How to create a cash-producing direct mail letter

June 1, 2000
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After my last article on “The top hvac direct mail mistakes,” it seemed only fair to give you what it takes to create a killer letter. I had tons of calls on that article (which ran in the Aug. 16, 1999 issue of The News) and many of you had apparently committed every direct mail sin. . . on your last try!

Don’t be discouraged. This article should help.

9 steps to successful sales letters

1. Before you compose a blistering, customer-oriented direct mail letter, you must first quit thinking like a contractor. You may want to turn your contracting license face down on your desk.

Disregard the technical facts and figures; temporarily forget your company’s awards, and try to detach yourself from comparisons to your competition. During composition, you may want to even seek the advice of regular consumers.

If you’re thinking, “But they don’t know anything about this business,” you’re right. God bless them for that! Let’s remember that the people to whom we’re talking aren’t supposed to know anything about this business. They’re the ones with the checkbooks who are supposed to be buying hvac equipment and services.

With this in mind, serve the people what they want. Your letter should be about them, to them, for them. Don’t get caught in the Ego Trap, where you brag about your own self-serving virtues or depth of knowledge.

2. Write to a real person in an appealing conversational way.

Look, even though we read this type of thing all the time, no one ever really says, “Thank you for your patronage. Please contact us for all your hvac needs.” Whoever told you people respond to junk like that has been sniffing Freon.

People say things like, “We really appreciate your business and hope we can help you in the future,” so write like that. It’s far simpler to write how you speak than to write insincere, fake prose that no one can relate to.

Since you’re writing to a person, speak to them personally. Use “you” or “us” instead of “we” as often as possible. One of my largest revisions for ads I critique is striking out this first-person crud. Instead of “We have 24-hour service,” it’s a painless — but valuable — change to say, “Call us anytime, 24 hours a day!” The first one is borderline bragging; the second one tells me how to use this information.

3. Write about benefits, not features.

How many times are your salespeople told this? It’s no different in a letter. You must tell the person how they benefit; and, if measurable, to what degree they’ll benefit. Go on to tell them when they’ll benefit.

You can even reverse this to include the lack of benefits without your item or service. In some way, you must make your reader see and feel the gain (or loss) in the item being discussed.

Consider this: “With one simple Tune Up, you’re able to get more comfort, lower your energy costs, and actually reduce the risk of future repairs. The number-one cause of system failure is dirt! Don’t let a dirty untuned system cost you big!”

This example uses “you” three times, tells them how to benefit, extract value, save money, and avoid trouble.

All through your letter, continually stack benefits beyond the reader’s expectation. At the end, summarize the hottest ones. Do this and you’ll get more phone calls than you can imagine.

4. Make your opening statement or headline terrifically powerful and valuable or you will lose the prospect.

You have 4 sec to make your reader feel that the effort of reading is worthwhile or worthless. The opener must have a commanding presence in the reader’s mind, and you need to hold this “connection” with him or her through to the end.

Your headline or opener accounts for 80% of your readership, so make it count. Powerful headlines can be “How to” gain a benefit or overcome an obstacle. They can be immediately beneficial and pertinent, such as “How to Get Christmas Cash and a Warm House Too” with your rebate offer.

Headlines or openers can be imperatives also, like, “Get a new furnace that’ll keep you ‘warm as toast’ all winter long . . . but don’t pay me a dime for 6 months!” Or, “Take advantage of my absurd over-purchase! Get a free set of gas logs with your new furnace.”

Headlines can lure the reader to continue, such as, “Many people ask me about my ‘Free’ furnace offer and are looking for the ‘catch.’ Well, here it is . . .,” and you go on to say how the “catches” were really the reasonable conditions to the sale, etc.

Headlines may take some work to get just right, but they’re worth it.

5. Inform your reader with relevant, beneficial, measurable, understandable, verifiable information.

Hey, you’re asking people to read your letter. If all they get is a meandering vagueness about nothing particularly meaningful, your letter is in the trash where it belongs. I read countless manufacturer mail pieces that draw zero conclusions. If you just say, “Fast service, high quality, and low prices” you’re wasting paper and ink.

