Recommended to me by a friend of mine (Omari Broussard of 10xdefense.com), The Ultimate Sales Letter by Dan Kennedy is a handbook on writing excellent direct marketing copy through the mail. The book talks about physical letters, because that is the origin of sales letters in general. However, the concepts throughout the entirety of the book prove useful to write better sales copy in any context, and especially through email.
In an effort to solidify my own learning, I will go through the entire book and write myself an outline here on this page. This isn't a review of the book and I won't give it a rating on a five-star scale. This is simply what I learned by reading it.
Part 1: Before You Write a Word
There are a couple big ideas in this short introduction to the rest of the book:
- Fear not! Writing shouldn't be scary. There's no magic and you don't have to be especially qualified.
- You know your business best. Or, at least you should. Don't forget this knowledge when you start writing your sales letters.
- Have a swipe file. Build a collection of great ideas, hooks, headlines, and anything else that you might use in your own sales letters. It's called a swipe file because you're swiping ideas from these sources of inspiration.
- "Think selling." This is one of the more important ideas to consider when writing sales copy. The end goal is to make a sale. As I write in Speak With an End in Mind, everything that you say or write should have a clear purpose. The clear purpose here is to sell.
- Don't worry about perfect. Especially when you are beginning to write your sales letter, you are not going to produce a finished product on the first go-round. In fact, you might only have a massive list of ideas that are in no way cohesive. That's okay, because it's a start. That's all you need.
Part 2: The Kennedy System
Dan Kennedy describes writing a sales letter as a system. This is why you have no reason to fear writing, because it's not really a creative endeavor at all when you systemize it! Of course, you may still be scared of writing a romance novel, but we're writing sales letters. The Kennedy System is just a bunch of steps that, if followed, should elicit positive results.
These are separated into chapters, but I think that it makes more sense to just go through each step individually and summarize those concepts succinctly.
Step 1: Get "into" the customer.
In order to write a good sales letter, you have to deeply understand your audience. There is no shortcut to doing this, and many great copywriters spend most of their time immersing themselves in the world of the customer. There is no use in starting your sales letter if you have no idea who you are writing to.
Step 2: Get "into" the offer.
Every sales letter has some sort of offer, whether that's a coupon or a 5–figure training seminar. Remember, you're a salesman! Understand your product inside and out, and you'll be much more able to sell it. Getting into the offer means you fully understand why it's valuable and worth anyone's time.
Both of these are crucial steps, and are very easy to overlook or rush through because you simply want to start writing. Don't get impatient. (See footnote 1 at the bottom of the article.)
Step 3: Damaging admissions and address flaws
There are many reasons that the recipient of your letter either won't want to respond or will be skeptical of your offer. Take time to recognize those, and then be ready to address them in your sales letter. Unlike a regular sales conversation, you will have to sell, overcome objections, and close the deal in one letter. Make sure that you anticipate your roadblocks.
Step 4: Get your letter delivered
This step is only applicable to physical letters being mailed through a postal system, not email or any other sort of copy. The concept is just to make sure that your sales letter reaches it's destination.
With email, the big consideration is to make sure that you have the right email address, and that you get through to the person you are trying to reach rather than a gatekeeper. No matter how you do it, make sure your prospect gets your letter.
Step 5: Get your letter looked at
Again, in the book Kennedy is talking mostly about physical letters. The techniques such as labelling your envelope with a stamp like "DO NOT FOLD: PICTURE ENCLOSED" are tactics that specifically work for a letter in an envelope, but there are equivalent techniques that you can use to get an email read.
Namely, the subject line of your email is extremely important. There are plenty of ways to write a good subject line, and to take from earlier advice, I highly recommend that you start paying attention to what subject lines you personally respond to, and swipe them. Screenshot them and put them in a swipe file. When you need to write a subject line, look at these examples and take some ideas to try for yourself.
Step 6: Get your letter read
Here's a formula to keep in mind as you write your sales letter: AIDA. It stands for Attention, Interest, Desire, Action.
In order to get your sales letter read, you have to make sure that each of these bases are covered. Of course, you have to grab their attention, but anyone can grab your attention. That might be as easy as putting a provocative picture on the front of a letter, but if you open the letter and start reading boring copy about insurance sales...the prospect has lost interest and throws away your letter.
Grab attention, create interest, develop a desire, and make the prospect take action. Going in this order, you can get your entire sales letter read.
Part of grabbing attention and creating interest comes with good headlines. For a more modern equivalent, think clickbait titles (annoying, but functional):
14 Secrets That Celebrities Use to Stay Fit
No, that isn't a real link, so don't try clicking on it.
