What I Learned About Selling by Writing My First Sales Letter
A little knowledge, they say, is a dangerous thing. And nowhere is that more true than with the Internet marketing industry. The majority of the “experts” out there who are dispensing advice have been in the business less than 10 years. They’ve seen a slice of a single booming market. But market dynamics change constantly. What worked seven or eight years ago isn’t working now.
Marketers with true expertise understand and anticipate change – but they are able to adjust to it because they also understand the psychological factors that make people buy.
That never changes.
If you are an Internet marketer you probably know what I’m talking about. You’ve read the superficial advice and have been excited by it. But when you tried it, you found that it worked a bit… but only for a while.
One example: I’m sure you’ve heard that you should test “From” lines because some “From” lines sell better than others.
That’s true… for a specific market during a limited period of time. But if you had access to the number of test results I have – from thousands of tests on hundreds of products – you’d know that this “rule” is simply not true on a universal scale. Which makes it questionable at best.
This kind of worthless advice is nothing new. In the old direct-mail days, one marketing guru claimed that the best envelope for a sales letter was a blank #10 with a first-class stamp. He made tons of money selling that and similarly wrong ideas. Perhaps he believed it. Perhaps it worked for him. But I had the advantage of being the creative director of a $100 million direct-mail business. I knew it was silly.
Today, I want to focus on another myth – one that is very popular and thus very dangerous to believe in. I’m talking about the idea that there are only two primary emotions that motivate people to buy: greed and fear.
Marketing gurus who espouse this “fact” say that if you can figure out how to equate your product with avoiding disaster, getting rich, or both, you’ll be enormously successful.
The problem with this advice – the problem with all superficial advice – is that it is only partially true. Yes, fear and greed can be big motivators when stimulated the right way at the right time. But it would be a costly mistake to rely entirely on those two emotions to pump up sales.
I used to worship at the feet of fear and greed. Thirty years ago. But then I wrote my first sales letter. And in the process of writing that letter, something happened that smartened me up.
My target audience for that letter was older men – a group that was very different from me at the time. I was attempting to persuade them to buy an investment-advisory product I had come up with. I wasn’t sure exactly how to position the promotion. But every time I tried a straight fear or greed approach, it fell flat.
The words I wrote sounded like advertising copy. And that made them feel insincere. The core idea I had was essentially right. But the copy I wrote to express it had no vitality, no intimacy, and, ultimately, no chance of turning on the geezers I was writing to.
I worked on the letter for seven weeks, aided immensely by critical comments I received from JSN, my boss and mentor at the time. At the end of that brain-busting marathon, I’d completely reworked the first draft into something entirely new.
The headline was not only changed. It was eliminated. And the lead was intimate and honest. It did not sound like advertising at all. The body of the copy had all the bells and whistles of conventional copy, but the expression was different. There was nothing about it that pandered to greed or fear.
The emotions I focused on in that letter were subtler. As I recall, the two main ones were the desire to belong and the desire to have your beliefs vindicated. They were emotions nobody in our business was talking about back then. But I knew in my heart they were right. And in the context of that sales letter, they were quite strong.
The letter went on to become one of the most successful ever mailed in the history of investment newsletters. It started a publishing franchise that has produced more than half a billion dollars in sales.
Its success convinced me I was on to something. I would never again be satisfied with sales letters based solely on fear and greed.
With that letter, I learned something important about why people buy. And I have used that knowledge in the 30 years since then to create, edit, or supervise thousands of other sales letters. I have passed it on to the many marketers I have mentored. And now, I am sharing it with you.
The truth is that people buy products and services for a host of reasons. These include not only the desire to belong and the desire to have their beliefs vindicated, but also the desire to be seen as smart, to alleviate shame, and to feel better about themselves. These are emotions that run deep. But you don’t see many sales letters making use of them. What you still see too much of are the sledgehammers of greed and fear.
When I teach “advanced” copywriting to members of AWAI (American Writers & Artists Inc.), I cover dozens of psychological triggers that motivate (or de-motivate) buying. These thoughts, feelings, and beliefs are subtler than the grosser emotions. And that makes them more powerful. They touch the reader’s heart.
Don’t misunderstand me. We can all be manipulated by greed and fear. Politicians, in particular, are cognizant of this. That is how they keep getting themselves reelected.
But to be a great marketer, you must accept the fact that we are all – even the simplest of us – extremely complex beings with all sorts of complementary and contradictory impulses.
Failing to recognize that complexity will limit your growth as a marketer. If you believe, for example, that all men only want one thing – s-e-x – you’ll never do a great job of selling products to men. Even products for sexual potency.
If you don’t recognize that in the heart of every horny man there is also the desire to be kind, to be thought of as gentlemanly, etc., you’ll never be able to speak to your prospects in a subtle way. Every one of your promotions will have only one theme, one predictable headline, and one obvious conclusion.
Let me give you a good example. The most successful current promotion I am aware of is the “End of America,” written for Stansberry & Associates. In less than six months, it has sold over 250,000 subscriptions. It will probably keep mailing till it has brought in hundreds of thousands more.
If you just skim it, you might think this sales letter is 100% fear-based. After all, it predicts the demise of America, riots in the streets, and so on.
But when you read it more carefully, you will see that the copywriting genius behind it is provoking quite another emotion – one that is almost contrary to fear.
I’m reproducing the beginning of the letter here. So do this: Read the entire thing without stopping. (You’ll notice that I highlighted some of the passages. I’ll tell you why when you’re done.)
Hello. My name is Porter Stansberry.
A little over ten years ago I founded Stansberry & Associates Investment Research. It has become one of the largest and most recognized investment research companies in the world, serving hundreds of thousands of subscribers in more than 120 countries.
