How to Write More Effective Sales letters

Improving Business Writing Skills for Better Sales Letters and Sales Proposals

Sales Letters and Business Writing Skills

Those who learn to write effective sales letters reap their just rewards.

If only to stay in touch with customers and prospects, effective use of the written word is essential. Without it, the number of contacts who you can remain in touch with is limited to those you can speak with.

Properly prepared, sales letters are an efficient, low cost, and immediately available method for approaching new prospects. However, if a mailing campaign is slipshod and careless then it can have the opposite effect.

Those who don't know you, will judge you by what you write. A poorly written mail-piece will generate more talk than a good one. Infamy is not an easy route to success.

According to hearsay, a mailing campaign should result in a 2% response rate. This is complete bunkum. Any marketing person will tell you that achieving 2% from a direct marketing campaign warrants jubilations and celebration.

Some sales letters do generate a high response, perhaps even five or ten percent. The vast majority struggle to inspire more than one in a thousand to reply.

The big question that individuals, companies, and the media industry invest huge energy in answering is, what makes the difference?

For marketers, learning what works is a never-ending quest because everything that works, sooner or later stops working. There is no need for despair. Salespeople can achieve worthwhile success by following a few simple business writing rules and avoiding the worst mistakes.

Mailing Lists

Let's get back to basics. If you mail starving people an invitation to a free scoff, you will get a good response.

Everybody hates junk mail. You probably have a personal loathing of the nameless hordes that send you parts of dead trees every day. I sometimes wonder about the fiscal cost of the paper merry-go-round. Some one pays to send out paper. Someone pays to dispose of it. Recycled bits of it are given back to the paper suppliers who merrily resell it to the same customers for another cycle. Yet when we happen to receive an offer or sales letters that interest us, we are perfectly pleased to have got it!

Direct marketing consultants will tell you to spend your resources on the headline, and for a very good reason that we will discuss further on, however; if you don't first invest in making sure that you have an accurate and appropriate list, you will be wasting your time and money.

Instead, why not believe the marketing claptrap about lists being clean. Some list brokers do clean their lists every six months. Despite their efforts, what you get can be very inaccurate. One survey that we conducted, based on our own email communications with customers, indicated that email lists become out of date at the rate of 4% a month. If this is representative of an un-refreshed mailing list, it may become virtually useless in less than a year. 

Trade magazines will sell you use of there lists. If you receive any free subscriptions, you may have noticed that some publishers are constantly re validating the accuracy of their information and checking the interest of subscribers. Those that can only be obtained through a paid subscription may yield better results. Trade show lists seem like a good idea. At least those who attend an exhibition or conference have expressed a definite interest in its focus.

Attend the exhibition whose list you are interested in and assess the value of it by observing the attendees.

There are two important issues.

First, will the intended recipients see the message? Consider having a sample of the list, cleaned by telesales professionals or people in your own organisation. This will tell you whether or not you need to clean the whole list.

Second, will the recipients be interested and able to take advantage of your offer or information? If you can run a test mailing on a small but representative section of the list, it will tell you all you need to know.

If the idea of cleaning a list and using precious time to test it seems expensive, identify the real cost of sending your mailing and getting disappointing results, or none at all. Apart from wasting the money, the time it took to organise will be wasted and you will have damaged your standing with subordinates, peers, and seniors.

Test small. If the test works, you can go ahead with confidence.

Business Writing Skills

It all depends on the headline. If you don't get the readers attention to begin with, it doesn't matter if the rest of the copy is brilliant.

The only purpose of the headline is to get the reader to read the first sentence. The only purpose of the first sentence is to get the reader to read the second sentence and so on.

Eight seconds is the time it takes to read 25 words and, on average, eight seconds is all the time you have to get the attention of a senior executive. Test yourself when you are busy to check the truth of this statement.

Next time you open the post or read email when you are under time pressure, try to get a sense of the average length of time that you give to each marketing orientated communication. Better still, actually measure it.

The less the person whose attention you seek has to do, the easier it is to get their attention. If you have nothing to do, arrival of the post might be the high point of your day. Unfortunately, decision makers always seem to have more than enough to do.

Spend 70% of your available copy writing time on attention grabber. It might be worth hiring a professional to do it. His or her fees are an investment rather than a cost.

Read what you have written aloud. If your words reach out and grab you by the throat, create a buzz of excitement, and compel you to read on, assume you have been completely blinded by your ego.

