Your direct mail package clears a major hurdle when your prospect opens the envelope. One hand reaches in and pulls out the letter while the other sets the envelope aside. It's unfolded now and in full view, and the reader glances down at the first couple of lines.

The moment of truth has arrived. The next 3-5 seconds will largely determine whether your marketing effort is a success or failure, because it's during those critical first few seconds that your prospect decides whether to continue reading.

That's why the foremost objective of a sales letter's opening is to capture the prospect's attention. Every competent sales person knows that this is step-one in the selling process, for without attention there can be none of the following:

  • Interest
  • Conviction
  • Desire
  • Close

Why, then, would anyone start off with any of the following openings that I've seen in various sales letters:

A basic concern in the computer field is the issue of user friendliness.


Excellent medical practice managers know that innovation gets top priority. Innovation is the process of infusing new and better services, products, methods, and processes into the business to do the job better, faster and cheaper.


Do you think that there must be an answer but don't know where to start looking?

What's your reaction to these opening lines of actual sales letters people have spent good money to mail out?

My reaction to the first opening is "So?"

To the second, it's "So what?"

And to the third it's simply "Huh?"

Simply stated, these openings are just not strong enough to compel most people to read on, and that's what every opening must do.

'Show me what you've got'

Have you ever had this happen to you in a face-to-face sales presentation? You're escorted into the prospect's office. And no sooner than you shake hands and settle into your chair, the prospect, arms folded across his chest, stares across the desk at you and says, "OK. Show me what you've got."

While this type of "show me what you've got" reception is rare in a face-to-face sales presentation, I know from experience that it does happen.

On the other hand, "show me what you've got" is likely to be the prevalent attitude you encounter when "selling on paper." Keep this fact firmly in mind as you craft your letter opening, and you'll avoid the type of dull, irrelevant and confusing openers. Most important, you'll make the most of those critical first few seconds when your prospect focuses on your letter.

Three Effective Ways to Open a Sales Letter

There are literally hundreds of effective, attention-grabbing ways to open a sales letter. Here are three that I have found to be particularly profitable, all of them easily adaptable to any number of direct mail marketing situations.

1. Ask a question

A good question gives the reader pause, provokes thought and draws her into the rest of your message. Here are a few examples from my personal files:

If I could show you a way to slash your health insurance costs by 40%—and still get top-quality care...would you be interested?

A similar version of the same opening:

Fed up with the high cost and burdening state mandates of ordinary health insurance plans?

And here's another question-asking opening, one set up with a provocative lead in:

You may regard this as "none of my business." But I'd appreciate your digesting this information before reaching that conclusion.

Here's the question: Are you paying too much for payroll services? And getting short-changed on service?

2. Be direct and concise

In many cases you're likely to be writing to the classic, type-A, dominant-driver personalities who make up a majority of the world's business owners and top executives. One effective approach with this audience is to open your letter in a very direct and to-the-point-manner, such as this:

You've got enough people trying to waste your time with products and services you don't really want or need. I'm not one of those people.


Right off the bat I want you to know one thing. I won't waste your time.

This letter—every word of it—is about how my company can help your company make more money and be more competitive.

Are you selling an award-winning product with good reviews? If so, here's another way you can put your positive press to good use—with this straightforward opening that cuts to the chase and gets right down to business:

Windows User Magazine voted it the Best Windows Utility of 2004.

PC Magazine says it's "essential...hard to imagine running Windows without it..."

PC Computing says it's "a lean and mean program-launching machine that should be found on every Windows user's computer..."

This is what I call the "here's what the experts say" opening, and no lead-in is needed. Immediately after the salutation, you launch right into it by quoting the favorable comments of industry experts.

3. Build rapport

As you know, in the beginning of every sales presentation you make a concerted effort to build rapport with your prospect. You try to find common ground or interests that the two of you share. You look for opportunities to pay sincere compliments.

Starting your sales letter off in a similar fashion can be a good way to capture the favorable attention of your prospect.

For example, you're a tour guide and your specialty is scuba diving expeditions. You target a list of known scuba divers, and this is how your letter opens:

You and I are part of a remarkable group.

Someone who's never been on a scuba dive could never understand it.

The writer creates an immediate rapport with the prospect. The core message here is "You and I are part of a very exclusive and very cool group." What if the writer had started off instead by saying, "You are part of a remarkable group." The impact wouldn't be nearly as strong. That's because "you and I" infuses the line with the magical element of rapport.

Here's another example from a business-to-business mailing:

If you're like I am, before you make a big decision you make sure you have all the facts. Just logical, isn't it? When the stakes are high, there's no such thing as "too much information." (But too often we get too little information.)

The subtext here is, "You and I are smart guys. Before we make a big decision, we make sure we do our homework."

Paying someone a sincere compliment can also be an excellent rapport builder and letter-starting technique. Just be sure there's some basis for the compliment. (This speaks to the importance of good list selection.)

Here are a couple of examples, the first from a subscription solicitation letter for Bon Appetit magazine:


You know more about sound nutrition and smart consumer shopping than any generation before. You cook with more imagination. You serve with more style.

The next example comes from a letter sent out by a collision repair shop to build new referring relationships with insurance agents:

You didn't get to be as successful as you are by accident. Far from it. You got there by knowing your business. And by knowing what's important to your clients.

* * *

Before you write your sales letter, think long and hard about what type of opening will work best. Because those critical first few seconds when your prospect is at point blank range with you and your company—in the form of your letter—will largely determine whether...

  • Checks come in
  • The phone rings
  • Your follow-up phone call gets through

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image of Ernest Nicastro

Ernest Nicastro is an award-winning B-to-B freelance copywriter who is also equally adept at crafting B-to-C content. For more information, and to review samples of his work, visit Positive Response.

LinkedIn: Ernest Nicastro

Twitter: @enicastro