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The 3 Ways a Sales Letter Can Fail (and How to Avoid Each)

by Demian Farnworth

Sales letters are an essential part of promoting products. And depending on the product, sales letters can be either simple or complex.

For example, an e-mail newsletter is a pretty simple product. You don’t have to devote a lot of space to selling it, especially if it’s free.

Bookkeeping software such as Quickbooks, on the other hand, can be expensive and complex. You’ll need to devote more space to explaining what it does and justifying its expense.

Either way, sales letters succeed or fail based upon three things: the copy, the offer and the list.

I can’t adequately tackle these three concepts in one post, so I’m breaking it down into four–an introductory post (what you’re reading now) and three more posts expanding the three concepts.

Think of it as a sales letter makeover series. Let’s explore each briefly.

The Offer

One of the prime ways a sales letter fails is when it provides an inadequate offer. What exactly do I mean by “offer”? An offer is what the buyer will get in exchange for giving you something of value.

Let’s use a car wash for example.

In exchange for ten bucks, an automated car wash will wash, rinse and dry your car. Pretty simple. But not very unique.

An innovative car wash operator might throw in a wax job, tire shine and guarantee (if you’re not satisfied you’ll get a free wash), and not raise the price. As you can see, he’s differentiating himself from other car wash operators.

In essence, a sales letter can fail when the offer is weak or missing critical features. Furthermore, the beauty of the offer is that you enhance value by piling on more benefits. More on this in our final post.

The Copy

When it comes to copy, you, as a writer, have some control — more, in fact, than with the other two components.

Copy usually fails in four predictable ways:

  • It makes a weak promise
  • It doesn’t paint a convincing picture
  • It lacks proof for it’s claims
  • It never asks for action

To correct these mistakes you need to think about two things: what problem is this product solving? And the four Ps.

What are the four Ps?

  • Promise
  • Picture
  • Proof
  • Push

It’s a proven formula for writing a great sales letter.

How does it look in practice? Simple: in your sales letter you should make a compelling and relevant promise, paint a convincing picture of how your product will enhance your customer’s life, provide proof your product can actually deliver on those promises and then push your prospect to respond. More on this in our third post.

The List

The list is nothing more than the group of people who are going to see your sales letter. Unfortunately, if you’re writing for a client, the list is probably the one area that you have the least control over.

A list could be e-mail or blog subscribers. It could be catalog readers. It could be a list a new start-up bought. If you’re writing a script for radio, it’s the people who listen to that show at that time. If it’s television, it’s the people who watch a particular show.

And here’s the thing: the people on that list all share a particular interest in common. That means if you send a sales letter about a cyber-security product to a list of social media wonks–I don’t care how great your sales letter–it will fail.

However, send a mediocre sales letter about a cyber-security product to a list of cyber-security professionals and it will at least do okay. Send a great sales letter to them and you’ll look like a stud.

That’s how important the list is. In the next blog post I’ll tackle the list and show you how to fix a broken list (if it’s yours) and how to avoid writing for a bad list (if it’s for a client).

Your Turn

What sort of problems do you run into when you are writing sales letters? Length? Structure? Getting started? Feedback? Testing it? I would love to hear your thoughts. Brutal and all.

Part of the Sales Letter Makeover Series. Other posts in the series:

Image courtesy of Diesel Demon



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Demian Farnworth

Demian Farnworth is a freelance writer who hustles the finer points of web writing at The CopyBot. Follow him on Twitter or Google+.


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  1. Adam Kreitman says:
    October 11, 2011 at 3:19 pm

    Hi Stephanie-

    If you have a very narrow market you’re trying to reach like buyers at specialty retail stores, you might have better success with some offline marketing strategies.

    For example, you can send a sales letter, making sure to follow the advice that Demian is providing in his posts, by Express Mail or FedEx to increase the chances it will get read. And you can even up the ante a bit by putting a piece of one of your scarves with a message along the lines of “If you like this, give me a call and I’ll show you the finished product…” Or you could include a doll in the package wearing a mini-version of one of your scarves.

    Including some sort of tangible like this in the package will increase the likelihood your letter will get read and you’ll get a response…especially in a visually oriented industry like fashion.

    I’m huge fan of, and believer in, online marketing but it’s important not to forget about offline options.

    • Russ Henneberry says:
      October 11, 2011 at 3:27 pm

      I have heard direct mail experts say “lumpy mail gets opened.”

  2. Russ Henneberry says:
    October 10, 2011 at 1:39 pm

    Stephanie, great questions. Consider creating content that is not an overt offer to start and attracting a group of people.

    For example, you are selling high fashion scarves to [presumably] people that are interested in owning unique, high-end fashion items.

    What kind of content could you create that is interesting to this group? How could you inform, entertain or inspire this market?

    Would they be interested in a blog that reviews the latest in high-end, unique fashion accessories? Or, how about a site where the creators of these unique art prints could upload and display their latest designs? Perhaps people could vote on which prints would be used in your clothing.

    In any case, the content generates an audience. You retain that audience through an email list, Twitter following, Facebook fans, etc. You make offers to that list to buy your clothing.

  3. stephanie says:
    October 10, 2011 at 1:01 pm

    Great post that is timely for me!
    Am a small online start-up and want to move into retail stores. Previous attempts at approching via e-m have not produced desired results. For a wholesaler approaching retailers, any suggestions for what might be a good way to get myself introduced and start a ‘conversation’ where I can offer them ‘benefits’? Have a number of ideas for info and offers for them, but not sure how to start. How to get opened & how to not get deleted or worse, get tagged as SPAM. Almost all on my list are cold calls, that I perceive to be a good fit for my product, specially directed to the buyers and to stores that accept designer submissions. My product: fashion scarves of unique design with original art prints, in organic cotton, ethically made in USA. Any suggestions for how to get going? Or is my entire approach wrong?

    • Demian Farnworth says:
      October 10, 2011 at 1:53 pm

      Hi Stephanie,

      Great question. The first thing you’ll want to do is figure out what problem your customer has and how you can solve it. For example, does she lack the right accessories. She probably does, but there are a lot of places to fill that need. In other words, you’ve got competition.

      That means you need to figure out what makes you different than your competitor. Basically, why would someone choose you over a competitor? It has to be a meaningful difference.

      I worked with a client who custom-made handbags out of men’s clothes. She has a lot of competition, so we had to figure out what made her unique. Once we found that distinction, we then started weaving it into our copy.

      That’s a simplification, but hopefully you get the idea. Let me know if you any more questions.

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