Use the 'stranger' test. It is much more reliable than the 'friend' test. Put your headline in front of an appropriate stranger and gauge their reaction. It is much harder to find an appropriate stranger than and appropriate friend or peer, but well worth the effort. Why not do both?

If your headline fails to inspire the testers and cause them to read on, ditch it and start again.

Leave out all trumpet blasts and chest banging. Don't even mention your company name or the name of your product or service. It is a waste of precious words and will make whatever you write, read like a sales pitch.

The best headlines focus attention on issues and problems that are important to the reader. Describe the issues and related benefits of a solution in less than 25 words.

Put headlines in bold type, at a larger font size. Make it easy for readers to see what the letter is about. If a headline sparks interest, the next most likely step is for a reader to assess the message's credibility. It is natural to consider who sent the message and why.

The ethos of it, as Aristotle described it.

Often, readers skip the copy and look to see who sent the message.

A perfect opening would also have the reader searching for instructions on what to do next. It is because of these reasons that a 'PS' is so effective. Your 'PS' can tell the reader about the next step. Right above the 'PS' is your signature. This is a good place to put your name, company name, telephone number, and email address.

Use the body of the letter to expand on the benefits of your proposition. Contrary to traditional thinking, business writing that uses dynamic language is more effective. It uses fewer words, is easier to read, and conveys pace, even excitement. Use the active rather than passive voice and avoid using uncommon words or jargon.

Using words such as 'you' and 'your', focuses attention on your issues, challenges and opportunities. Too much use of 'I', 'we', and 'our' diminishes interest.

Sales letters are read for profit, not for pleasure so keep sentences brief and to the point.

People who don't know you, will judge you by what you write. This sentence is worth repeating. Few can reliably proofread their own work. Engage the help of one or more colleagues with an eye for detail. You might forgive the odd typing mistake, grammatical error, or misspelling. Others won't.

Writing an article on this topic almost always provokes a corrective response from someone who has a keener eye for mistakes than my proof reader, and a better understanding of English grammar than I do.

You may have heard the old saying, "sales letters can't be too long".

In my opinion, you should take into account who you are sending it to. No doubt, some like to while away the minutes, revelling in the craft of a clever copywriter. I believe that business decision makers will thank you for getting to the point. Keep it to one side of A4, or two at the most.

Writing skills aren't everyone's forte. If your skills aren't up to the task and you don't have colleagues who you can call on, use a professional and put the expense down as a cost of sale.

Response Mechanisms

How many times have you thrown up your hands in exasperation because emails or sales letters fail to live up to their promise?

Imagine your disappointment. The headline was fantastic. Almost instantly, as your eyes scan the paper, you know that this is exactly what you need right now. Your eyes leap all over the paper to find the contact response instructions. You find them and take immediate action and . . . The days stretch into weeks and nothing happens.

There is no call back, no promised information, not even an acknowledgement of your interest. With utter disgust, you consign the paper to the bin.

Of course, this won't happen to any of your readers, will it.

Use a response tracking method to make sure that you know who responded. If you don't measure response, you will have no way to assess effectiveness and no guidance for future improvement. Temporary 0800 numbers are inexpensive and national rate numbers cost almost nothing. You can set up a unique number for different sales letters. If this isn't appropriate, add a unique reference so that you can identify how an enquirer found you. 

Use a fictitious name. It makes people feel more confident when they have a person to ask for and the name reveals the subject of the enquiry.

Fax back forms, reply paid cards, unique email addresses, and special web pages aid tracking and encourage response.

This is more important than you think.

We have had enquiries that resulted from campaigns up to eleven months old. I can think of a response that I made over a year after receiving a mailpiece.

Sometimes the message is right but the time is wrong. Then people often hang onto the information to use it later.

Nothing impresses like speed of response. It tells the customer that you are interested in their business and prepared to put yourself out for it. Technology makes it possible to respond in minutes. These days, anything more than two days is rude. It communicates the idea that you don't care about your marketing, the enquirer, or their custom.

Success lies in planning and preparation. It has been said in so many different ways, and will be said in many more. It's the actions, your actions that will make the difference.

Here is an anonymous quote that rings my bell, "The most practical, beautiful philosophy in the world won't work if you don't.

Article by Clive Miller

If you need to improve business writing skills, sales letters, or sales proposals we can help. Telephone +44 (0)1392 851500. We will be pleased to discuss your needs or talk through some options. Alternatively Send email to for a prompt reply or use the contact form here.