Online the line between sales letters and space advertisements
is blurred. Most marketers are unaware of distinctions I'm
going to make here - and for those writing their own copy or
hiring copywriters being aware of these factors is a little
"edge"... and the way I see it winning battles in the
marketplace is often a matter of having not one big advantage
in your corner, but a bunch of small ways you're "edgeing-out"
your competition. Those edges add up in the minds of
prospects and can tip the scales in your favor so you get
the sale... and your competitor doesn't.
When we say "salesletter" in online parlance generally what
we mean is not the same sort of thing as a classic sales
Follow my thinking here a bit and I think you'll agree.
Even if you don't it will inform your thinking anyway.
You see - a salesletter in the old, direct mail sense, comes
in an envelope. The envelope's job is to get the letter to
the recipient and get itself opened.
Now online there is no envelope - duh! - instead you've got
the headline and the header doing the job of grabbing for
attention. The headlines on online salesletters tend to be
prominent, tabloid-style, scream-out-loud attention getters
(or trying to be) because they serve the same purpose as the
headline in a space ad.
I'll digress a bit here and mention Eugene Schwartz who was
famous for claiming he had an 80% success rate with his
sales letters... but look around and what you'll mostly see
from Schwartz in swipe files and in his book are his space
ads, not sales letters. His biggest winners were letters,
not the famous space ads, but read on and you'll see why
studying space ads is really smart if you run letters on
In my opinion the single most important factor in the success
of a sales letter is list selection. Match a valid offer to
a proven list and your chances of success are not bad at all.
Mail to the wrong lists and you'll choke most of the time.
Now online we blather about "targeted traffic" but that's a
pretty vague term and you know this if you've been marketing
online for awhile.
The thing about salesletters - the real old-school kind that
come in an envelope with a brochure, circular, and order
form in there too - with these list selection is really,
really important. More important than all this stuff about
What got me thinking about this issue was studying Robert
Collier's stuff and I noticed that he didn't much emphasize
writing headlines - because he generally mailed to "house
lists" which were well-matched to the sort of offers he was
making. He didn't emphasize attention-grabbing headlines
because they weren't as important to the format of direct
response he specialized in as they are to space advertising.
Collier's emphasis was firmly on the offer. Collier
always goes-on about the "appeal", and what this means is
the way the offer is presented - usually some sort of angle
that would encourage the reader of the letter to visualize
owning the product - and making the offer as risk-free as
I was reading Drayton Bird's excellent book "How To Write
Letters That Sell" - where Bird, one of the living legends
of direct marketing, does not fixate on headlines at all!
The book is not about space advertising at all, it's about
direct mail letters and it's the only copywriting text I've
read that talks about using a style of writing to "charm"
the reader... which is a hidden factor in effective
copywriting nobody mentions often, and frankly, lack of a
charming style is, in my opinion, a big factor in why a lot
of people writing their own sales letters are frustrated by
low conversions: they simply don't have a style of writing
readers are charmed by.
"Charm" could also be re-defined as "verisimiltude" - defined
as the appearance of truth. In short, the style of writing
powerfully influences whether your prospect believes your
claims or even bothers to read your offer at all. So many
online sales letters presented here for review are tanking
precisely because they don't have the ring of truth, or
charm, in the writing.
If you are using the written word to sell, charm is a factor,
and if your writing lacks charm - which you might thing
of a empathy, zest, excitement... whatever, it's an element
aside-from the offer that makes you want to read. The
catalog (get it) from "J. Peterman" has charm by the
The way I see it the old-school sales letter is a more
subtle form and studying Collier, Bird, and the others who
are masters of true sales letters will help you with your
email marketing - because the intimacy of emailing your own
list (assuming you are a trusted source to your subscribers)
is pretty close to the intimacy of the old sales letters.
With online sales letters where you don't have the luxury of
doing your own pre-sell process, the formula that works is
one with an attention-grabbing headline and a seductive
offer, etc... I have some thoughts about headlines to add
but I'll get to that later. Online headlines need to
accomplish more objectives than space-ad headlines and the
more you're aware of these different purposes the better
you'll be able to discern the elements that make a good
headline for your market.