The old-time copywriting secrets you need to know to write a great sales letter

Andy Maslen has been persuading people to think, feel and act differently since 1986, when he first started working as an in-house copywriter.

He is managing director and head copywriter at Sunfish, the writing agency he founded with creative director Jo Kelly in 1996, and the author of five books on copywriting, including the best-sellers Write to Sell and Persuasive Copywriting.

Lots of people like to tell you how to write copy.

And it’s often very good advice.

The trouble is, it’s very often abstract. Couched in textbook language. And without examples.

Bollocks to that!

I’m going to show you how.

With an example of a high-performing marketing email for The Drum. Full disclosure: I wrote it.

So get your overalls on and look over my shoulder as I lift the bonnet and start taking this money-making machine to pieces.

The email’s job was to encourage marketing folk to take up an offer a free issue of The Drum magazine. No pressure there, then.

Let’s begin with the subject line.

Jo, do you fit this person profile?

Using a recipient’s first name at the start of the subject line is proven to increase open rates. I’ve run so many tests on my own newsletter that confirm it that I no longer bother.

The reason it works is because a person’s first name is the single most salient word in the English language. Call it out in a crowded party (or awards ceremony) and I guarantee your target will look round.

The whole question is a trick. It appears to be a closed question, requiring a yes/no answer.

But you can’t give a truthful answer unless you know what the person profile says.

That requires you to open the email.

It also suggests that the sender has profiled the recipient. That appeals to people’s vanity.

[message body]

Hi Jo,

Gordon Young, co-founder and editor-in-chief of The Drum here.

Gordon is an authority figure. Authority figures are more likely to be agreed with/obeyed. Also, it establishes a personal rapport between reader and writer in the very first sentence, just like a personal email.

I was having drinks with a FTSE 100 marketing director last week.

This is the opening to a story. It’s set in the past and has two characters in a situation.

As this email was going to marketers I used the FTSE 100 CMO to suggest a high-level conversation. Which, let’s remember, was about profiling the recipient.

(Its twin went to advertising folk and the marketing director changed to an ad agency CEO.)

We talked about the type of person who gets ahead in marketing.

Aha! Like me, you mean, the recipient thinks.

And getting ahead is important because we’re building an idea that the subject line question is a profile of successful marketers.

So it now becomes, do you fit this profile.

(You’ll see why I’m telling you this in a moment.)

This is a bit of dark arts copywriting.

The parentheses (not brackets [which look like this]) suggest an aside to the reader, a shared confidence, if you like. It’s a “come closer” moment.

The enclosed phrase says, “don’t stop reading now because you’re about to learn what this is all about”. And remember, this is all about the reader, so they will read on.

We kicked around all the usual ideas.

“Kicked around” is a dramatic, concrete metaphor and more conversational than “discussed”.

The sentence, while short, is incomplete. We don’t know what these “usual” ideas are. So we need to read on. Past another paragraph break. Another point at which we could stop reading.

I am training the reader to ignore jumping-off points and continue to read a marketing email.

You know, hard working, inspiring, creative thinker, problem solver.

Here, I’m inviting the reader to nod along with me, deepening rapport through shared knowledge.

It’s also more flattery, since clearly I am implying that they themselves possess these fine qualities.

But they sounded too generic.

So we ordered more drinks and started again.

Here’s what we came up with.

Still sticking with the story here, allowing the reader to visualise the conversation flowing (about them, remember) along with the drinks.

Also, these three short sentences are doing the job of one, which would still be incomplete. I am reinforcing the earlier training that they should continue reading.

The person most likely to get on is the one who knows what’s going on.

An old technique here: the suggestion that knowledge is power. Adapted so that it plays to the reader’s ambition. Knowledge is promotion.

In their department? In their business? In their sector or industry? Yes, yes, and yes.

A rhetorical technique, repeated: the tricolon. A group of three things. First, the places where the reader will get on. Second, those three affirmatives. Hammering home the message: subscribe to The Drum or fall behind.

But much more than all of that, we meant the person who knows what’s going on globally.

It’s surprising, in an age almost defined by globalisation, how few marketers escape a parochial mind-set.

Nobody wants to admit to possessing a “parochial mind-set”.

Their parish could be London, Edinburgh, Birmingham or Manchester.

But they remain stubbornly unable, or unwilling, to raise their eyes to the horizon.

After all the short, choppy sentences, this passage is a little more relaxed, with some religious resonance and creative imagery : “parish”, “raise their eyes to the horizon”.

I think you may be different.

Another teaser sentence to keep them jazzed about reading on. Ooh, do tell! How am I different? (And better, obvs?)

You may be that rare creature whose passion for your profession drives a furious combination of creativity and curiosity.

From here pretty much to the end we start trowelling on the flattery. In this one sentence, we have a suggestion of specialness “that rare creature”.

Alliteration plus assonance (internal rhyme) “passion for your profession” – and I forgave myself the use of “passion” as it’s directed at the reader, not the writer.

A startling image “furious combination”.

And a second example of alliterative praise “creativity and curiosity”.

Be honest, if someone said all that about you, would you respond, “Nah, you must be thinking of someone else, mate”?

You want to know what’s happening in Tokyo. In San Francisco. In Mumbai.

It’s true, I do!

You crave information about trends from social influence to cognitive bias in decision making.

Yes! Right again!

You see unlimited possibilities in new technologies.

How do you do it?

And you absorb it all like a sponge, before combining it with your own interests and experience to create genuinely innovative campaigns.

Get your coat, you've pulled.

I believe your outlook is the future of our industry.

It’s an outlook we strive to cater for in every issue of The Drum magazine.

And here, finally, is the pitch.

See for yourself.

Three-word call to action. Written in the imperative mood. It’s an order, not an invitation.

Grab a free copy of The Drum here.

Not download or even read. “Grab”. Another physical, concrete verb.

Best regards,

Gordon Young

Not The Drum Team.

If you take nothing away from this, take away this.

The only way to sign off a sales email. With your name.

So how did it do? The short answer is, very well.

Gordon Young even received messages complimenting him on his email.

Take-up of the offer was good.

And, because The Drum's marketeers are avid testers, they also tested long/short versions of the email.

Here’s the short version I created for the test.

Hi Jo,

I think you and I have something in common.

We want to know what’s happening in marketing around the world.

In Tokyo. In San Francisco. In Mumbai.

We crave information about trends from social influence to cognitive bias in decision-making.

We see unlimited possibilities in new technologies.

And we absorb it all like a sponge, before combining it with our own interests and experience.

It’s this outlook we cater for in every issue of The Drum magazine.

See for yourself.

Grab a free copy of The Drum here.

Best regards,

Gordon Young

Guess which one did better?

Yes. Of course. The long one did better. Not only in terms of clickthroughs but also in terms of percentage of people who read it rather than skimmed it.

Now, I know this flies in the face of the received wisdom, which can be expressed, succinctly, as, “people don’t read long copy anymore”.

Well, you know what? They do.

As John Caples said, “The more you tell, the more you sell”. Who knew?

AM

Andy Maslen

All by Andy