What the Heck Is a Sales Letter? Old School Direct Marketing Techniques

September 13, 2017

I was doing a little research on copywriting blogs recently, and noticed that many of the renowned veteran copywriters who got their start in direct (i.e., offline) marketing would often make reference to “sales letters.” I wasn’t born in the ‘90s or anything (I know who Osama bin Laden is), but my response to this was, What the H is a sales letter?

A sales letter, of course, is the “letter” you receive in direct marketing mailings, which begins “Dear ________” and informs you of all the reasons you should give the sender your money. Believe it or not, young ones, direct marketing still exists – and even works. According to a recent Marketing Sherpa survey of B2B marketers, 79% of respondents found direct mailing “somewhat” or “very” effective.

This is top of mind because yesterday – after wondering who was still using this marketing method and where these letters were going – I received a sales letter of my very own. It came from the Poetry Foundation, asking me to subscribe to Poetry (“the most widely respected magazine devoted to poetry in the English-speaking world”).

A sales letter is really a fundamentally different beast from any kind of online marketing document, even an email newsletter, its closest analog. I thought it would be interesting to look at some of the ways a sales letter differs from online marketing methods like emails, blog posts and landing pages, and consider if these features can be used to good effect in the online marketing world:

  • Length: A sales letter is usually much longer than an email newsletter in terms of sheer word count. Blog posts are often this long, but blog posts aren’t usually direct sales plays. What about landing pages or product pages? Have you tested short and long versions against each other to see which performs best with your audience?
  • It’s a direct address: Even if it doesn’t begin with your name, a sales letter generally begins with a salutation like “Dear Reader” or “Dear Homeowner.” (I noticed that some copywriters coming from a direct marketing background have extended this practice to their blogs.) Do you directly address your reader in your online marketing?
  • Storytelling: Whereas blog posts are often structured as lists, sales letters are often structured as stories. This is one technique I think could easily translate to an online format and is probably underused.
  • The P.S.: Sales letters always seem to have a P.S. I’ve even heard that for some people, the P.S. is all they read. You can definitely experiment with this in email marketing, but what about in a blog post?
  • Formatting differences: I’ve noticed sales letters make use of underlining in a way that we shy away from online, favoring boldface or italics, since underlining generally indicates a hyperlink. But this should be a reminder that links are a kind of emphasis, and should be used that way. When I'm in skimming mode, I often just scan the links on a web page. Are the links where you want readers' eyes to go?

Do you incorporate direct marketing techniques into your online marketing? Do you still use direct mail as part of your sales and marketing strategy? Is it still an effective and relevant channel?

Web Marketing Highlights This Week

For the first time in 20 years, the NYT reports, the number of households with televisions dropped. (This is probably because more people are watching television online, not because we're all too busy reading books.)

Aaron Wall shares 12 tips and tools for organizing your keywords. (Our favorite? Our own Keyword Grouper of course!)

SEOmoz's Cyrus Shepard shares 10 SEO copywriting tips for improved link building. Basically, more readable and quotable copy will get more links.

Do you know your ABC's of link building? Here's DIYSEO with 26 tips on creating a link building strategy.

Debbie Williams at the Content Marketing Institute offers up a content questionnaire that copywriters can use to get key information from clients for content development strategies. These are also good questions to ask yourself when thinking about your own content development.

What are the biggest mistakes that advertisers make when testing PPC ads? Click Equations asked almost 20 experts to answer this question, including WordStream regulars Tom Demers and Chad Summerhill.

Brian Carter thinks giving away iPads is iDumb. Find out why you should stop doing these giveaways on Twitter and Facebook.

Henry Blodget at Business Insider asks, "Can we please stop pretending that Microsoft's Bing is doing well?" He argues that " Bing is paying about 3X as much for every incremental search query as it generates in revenue from that query." Doesn't look so good!

Have a great weekend all, and Happy Mother's Day to the moms out there.

Photo credit: David Wright

Elisa Gabbert

Elisa Gabbert

Elisa Gabbert is WordStream's Director of Content and SEO. Likes include wine, karaoke, poker, ping-pong, perfume, and poetry.

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