I had an interesting conversation about sales copy with a couple of biz-owners the other day.
Specifically, about whether enlightened, 21st century businesses like ours should still use old-skool direct response sales letter tactics.
Long headlines, “Dear savvy entrepreneur” openings, bold red fonts, highlighter text, endless bonuses and “I’m so confident…” guarantees – you get the picture.
Some folks call it ‘junk mail’ when it comes through their door, others call it ‘long form sales copy’ whether it’s online or off.
Most just call ’em ‘sales letters’.
Yes they can be cheesy…
Yes they can be ugly…
But sales letters still work (like ‘gangbusters’, whatever the heck that actually means) in many markets, and are responsible for billions of dollars in sales every year for big publishing houses, affiliate marketers and growing businesses alike.
But the old-skool sales tactics in some sales letters make many people uncomfortable.
A lot of biz-owners are uneasy about the idea of ‘selling’ these days…
But they still want/need to make sales.
(btw Daniel Pink wrote a great book about why we’re almost all salespeople now – To Sell Is Human, which I highly recommend – start with his new ABCs of good selling.)
People often say they ‘don’t want to come across all sales-y’, but don’t quite know how to do that…
So they try to ‘tone it down a bit’ – without really knowing what that actually involves.
Maybe they imagine a sales message as like music with a volume control:
That if they just ‘dial it down a notch’ the selling won’t be as loud somehow, their prospects will feel more comfortable yet still eager to buy, sales will be made without anyone feeling ‘sold’ and everyone will be happy.
But while that’s a nice cosy metaphor…
…it sucks as practical advice
(How do you actually ‘dial down’ sales copy anyway?
Write in a lighter font?
Cut the length in half “because long copy feels too sales-y”?
Take out all the calls to action and just leave it up to the reader to figure out how to order if/when they feel the urge?
No. Nope. Hell nope.)
I’ve had countless conversations with biz-owners and copywriters about this, and it seems a lot of our discomfort comes from being over-exposed to so many sales messages that feel formulaic and forced.
Or downright manipulative.
Or just… embarrassingly cheesy.
The thing is though, a lot of successful businesses and marketers still use old-skool sales letter tactics in their messaging because done right, many of them still work.
And while I’m not exactly from the “if it sells, it sells – that’s all that matters!” consequences-be-damned school of direct response marketing, I personally believe there’s a successful balance to be struck:
That by combining tried & tested sales copy techniques with a compassionate, conversational, NON-cheesy approach you can demonstrate your unique value and connect with your best customers – who will be glad they bought from you, not regretful.
(Nobody should ever feel ‘forced’ into a sale. Buyer’s remorse is a real thing.
That’s why Selling Unique is about prioritising genuine long-term connection with your customers & clients.)
Some people care more about the way they sell than others do – and if you’re reading this, that means you give more of a shizzle than the average biz-owner or marketer.
You’re in good company 😉
So here’s a look at some old-skool sales letter elements you CAN still use to sell unique in new-skool, ‘enlightened’ sales messages…
…WITHOUT swimming in sleaze, bringing the cheese or scaring away your prospects.
1 – Headlines that get attention
Classic sales letters have great headlines. If they didn’t, their many other charms would have gone unnoticed.
We all know old-skool sales letters rely on sometimes-outrageously long headlines to get attention.
But you don’t have to use 59 words and imitate the direct mail grabbers of the past to get your prospect reading on, like:
How A Practically Zombified Great-Great-Grandfather From One Of The World’s Poorest Towns Leapt Unaided From His Deathbed To Proclaim:
“I Stumbled Across A Simple System For Making Empty Beer Cans Spit Money Like A Broken ATM In Warp-Speed Time – And Now I’m Sharing My Secrets With Two Russian Hackers (Who Are In Turn Sharing Their Secrets With You)…
Instead, you can put the cheese on ice (mmm… iced cheese) and get their attention by simply highlighting a problem your ideal customer might be experiencing…
Or by spotlighting what’s truly unique about your offer…
Or by pulling them in with sheer curiosity…
With headlines, there are so many different ways you can go. The point is, it’s not the LENGTH of the old-skool ones you should be looking to emulate, so much as the SPECIFICITY.
Try writing a headline that could only apply to your specific service or product, and forget about what you think it should ‘look’ like. The length isn’t that important (and different mediums restrict length anyway).