Tell me specifically what I’m going to get, such as, “Over 93% of our calls are handled within 24 hours.” Make your guarantee more specific than the worn out “Satisfaction Guaranteed.” Try, “Guaranteed service within 24 hours of your call,” or “You’ll save 27% on your energy bills this winter or we’ll give you a refund for every penny of your tune up!” Get a little creative and tell me you’ll be accountable for my comfort.

6. Sell your service or product like you were sitting down with the reader.

Make your product touchable, and your service palpably beneficial. Don’t attempt too much cuteness or cleverness. Talk about some of the rich details as you would in a prospect’s home; such as:

“The best thing about having this whisper-quiet system in your home, is that you don’t even think about it. You just know that it is efficiently doing its job — even as you sleep — keeping your home warm and comfortable. About the only time you’ll recall your wise decision is when you get your lower utility bill . . . or when your neighbor complains about his!”

Your writing should be pure salesmanship delivered with an air of familiarity. The function of each sentence is to build the prospect’s interest and lead them to your next point.

Enthusiasm is encouraged (just like a “live” presentation), but should not be overused. If you put exclamation points! After! Everything! You! Look! Like! A screaming idiot! And if you put more than one exclamation point after a sentence, you look like you need to repeat the 8th grade.

7. Your letter needs to tell the prospect what to do. This “call to action” is too often overlooked.

A great salesperson asks for the sale at exactly the right moment. Your letter should do the same. Your directions to the reader should be clear and to the point, in the same familiar voice you’ve already adopted in the body of the letter.

If there are any special or different conditions to your letter’s offer, you must tell the prospect or you’re asking for confusion. Be clear, be friendly, be open:

“Just call Jackie at (phone) and tell her you want the (offer) you read about. She’ll set up your free survey and we’ll take care of the rest. Remember, we’ll be taking calls all weekend for this opportunity, so don’t wait ‘til Monday to call or it’ll be too late! We’re ready and willing to help you now. Oh yes, and if you’re among the first 30 to call, we’ve got a gift for you that I promise you’ll like and use.”

8. Make your offer have a degree of urgency.

No need to sound like everything’s a Fire Sale — just let your reader be aware that what you’re writing them about isn’t the same, hum-drum, everyday, no-thrills offer. This one is special, and for that reason, it’s not going to last forever. Goodness, cause them to act!

If your only reason to write to them is to say, “Hi there. We’re nice. Call us sometime,” then your reader will correctly assume you’re a boring person with too much time on your hands. Give something exciting enough to be noticed and you’ll get the calls.

9. Now, all rolled up in step 9, are the final four details.

  •  Include a P.S. Give it the last little bit of frosting or offer reiteration; it accounts for 40% of all readers’ attention. It is second only to the headline, and if it capitalizes on your final call to action, you’ll get a higher response rate.
  •  Give your letter visual excitement with well-placed bolding, bullet points, underlines, italics, etc. Don’t go goofy on computerized “clip art” or too many fonts. Just stay clean and interesting.

    Feel free to center and bold important subject changes or subheads for visual effect, but don’t overuse it. We find that three times per page is where readers are most comfortable.

  •  Be sure and indent your paragraphs. Don’t let paragraphs run over five to seven lines. And please don’t make long, run-on sentences that’ll lose your reader.
  •  Finally, don’t end pages with complete sentences or your reader may not turn the page at all. Leave ‘em hanging in suspense until the next page.


Although I’ve given you nine items from our “High Performance Formula” for copywriting, don’t let this task sound too burdensome. In fact, if you’ll adopt a good concept, follow these guidelines and just start writing, you may do better than if you struggle too hard. It’s easy to fall into the trap of “over polishing,” which can foul up the purity of your original letter.

Write your letter and run it by an actual homeowner to check for clarity. Then you can go polish it some, but don’t go nuts. My “Top 5” best sales pullers year after year are the ones that were, without exception, the easiest to compose. The thoughts flow cleanly, and they don’t sound or look “fussy.” Each of these letters pull in tens of thousands in sales per mailing. I hope your next one will do the same!

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