongoing disaster, it's a serviceable guilt-generator.

A fund-raising letter begins:

Dear Friend:

In the ten seconds it took you to open and begin to read this letter, four children died from the effects of malnutrition or disease somewhere in the world.

Do you wonder, as I do, why the writer damaged specificity by including the nondescript 'somewhere in the world'? No matter. The opening is automatically reader-involving. A proper gauge of the writer's talent: the ability to maintain and expand involvement.

I guess that same yardstick applies to this series of articles. Gulp!

'Listing all these openings will increase the possibility that another mailer will use the same one I do.'

So what? You've also increased the possibility that your mailing will pull more response, because you've literally tailored the medium to the message by matching the opening to two factors:

1. The target.

2. What you're pitching at that target.

Now, let's suppose a competitor is aiming at that same individual. What are the odds of your opposition's creative team choosing the identical opening? In my opinion, throughout the annals of recorded time this has never happened -- and if it ever does, rush to the nearest window facing east so you can watch the star rise.

My point: Sameness of letter opening isn't likely to be anywhere near as probable a factor as sameness of offer. So worry about dullness and lack of dynamism based on a 'running on tracks' mindless hammering at the keyboard, instead of wringing your hands over what your competition might do.

Direct response creativity isn't limited to lifting an entire document from a template, the way you might pick up a legal form from a computer disk of standardized forms. The creative process is alive and well-and those who either depend on incessant repeats of the same theme, or pick up someone else's letter and change only the names, are doomed to the eternal damnation of coming in second.

This might not reassure you, if you're afraid another mailer may use the same opening you do. More reassuring: Every one of these openings-and the hundreds of others not included in this series-has been used before either of us was born.

Your advantage: No previous mailer has used them as effectively as you will.

Five more with this installation:

81. I couldn't wait!

One type of categorization divides letter openings into three varieties:

a. Aggressive

b. Permission-asking

c. Bubbling over with enthusiasm

'I couldn't wait!' is the archetype of a 'bubbling over with enthusiasm' opening. And here's where the first few paragraphs of this month's article- and the whole concept of letter-opening choice-come home to roost: Do you want to bubble over with enthusiasm? Do you want to risk being thought of as foolish by gushing over a subject your target may regard as trivial? You're in command of the reader's reaction. Who are you?

The professional decision to use this opening involves more than the simple decision to use this opening. The professional doesn't just say, 'I used No. 85 last time so this time I'll use No. 86.' Heck, no. The professional says, 'This is the right opening for generating a response to this offer from this recipient.'

A letter marked 'Personal' (bulk mail) begins:

Dear Linda:

I just couldn't wait to write to you because I have just learned that in the next few months I believe that some absolutely fantastic things could be coming your way. Never before in my career have I seen such powerful signs of good fortune for one individual!

Hilarious? To us sophisticated direct marketers, sure it is. This was bulk mail, which meant 'Never before in my career have I seen such powerful signs of good fortune for one individual!' is pure hogwash. And 'I have just learned that in the next few months I believe that-' qualifies for the Department of Utter Confusion.

But before we damn this opening, let's once again go back to our premise. The professional says, 'This is the right opening for generating a response to this offer from this recipient.'

So the correctness and effectiveness of 'I couldn't wait' should never be linked to what we, the uninvolved scornful critics, opine; it's tied to the hopes and dreams of the Lindas of the world.

82. Do me a favor (I need a favor from you).

Ben Franklin said-well, may have said-'If you want to make a friend, have him do something for you.' Old Ben (or whoever) spoke prepsychiatric wisdom there. The person who does a favor for you is tied to you more closely than the person for whom you do a favor.

So why not adapt this to a letter?

A couple of reasons come to mind, pro and con. Pro 1: Ben Franklin was right, and affinity is the result. Pro 2: Curiosity forces the reader to read on. Con 1: Even a minor misdirection can generate antagonism instead of rapport. Con 2: If your target feels the 'favor' is (a) stupid, (b) out of line, (c) too self-serving, (d) desperate, instead of impaling a prospect with Cupid's arrow you've shot yourself in the foot.

This seems to be the case with the publisher of a directory, who begins a sales letter this way:

Dear Colleague:

I need a small favor from you. If, after reading this message in its entirety, you can think of a reason not to reserve your no-risk examination copy of the new 1994 Card Industry Directory, please drop me a line.

Sorry, buddy, you present this in a way that makes it seem too big a favor. First, what's 'in its entirety' doing there? This transforms 'favor' into 'demand'-poor salesmanship. Second, the whole concept is transparent. (Third, I still think paragraphs should be indented.)

Why didn't the writer, using the same opening, lean toward rapport instead of arrogance by writing something like this?

Dear Colleague,

I need a small favor from you.

