I’m Tom McSherry and I’ve been self-employed for the past two years thanks to the world of Internet marketing and my skills as a freelance copywriter. My main business is Premium Online Writing, a top-quality writing service designed to give web business owners a reliable option for outsourcing writing work without taking a “lucky dip” on quality.

In this column I’ll be focusing on how different forms of writing are indispensable to success in business generally and Internet marketing specifically.

As a copywriter, I’m a big fan of prospecting letters as a way to get clients – both email and snail mail versions. Actually, writing these for clients also constitutes a large part of my business. For people who hate cold calling, a sales prospecting letter that converts well can be a golden ticket to a successful start-up. It can also help more established professionals press on through a slow patch.

What I find tragic, however, is the amazing number of freelancers and larger businesses who put time and effort into sending out sales letters and emails without even taking the basics of copywriting into consideration.

If you’re a copywriter, take note – these tips may help you generate more business, as well as providing you with a new product on which you can upsell existing clients.

For any other business owner out there who uses direct mail to generate leads, take note of the following points. These are my biggest quibbles with the prospecting letters I receive and how you can fix them in your own marketing efforts.

Me, Me, Me

Good copywriters know they need to make the copy about the client, not the business. Sell the solution, not the provider. So it amazes me how many prospecting emails and letters I receive trying to woo me into handing over business with copy like this:

“We’re looking to expand our portfolio of websites. We want to buy your Internet business. In particular, we want to buy businesses that fit the following criteria…”

This is actually the gist of a prospecting letter I received today seeking to buy online businesses with automated income. The letter went on in the same vein, elaborating on what this business was looking for in the sites they want to buy.

At no point did they mention what’s in it for me. At no point did they highlight the benefits to me of cashing out of such an automated online business. There was no persuasion there whatsoever.

Prospecting Letter Rule #1: What the prospect wants must come first.

Lack Of Targeting

This is particularly a problem with emails, which tend to get spammed and blasted out to any address they can get their hands on. I’m amazed at how many emails I get from services in India offering to write “top quality SEO content” for my website. Usually these emails are rife with spelling and grammar errors.

Now, I understand that writers may see a writing service such as mine as good opportunity to get some easy gigs, and thus contact me with that end in mind. But it’s clear from most of these letters that they’re not sent with any such intentions. They’ve been sent out blindly without any regard to the fact that they’re mailing TO A COMPETITOR.

If you’re mailing prospecting letters to competitors, it should be a no-brainer that you’re wasting resources and need to tighten up your targeting. That all comes down to profiling your existing or ideal clients and going after that demographic.

Prospecting Letter Rule #2: Know who you’re targeting before you send.

Lack Of Clarity

Prospecting letters should be short, sweet and to the point. In particular, they should hit on:

  • Who you are
  • What you can do for the prospect
  • How they can follow up if they’re interested

Those are really the three essentials. Get those across as succinctly as possible and you’re well on the way to an effective prospecting letter.

Prospecting Letter Rule #3: Say who you are, what you do and how to get in touch with you, clearly and succinctly.

Lack Of Originality

Most prospecting letters I receive are just boring. They seem as if they’ve all come from the same template on some sales letter example website.

As a copywriter, you have no excuse to be boring. If your own sales copy doesn’t pop, why should the prospect think you’ll produce anything other than drab and boring copy for them? Your prospecting letter is not only a means on finding interested parties, it’s your first opportunity to showcase your skills.

That doesn’t mean show off. Again, you want to be short, sweet and to the point. But do it with some flair. Let some character show through. Be likeable.

Prospecting Letter Rule #4: Get creative. Don’t write like a robot.

Lack Of Response Avenues

A prospect won’t go out of their way to get back to you if you don’t provide them with their preferred option of communication. Some people like email. Some like Skype. Others prefer the good old fashioned telephone.

The more contact options you give prospects, the more responses you will get.

You might argue that you’re not a huge fan of the phone – but remember, this is totally different from cold calling. You’re not interrupting people as they’re halfway through a bite of their meatball sub – they’re calling you because they already like what they’ve seen. All you have to do is lead them through to the sale, and that can often be easier on the phone than via email.

Prospecting Letter Rule #5: More response options will mean more responses, more clients and better ROI from your mailings.

Failure To Grab Attention

A prospecting letter is a piece of direct marketing, whether it’s sent by email or snail mail. And the most important piece of any direct mail copywriting is the headline. Yet it still surprises me how many prospecting letters I see with drab, boring and uninspired headlines.

