A sales letter is a piece of mail designed to persuade the recipient to purchase a particular product in the absence of a salesman. A sales letter can be sent via postal mail or email. One of sales letters’ biggest advantages over actual salespeople is that they can circumvent the so-called company “gatekeepers” i.e. all the receptionists, personal assistants, secretaries and actual gatekeepers who make it difficult to gain access to their superiors. A sales letter can contain the entire sales pitch or can just serve as a prelude or invitation for further communication.
The thin line between spam, junk and sales letters
The line between a legitimate sales letter and its far less desirable cousin, spam or junk mail (in cases where it is sent via post) can be a very blurry one. Many publications broadly define spam to be any unsolicited commercial email. You will notice that any sales letter sent via email falls neatly into this category while the definition for junk mail is equally broad and undiscerning. There however are rules which you can follow which can lead to less of your marketing communication finding its way into bins, both virtual and otherwise.
The main obstacle to this kind of marketing is the disdain which can develop against it in the minds of frequent receivers. The main key to overcoming this is to do your best to reduce the amount of annoyance that recipients feel when they encounter your mail. To begin with, you can follow provisions such as those set by the US CAN-SPAM act. While you may not necessarily operate or live under American jurisdiction, some of the rules contained in the act are just commonsense best practices which marketers should use or otherwise risk the wrath of the people they hope to turn into paying customers. Let me save a longer discussion on how you can make your marketing mail less irritating for another day. Let us instead jump right into the basics of how one can write an effective sales letter. Most of the advice will focus on actual physical sales letters as I feel that Zimbabwe has less of a junk mail problem than other countries so there is no significant negativity against it yet. However, you will discover that most of this wisdom can still be ported to email.
The anatomy of a sales letter
In an email, this would be the subject heading. While its function is often characterized as that of quickly informing the reader of the purpose of the letter, marketers mainly use it to quickly grab both the attention and interest of the reader. Overenthusiastic marketers, particularly those of dubious products and services have abused headlines (and subject headings) over the years so much that nowadays sensational ones are immediately viewed with suspicion and distrust. Instead, opt for something tamer when writing one. If you are having trouble deciding on the tone to use, lean towards briefness and conciseness.
While the standard “Dear Sir/Madam” greeting is recommended when you have neither the name nor the gender of the target recipient, this can result in your letter sounding too bland and impersonal which will reduce both its effectiveness and chances of getting read. Even when you have access to the intended recipient’s full name and gender, deciding how to greet them can still be a daunting task: Do you use their first name, their last or the full one? If the recipient is a decision-maker within a firm which you wish to do business with, it is better to err on the side of caution and limit yourself to their last name only since people in positions of authority are used to being shown a lot of respect and may not take kindly to being surprised by their first names.
When the intended recipient is an individual in his/her capacity (B2C) their first name can be used, particularly when you intend to use a highly informal tone in the rest of your letter. You can also use their full name—the result while sounding more formal than using the first name only also sounds less formal than using the surname. How you salute the customer can also depend on the nature and cost of what you are selling.
The introduction is your second and final attempt to capture and secure the attention of your reader. If done poorly, this is the point where they lose interest. In as few words as possible state the problem or challenge that you believe the client has and then briefly describe your proposed solution. If the target recipient is a business, do not hesitate to drop some (relevant) economic and industrial statistics that will help illustrate the existence and nature of the challenge/problem. Be sensitive and watch your tone here—do not get carried away to the extent of taunting and mocking a company for its forthcoming. I once encountered a gentleman who was offering an email hosting service for businesses. His main pitch was that (believe it or not) users of free email services like Gmail “should be embarrassed”. Much to his disappointment, this failed to coax people away from free email services.
You can also state a challenge that you believe a consumer is facing together with your solution. Sometimes in a country like Zimbabwe, people learn to live with some of these things that we call problems. As a marketer if you believe that this is the case, you must remind the reader just how annoying, inconvenient, counterproductive etc. the problem is.
This is where you write most of the words which are meant to clinch the sale. While for email, a shorter one is almost always better, physical sales letters can range from being barely able to fill a page to vast multipage ones depending on the product and reader. Longer letters are usually necessary when selling highly technical or valuable products/services. When the letter is targeting a business establishment you have to appeal to reason rather than emotion in your arguments. For those letters meant for individuals or households, the rules are reversed—a spirited appeal to emotion is likely to be more effective.
Throughout your content, avoid using cheap attention-getting ploys such as overuse of boldface type, uppercase letters, lots of exclamation points and multiple question marks. Instead, you can use the kind of formatting which can improve the consumption of your writing such as subheadings. Use these to break your content into more manageable chunks. Also when the reader browses through your letter, these headings can convey some of the information. Therefore each of these subheadings should state the main (and unique) benefits of using your product or service.
The call to action
The call to action is one of the most important components of a sales letter. After you have convinced the reader to buy into whatever you are selling, you have to guide them to perform some desirable and useful action. A call to action can be an instruction to call your company’s sales rep, to visit your businesses’ website, to visit your shop or office, to schedule a meeting etc. A sales letter without this part is almost useless.
After you have finished and are sure that you have done your absolute best to try and win over the customer you can then sign out. You can sign out with popular lines like “Best regards” or “Sincerely” immediately followed by your name. There are many more signing out phrases out there, but you must try to avoid the ones that may come across as indicating familiarity such as those containing words like yours, truly, love etc.