Main illustration: Sofie Nilsson
When was the last time you made or received a sales call to or from someone you didn’t already know?
While the death of cold calling may have been exaggerated, in the past 5 years the preferred medium for sales messages has rapidly moved to email, messaging and live chat. In this era of business messaging, the written word has become even more crucial for building relationships between buyer and seller.
Sales letters were the precursor of email marketing
Which is why, when I happened upon Dan Kennedy’s The Ultimate Sales Letter on Amazon recently, my mouse paused and I found myself clicking to download. Sales letters sent through the mail were the precursor of email marketing and Kennedy’s is the classic tome on the tactic.
Back in the 1990s people like Kennedy made a good living producing direct mail campaigns selling everything from silver coin investments and self-help courses to PC consultancy. It was also long before the concept of collaborative selling, so the book features some questionable sales advice that wouldn’t fly today e.g. concealing the price, the value of intimidation, shock tactics etc.
But Kennedy was a self taught writer and dispenses some great advice on crafting prose that converts. So to save you trawling through all 200 pages, I’ve picked out the top nuggets of timeless sales writing advice from Kennedy that we can all learn from today.
1. Make sure your sales message is seen
It was a revelation to me that a perennial downside of email – non delivery – was also a problem with snail mail. In shocked tones Kennedy informs his readers that “10 to 30% of properly addressed third-class mail never reaches its intended recipients!”. The issue was postal workers dumping commercial mail that they saw as junk. The 21st century version of that problem is Gmail and spam filters. Just as sales letter writers went to great lengths to make their mailers look like personal messages, personal human-generated email and sales messages will always perform better than anything robo-generated.
2. Make sure your sales message is read
We’ve all been the recipient of annoying automated email sequences from sales people who won’t seem to take no for an answer. Kennedy’s advice on going from “annoying pest to welcome guest” is timeless – get your reader’s attention by opening with something important or valuable to them. Could you say that about sales messages you write to prospects who visit your site?
3. Demonstrate the value not the price
Your pitch should ‘build value’
While The Ultimate Sales Letter offers some questionable advice on dealing with price, it does say your pitch should “build value” so that the price starts to look like a bargain. As Kennedy puts it – if you can demonstrate a return on investment “your job becomes selling $1,000 bills for $50.”
4. There is no formula for ideal length
Yes, we all want to be able to follow a playbook that guides us on the road to easy riches, but life is not that easy. You need to write to the length that allows you tell your story successfully rather than to a predetermined format or word count. But Kennedy’s best insight is this: writing short so that everyone will read it is counterproductive. Instead you should write in the style and length that will appeal to the buyer, not the non-buyer.
5. Don’t get hung up on style or grammar
When you sit down to write a sales message you’re competing against your peers, not professional writers, so don’t sweat the details. Kennedy advises letting your own personality come into your writing, so that you “sell in print as you would in person.” “When you go to the bank to deposit all the profits your sales letter produced, nobody will ask whether you dangled a participle or split an infinitive,” he concludes.
6. Don’t be afraid to repeat yourself
Basic psychology suggests people accept new ideas and information as valid through repetition or shock. Assuming you want to avoid the shock tactics, Kennedy provides a helpful list of 6 ways you can repeat the same information without sounding…repetitous.
Inject as much enthusiasm as possible in your first draft
- In a straightforward statement
- In an example
- In a story, sometimes called a “slice of life”
- In testimonials
- In a quote from a customer or expert
- In a numbered summary
7. Write passionately and edit logically
In Kennedy’s experience people buy by emotion and then justify their choice with logic. You can apply this logic by injecting as much enthusiasm as possible in the first draft of your sales message and then editing it with a cold clear eye.
I’ll leave the final word to Kennedy, who in subsequent editions of his book addressed the rise of new-fangled sales channels like email and the web: “‘What works’ does not change significantly whether carving it on a rock, having it put on papyrus by a calligrapher, or posting it on a web site.”