If you want your visitors to buy, instead of bouncing off your site like a basketball…
Ask yourself: What’s missing from my funnel?
What’s missing might be a deep understanding of how copywriting should be used to convert readers. And there are few better people to learn from than the “Admen”: the original rockstar creators of the classic twentieth century magazine and newspaper ads.
We have weeks, websites, and embedded video to make a sale. They had only moments and one printed page.
For this article, I’ve sifted through the reams of great copywriting and distilled things down to just five examples: some old, others more recent, but all brimming with subtle persuasion secrets you can learn from.
All the examples for this article are “bite-sized” – short enough to read without taking up too much time – but also containing all the persuasive elements necessary to do the job.
But copying others’ work will only get you so far without understanding why it worked. That’s why, for each example, I’m going to deconstruct exactly what made it so effective, then tell you how to apply it in your funnel.
Here they are: five sales letters every marketer should know.
Essential Sales Letter #1: Gary Halbert’s Desperate Nerd From Ohio
Why You Need to Know It
In sales you’re always trying to climb two metaphorical mountains – plausibility and authority – in different proportions, depending on the product and market.
Plausibility means can you convince the reader a solution is possible. Say you’re teaching them to make money from home. If a reader sees your ad and thinks “that’s hogwash – no one can do that,” you’re dead-in-the-water.
Gary’s ad is the perfect vehicle for a market who needs some convincing. The “desperate nerd” bit isn’t accidental; it’s the crucial bit that proves to the audience Gary’s “moneymaking secret” is possible. Why? By telling the story of someone who started worse off than the average reader, and still got amazing results.
“If a DESPERATE NERD can do it,” imagines a reader, “maybe I can too.”
But that’s only half of the picture…
Authority means the reader trusts (a) that you have the ability to solve the problem and that (b) you have a monopoly on the solution.
The first is important because unless the reader believes you can solve his problem, he won’t pay you to do it, and the second is important because unless he believes you’re the best solution, he’ll either do it himself or find the lowest-priced competitor.
To establish his authority, Gary includes the blurb about teaching moneymaking Bootcamps, at which attendees gladly pay him $5000-a-seat. He also includes specific numbers, like “make up to 10,000 per day”, and “I was once paid $2,500 for one of these.”
How to Use It
This is a great template for Facebook ads and landing pages, provided your market fits the mold…
Selling a solution to a market that hasn’t been exposed to your offer before, and are skeptical of their chances of success? Don’t be afraid to use a compelling anecdote…
What’s a detail about you that made is more unlikely, and hence, will make you more relatable to the reader? (Dyslexia, you started off broke, everybody told you “it couldn’t be done”, etc.)
Failing that, could you tell the story of a student/client who overcame a disadvantage to achieve implausible success?
Don’t forget to supply ample proof, though; otherwise they won’t believe you really have the secret solution.
Could you include real screenshots of your results? (i.e. a payment you received, or a competition you won)
Have you been featured in media, or spoken at events the reader is likely to have heard of? Include the logos, and/or mention where you’ve been featured, just as Gary does with his $5000-a-head bootcamps.
Essential Sales Letter #2: Frank Kern’s consulting letter – Would You Like Me To Personally Double… Your Business, For Free?
Why You Need to Know It
Frank might be the most-copied direct response marketer of the modern era, from the “from the desk of” to the cadence of the headline – “2x, 3x…even 5x!!!”
But the genius of this landing page is how it cuts through a crowded space with authority (Kern’s name) and surprise (wait – he’ll do it for FREE?).
It has the same ingredients of the Halbert ad but in different proportions. Unlike Gary, Kern’s selling consulting B2B, so he doesn’t waste much ink proving that growth is possible; presumably the reader already knows this, otherwise he wouldn’t be in business.
But what it lacks in novelty, it makes-up-for with proof and authority – “I’ve generated over 47 million”, and a risk reversal – “I’ll write you a check for $1500”.
Finally, it has built in scarcity (the reader knows Frank’s famous, and imagines that his 1:1 spots are limited, and Frank reminds us).
How to Use It
This is perfect for Facebook ads, landing pages, sales pages, and even sales emails in a crowded market, if your readers are jaded, and if you’ve got some personal authority or a track-record of success.