The favor is simple for you and means much to me. I'm quite convinced you'll quickly see the benefit of owning the new 1994 Card Industry Directory. But obviously what matters is what YOU think. So if, after reading my reasons in this letter, you don't agree, will you be my friend and tell me why?

The difference is one of intent, not content.

83. Get ready!

This bright opening is best used when you're positive of the demographic/psychographic match between your offer and your reader, and your offer is implicitly either amusing or vigorous.

A variation of 'Get ready!' is 'It's coming!'-but you can see the difference: 'Get ready' is loaded with you; 'It's coming' leaves you as a spectator.

A letter from a rock music source has this overline:

Ready to rock? This is your special invitation to personally audition the world's greatest guitar bands in your house for 10 days . . . free!

The letter then begins in high gear:

Dear Rocker,

Call your friends . . . check your fuse box . . . and get ready to rock . . . because we're planning to bring the world's loudest, heaviest, most awesome guitar rockers to your house for 10 days . . . free.

Nice piece of writing. I'd have used 'listen to' instead of 'audition' and I'd have said 'we're bringing' instead of 'we're planning to bring'; but the writing is so sprightly it-well, it rocks!

84. Time has passed since... (It's been a while since...)

This is the sedate second cousin of No. 31, 'We've missed you,' and a first cousin of No. 56, 'I'm surprised I haven't heard from you.'

Opening No. 31 is a generic, all-purpose opening for contacting inactive customers or donors. Openings No. 56 and No. 89 are more specific. Both have a powerful place in fund raising. The difference is in apparent pressure. Opening No. 56 tries to superimpose guilt; No. 89, far gentler, attempts to generate guilt.

The definition implicitly proves that the writer of 'Time has passed' needs greater communicative ability than the more 'bald' approach-'I'm surprised I haven't heard from you.' Want proof? Visualize these as telephone openings rather than letters. A fund-raising letter begins quietly:

Dear Friend and Supporter,

It's been a while since you last sent a gift to Greenpeace. Your past support helped make Greenpeace a unique force on the world scene. You know what I mean . . . [ellipsis theirs, ending the paragraph]

Good writing. I don't agree with the word 'gift' in the first sentence of a 'Time has passed' letter, and no, I don't know what they mean; but these are the mildest of flaws in an oh-so-gentle reminder.

85. We've all been waiting (striving) for this.

In no way is 'We've all been waiting for this' parallel to No. 23, 'Good news.' 'Good news is aimed outward. The very word 'We've' says 'You and I' to the reader.

One problem with this opening-as with many-is the possibility of including outsiders who will scoff. But is it really a problem? This opening is reserved for co-thinkers. And for cold lists, the writer has every right to depend on respectable list selection to eliminate those who automatically snort, 'No, I haven't been waiting or striving for this.'

A more logical problem is using this opening and then being unable to convince your co-thinkers this really is something all of you have been waiting for.

A letter begins:

Dear Friend of Planned Parenthood,

The moment we've all been working for is now at hand: the creation of a national system of healthcare that includes abortion and other essential reproductive health care as a matter of right for all American women.

Yes, it's a shade on the intellectualized side, but unquestionably the writer of this letter has every right to assume the recipient, a member of the organization, will agree with the premise.

Who are you? The letter is the identifying component within a mailing. Who are you? P.T. Barnum? Dale Carnegie? Zeus? Uriah Heep? Good Sam? Florence Nightingale? J.P. Morgan? Lucrezia Borgia? Albert Einstein? The Emperor Tiberius? Socrates? Nostradamus?

Who are you?

The letter is your 'persona.' The recipient's psychological reaction is to that image; how deeply the psychological reaction to the offer is a matter of percentages . . . but the percentage is never zero.

This shows once again that the letter has a profound effect on that mystical ingredient, rapport. The offer alone can't establish rapport; if it could, mailers wouldn't need letters because other enclosures spell out the offer.

Can you see the significance of choosing an opening which mirrors the person you're trying to be?

Albert Einstein once might have begun a letter to someone with 'I have a free gift for you.' (#8) The image of Albert Einstein never would. Maybe P.T. Barnum once said to somebody, 'It's late and I'm tired but I have to tell you this,' (#54) but the image of P.T. Barnum doesn't say that. This statement is in perfect sync with the image of Florence Nightingale.

(Did Lucrezia Borgia ever say, 'Visualize this scenario?' [#41]? Probably.)

Once you've decided who you are, the next key is to stay in character. This becomes a simple matter-if you've chosen the right opening.

To help make choosing the right opening possible, here are five more, the first two of which directly relate to 'Who':

86. Who are we?

After my opening diatribe, you can see why this opening requires the ultra-professional laying on of hands. Asking the person who gets your message, 'Who are we?' can generate guffaws instead of phone calls:

'These guys don't even know they are.'

The easy and obvious test of validity: If the next sentence justifies the question, it's a &quo

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