The Ideal Sales Letter

If one of the greatest sales letter writers of his time were to tell you what he considered to be the elements of the ideal sales letter, wouldn’t you listen to what he had to say?

Well that’s exactly what Robert Collier, one of the most successful direct mail letter writers of the early part of the last century, provided for us.

The last chapter of his classic work, The Robert Collier Letter Book, summarized what he saw as the attributes of the ideal sales letter.

Collier was a master psychologist, and since human psychology hasn’t changed over the last century, it’s no surprise that the advice he offered back in the 1930s is still relevant.

So let ‘s take a peek at what Collier had to tell us and how it applies to our marketing today.

What the Newspaper Editor Told the Cub Reporter

Collier opened his chapter with the story of the newspaper editor advising a cub reporter being sent out to cover a wedding.

The editor enumerated the qualities of the ideal wedding that would appeal to tabloid readers: a beautiful heiress eloping with the chauffeur; an irate father with a shotgun and a high-powered car; a smash-up; a heroic rescue; a nip and tuck finish.

The editor advised the reporter to approach the current wedding with this ideal picture in mind, see how many of those dramatic elements he could find, and then build his story around them.

In the same way, Collier said, when writing a letter for a product, you should put yourself in the place of your prospective buyer. Start by thinking of everything that person could desire in the perfect product. Make a list of the ultimate ideal.

Then, with that in mind, write your letter, focusing on as many features as possible of that ideal version of the product.

Writing the Letter

Write your letter in the heat of enthusiasm, but then it’s best to leave it alone for a day so it (and you) can cool down.

The following day you can review the letter with a more objective eye. Now you can cross out all the details and descriptions you cannot honestly apply to the product. Don’t worry. You’ll still have plenty left to say once you’ve crossed out the excess.

Collier reminds us of the old saying that “there is nothing you can say about a 50-cent cigar that you cannot say about a 5-cent one.” Really, the two cigars have basically the same features; the differences are only a matter of degree.

Physically they can be described the same way. The difference in quality will bring a different degree of satisfaction to the smoker. But this is a difference in the mind of the smoker only.

Who’s to say that a poorer man might not get as much pleasure from his 5-cent cigar as a rich man does from his 50-cent cigar? The copywriter can paint an equivalent picture of enjoyment for each.

The job of the copywriter is to write descriptions that will build the anticipation of pleasure in the mind’s eye of the reader. Collier advised never to exaggerate, or the prospect will disbelieve the whole thing.

The writer must create an attractive picture that builds a greater desire for the product than the money the buyer will have to spend.

Collier said it was not necessary to cram every last fact and argument about the product into the letter. However, do pick one critical point on which you think the sale is going to hang, and build the letter around it.

It’s also important to add powerful images and arguments that illustrate and support that main argument as your focal point. This will make your letter strong and cohesive, leaving a memorable idea in the mind of your prospect where it can guide his behavior.

Add a Sense of Urgency

Just asking for the order is not enough. The ideal sales letter provides a reason why the person must respond at once. It develops a sense of urgency, or as Collier put it, a “Sword of Damocles” hanging over the reader’s head.

Put a time limit on the offer. Or explain why supplies are limited and it ‘s first come, first served. Or maybe announce that a price increase will take effect on a specified date. Make it very clear that the opportunity in the offer will be absolutely lost if the reader does not take action within the advertised time limit.

Additional Factors

We’ve looked at issues that contribute to the ideal sales letter. But Collier said there were other factors that could add to or detract from how well a letter worked.

For example, there are things you can do to make sure the reader looks inside the envelope.

You can put some great “teaser” copy on the outside of the envelope to make the reader curious about what’s inside. Unfortunately, coming up with a really good teaser is very difficult.

So a better approach is to make the envelope so personal looking and attractive that the reader feels compelled to learn who it’s from and what it ‘s about. This is important if the person has received several mailings from you and would recognize this as a sales letter right away.

One way to make the envelope more appealing is to hide the name of the sender by using an address without a name, and maybe using an attractive insignia that’s intriguing without being recognizable.

You can also change up the style of envelope, its color, the way the address appears, etc. One method he suggests is frequently used today: make the letter look important by imitating a Western Union telegraph envelope – or today you might want to make the envelope look like a priority letter or a FedEx.

Final Points of Collier Wisdom

Collier says that ultimately, the most important factor in clinching a sale is the sales letter. So while you need a good envelope, and adding an order card or circular may help, it’s the letter that “carries the load.” As he puts it, “If you have not the stuff in it, it does not matter where else you have it. It will not do you much good.”

So to help you write great letters, he suggests keeping an “idea file” with good starters, descriptions, closers, and pointers that you find from other writers. The goal is not to copy them, but to use them for inspiration.

Always remember that “the point that sells your customer is not what your product is, but what it will do for him!”

Also, since the letter will be putting ideas into your reader’s head, “be careful not to put in negative ones that you will have to take out again before you can make a sale.”

The length of the letter must fit the purpose. If all you want to do is get people to make further inquiries, a short and snappy letter will do nicely. But if you are trying to get someone to commit to a purchase, you need to provide enough information to make that decision.

“So tell your story, no matter how long or how short it may be, striving simply to keep it interesting.”

Well, there you have it, words from the master on how to write the ideal sales letter. Put them to good use.


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