Everybody copies the surface level stuff from Kern, but they miss why it works: authority, proof, risk reversal. Want to sell high ticket consulting or a 4-figure info product? How could you prove to the reader it’s going to work? Could you offer a guarantee, as Frank does? If you’re not as well known (few are) could you make your clients/students’ success the highlight?
Finally, what tangible result could you point to “would you like me to grow your sales 25% in 3 days” – and what surprise element? (“Or your money back/I’ll pay you/etc.”)
Essential Sales Letter #3: Joseph Sugarman’s Vision Breakthrough
Why You Need to Know It
YES, dear reader…
You absolutely need the basics of persuasion in your ad…
Value, authority, proof.
But what if nobody actually reads your copy because it’s so booooooring?!?
Ever see an Andre Chaperon email? (Or a carbon-copy)
If you have, there’s a surefire way to recognize it. Guess what it is?
C’mon – bet you can’t guess…
It’s the very writing style I just used above. A narrative style that pulls your eye down the page.
…and that’s not all 😉
It makes it fun to read.
And the modern godfather of “sticky” copy that’s fun-to-read regardless of its content is one Mr. Joseph Sugarman.
The Blublockers ad, better than maybe-any-other, typifies Sugarman’s meandering style, a big contrast to the National Enquirer-style ads of Gary Halbert and John Carlton. Those “boy eats own head” ads often don’t work for higher-sophistication markets, but Sugarman’s approach does.
But it still contains the “crucial ingredients”…
The audience thinks they know sunglasses, but Sugarman needs to create a brand new product category. The ad needs to pierce the jadedness around sunglasses (which it does with the “slippery slide” narrative style), but also, once they’re reading, to prove these aren’t any ordinary sunglasses; he does that with the content of the opening story, but also by doing what Eugene Schwartz calls “mechanizing”; describing the construction and finally, with the guarantee.
How to Use It
If you’re selling a version of something everybody thinks they’ve seen before, what story could you tell to grab their interest?
More microscopically, how could you phrase your copy so it reads like poetry, each sentence coaxing the eye to the next…
Could you leave “open loops”, leaving a question unresolved…
While you talk about something tangentially related, so the reader keeps reading.
Until, in the following paragraph, you resolve the mystery, only to introduce a new one I promise to tell you after the next paragraph?
Finally, could you tell an entertaining origin story that creates a brand new category for your product, as Sugarman does here, or as the Dyson company did for its household vacuums?
Essential Sales Letter #4: Martin Conroy’s Two Young Men letter for the Wall Street Journal
Why You Need to Know It
It earned over 2 billion in subscriptions for the Wall Street Journal between 1975 and 2003. But even that’s not the most important reason…
Psychology tells us an “open loop” narrative style…
that leads with a mystery… 😉
…is more attention-grabbing than a simple statement of benefits.
At the end of the “two men” intro we’re left with an unresolved question – how is it one man became president of the company – and that holds our attention through the description of the journal. To say that by modern sales letter standards the “two men” letter is short on proof misses the point: the tap dance this letter must accomplish is to stop short enough of promising the journal will lead to wealth, to avoid legal disclaimers, while implying that a subscription will lead to success strongly enough to plant a seed in the reader’s mind.
How to Use It
The tone of the “two men” letter is a great fit for Facebook ads, email funnels, and sales pages for a certain category of product. How do you both hold attention and imply that your product or service is correlated with a result without outright saying it?
If your readers are jaded or bored with the product category (for instance: newspapers), this mystery-driven approach could work better than a direct one. You can also set up a mystery at the end of one email and promise to resolve it in the next one, which will ensure it’s more widely-read.
Essential Sales Letter #5: Why Haven’t TV Owners Been Told These Facts, from Breakthrough Advertising by Eugene Schwartz
Why You Need to Know It
Here, we have the same problems Halbert was solving with the Desperate Nerd ad, but in different proportions.
The readers still needed convincing of the plausibility of the solution. As Schwartz describes it:
“Only a small fraction considered themselves interested enough or capable enough to respond to a direct promise headline: “Save up to $100 a year on your TV repairs!” Most were afraid they could not make the repairs themselves.”
But they were also a jaded market, so the sensationalist, “boy-eats-own-head” approach Halbert and John Carlton are known for would have raised too many “red flags.”