Step 7: Beat the Bugaboo, or pricing
The sales letter's end goal is to make the prospect purchase something, so price must be considered in the letter itself. You will have to address price at one point, so the writer must be careful not to get the letter immediately trashed when the prospect reads the price. Some techniques:
- State price relative to value. If you have a product that could make your prospect lots of money, then tell them! "This course will quadruple your income in 6 months—and it's only $999.99! Even if you only make $5,000 more this quarter, you'll have made back the money you spent on this course five times over!"
- Offer options. Give your prospect different ways to buy. You may offer something at double the price you actually expect them to buy at, and then offer a second option at the desired price. This makes the second price seem much less hefty, and more attractive.
- State the price in terms of payments. A $24,000 course for business owners is much less scary when broken down into payments of $2,000. It's the same price, it just seems more feasible in smaller amounts. (2)
Step 8: Motivate Action
There are some pretty slimy techniques to motivate action in a sales letter. Kennedy is pretty clear that the sales letter and sales in general is inherently manipulative, which may turn some heads.
Nonetheless, his techniques include any form of intimidation, which is as simple as a limited time offer, for example. A limited time offer threatens to take away the product if action is not taken swiftly, and is a form of intimidation.
Additionally, you can demonstrate concrete ROI for the prospect, give them a money-back guarantee, or appeal to their ego and make them do something because they're just that type of guy or gal. Your goal remains the same—get them to take action and take the next step, whether that's making a purchase or scheduling a phone call with a salesperson.
Step 9: Write the first draft
You've got information at this point, and you should know how to address pricing issues, what your headline and big offer will be, etc. Now, sit down and start putting the pieces together!
It can seem difficult at first, but it's truly not. If you have writer's block, lower your standards and keep writing. This is only a first draft, and will not be perfect—just get all of your content down on paper and go from there.
Step 10: Rewrite for strategy
Inevitably, the first draft won't be great, and surely won't be ready to put in the mail. While rewriting for strategy, you will add headlines, add examples, make the writing more clear, and start to whittle away at the content to make it more succinct in certain areas.
Breaking up the long text of your sales letter is crucial. There must be subheadings, because there will be people that only read the big text, not the smaller copy. Including these subheadings and making them as clear as the detailed copy itself is called the double readership path. It creates two paths of reading the sales letter, and should make just as much sense when read on one path as the other.
Step 11: Rewrite for style
This is the part where you make the entire sales letter reader-friendly, which is the purpose of rewriting for strategy, too. The separation for me is a bit unclear, and they both feel like simply rewriting to make a better sales letter.
The focus in step 11 is to reduce the amount of text to the least possible amount while still conveying the same idea. Remove all excess words and don't ramble on for a paragraph when the point could be just as well explained in one sentence!
Step 12: Answer questions and objections
You'll see this sort of copy on FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) pages, and it's designed to answer the questions that you will inevitably be left with after a product is explained. FAQs are great, but they are not the most effective way to answer questions.
Kennedy advocates for you to list out every possible question and objection that your prospect could possibly have, and answer them all in the sales letter. Yes, your prospect may not have thought of some of the objections, but if your product is any good, you should be able to overcome these objections even after bringing them to the surface yourself.
While answering to these objections, include a direct answer, and also other explanations or testimonials that back up the claim you are making with your answer. This is key to validating your answer and truly overcoming that hurdle.
Step 13: Make them act immediately!
The sales letter should demand a response today, not tomorrow. Tomorrow, your prospect will have already forgotten about your letter. Don't let them wait! Going back to the intimidation mentioned earlier, use limited time offers and premium offers to get your prospect to spend their money immediately. Deadlines also work, as they spark a sense of buy-or-flight in the buyer. If your copy is good, they will opt to buy.
Step 14: PS: Use a postscript!
The PS at the end of the letter is one of the most important parts of any letter, and especially a sales letter. There are many who skip to the end of the letter to look at the signature, and the PS is just another place that you can put an intriguing headline and get your prospect to start reading.
You can also use it as a final way to make an offer that you haven't mentioned throughout the rest of the sales letter.
PS: It might be the one part of your sales letter that secures a sale!
Step 15: Use checklists
At the beginning of this post, I mentioned that Dan Kennedy believes that the sales letter writing process is just that—a process. It's a process, and can be repeated and systemized accordingly. Without giving too much away from the book, he advises you to go through all of the steps that he teaches prior to this part of the book and make sure that you have covered all of your bases and tried to use these techniques to improve your sales letter.
In the book, he includes 35 questions to ask yourself about your sales letter. It's an excellent way to revise and put the finishing touches on your letter. Maybe you develop your own checklist at one point, but I recommend buying the book and starting with Dan Kennedy's.