You may know of our firm because of the work we did over the last several years – helping investors avoid the big disasters associated with Wall Street’s collapse.
We warned investors to avoid Fannie and Freddie, Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers and General Motors and dozens of other companies that have since collapsed. We even helped our subscribers find opportunities to profit from these moves by shorting stocks and buying put options. To my knowledge, no other research firm in the world can match our record of correctly predicting the catastrophe that occurred in 2008.
But that’s not why I created this letter.
I reference our success and experience with Wall Street’s latest crisis because we believe there is an even bigger crisis lurking – something that will shake the very foundation of America.
And that is why I’ve spent a significant amount of time and money in the past few months preparing this letter.
In short, I want to talk about a specific event that will take place in America’s very near future… which could actually bring our country and our way of life to a grinding halt.
This looming crisis is related to the financial crisis of 2008… but it is infinitely more dangerous, as I’ll explain in this letter. As this problem comes to a head, I expect there to be riots in the streets… arrests on an unprecedented scale… and martial law, enforced by the U.S. military.
Believe me, I don’t make this prediction lightly and I have no interest in trying to scare you. I’m simply following my research to its logical conclusion.
I did the same when I tracked Fannie and Freddie’s accounting. The same with General Motors. And Bear Stearns and the rest. And when I began giving this warning in 2006 no one took me very seriously… not at first. Back then, most mainstream commentators just ignored me.
And when I presented my case and exposed the facts at economic conferences, they got angry. They couldn’t refute my research… but they weren’t ready to accept the enormity of its conclusions either.
That’s why, before I go any further, I have to warn you…
What I am going to say is controversial. It will offend many people… Democrats, Republicans, and Tea Partiers, alike. In fact, I’ve already received dozens of pieces of hate mail. And… the ideas and solutions I’m going to present might seem somewhat radical to you at first… perhaps even “un-American.”
My guess is that, as you read this letter… you’ll say: “There’s no way this could really happen… not here.” But just remember:
No one believed me three years ago when I said the world’s largest mortgage bankers Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac would soon go bankrupt. And no one believed me when I said GM would soon be bankrupt as well… or that the same would happen to General Growth Properties (the biggest owner of mall property in America).
But again, that’s exactly what happened.
And that brings us to today… The same financial problems I’ve been tracking from bank to bank, from company to company for the last five years have now found their way into the U.S. Treasury.
I’ll explain how this came to be. What it means is critically important to you and every American… The next phase in this crisis will threaten our very way of life. The savings of millions will be wiped out. This disaster will change your business and your work. It will dramatically affect your savings accounts, investments, and retirement. It will change everything about your normal way of life: where you vacation… where you send you kids or grandkids to school… how and where you shop… the way you protect your family and home.
I’ll explain how I know these events are about to happen. You can decide for yourself if I’m full of hot air.
As for me, I’m more certain about this looming crisis than I’ve been about anything else in my life. I know that debts don’t just disappear. I know that bailouts have big consequences. And, unlike most of the pundits on TV, I know a lot about finance and accounting.
Of course, the most important part of this situation is not what is happening… but rather what you can do about it. In other words: Will you be prepared when the proverbial $@*% hits the fan?
Don’t worry, I’m not organizing a rally or demonstration. And I’ve turned down every request to run for political office.
Instead, I want to show you exactly what I’m doing personally, to protect and even grow my own money, and how you can prepare as well.
…You can challenge every single one of my facts and you’ll find that I’m right about each allegation I make. And then you can decide for yourself.
Now ask yourself: “What feelings did I have while reading this?” Certainly, fear must have been there. But what else?
I’m willing to wager that one might have been fascination. (“Who is this person making these bold statements?”) One might have been skepticism. (“How do I know I can believe him?”) If you are a conservative investor – the target audience of this letter – you would almost certainly have felt validated. (“This guy understands what I know to be true.”)
The copywriter and his team were not unaware that these feelings would be provoked.
Go back and reread the highlighted sections. You can see that they indirectly, but repeatedly, tell the reader: “You can trust me. I’m not some doomsayer. I’m a conservative investor, just like you.”
And that brings me to the hidden emotion behind this letter: I believe the reason it worked so well is that it evoked confidence in the reader – not fear!
All the highlighted copy – which comprises half of the excerpt – is devoted to instigating trust. Trust that the speaker is a reasonable person. Trust that he has a good track record. Trust that he’s not going to ask the reader to do anything that will make him feel uncomfortable (such as marching in the streets).
This leaves the reader with the feeling that he most desires: confidence. The confidence to believe that he has just found someone who might lead him away from the fear he has already been feeling.
By the way, there is a video version of this promotion. If you saw it, you would remark how calm and confident Porter’s voice is. There are no histrionics in his presentation. He knew what he was doing. He was speaking like a surgeon who was going to cut the tumor out, not some crazed street screamer shouting out doom.
Since this sales letter became a big hit – and the video went viral – there have been many knock-offs. They all do a great job of imitating the fear. But none of them do what they really need to do: Stimulate confidence.
So the next time someone tells you it’s all about greed and fear, remember today’s essay. It may be the most important marketing lesson you will ever learn.
One-trick (or even two-trick) marketers seldom make it to the top. And if they do, they don’t stay there. If you want a long and powerful career (and it doesn’t matter what you’re selling – a product, a service, even yourself), you need to recognize the complexity of your audience and treat them accordingly.
[Ed. Note: Mark Morgan Ford was the creator of Early To Rise. In 2011, Mark retired from ETR and now writes the Palm Beach Letter. His advice, in our opinion, continues to get better and better with every essay, particularly in the controversial ones we have shared today. We encourage you to read everything you can that has been written by Mark.]
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