Letters still sell in the age of e-mail

Letters still sell in the age of e-mail – advice

Murray Raphel

Here is a series of three letters written a week apart nearly 75 years ago from a butcher in London. He had just opened his meat market and wanted his neighbors to know where he was and what he sold.

First week: “Dear Mrs. Henderson, I sell good meat and poultry. Albert Hawkins, butcher.”

Second week: “Dear Mrs. Henderson. My customers can be sure of prompt delivery of meat and poultry. Sincerely, Albert Hawkins, butcher.”

Third week: “Dear Mrs. Hawkins. It doesn’t cost much. Yours sincerely, Albert Hawkins, butcher.”

What was Albert Hawkins doing? He was communicating using the least complicated and most effective way: letter writing. The technique still works today.

“Wait,” say the naysayers. “Didn’t faxes replace letters? Doesn’t e-mail replace letters? Have you read the latest statistics from the Post Office saying their revenue is down because of e-mail?”

True, but we still get a rush of excitement when we find a real letter in the mailbox. Letters provide something private, personal and positively persuasive that is not available from electronic media. It is a one-on-one relationship between you and your customer unlike an e-mail also sent to dozens of other addresses.

At my store, we would announce our annual winter sale in a personal letter to our customers inviting them to come in to the two-day pre-sale “courtesy days.” One year, a customer called and said, “Both my neighbors got your sale mailer. I’m a customer, too. How come I didn’t get one?”

We apologized and mailed it the same day. Would the reaction have been the same from a fax or e-mail? Hardly.

There are a few techniques marketers use use to insure greater success with letters. Here are six of those steps to writing letters that really work:

Promise a Benefit Up Front

Why should I read the letter you sent me? Do you have special prices? A limited selection? Tell me why in one or two short sentences.

My nephew opened a small deli restaurant in our shopping center. He ran out of money for opening-day advertising. I suggested he write a letter to 200 executives that worked within a 10-block radius of his deli, because people will not walk more than 10 minutes from their office for their limited lunch time.

His opening sentence read, “Whoever said there’s no such thing as a free lunch didn’t know about this letter.” The letter offered them their first lunch free, and he included his menu. About 125 people accepted. Of the 125, 100 became steady customers. He never did any more advertising but simply built on this customer base with future letters and new offers. For a budget of less than $50, he built a successful business.

Enlarge on the Benefit

Give more information explaining your opening sentence(s). The deli letter explained how the program worked, and, as an added benefit, each person receiving their free lunch became a member of his “Taster’s Club” This free membership had a list of advantages including another free lunch “bonus” after they bought 10 lunches.

Be Specific About Savings

Write to your customers using their name. I received a membership application in the mail from a marketing guild, so I filled out the form and mailed it back. Then, when I received an acknowledgement of my letter with a greeting that began, “To whom it may concern,” I resigned. It wasn’t specific enough.

Copywriter Ed McLean wrote Newsweek magazine’s most successful subscription letter. It was used as a “control” against all other letters for 17 years and outperformed them all. One reason for the success was the number of times the word “you” was used–more than 20 times just on the first page. Now, that’s specific.

In your letter, tell what artist’s works are on sale. What are the specific savings on framing? Don’t simply say “sale” or “half-price sale.” Tell me the specific savings on the selected items you offer. Many galleries write they’re having a half-price sale but don’t give examples. There are three parts to proving the value of the sale item: The original price, the sale price and the amount of savings. Show all three.

Give Proof

Do you ever wonder who won the free trip to Hawaii on those contests you see advertised in supermarkets and magazines? If you have a sweepstakes or drawing during your sale, tell who won in your next ad. Don’t use last names or addresses because the winners might receive unwanted calls. Simply say, “Mary in Cannondale won the limited-edition print by …”

Another effective “proof” is listing testimonials from people who bought something at your last sale and said you had great values. Testimonials are easy to obtain. You know the customers to contact. Ask them for a simple sentence or two on why they believe your sales are great, and show them the testimonial for their approval before it is printed.

Repeat, Repeat, Repeat

If something works, repeat it.

Our most successful sale was held on New Year’s Day for only three hours, so we repeated it for 27 years. Every year, two things happened: We did more business than the previous year, and we did more business on this one day in only three hours than we did any week of the entire year. The trick was adding something new or different each year and telling our customers about it in a letter.

Direct-mail gurus often suggest you do a two-part mailing for new customers. You tell the benefits of your product and include a card that says, “If you would like more information, please fill out this card.” Most people see these cards, tear them up and throw them away. One award-winning campaign from an Australian retailer enclosed two cards. One was torn in half. The letter explained, “We have already torn up the card you were going to tear up, so you can fill out the other one and mail it to us.”

Ask For the Order

Your letter must be a call for action and “ask for the order.” My favorite example of this comes from Reese Palley, an Atlantic City art dealer who wanted to do something different for his 50th birthday. One day, Salvadore Dali’s agent came in with a group of 1,600 signed lithographs Dali had made of playing cards. He offered them to Palley for $100 each, and he bought them all.

He wrote a letter for his “Palley Dali Paris Birthday Party” to his basic mailing list of 2,500 saying, “I’m going to celebrate my 50th birthday in Paris. I’d like you to come with me. At no charge. All you have to do is buy a Dali lithograph from me for $650, and I will give you a trip for two to Paris for a weekend at no cost.” He continued, “As we fly to Paris in the 747, I’ll have a large art collection in the upstairs cabin. If you buy any piece of art going over, you’ll save 10 percent. Buy anything coming back, and you’ll pay 20 percent more.”

Within 72 hours he sold out a 747 plane. Within a month he sold out another 747. He made over $1 million on this letter campaign that cost him first-class postage plus about a dime each to copy them. All because of a letter that “asked for the order.”

(If you’d like a copy of the book, The Greatest Direct Mail Sales Letters of All Time, write me at 118 South Newton Place, Atlantic City, NJ 08401. I love to get letters.)

Murray Raphel is one of the nation’s leading marketing experts and author of several business books. Contact him at Raphel Marketing at (802) 751-8802 or E-mail murray@raphel.com.

COPYRIGHT 2003 Advanstar Communications, Inc.

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