Step 16: Use graphic enhancement
This section is all about gimmicks that you can use on a physical letter to make it look better and more enticing, but I'll sum it up for all of you that are writing copy on the internet or creating landing pages:
Make it easy to read, and make it look alive.
If you're not sure what that means, you can get in touch with my design company, thirdbreath, or go hire another designer. We'll get it taken care of for you.
Step 17: Rewrite for passion
Throw some feeling into your sales letter, would ya? After all this editing, revising, and cutting, make sure that it still has something to say and still evokes emotion. Don't be purely logical, and don't spit out statistics left-and-right with no aim other than to recite all of the numbers that you pay attention to personally. Your customer doesn't care! Make them care about what matters, which is your product and how it can help them.
Step 18: Compare yours to others
You know what a good sales letter or landing page or prospecting email is, because you've received them before! Put whatever copy you're writing next to a much better example. If it sucks, it'll become immediately apparent. Figure out where you're falling short and don't hesitate to go back to the drawing board.
Step 19, 20, & 23: Test drive your sales letter
Mail it to yourself! See what happens when your sales letter ends up in your stack of mail. Did you almost throw it away immediately? Were you intrigued yourself? Test it on someone else: did they pick it up? What were they interested in, if anything at all?
Half of the game here is being able to objectively look at your letter and decide whether or not you did a good job. It might help to get some outside input, just in case you're missing something big that makes your sales letter a complete bust.
If you've been developing a landing page or writing a sales letter via email, bring it to life by sending it to yourself. See what it looks like in your inbox, notice what the excerpt says, see if the subject line gets cut off in your email program... pay attention to all of those details, and make adjustments accordingly.
Step 21: Revise your design
Meet with your designer again to make sure that everything looks nice and pretty and it's all easy to read. Hopefully, they'll pay as much attention to the design of your letter or page as you have on the writing.
Step 22: Edit (again)
Check twice. Check thrice. Check until you can't check anymore.
Step 24: Take a break
You've done all of these steps without sleeping or taking a break once? Geez! You're a monster copywriter. Well, it's time to sit back for a couple days and not think about the letter at all. Don't look at it. Don't think about it. Nothing.
When you come back to it after a couple days, you'll be a bit more objective in your analysis of your work. Edit it again with your fresh pair of eyes. Take your time. Don't skip this step.
If you're writing copy on the internet, this is slightly less important. The reason it is so crucial for a literal sales letter like Dan is describing is that once you order and send off thousands of your sales letter, there is no turning back. On the internet, if there is a tpyo, you can edit it instantly and fix it for all future viewers. (3)
Step 25: Phone a friend
This goes along with sending your sales letter for a test drive, but go ahead and ask your friends what they think of your creation. Have them take a look at the whole package, and see if they're interested. Have them read the copy and critique it. Don't take it personally if you get criticized—it's for the best of your sales letter.
Step 26: We're almost there
Check again. Isn't this like the fifth time we've looked it over? Well, do it again.
Step 27: Press send
Whether you're actually putting a sales letter in the mail or just pressing send on an email, it's time. Put your work in front of your customers. Hopefully, your work will pay off very soon, and people will begin to respond to your sales letter.
Step 28: Test
If you've got some variables that you want to test, do it! Send out one batch of letters with one picture on the front of your letter, send another batch with a different picture, and see which one gets more response. This is done all of the time in the digital marketing space and is called A/B testing.
Step 29: Outsource
Perhaps, you've read all of these steps and done nothing. Maybe you should just hire somebody else to do it, because either you don't have the time, skill, or care to do it. There are plenty of copywriters out there, and you could always just hire them to create your sales letter to help you out!
This was not a comprehensive summary of The Ultimate Sales Letter. There is way more content in the actual book, though this is a relatively good overview of the content. I did this for my own purposes, to review my own learning and immerse myself in the content. You should go buy the book, because Dan obviously does a much better job of explaining all of these things, and if you got any value from this post, you'll be thrilled to read the entire book.
(1) As a side note: I've recently had multiple prospective clients ask me if I could write email copy for their companies. In one of these cases, the client said that they simply didn't have time to answer questions on the direction and goals of the business. This meant that he simply needed a copywriter that could come up with genius sales copy without any understanding of the business.
I'm not a professional copywriter just yet, but I have a hunch that this is not a good project to take on. Just like in my design work, there's no way to skip the research and strategy phase of writing good copy. We're trying to sell things. If I was being hired as a door-to-door salesman, surely the company would take time to explain their business model and teach me about their product extensively! Why wouldn't that be the same for a designer or a copywriter?
(2) There is a story that is usually attributed to the baseball player Yogi Berra that goes something like this: Yogi Berra went to buy pizza and the waitress asked him if he wanted the pizza sliced into six pieces or eight. He responded, "Six. I don't think I can eat eight."