How to See Layers in a Sales Letter & Use The Structure to Write Effective Copy
You know marketing documents follow a structure. But did you know that documents can have layers over layers, all with a distinct purpose?
Studying the Coat-of-Arms sales letter, I've fallen into a rabbit hole, discovering that each word of this letter is a single piece of a puzzle, which is much-more complex than the flat typewriter page conveys.
This simple and famous sales letter is more than just text on a page. It's a money generator.
This single page supposedly made the author a rags to riches story hulling in up to $300,000 a day. I don’t have any proof that this letter accrued this pile of cash, but as I’ve studied these 353 words over the last 2 months, I can assure you this letter has been deeply thought about, and believe that each word was firmly placed with a purpose.
It took Gary Halbert 18 months to sculpt this letter, and as I see deeper layers, I wanted to separate my decoding and illustrate the surface and then the deep subliminal layers that made this letter a lucrative success.
The structure of the Coat-of-Arms letter can be used in other facets. It can be mimicked in copy for a webpage, report, infographic, presentation, marketing documents or white papers. It follows a story structure that takes the reader from a point of curiosity, to information, to a call to action. The findings I've presented, can be utilized to help your marketing and communication with your customers and endeavors.
Directly below, I've deciphered the framework of the letter, and the 12 sections of the story structure. Decoding the top layers of the letter, I illustrated in a slide deck how each story section blends together, and how like with other pieces of copy, the Features & Benefits are the heaviest focus, accounting for 27% of the letter. Following the 12 sections, is an in-depth study covering the scenario, percentage breakdown, repetition, rhythm, subliminal triggers and the design of the letter.
This letter is to target a man’s emotions of family pride.
Mr. Macdonald (or any other Mr. Name) had a high-probability of being a frugal, hard-working family man who didn’t want to buy lavish trinkets he doesn’t need. He is a man on a budget, a saver, a conservative minded man who doesn’t need to be up-sold on anything. But a low-cost item that can validate his name? A $2 item that elevates his lineage and surname into an elite bloodline? A coat-of-arms print that can be hung on a wall, where he can brag to his friends how important his family tree is? Plus he can buy one for a relative for an additional $1? Now that’s an easy product to sell.
A coat-of-arms is an illustration of strength, power and resistance. It identifies heavily with males, showing swords, shields, weapons, crowns and predatory animals. Depending on the individual the coat-of-arms can have a deep or very-deep meaning.
Not only is this product low-cost with a deep sense of importance, it is being sold to Mr. Macdonald from a woman. He isn’t being hassled by a metropolis salesman trying to meet a quota, he is being personally contacted by Nancy. A woman who has typed him a personal letter, letting him know she has discovered ancient and heraldic information and wants to only share it with him, not sell it to him. All he has to do is send her back a letter with a check to cover the small expenses, and mail it to her rural address.
The breakdown is clear, and not surprising. Over a quarter of the letter is focused on the Features & Benefits of Mr. Macdonald having a print of his coat-of-arms. In a distant second is the Call to Action, Guarantee, then the Solution.
The remainder of the letter is fairly balanced between each structure step. The lowest area the story structure discusses is "scarcity."
Which makes sense, in that reading a letter telling Mr. Macdonald he is going to miss out if he doesn’t hurry up and buy, resonates as a slimy sales tactic. But mentioned only twice, subtly towards the bottom of the page makes the 2% a vital part of this letter, hinting to Mr. Macdonald he should take action soon.
The most repeated words in this letter are: name and report.
What is Nancy selling again? Oh yeah, a report about a name. When reading this letter “name" is written in every paragraph except for the P.S. and “report" is written in every paragraph except in the introduction. Offsetting each other, in the beginning and conclusion of the letter.
What’s even more interesting, is a Harvard study found that it takes a reader 9 times to read a product description, and then transition from uninterested to purchasing. To allow the idea to sink in, the letter has to be persuasive and repeat itself to paint a clear picture. Since this letter is selling a product about a name to a person with the same name, it’s spot-on using the word “name” nine times, which references both the target customer and product. Pretty clever.
