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Direct Marketing Letters – How To Write a Letter

One of the most effective tools in direct mail is a letter.

But are they really letters? No.

A letter is a personal communication you send to your aunt Bertha around Thanksgiving… so you get a present at Christmas.

But when you send it to ten, ten thousand or a half a million people — it’s really a highly stylized ad designed to look like a letter. Any arguments? But for now, we’ll call it a letter

Here are the TOP TEN TIPS on letter writing to make your phone ring.

First, write the “Objective” of your letter.

What do you want readers to do after reading your letter? Call? Place an order?



How To Write Direct Mail Letter Copy

Plus, the Single Greatest Copywriting Trick I’ve Ever Learned.

A letter in direct mail isn’t really a letter. A letter is a personal correspondence you send to one or two people.  In direct mail, a letter is a highly stylized ad designed to look like a letter.  Any arguments?

So now you know: What you are writing is really an ad.  Like any ad copy, direct mail letter copy isn’t something you can dash off in a few minutes.  You wouldn’t write an ad in ten minutes, would you?  Your letter is going to take longer to write, too.

It takes me 5 to 8 hours to write a crisp, one-page direct mail letter.  Sometimes longer.  And most of the time I know what I’m doing, and it still takes that long. No, no TV on; not even in the background.  If you think you can do it in less time, please send me the secret formula.

If your letter is going to many recipients, it’s worth the extra time and effort you’re going to spend making it tight.  Allow yourself more time and take it.  You may spend up to a week on a single one-page letter. That’s OK, too. I still have tough assignments that require a week or more to write and design a single page.  Some letters are more difficult than others.

Above all, the letter in a direct mail package is a compelling set of benefits that directs the readers to the objective: to call or write or, if you own a retail store, to come in.  This can be to place an order or to inquire.  In consumer direct marketing, it’s usually to place an order, by phone, with a credit card.

Smooth writing transitions, editing, and more editing make the copy tight.  Keeping the words fresh, exciting, and stimulating while continually pointing the reader toward the order form or the phone call takes time.  Have those credit cards handy?  Why don’t you call us and order right now, while you’re thinking of it.  Oy, how many times I’ve written that line.

Every direct mail piece starts the same way:  Write the objective in the upper right-hand corner of a blank sheet of paper.   This reminds you that the reason you are writing every word is to fulfill this objective: call, write, come in, send in the card, inquire, place the order.

Next, draw a line down the center of your paper and write the features of your product (or service) on the left, the benefits of those features to your readers on the right.  For example, a 400- watt receiver in a stereo system you sell is a feature.  The benefit to the purchaser is no matter how loud you turn it up, the music always sounds crystal clear.

In my case, an added benefit: I can turn it up so loud I can annoy my neighbor who owns that stupid barking dog.  With 400 watts, I can probably blow out his windows if I place my speakers just right.  Hmmm. Now that is a compelling set of benefits.  I’ll take one.  Stupid dog.  Stupid neighbor.  Hrumph.

One of the best ways to write benefit-oriented copy is to ask, “What is the biggest benefit of using this product?”  What happens to the reader if everything works perfectly?  In the answer lie your ad headline, envelope teaser copy, first sentence, and even the lead paragraph of your letter.

Once you have all the benefits written down, rank them in importance.  Which are the biggest benefits to the widest segment of your audience?  You’ll use these first.

When you begin writing copy, write everything that pops into your head.  Write down even the silly stuff.  Even the far-out ideas.  Don’t leave anything out. You never know what’s going to look good later, or work well in print, or sound good in context. This isn’t the time to edit.  When you edit, you stop the flow of words and ideas.  Editing comes later—you can’t do both at one time.  After your writing session, take a break. Let your writing sit.  Come back from a fresh angle.  After two or three good writing sessions, begin editing.  Edit severely to get the writing focused and tight.  Maybe three pages down to one.

