One of the most effective direct mail formats is the sales letter. As basic as a letter may seem, marketing studies have proven that sales letters can be extremely powerful and often outperform other direct mail pieces (such as brochures and postcards). In addition to being effective, a sales letter is often a cost saver, as there are no design fees incurred. If you have a good laser printer, nice stationery, and a clean mailing list, you can create a sales letter. Here are a few pointers to get you started:

How's your mailing list? If you choose to maintain your own list, make sure that you are making updates frequently. The business page, newsletters, and business magazines provide a good source for updates. If you are buying a list from a broker, ensure that the list is clean and updated regularly (at the very least quarterly -- strive for monthly if possible). Ask your list provider where it got the data. There are many good list brokers, and they will assist you in gathering quantitative information on your prospects. Be specific about your audience demographics. If you know a publication that your prospects read, try to get that mailing list. Don't buy a list from an unknown source, especially those supercheap lists on the Internet.

Brainstorm the benefits of your service or product. Does it save time? Save money? Improve efficiency? Make people beautiful? Try to get as many minds as possible involved in the brainstorming. If you are a solo practitioner, enlist the assistance of friends, business acquaintances, spouse, etc.

Consider several headlines. Spend some time writing down possible headlines. Sometimes I start with all the key words, and that guides me to a headline. I also find it useful to write everything down, then get away from it for a bit. I have some of my best ideas at 2 a.m. or while exercising. The headline is crucial, so don't take it lightly. Is it attention grabbing? Is there any reason for prospects to read more?

Body copy. Don't be afraid to write a detailed, long sales letter. Although it seems counterintuitive, people do take the time to read sales letters, even two- or three-page sales letters. Don't rely on your brochure to sell -- you must sell in your letter. Your collateral materials are just gravy. Make the letter easy to read (no fancy fonts), and use bullets to separate out especially important information.

Contact information. I prefer a sales letter that has a person's name on it, with title, address, etc., rather than a "Dear Web Master." Using a first name or last name in salutation is an individual call. I usually use "Dear Mary" if I am mailing to a group of people that I share commonality with (such as chamber members), but this is a judgment call. If your mailer is "blind" (to people you've never met, probably never will meet), be safe and go with Mr./Ms.

Free is still the most powerful word you can use. Offer a free sample, consultation, video, newsletter, etc. I usually end my letters by reiterating that a consultation is free and incurs no obligation.

Don't overlook the obvious. It is so easy to do this when you are close to your message and product. Make sure you have all the ways to contact you listed clearly.

Spell- and grammar-check your letter over and over. If you are the only set of eyes to proof the letter, put it away for a day, then reread it.

If at all possible, try to sign the letter yourself. This can take time, but I believe it adds a lot to the letter. On small mailers, I add personal notes to those people I know. Time intensive, yes, but if you have a manageable list, give it a try.

At all times, remember the AIDA rule: get their Attention (strong headline), get them Interested in what you can do for them (benefits of product/service), build in a strong Desire for what you are selling (through testimonials, photographs, etc.), and then demand Action in your close (call today, act now). You don't need to be cheesy about any of these techniques, but keep them top of mind as you compose your sales letter.

Happy selling!

Copyright © 2000 Kimberly L. McCall