The sales letter is the most important element of the standard direct mail package. It takes the place of a salesperson and provides sellers with the opportunity for personal, one-on-one communication with their prospects. In addition to their use in direct mail, sales letters are also used by salespeople in a variety of situations—from customer communications to internal letters written for others on the sales force.

A standard direct-mail package usually includes an outer envelope, a reply envelope, a brochure, and a response device in addition to the sales letter. The direct-mail letter is a sales letter and provides the opportunity to directly address the interests and concerns of the recipient. In a sense the letter replaces the salesperson in face-to-face selling. The letter typically spells out the benefits of the offer in detail. The more personal the sales letter, the more effective it generally is. To be successful the letter writer must be intimately familiar with not only the product or service and its benefits, he or she must know and understand the person to whom the letter is addressed.

A sales letter can be analyzed and discussed in terms of its components, including the letterhead and size of the letter, the salutation, the lead or opening, the body of the letter and its close, the signing of the letter, and the postscript. The look of a direct-mail sales letter is also important. Typeface selection, use of a second color, frequent indents and bullets, and other ways to highlight or emphasize certain parts of the letter play an important role in a sales letter's success.

Successful sales letters usually begin by spelling out some of the benefits of the product or service being sold. This is done in a way that captures the reader's attention. It may involve placing a lead sentence over the salutation or inside what is known as a Johnson Box, so named after 20th-century copywriter Frank Johnson who effectively used boxed messages to sell magazine subscriptions. Once the letter's lead has grabbed the reader's attention, the body of the letter follows to generate interest and motivate the reader to action. This is often accomplished by addressing the reader in a direct, personal manner and spelling out additional benefits that match the reader's known interests and needs. A successful sales letter may be as long as four pages or as short as one. There is no rule covering the length of a sales letter, only that it be long enough to tell an effective sales story.

The postscript, or P.S., is one of the most effective parts of a sales letter. Studies have shown that people who don't spend time reading the entire letter usually glance at the end of the letter and read the postscript—if there is one. Good letter writers know that the postscript is likely to be read, so they manage to include an especially attractive restatement of the offer, a key benefit, or other inducements to action in the postscript.

A "lift letter" is a variant of the direct-mail sales letter that is often added to a direct-mail package to "lift" the response rate. The lift letter often carries the message, "Read this only if you've decided not to accept our offer," or something similar to grab the recipient's attention one more time.

Another variant of the direct-mail sales letter is the testimonial, or endorsement, letter. While some sales letters may incorporate testimonials into the body of the letter, in other cases it becomes desirable to include an entire letter that serves as a testimonial for the product or service being sold. Product endorsements from real people are used to provide credibility and overcome the reader's reluctance to accept advertising or sales copy at face value.

Outside the realm of direct mail, sales letters are used by salespeople to deal with a variety of situations. They may send sales letters to customers and prospects as a lead-in or follow-up to a telephone call or appointment, to confirm an appointment, as a letter of introduction, as a "reminder" to buy, and to cover a variety of other selling situations. Sales letters help salespeople build relationships with their customers. The letters are used to sell and service accounts. Customers often perceive letters as being more thoughtful than telephone calls.

Sales letters can also be used effectively to build a marketing team or sales force. Letters from the sales manager can be used to provide encouragement and inform the sales staff in a variety of ways. Sales letters are used to announce changes in territories or commissions, incentive award offers, recognition of achievement, and other business matters affecting the sales force.

[ David P. Bianco ]


Lewis, Herschell Gordon. World's Greatest Direct Mail Sales Letters. Lincolnwood, IL: NTC/Contemporary Publishing, 1995.

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