All copy is drafted to fulfill the central theme of your objective, so look up at the top of the page often so you don’t lose sight, and…

OK, pick up your pencil and begin.  Start with a rough draft; everyone does.  You are going to write several drafts and do several revisions to get the copy crisp and electric.  So just start writing anywhere.

Here’s the best trick I’ve ever learned in writing copy.  After you have about a page of writing, go back and delete your first sentence.  This brings your copy into a fast start, and 99% of the time it works.  Simple, isn’t it?  If you are having trouble starting, just write anything.  Start anywhere.  Then go back and strike out your first two or three sentences.  Another nice trick.  If you are really having a bad day, strike out your first paragraph.  You’re already over the hardest part of copywriting, which, as in all jobs, is to start.

Use every square inch of your paper to fulfill your objective.  Start at the top of the page; use a single selling line incorporated into your letterhead to let readers know what you’re about, or use your first line to convince them to buy your product or service or to call you.  Examples showing quality would be “A Tradition of Excellence,” “A Tradition of Quality,” “World’s Finest….”  Examples of selling the call would be “Call Us Toll Free,” or “Your Call is Welcome at….”

Use the area directly under the letterhead (but before the salutation and body of the letter) to get in an additional short sales message.  Words above the salutation do not appear to the reader as part of the letter.  Insert a couple of lines dedicated to the most important selling features, a strong enticement for your best offer, the biggest benefits, or a few lines to arouse additional interest.  Some mailers even leave off the letterhead of company logo, name, and address in favor of an early heavier block of selling copy.  I recommend this, also.  Both ways work well.

Information presented here should be brief and in shortened form. This copy is separated from the body of the letter, and the space may be incredibly effective for arousing interest.  A few major benefits set off with bullets can also be effective.  No need for full sentences: “Get this benefit”; “This one, too.”

The salutation “Dear Reader” can always be used.  It’s safe, but it’s usually my last choice because it’s boring and impersonal.  This is a personal medium. The closer you can get to the heart, the occupation, or the passion of the person, or the market, the better.  If you’re writing to physicians, open with “Dear Doctor” or “Dear Physician”; to veterinarians, “Dear Animal Lover.”  If you’re writing to business people, “Dear Colleague” is one of my universal favorites and has a wide application.  Common sense prevails.

Other favorites are

Dear Neighbor

Dear Friend,

Dear Enthusiast,

Dear Colleague,

Dear Associate,

Dear Valued Customer, and

Dear Valued Patron.


Dear Fellow Shopper—actually, Dear Fellow Anything—is also a friendly greeting. My very favorite idea to enhance all of the general headings is to put “and Friend” after the greeting.  An example of this is “Dear Customer and Friend,” or “Dear Neighbor and Friend.”  Don’t take a chance with something too cute here—it may turn people off or appear insincere.  You’ll have plenty of time to do that later.  Stay with the basics at the beginning.

Create an interest-arousing opening sentence.  Make this line so compelling that people must continue reading or they’ll go crazy from the suspense. The purpose of the first line is to get the reader into the letter.  If they trash it, make sure they’ll drag it out of the trash at midnight to read the rest of it.  If you can bring your biggest benefit into this line, great.  If not, that’s OK, too.  Just make sure the first line is of exceptional interest to every reader, to keep them reading.

Like the headline for an ad, the opening line has got to be the biggest, the best, the smashing greatest line in your whole package.  If your teaser copy in this line isn’t great great—and I mean great great, not just great—don’t use it.  Keep searching.

With the first line of your letter compelling readers to continue reading, show them early on how they can get your biggest primary or secondary benefits.  Why wait till you lose your readers?  Benefits are what the reader gets for himself when he buys your products. Benefits are the reason people buy.   Benefits are also the reason people continue to read your letter.  They want to see what they get.  They want to see “what’s in it for me.”  Show this to them early.

If you can’t decide if a block of copy should stay or go, strike it out.  Your readers won’t be so kind: when they get to that wishy-washy block, they’ll simply toss everything out.  With the objective in the upper right-hand corner of your paper, compare every line you write to it.  Does this sentence help fulfill the objective?  Does it hold the reader’s intense interest?

