Dear Friend

Feb 16th

Don't you hate sales letters than begin with "Dear Friend"? :)

Sleazy sales letters peddling get rich quick scams will be familiar to anyone who has spent any time on the internet. Seemingly written by some self-aggrandizing, ex-timeshare salesman, they attempt to press every conceivable button in order to make a quick sale. The downside is that they can make your product or service look low-rent.

However, whilst the execution of these letters is often mangled, the underlying psychology works. Most copywriters use these very same psychological techniques.

Let's discuss a few common sales writing techniques, the underlying psychology, and how these techniques can be used in different ways.

1. Avoid Cliches

Some sales letters start with outdated phrases such as "From The Desk Of: [name]", and "Dear Friend".

Perhaps an updated version would be "From The Computer Of:". Still sounds hokey :)

The problem with this approach is that consumers in the 2000s are cynical, jaded and media savvy. Bombarded with commercial messages, they've learned to filter commercial messages out. By using jaded, outdated phrases associated with sales copy, you increase the likelihood your message will be filtered out.

A more contemporary approach is to make your copy direct, honest and colloquial. For example, take a look at Copyblogger. The writing on CopyBlogger uses a lot of the classic, direct marketing techniques, yet it doesn't sound jaded, because the writer is using an informal, self-aware style of writing.

One qualification: this does depend on your audience. The older your audience are, the less likely dated phrases will turn them off.

2. Appeal To Self Interest

It's still all about them, not you.

Sales letters are big on outlining the benefits for the consumer, and this is one area that hasn't changed. However, to be most effective, you need to know your audience well. Depending on your audience, this might mean using no words at all.

Take a look at the Gucci site. Luxury brands seldom resort to explicitly listing benefits, because as far as the manufacturer and consumer are concerned, the benefits should be self-evident. If they need explaining, then they've got a problem, so very much a case of show, don't tell. Could you imagine using a long-winded, cliche ridden sales letter to sell Gucci? It would undermine, rather than enhance the brand.

Listing benefits can be very powerful. Take a look at how SEOBook does it. Aaron tells me the conversion rate jumped after he moved to spelling out benefits in this focused, punchy way. Notice that page also integrates a strong call-to-action, and examples of social proof.

More on these aspects shortly.

3. Engagement

If your audience feels engaged, they're more likely to buy.

Forrester Research conducted a study(PDF) of over 200 companies, and found that companies expected to benefit in terms of more sales, increased loyalty, and peer recommendations by engaging their customers on a deeper level. Customers often want more than a transaction, they want to feel part of something.

A clumsy way to invoke engagement is to use over-familiar phrases like "Dear Friend". It's a little dishonest, given the anonymous nature of the relationship. A better way is to relate genuine shared experiences. Shared stories and experiences create a feeling of empathy, which leads to a greater degree of engagement.

There are many ways to do this, of course.

Take a look at the way Apple markets to their customers. You're very much buying into an familiar and shared identity - a style conscious one - when you buy Apple, as opposed to simply buying a computer or an MP3 player.

Telling stories about how you solved a problem is a good approach, and one that sales letters often do well.

Another approach is to let the customers tell their own stories. Amazon does this with the user feedback facility. Think of ways you can combine interaction, engagement and brand identity.

4. Social Proof

If other people have done something, it feels safer.

Buying carries risk - risk that you'll lose money. In the traditional sales letter, you'll see testimonials from seemingly delighted users. These testimonials often appear alongside stock photos - erm, genuine photos of the letter writer ;) - and often feature a scanned signature.

The underlying truth is that humans are like reef-fish. We think, sometimes unwisely, that there is safety in numbers. So if we see other people buying a product, then it is safe for us to buy it as well.

There are a number of ways to provide social proof. Testimonials are very powerful, but people are likely to be suspicious of testimonials from people they don't know. Try and get testimonials from people your audience are already familiar with. Link to the sites of people who provided the testimonials. Give people a means to check credibility.

