Thursday, December 10, 2015

Writing to Sell Something

In trying to write persuasive pieces, including certain blog entries, you can benefit from the expertise of professional writers of traditional sales letters, pros like Michael Masterson, whose recent The Architecture of Persuasion: How to Write Well-Constructed Sales Letters forms the basis of my article this month. The linkage between conventional sales letters and effective blogs became quite evident to me, although Masterson does not claim it himself.

And that’s not all! Even if you never write a sales letter or a blog piece, you will come away from my article more aware of the techniques being used to influence you.

Masterson distinguishes five elements in conventional sales letters:
   1.   The Envelope Teaser
   2.   The Headline
   3.   The Lead Copy
   4.   The Sales Argument
   5.   The Closing Copy

The Envelope Teaser
Most advertising mail envelopes have more than just their return addresses on their envelopes. Guideposts magazine recently sent me an appeal to donate a gift subscription to a member of the armed forces or a veteran. The outside of the envelope had this teaser, “Last Chance to Show Your Support.” Until I opened the envelope, I did not know whether I was contributing to the magazine by re-subscribing or by giving a donation or, as is the case, by buying a subscription for someone else. Curiosity, and being in the process of writing this, got me to open the envelope, the primary goal of the envelope teaser. The secondary goal is to put me in a frame of mind conducive to what will be requested. It worked pretty well on me. When teasers are compared in “split tests,” the good ones must do better than a blank envelope, both in probability of being opened and eventual fraction of successful sales obtained.

         In calling a reader’s attention to a blog or other web site, the link, the URL, can be chosen to perform much the same as the envelope teaser. Often, one can superimpose a set of words other than the actual URL onto the link, such as “click here” or “register for this training now,” achieving the same effect as would the envelope teaser if this had been a direct-mail sales letter. My writer-coaching site,, has as its URL a simple sales message, “write your book with me.” What it lacks in pizzazz, it makes up for in clarity…I hope.

The Headline

         You open the envelope, or you click on the link, and at the top of the page you see a headline. The best of these restate the teaser with a bit of extra selling. The Guideposts letter had two headlines, “Guideposts. Military Subscription Program” at the top of the page, with a detachable order form, and “Last Chance to Help! U.S. Armed Forces Gift” below that headline. This makes clear who the “support” will aid. On the page that remains after detaching the form, there was an additional headline, ‘A WORD ABOUT OUR TROOPS.” Below the heading is a letter asking for gift a subscription(s) donation.

         Masterson recommends that the headline resemble the teaser, but not necessarily repeating it. The landing page for my own web site just repeated “Write Your Book with Me” and adds “Professional Writing Coach.” Uninspired, this needed work! How about “become an authority” or “get something off your chest without losing your shirt”?

The Lead Copy

         The lead is the copy that comes right after the headline, though not all of the copy. It is distinguished from the sales argument and the closing copy, discussed later.

         Masterson analyzes the elements of the sales letter using Purpose, Problem, and Possibility. The purpose of the teaser and the headline is to get the reader to open the envelope and read what is inside with an attitude that is favorable to what is to come, “confirm her hope that this letter is about something important and exciting---bring her to the point where she is thinking, ‘This is really good! I’m really glad I’m reading this,’” a tall order for what is often derided as “junk mail,” but experts like Masterson get rich writing missives that do exactly this.

         The lead copy makes the emotional case for the sale. It appeals to the desires of the reader. This is the 20% of the letter [or commercial blog post] that achieves 80% of the effectiveness of the communication. It will make some claims. It may promise something, but what follows must keep that promise. Masterson says the lead is the continuation of seduction, often carried out subtly, almost by indirection. Recall that Shakespeare argued that one sometimes should “by indirections find directions out,” come at a truth obliquely. You’ll display your product’s charms without asking for the sale. Afterward, you’ll make your head-on approach in the sales argument.

         At, I initially had only a relatively weak statement of the value of writing a book. Having read and digested Masterson’s advice, I beefed this up substantially, without quite claiming I could make my clients rich and famous.

The Sales Argument

         Here’s where you engage your reader’s rationality. Benefits are shown. Claims supported. Questions asked and answered. Objections overcome. Proof offered. You can take your time here and be complete. Keep it interesting, make the purchase seem like the smart thing to do. Facts, figures, testimonials, analogies, arguments, all have value here. The trick, Masterson tells us, is to make the argument convincing while “keeping alive the strong feeling created in the lead.” He advises us to “repeat the big promise a dozen different ways…an artfully sequenced arrangement of promises, claims, and proof. Interlaced between these elements are stories, secrets, testimonials and statements….”

         Don’t brag. Don’t be too pushy. Think win/win and fostering a long-term relationship. You are working toward KLT, Know-Like-Trust. Each of you may want to do more business with the other in the future.

         A good product (or service) makes the sales pitch much easier, especially a product that has a USP, a Unique Selling Proposition.

         Essentially, your sales pitch is making one or more promises, and your sales argument is getting your reader to believe you will do what you say.

         Masterson gives this guidance for how much proof you need: a claim or two for every promise and a proof or two for every claim. While you are at it, mix these within the text rather than just plowing doggedly ahead.

The Closing Copy

         You are almost done, but you have to come right out and ask for the sale.

         Before you do so, however, you may want to add one more benefit, “…and that’s not all!” Surprise and delight the customer with this, if you can.

         When you ask for the sale, you will have to give the particulars, especially the price and any other significant terms of sale. Make it as easy as you can to purchase, and put the price into a “frame” that shows it to be small compared with the benefits or with the alternatives. Keep your tone consistent with the earlier portions of your letter [or sales blog].

         Finally, place a premium on the customer’s responding NOW, giving a reason not to delay.

Masterson uses seduction as an extended metaphor in this book. I’ll quote English poet Andrew Marvell, who urged in “To His Coy Mistress” [1680]:

Had we but world enough, and time,
This coyness, Lady, were no crime.
We would sit down and think which way
To walk and pass our long love’s day….

For, Lady, you deserve this state,
Nor would I love at lower rate.

But at my back I always hear
Time’s winged chariot hurrying near….

The grave’s a fine and private place,
But none, I think, do there embrace….

         In other words, your closing should get your customer to Do It Now.


Dr. Cooper (, a retired scientist, is now an author, editor, and writing coach. His first book, Ting and I: A Memoir of Love, Courage and Devotion, was published by Outskirts Press in 2011. Also available from OP and online booksellers, like, are two memoirs he co-authored: The Shield of Gold and Kidnapped Twice; three memoirs he edited: High Shoes and Bloomers, But…at What Cost, and Home is Where the Story Begins; and most recently a book he co-authored, Solved! Curing Your Medical Insurance Problems. On Twitter, he is @douglaswcooper. His writing, editing, coaching site is

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