If one of the greatest marketers of his time were to tell you what he considered the essential elements of a sales letter, wouldn’t you listen to what he had to say? Well, that’s exactly what Robert Collier provided for us. In the last chapter of The Robert Collier Letter Book, he 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 past century, the advice he offered back in the 1930s is still relevant.
Collier told the story of a newspaper editor advising a cub reporter who was 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 smashup, a heroic rescue and 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 to sell a product, you should put yourself in the place of your prospective buyer and think of everything that person could desire in the perfect form of that product. Make a list of all the features of the ultimate ideal. Then, with that in mind, write your letter, focusing on as many of those features as possible.
How can you use this idea? Let’s look at an example. Suppose you’re writing a recipe blog for busy career people who don’t have much time but want to eat healthy meals. What would the ideal recipe be for such an audience? It would have to be delicious, have a minimal number of ingredients, be quick and easy to prepare, improve a person’s attractiveness and be healthy.
So, in describing your recipes, you’d include as many of these features as possible. You might even highlight specific health benefits, such as it helps you maintain weight, promotes muscle growth or leads to glowing skin. The idea is to make a list of what your audience wants, then tell them how you’ll give it to them.
Collier said to write your letter in the heat of enthusiasm as you keep your ideal product in mind. Then he advised to leave it alone for a day so it (and you) can cool down. The following day, go back and look at the letter with a more objective eye. Now you can cross out all the details and descriptions you can’t honestly apply to the product. Don’t worry. You’ll still have plenty left to say once you’ve crossed out the excess.
The job of the marketer is to create descriptions that will build the anticipation of pleasure in the mind’s eye of the reader, based on the physical facts of the product. Collier advised never to exaggerate or the prospect will disbelieve the whole thing. Create an attractive picture that builds such a powerful desire for the product that obtaining it is worth more to prospects than any price they have to pay.
It’s also not necessary to cram every last fact and argument about the product into the letter. You can always put additional points into stand-alone pieces such as a lift note -- a smaller sales letter with special information included in the envelope with the bigger letter. The best strategy is to pick one critical point on which you think the sale is going to hang and build the letter around it. Add powerful images and arguments that illustrate and support that main argument. This will make your letter strong and cohesive, leaving a memorable idea in the mind of prospects, where it can guide their behavior.
This may seem like a no-brainer for most of us in marketing today, but it wasn’t so obvious back in the early part of the 20th century. It was Collier who pointed it out as a critical element in all promotions.
Every promotion you send out into the world (online, through the mail, in newspapers or magazines, on TV or radio) has to include a call to action where you tell prospects what you want them to do -- for example, buy the product. Just asking for the order isn’t enough, though. The ideal promotion provides a reason why the person must respond at once -- it develops a sense of urgency. So put a time limit on the offer, or explain that supplies are limited so 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 prospect does not take action within the specified time period.
We’ve looked at several sales tactics that contribute to the ideal sales letter, but Collier said other factors 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. One obvious technique from Collier’s day was to put some great “teaser” copy on the outside of the envelope (or, if you’re selling through email, in an irresistible subject line) to make the reader curious about what’s inside.
Another 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.
In direct mail, one way to make the envelope more appealing is to hide the name of the sender by using an address without a name or 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.
With email, the more you can personalize, the better, and the same principle of changing things up is critical. How does your new email message differ from the ones sent previously?
There you have it: words from the master on the components of the ideal sales letter. You can put them to good use regardless of what you’re selling or what medium you’re using.