It’s simple, the rhythm to this letter isn’t cutting edge, it’s the foundation of what makes any speech, writing and story compelling. It has contrast between two angles. In this letter, facts contrast suggestions, and fluctuate throughout the narrative. For example:
Nancy tells Mr. Macdonald a fact – The bottom half of the report tells...
Then Nancy tells Mr. Macdonald a suggestion – the story of the very old and distinguished family name of Macdonald
There’s hidden ideas in this letter, and with anything being labeled subliminal, the rabbit hole I mentioned earlier, goes as deep as you want it.
There’s 8 universal motivation triggers that revolve around the fear of losing, individual's respond to:
- Being Wealthy
- Being Physically Attractive (Beautiful, Handsome, Sexy, Rugged, etc.)
- Being Healthy
- Being Popular / Important
- Having Security (Financial and Personal)
- Having Inner Peace
- Having Free Time
- Having Fun
No individual wants to lose their money, looks, health, popularity, security, peace, free time or ways of having fun.
The key motivation I see Nancy aiming for, is flattering Mr. Macdonald into thinking he is important. As I mentioned in the scenario, Mr. MacDonald is most likely a hard-working individual, working a difficult job. Knowing that he comes from a distinct, important, royal or historically captivating lineage is something Mr. Macdonald can hold onto forever. It’s something no one can take away from him. It’s something he can carry with him in a positive manner.
Now let’s take a couple steps down this rabbit hole.
The product itself aligns subliminally to Nancy. A printed coat-of-arms on parchment-like paper has an arts and craft sound to it. Nancy is actually a pen-name for Gary. Gary wanted to write the letter as a women from a rural setting in the Midwest. To sell an crafty product, Mr. Macdonald most likely wouldn’t be intrigued to buy it from a man named Mike in Chicago or a lady named Zoey from San Francisco. The product itself has a homey, humble vibe to it, so having the author match the product, is simply positioning the product in-line with the creator and consumer. Yes, it’s a stereotype, gendered-bias tactic, but it worked.
The return address is simple. It’s almost unreal how simple it is. I think this was done to eliminate the chance for Mr. Macdonald to have second thoughts. The address is almost a sequence, 5687. It’s off just enough to be believable. Ira Road, Bath, Ohio are not words Mr. Macdonald would misspell or need an extra moment to write them out.
Imagine if the letter had a long-winded street name, floor number, suite letter, coming from a five syllable city in Massachusetts. Misspelling Massachusetts is likely. Screwing up the state abbreviation is also likely. Misspelling Ohio is not. Once Mr. Macdonald has his check book in hand, it’s a basic process and the margin for error appears slim.
The goal of the design, was to develop an authentic style. As with any effective marketing document, the artwork and design comes last. It’s the old art follows copy slogan. The writing has it’s deep layers of intention and focus, the design is simply intended to make the story more believable on the surface.
The letter is typed in Old Courier font to mimic a typewriter. But in reality the letter was typed on a computer, and automated to change Mr. Macdonald, to Mr. Smith, to Mr. Anderson, to Mr. Fill-in every name in the phone book, because that’s how these letter’s were sent out.
Nancy is a researcher. Researchers are organized and fluent in writing, right? Who wants to buy something from a researcher who can’t spell or put a sentence together? Keeping consistent with spacing and a simple one page layout illustrates that Nancy is orderly and professional. If her letter is typed this nicely, the coat-of-arms must be a high-quality product.
The typewriter font gives the look of imperfection, which would likely occur in a personal note. Rural Nancy who doesn’t have a fancy computer with fancy software. Because that wouldn’t fit in the story. If this letter was cleanly typed in Helvetica it would seem odd. But drafting the letter to aligned neatly, with uneven sentences wrapping on the right gives this letter a clean, yet homemade – personally typed aesthetic. Which blends with the story of who the author supposedly is.
As a final touch, the letter is aligned nicely, but Nancy’s signature is off. It’s left of the alignment of the address and sincerely, giving the design an authentic look.