3 Questions That Will Get Your Direct Mail Prospects’ Attention

How effective are your sales letter’s opening couple of lines at making the reader stop and listen to what you have to say? Good questions are effective tools for doing that. And this article presents three that you can adapt for use in your next direct marketing effort. Plus, it includes a detailed sales letter critique. If you’re planning a direct marketing effort anytime soon you’ll want to look this article over. Why not do it right now?

One of the most profitable advertisements in history was a print ad for the Sherwin Cody School of English. Written in 1918, the ad ran for over 40 years, generating millions of inquiries, and millions in sales. Penned by the legendary adman and copywriter Maxwell Sackheim, its captivating headline read:

“Do You Make These Mistakes in English?”

Asking a question is also a highly effective way to open your sales letter. The key is to make it a good question. And a good question is one that is both attention-grabbing and involving. Take the above example, for instance. What if Mr. Sackheim had simply omitted a single word and instead created a headline that read: “Do You Make Mistakes in English?”

His headline would still have attracted attention. But chances are, after reading it, the vast majority of people would have routinely replied, “Sure, who doesn’t?” and turned the page. The word “these” involves us and draws us into the ad because it promises a payoff.

Plus, it gives the headline a sharp, provocative edge that compels the reader to dig into the body copy of the ad. (How many of us, even today, could resist the urge to find out if we did, indeed, “Make These Mistakes in English?”)


Because questions can be such effective openers, I want to share 3 question-crafting formulas that are easily adaptable to many different types of businesses.

1. Did you know…? Before you go to work on this opening put yourself in the mindset that you’ve just found out a surprising and important piece of information. After finding out this important information you immediately pick up the phone and call your friend and colleague. You open the conversation, “Hey Joe, did you know…?

Key point: Whatever follows “Did you know…?” has to be grounded in FACT and has to have some “kick” to it. Here’s an example from my own files from a letter I wrote for a company that markets hiring and assessment software:

Did you know that one mis-hire could cost your company over $500,000 in sales? Sounds incredible doesn’t it? But consider this:

2. Has this ever happened to you? After you’ve penned this opening your next move is to summarize key details of a common “screw-up” that occurs in your industry. (Preferably from a true story your client told you from when he was still dealing with those awful people at “Brand X.”) Then, you present the payoff — which is the fact that your company’s equipment, technology, quality control procedures, training programs, etc. are such that this type of thing rarely, if ever, happens to the good people that buy from you.

3. Can you say, with absolute confidence…? What we are trying to do with this opening is to get the reader to pause and consider if, with regard to — fill in your product or service — she has absolute confidence that everything is “as good as it gets.” Here’s an example of this type of opening — again, from my own files:

Can you…?

Can you say, with absolute confidence, that you and your project managers always have quick and easy access to current job-cost information?

If you…?

If you and the project manager on your most important job each produced a Contract Status Report — right now — would both sets of numbers agree?

As with “Did you know…?” whatever follows “Can you…?” has to be relevant and meaningful to the reader.

Your opening words are the most important words in your entire sales letter. And forming a question with those words is a time-proven, highly effective technique for seeing to it that those words will get read. But make sure it’s a good question. One that is attention-grabbing, involving, prospect-relevant and provocative.

Now let’s look at how the following letter could have been even stronger by using an effective question or two.

Standard text = Original letter
(Parentheses) = Ernest’s critique and commentary
[Brackets] = Ernest’s suggested text

NOTE: All personal and corporate names have been changed to preserve privacy.

Mr. Marvin Dailey
Red Rock Brewing
12873 Evergreen Ave.
Chicago, IL 60618-5509

Dear Marvin,

When your pallet loads do not hold together and valuable shipments are ruined, it’s your phone that rings. (This letter starts off by talking personally and directly to the prospect. A good technique.) Your ear that is blistered by an angry customer. (Good sentence. “Blistered” is a snappy, visual word.) That makes finding a solution to customer damage complaints more important to you than perhaps anyone else in your company.

(All in all, a pretty good opening. The writer presents a problem and quickly indicates that their company has a solution for it. But how might we have used a question to make this opening more involving and more of a grabber? Here’s an idea.)

[You hate it don’t you? You hate it when the phone rings and it’s an irate customer…who gives you “holy h***” because of the damaged merchandise on her order. That’s why you’re going to love this letter. Because in it you’re going to learn how, once and for all, you can put an end to those complaints.](Summary: Our new opening is both attention-grabbing and provocative. Mainly because “hate” is such a strong word, it all but guarantees that our prospect will read the second line.)

That’s why you should know about WRAPn’LOAD, a (Use the article “the” to make what follows sound more prestigious.) [the] NEW inside out unitizing system that can eliminate your shipping damage and complaints. WRAPn’LOAD is a synergistic partnership of stretch wrap and LOADn’HOLD. (I would define LOADn’HOLD, even if the reader already knows what it is. After LOADn’HOLD and befor the period I would insert the following) [– the shipping industry’s Number 1 spray-on unitizing agent.]

Both are proven unitizing sytsems on their own, although together they are even better! (Despite the exclamation point this sentence has little “sizzle” to it. Suggested rewrite:) [Stretch wrap and LOADn’HOLD are both proven, stand-alone unitizing systems. But when you put the two of them together you’ll get a “killer combination.” One that virtually guarantees your customers 100% safe shipping 100% of the time! And you know what that means don’t you? No more nasty phone calls to deal with.]

Best of all, (Good transitional phrasing that smoothly leads us into the paragraph) LOADn’HOLD works in combination with your existing stretch wrapping equipment. Simply add an in-line automatic applicator to apply LOADn’HOLD. Just wrap as usual, and the integrity of your pallet is TRIPLED. (According to whom? According to what? With facts, testimonials or studies to back up this statement it becomes a powerful selling proposition. As written, it’s simply a claim. Also, to make the transition smoother, before the next sentence I would add the transitional phrase,) [What’s more,] There is no capital investment!

(This is a key point and the writer should sell it even harder. Suggested copy:) [This means that your company can (a) save money and (b) have happier customers — without a large cash outlay.] Major packagers like Proctor & Gamble, Lever Brothers and Cargill have benefited from this system. (With my suggested rewrite of the preceding sentence I would rewrite this line as follows:) [That’s a key reason why major packagers such as Proctor & Gamble, Lever Brothers and Cargill have already installed — and are already benefiting from — the WRAPn’LOAD system.] You too can start [saving money and] improving your customer relations today.

Simply complete the short form below and fax back this entire letter. We offer a 30 day trial with a money back guarantee. (Great! A no-risk offer. But because it is such a huge selling point my recommendation is that this should have been mentioned much, much earlier in the letter. One way to do this is to add a headline or overline to the letter.) CALL US TODAY at 1-800-260-5972 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting            1-800-260-5972      end_of_the_skype_highlighting.


Conrad Larsen

P.S. Respond by June 27 and receive a FREE Mag-lite Flashlight. (Another excellent move. But why not mention this free gift at the beginning of the letter and then remind them again here in the P.S.? My recommendation is to work it into a headline. With a headline touting a free gift and a 30-day risk-free trial we’d really start this sales letter off with a bang and probably get a lot more bang for our marketing buck.)

© 2006 Ernest Nicastro

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