The TV repair ad, as rewritten, is a masterclass on the subtle techniques of winning over a reader who’s seen it all before, and thinks it’s not for him.
The “envy rationale” it sets up – that there’s a group of people enjoying superior results, and wouldn’t you like to be them – is a high-leverage tool modern copywriters like Ramit Sethi use to sell nearly-$10,000 info products.
Here’s why it works: As Schwartz describes, the market didn’t yet believe they had the ability to repair their own TVs.
But they had frustration that their TVs didn’t work as intended.
So that’s where the ad starts – “why haven’t TV owners been told these facts.” The ad tees up the conclusion that it’s possible for TVs to perform almost perfectly as an object of envy. Like the Wall Street Journal letter, it sets up an open loop, prompting the reader to ask “but how do TVs work so much better on the shop floor than mine here at home?”
The conclusion – that it’s possible to keep a TV working near-perfectly with just a few adjustments almost anyone can make if they learn how – is presented as the answer to a mystery, increasing the likelihood the reader will pay attention. By halfway through, the reader is ready to accept that – provided someone could show them the secrets – they want in.
How to Use It
This letter is perfect for sales pages and long landing pages.
Nine-times-out-of-ten in modern internet marketing, our readers have their guard up. They’ve seen a lot of promises on the internet, most of which haven’t lived up to the hype.
Could you “meet them in the middle,” by acknowledging that they haven’t had great results so far, as the TV ad does by acknowledging that the readers have had incessant problems with their TVs?
Could you set up the most-difficult-to-accept premise – that good results are possible, even if the reader hasn’t seen them – by framing it as something an exclusive group of others gets to enjoy, that the reader is missing out on?
One thing is crucially important though…
Don’t forget to supply proof of every claim later on in the ad. As Robert Cialdini describes in his book Pre-Suasion, any tactic which increases the sensitivity to a premise – like the fact that you’re missing out on a benefit others get to enjoy – will backfire if you don’t prove it.
Skip The Learning Curve By Stealing From The Greats
If it seems like a lot to absorb, just remember: all of the great ads have the same fundamentals…
…just in different proportions.
So I like to use a simple 3-question format to decide the best approach. I’ve written about it on my blog, but I’ll summarize it here:
Question 1: How plausible does your audience find your solution to their problem?
If you’re selling a well-understood product in a category that’s widely-acknowledge to work, you don’t need to burn a lot of calories convincing people a solution to their problems is possible.
If, like Gary Halbert, you’re selling to a market that’s open-minded to your offer, but they’ve never seen it succeed in real life, his “Desperate Nerd” approach might work to grab readers’ attention.
Just make sure you’re supplying enough authority.
Question 2: How high competition is your market?
Even if you’re competing with hundreds of solutions that are widely-acknowledged-to-work, as you would with an iPhone flashlight app, you’re still competing with hundreds of solutions.
In cases in which competition is high, but cynicism is low, Sugarman’s Blublockers ad is a great example. His readers knew sunglasses worked, so he didn’t need to prove that. But they saw sunglasses as an undifferentiated commodity, so Sugarman used creative storytelling to create a brand new category for Blublockers.
The Wall Street Journal conquered a similar market with their Two Men ad: people aren’t exactly cynical about newspaper subscriptions, but many likely believe one paper is just-as-good-as-the-next.
Question 3: How jaded is your market?
Are you competing in a market that’s not only flooded with competition…
it’s flooded with hucksters and solutions that don’t work?
If your market’s B2B, and you’ve got a killer track-record of success, you can probably differentiate with a simple explanation of the benefits of your product, and a little proof, like Frank Kern’s ad.
Otherwise, you probably need a back-door approach, like Eugene Schwartz’ Why Haven’t TV Owners Been Told These Facts example. The market the TV ad was aimed at is the most challenging:
- Cynical the solution works
- “Over-saturated” from offers
- Cynical about those offers, because they’ve seen so many that don’t work
…which is exactly the market many internet marketers find ourselves in. Like Schwartz’ example, we have to do a tap-dance:
Capture interest without raising any red-flags…
Prove the solution is possible…
and, finally, prove our solution is the best.
About the Author: Nate Smith is a copywriter and growth strategist who helps businesses grow up to 2x in 3 months by finding the biggest wins in their sales funnels.
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