Lead off the letter body with an opening paragraph that is one, maybe two lines at most.  A single line can be most electric. It’s oh-so-easy to read a short line, and most people do.  Now’s your chance to hook them.  Catch their attention at their first glance.

Use an exciting and provocative opening sentence.  Or simply start with your biggest benefit first, then expand on that benefit. The secret of success in direct mail: Show the features in the brochure, flaunt the benefits in the letter, and sell the response hard. That is the secret of successful direct mail.

The copy should be written so the weakest, most inexperienced portion of your audience can read it easily.  Write in a conversational tone—like this article.  The text should read as though you’re speaking to someone, man to man, woman to woman, one to one, whatever you are.

If your offer is to businesses, or more technical people, you can use longer words.  But for the best response, I still recommend your letter be in short words and conversational in tone. In fact, I never recommend big words. Scientists and technical people are just people with different sets of skills who don’t know how to dress (plaid shirt, plaid sport coat, plastic pocket pen protectors!).  In every English class I’ve ever taken, the instructor has always told me to increase my vocabulary.  It’s a good thing I never let my education get in the way of effective writing. Short words work best, so why chance it?

The body of the letter should be a compelling set of benefits leading the reader to the logical conclusion to pick up the phone right now and order, inquire, or send in the reply card.  (You do have a reply card, don’t you?)  Mention every important benefit you can think of.  If you have a ton of them, list them in brief bulleted statements of one or two lines apiece.  Picture your reader successfully using your product, and paint this picture in his mind, too.

Focus on how easily he can accomplish the tasks at hand.  How simple things become after he orders your product.  How soon he’ll be finished with his unpleasant tasks.  How much he’ll enjoy using it.  And how much better life will be, if he picks up the phone right now and calls to order.

Now hammer that in.  Don’t be afraid to ask for the response several times in the letter, and again in the PS.  If you are seeking a phone call, mention the number several times in the letter after you say, “Call now to place your order: 800-876-5432!” or “Call for additional information: 800-987-6543.”  This reinforces the number and encourages customers to call.

I usually don’t repeat myself too many times, but asking for the response is the exception.  If you don’t get the response, all has failed and your whole piece has no value other than to look pretty.  In direct mail, we evaluate our packages by different criteria.  They need to bring in money.

The PS is an important part of a direct mail letter, and every letter-like ad should have one.  It gets read first, and sometimes again last.  This is the best place to restate your most powerful benefit and your offer.  Give the phone number again.  It’s your last chance to get your order; make it sound fantastic.

Keep your letters as short as you can; you risk an early death otherwise. If it looks like it’s going to be too much to read, the whole thing gets tossed out.  If it’s excessively long, the benefits can get lost in the clutter instead of being presented first in the logical sequence pointing to the response, and the whole package winds up as landfill fodder.  Long copy only works best if the recipient reads the whole thing and then orders.  For long packages your writing must be totally electric, and even then a good portion of your readers will fall off way before the order form.  So keep it short.  It’s safer.

All writing should be based on “you will receive.”  Avoid starting any paragraph with the first-person singular “I.”  Write in terms of reader benefits and speak in terms of “you.”  Use “you” throughout the letter.  Instead of writing “I will send you,” write “You will receive.”  Think in terms of what the readers will get, and let them know.  Tell them.  Then tell them again. Ask for the response three times in the letter.

To rate your letter copy with a numerical grade, give yourself 10 points for every time you use the word “you” or “your,” 20 points for each benefit you mention, and 30 points for mentioning the best benefit.  Add 5 points for each action word and 10 points for each action or command word directed at your objective (send in the postage-paid card).  Add 25 points for each time you use the word “Free.”  Deduct 25 points each time you use the word “I,” and deduct 100 points if you use “I” to start a sentence at the beginning of a paragraph.  Wish I had these tips when I started out.  Oops. Minus 50.