Sunday, January 5, 2014

48 idea-starters for letter and email openers

In March of 2012, I wrote the following Message & Media column for Target Marketing magazine because I know how important and difficult it is to write the first sentence of anything. A letter. An email. An article. Openers can be onerous.  

Little did I know as I wrote this column that it would become what Thorin McGee, Target's Editor-in-Chief, has told me was the magazine's top viewed article in 2013. That's a year after it was first published. Obviously, a lot of other writers share my pain.  So I'm sharing it here with you, dear reader/writer.  And it comes with my continued thanks to Herschell Gordon Lewis.  Keep reading and you'll find out why.   

P.S. After I first posted this, I did a one-hour webinar Copy Starters: 48+ Ideas for Letter and Email Openers for Target Marketing with over 1,000 people registered.  It's been archived if you want to watch it.  It's free and includes a ton of examples you may find helpful.

Whether you write, approve or read and respond to direct mail letters and emails, I think you'll agree the first sentence of copy is critical for grabbing your attention. It sets the bait for hooking scanners ... who become readers ... who then turn into responders.
The opening sentence can be both a hot spot and a rough spot. 

It's a hot spot for the reader because it's one of the first places the eye looks for the answer to the question, "What's in it for me?"

It also can be a rough spot for the writer for all the obvious reasons. There's a lot of pressure to get it right, and we want to get it right the first time, which can be challenging and stressful. So, for writers, the opening sentence can be a very rough spot.

However, experience and experts have taught me there are solutions for writing successful letter and email openers.

Almost 20 years ago, Herschell Gordon Lewis  wrote a mini-series of articles on "Fifty of the Easiest Ways to Begin an Effective Sales Letter." I kept article No. 9 in the series and still refer to it. And, no surprise, I've discovered many of Lewis' direct mail letter opening ideas can also be applied to email copy.

I recently asked Lewis—an internationally recognized author of more than 20 books on direct response writing also known as "The Godfather of Direct Marketing and Gore"—for a favor. I asked for permission to share a handful of his ideas with readers of this column. I'm also including a few of my own and some from direct response writers Dan Kennedy  and Donna Baier Stein .

Notice most of these openers have a conversational tone, focus on you-the-reader, and make no attempt to be clever. According to Lewis, writing good direct mail copy isn't about showing how clever you are. Effective direct response copy communicates, connects and generates response.

The next time you're stumped when starting to write an email or direct mail letter, give one of these a try:

1. "If you're like me …"
2. "What if …?"
3. "Because you are a …"
4. "I need your help."
5. "Congratulations!"
6. "You are invited …"
7. "As you know …"
8. "You have a free gift waiting for you …"
9. Use a narrative of a specific episode ("It's early morning. You unlock the door to your .  
    business and there you see...")
10. "This is your private invitation ..."
11. "You're a rare bird. A customer who deserves …"
12. "Good news!"
13. "We've got some good and bad news. The bad news is ____. But here's the good part."
14. "Did you know …?"
15. "Have you ever wished that …?"
16. "We've missed you."
17. "I've enclosed …"
18. "You're in trouble. And so am I. Here's why."
19. "Are you paying too much? Do you know if you're paying too much?"
20. "This is going to be short, sweet, and full of good news for you and your family."
21. "Believe it or not ..."
22. "Because you're _________, you're eligible to _______."
23. "I'll get right to the point."
24. "If you like ________, you'll love ______."
25. Lead with an appropriate quotation.
26. "I'd be lying if I said my reason for writing is ..."
27. "This is your last chance."
28. "Because of your loyalty ..."
29. "You're important to us."
30. "You have been named an honorary employee for the month of ..."
31. "Thank you for …"
32. "You may be wondering why …"
33. Start on a positive note, even if the letter has a negative message.
34. "You have ___ days left to pick up the phone or go online to …."
35. Lead with a strong testimonial.
36. "For the first time, you can …"
37. "Thank you for your recent order. Did you know that you can now …."
38. Ask a question. "Do you make these 5 mistakes when you're shopping for groceries?"
39. "Our records show it's time to ______ your __________."
40. Lead with your offer.
41. Tell a story.
42. Give a warning. "According to ______, two-thirds of those with your job title will lose their jobs in the next 12 months."
43. "They didn't think I could ________, but I did. And you can, too. Here's how."
44. "It is my privilege to invite you to ..."
45. "If you are a_______, then you can _____."
Here are some additional suggestions for making the copy for your letters and emails look easier to read:
46. Limit 75% to 80% of your words to five characters or less.
47. Make sentences 1.5 lines or shorter. Double-check line length for ease of eye-tracking.
48. Keep the first paragraph to three lines or less.

One last thing: Don't stress about writing the perfect opening sentence. If it doesn't come to you right off the bat, just start writing. There's a really good chance you're going to find the perfect opener buried in your second or third paragraph. I speak from experience.

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