One method used a lot in the SEO world is to have your photo taken at a search conference, usually alongside some guru. The implication is that the person has been sharing secret SEO techniques all evening, when in all likelihood the person pictured has just asked "hey, can I get a photo with you?".

The photos are another example of social proof - the person pictured is "in the know", and seems to be best friends with some guru the audience already knows, and thus becomes a reliable source of advice on search.

We've all done it :)

5. Call To Action

Give people a clear indication of what they should do next.

This is an important aspect of all direct marketing, and you'll see calls to action peppered throughout sales letters. Calls to action work well because they help close the sales deal. They move the prospect from thinking to action.

The call to action in the sales letter usually involves jumping straight to the close - BUY NOW!! - but it needn't be. Calls to action take many forms, including a request for the prospect to join a mailing list, call the company, remember a piece of information, or send an email.

Keep in mind what you want your audience to do, and spell it out. Don't leave it up in the air.

Published: February 16, 2009

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Comments

February 16, 2009 - 3:24am

Awesome picture!

February 16, 2009 - 2:16pm

Nice, clear and concise! I will make sure I list site membership benefits as you have here, hoping to see an improvement in signups.

February 16, 2009 - 2:45pm

Nice article Peter...and right on the money. Literally.

February 16, 2009 - 6:10pm

Wonderful post Peter. I am glad you mentioned appealing to self interest. That seems to be one of the more challenging aspects to really hit on.

Trying to dig deep and communicate with the audience (even when you have been a part of the target group you are now selling to) means really getting into the emotion and then empowering them to take action on that emotion with a good call to action.

February 16, 2009 - 7:03pm

creepy.... where did you get that picture of me? ;)

February 16, 2009 - 8:54pm

Great post - A very good overview of the key components of a good sales letter. When we've contacted new companies by letter, we try to always have a contact - definitely increases the chances of the piece making it to the right person. I shudder when I get mail directed to "Our Friends at XXX or Current Resident". Ugh!

February 17, 2009 - 8:59pm

I agree w/ you Peter. Ironically though, the first page I read on copyblogger today was http://www.copyblogger.com/copywriting-mavens-landing-page-makeover-clin... , which devoted an entire bullet to using the "dear friend" :)

February 17, 2009 - 11:15pm

Heh heh.....:)

I know you already agree with me, Avalanche, but I'll clarify my position if anyone is unclear on this point.

I agree with the main point CopyBlogger is making, that if you're telling a personal story, you do so using a personal mode of conversation. Telling a personal story using a business mode of communication wouldn't gel.

Perhaps it's a cultural issue, but "Dear Friend" comes across to me as dishonest. This person is not my friend, I do not know them, therefore I immediately question why this person wants to force the "friendship" issue so quickly. It's also the cliched mark of the stereotyped, sleazy used-car salesman.

The truth is they want to sell me something, and couldn't care less if I was their friend or not. So, why, when using a supposedly truthful, direct, personal mode, do they start with an obvious lie?

Granted "Dear Friend" might be the equivalent of "Hello", but it has negative associations and doesn't travel well.

There are other ways of personalizing a message :)

February 20, 2009 - 8:07am

Great clear article.

My prefered approach is to offer free and useful information to the people on my mailing list. By giving rather than trying to sell right away I give myself the chance to build a relationship with them.

People get used to getting valuable information and therefore my emails tend to get opened.

Into the mix, I will throw in information about my products and services.

If you have established trust then the sales message get listened to. It's a bit like a friend recommending a product.

Of course, you've got to really believe in your product otherwise a) it shows in your sales copy and b) if it's not up to it you won't sell many.

Cheers
Mike

PS: I agree I hate Dear Friend!

February 20, 2009 - 3:17pm

The latest use of the "Dear Friend" angle is social networks (or fake social networks) that try to make you feel guilty in the email letting you know that some random person sent you some random message...but you can't find out anything of value until you set up an account with an outfit that was exploitative right from the first second, in an unsolicited email no less!

I mark those as spam every time.

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