On an email, your headline is your subject line. It has a very measurable effect on your response rate, because the subject line is tied directly to the percentage of potential readers who will actually open your email.

With a physical letter, you should still have a headline that will immediately grab the prospect’s attention.

Think about what you do when you have a pile of mail to look over. You look at the envelopes and figure out which ones are definitely spam, and throw them away without another thought. Then you open the ones of interest and give them a very quick scan. If the letter doesn’t obviously contain something of benefit to you personally, you’ll set it aside at best and throw it away at worst.

So both the envelope and the headline of a physical prospecting letter need to be fighting fit. Experiment with different options – logo on the envelope versus no logo. Hand written address versus printed. Track your results and then optimize. Always keep testing.

Prospecting Letter Rule #6: Grab attention with a strong headline (and an inviting envelope in the case of physical mail).

Inappropriate Tone

This is a very common issue with prospecting letters. They have an awkward, appeasing tone to them that doesn’t set a great mood for the beginning of a business relationship.

Most people want to do business with a professional who knows what he or she is talking about and isn’t afraid to express that with confidence. If your letter sways either side of that – down into groveling, or up into rudeness and cockiness – you’re likely to turn prospects off.

As with any copywriting, be conscious of the reader you’re addressing. Be aware of the way he or she might have a conversation with a business associate, and try to match that tone.

Again, letting a bit of personality show through isn’t going to do any harm. Just because your prospect has a corner office with her name on the door doesn’t mean she won’t respond to a little human warmth. In fact, showing personality in your copy can be very refreshing for prospects who are constantly inundated with business-speak.

Prospecting Letter Rule #7: Write in a tone appropriate to your target prospect.

Typos And Grammar Errors

What’s the fastest way to sink your credibility as a professional? Spell the prospect’s name wrong.

In general, your spelling, grammar and punctuation should be absolutely perfect. You may still get responses from a letter with errors in it if the copy is good, but your response rate will be much lower than it should be. This is especially true if you’re offering services that have anything to do with writing.

Spell check, proof read, and then read your letter out loud several times through. Double check a prospect’s name. Be thorough – if you’re creating a template for a letter, the extra effort now will save you from the realization that you just sent out 1000 copies of a letter all with an identical typo in the headline.

Prospecting Letter Rule #8: Make sure your grammar, punctuation and spelling are perfect.

Lack Of Credibility

Conveying professionalism is an important part of prospecting. When you’re contacting someone cold, either on the phone or in writing, they can assess very quickly whether or not you’re the ‘real deal.’

A few tips for building credibility include: If you’re sending an email, send from an address which is @yourwebsite.com. Don’t use a free email address. If you don’t have a website (and you really should – not having a website in itself will hurt your credibility), use yourname@gmail.com or yourbusiness@gmail.com.

If you’re sending physical mail, get your own stationery made up – preferably with a professionally designed logo. Add your signature to the bottom of the letter. (You can scan this up to your computer or create a signature online). Always use proper layout and formatting for your letter. As I said earlier it’s fine to show some personality, but do so within an accepted formal framework.

These are the basics of how your first impression can impact a prospect’s ideas on your credibility. But the content of the copy itself is also important.

You should include mentions of where the prospect can see customer testimonials and examples of your product or service (if you can’t do this through your website, offer to send a free sample or a brochure).

Prospecting Letter Rule #9: Always appear credible and professional in the presentation and content of your prospecting letter.

No Personalization

Now, obviously, if you’re sending out a large number of letters you may not have time to personalize each and every one. But I’m willing to bet you’ll end up with more leads if you’re willing to spend a little time personalizing letters where possible.

There’s nothing that turns me off more than a standard form letter which doesn’t give any impression the sender has bothered to take five seconds to learn about my business.

This is a lot easier to do with email than printed letters, and when you personalize cold emails you avoid being seen as a spammer. You can use a template, but you should add personal and business-specific information whenever possible.

For instance, it’s usually easy enough to find out the name of the marketing manager or business owner from their website before you send an email or letter – so include that name. Also, mention a few specifics about their business. It’s actually a good idea to have several different letter templates which apply to different industries.

For example, I won’t send the same letter to a marketing agency as I’ll send to a direct client (who may sell software or real estate or something else). Having letters that apply specifically to each specific client-type you target makes it much easier to personalize each template before you send it.

If you have four or five templates to work from, you can make each letter unique with very little extra effort.

Prospecting Letter Rule #10: Let each prospect know you’ve taken some time to learn about them and their business, and show that in your letter.

Tom McSherry

Tom McSherry is the founder and chief strategist at Premium SEO.