Start with a focus on your unique approach, and the people who read on beyond your headline will already be primed for your message.
2 – Subheads and crossheads (yes, like this one)
This whole theory about our attention spans constantly shrinking is kind of a flawed argument.
Yes, we have more distractions available to us these days. But people still read about things they want to read about, and they read in depth too – it’s only really the mediums that have changed.
Distractions or not, if there’s a well-written 3,000 word piece on Springsteen in front of me, you can bet I’ll read it and stay glued throughout, regardless of what’s pinging away in the background.
That said, I’ll find it a lot easier to stay focused if the piece I’m reading has plenty of whitespace around the lovely Bruce-flavoured words, and uses compelling subheads & crossheads to break up chunks o’ text.
If you’re writing a sales message of hundreds or even thousands of words, pull out some of your best or most direct points and use ‘em as crossheads.
You’ll draw skim-readers in AND make it easier for those who get hooked from the opening to flow through your message.
3 – Testimonials
As unashamedly unsexy and old-skool as a pensioner’s cardigan (a ‘wear every day’ one, not even an ‘out to lunch’ cardigan) the testimonial is another sales letter classic that’s still essential for selling to even the most Saas-savvy millennial audience.
In fact, in today’s world of leaked data, customers-as-product social media villainy, billion-dollar scam industries and, er, corrupt politicians (ok so no change there then) trust is more important to growing your business than ever.
Everyone’s on the lookout for social proof before they buy, so the power of good testimonials will probably still be as strong when Claude Hopkins’ Scientific Advertising turns 500 years old (for the record, 2023 will be the direct response bible’s centenary).
Selling Unique is about demonstrating your value, not just talking about it – and testimonials are still a great way to do that.
Written, recorded, carved on the side of a mountain, whatever – just be sure that the best of your best are accessible to your ideal prospect.
4 – The ‘Crossroads Close’
Ok, this one’s a little controversial.
It’s basically that point you’ve seen towards the end of a million old-skool sales letters where you’re asked to make a decision between continuing with life as it is now…
…vs taking a new, clearly preferential path forward – starting of course with buying whatever gadget, doodad or thingamajig is for sale on the page.
Some more on-the-nose examples may even use the exact words “You’re at a crossroads…”
It’s all so blatantly formulaic and sales-letter-by-numbers that you probably cringe when you see it these days (and if you’ve ever spent any time on ClickBank you’ve probably been cringing a LOT since about 2008).
But there’s something in there we can all benefit from…
It’s about the power of agency.
When you point out to someone that they’re at a decision point, you’re saying it’s up to THEM and not YOU (the seller).
You’re putting the decision in their hands.
People like to make decisions themselves, but respond negatively when they feel like they’re being forced into them (lord knows I do).
So, if you can present your decision point subtly enough (start by NOT saying “YOU’RE AT A CROSSROADS NOW…”) you can actually connect with your reader’s sense of independence, and lean back on the solid case you’ve presented in favour of your product or service (or doodad, cos everyone likes a good doodad now and then).
Ok, time for one more:
5 – The good ol’ CTA (call to action)
Direct response advertising took its name from the fact that any example had to be capable of generating a direct response from the reader – like a phone call, mail order form completion, or later a button click – leading to a sale (or qualified lead).
So the call to action became – and remains – a critical element of written sales messaging.
Backing off from a clear and compelling CTA doesn’t mean you’re ‘dialling down the sales-iness’…
It just means you’re making it harder for someone who wants what you have to get it.
The rules still apply now as they did in the days of ye olde DR advertisers, way back:
Tell them what they’ll get.
Tell them exactly how to get it.
Tell them what will happen next.
Don’t be ashamed to use a bold, clear CTA in your sales messaging. Confusion kills sales, and drives people nuts into the bargain.
You don’t have to use a massive great ugly button that screams BUY NOW!!! – but you do have to make it obvious how to move forward.
There’s room for creativity in your CTA: you can split-test different button or link copy, and if you’re selling via email you can offer a “hit reply” option, amongst others – but never at the expense of clarity.
Some sales letter tactics have stood the test of time for good reason. These are just a few you can use in 2019 and beyond to truly ‘sell unique’ and keep the cheese factor under control.
There’s really no reason why you can’t authentically communicate your unique value and make a whole bunch’a sales at the same time.
Now go write your new 59-word headline! (kidding).