Three Lessons From The Robert Collier Letter Book
Do you want to fill your brain with some of the best copywriting concepts ever devised?
If you do, then you’ll want to check out the Gary Halbert Copywriter Challenge.
One of the key parts of that self-administered course is that you read books that the best minds in copywriting consider the most important texts for learning copywriting skills.
One of those books is the Robert Collier Letter Book.
Picture this… you get a list of copywriting books to read. You read Scientific Advertising. It’s a great book. 128 pages of content written in a straightforward (if somewhat archaic) manner. Then you decide to read The Boron Letters. That book is so easy to read that you open it and an hour or two later you’ve finished and it’s like the book read itself.
You think that this challenge is going to be easy. It’s taken you a couple of hours to read the first two books. Suddenly…
You get to a massive great bible of direct marketing wisdom. You know from the first page that this is going to be different.
Here’s my quick review of The Robert Collier Letter Book.
It’s dense. It’s not an easy read. The book is packed full with hundreds of examples of every last detail. It probably talks about every aspect of marketing you could think of, including distribution, dealing with returns and linguistic choices for sales letters.
This is a mammoth book and let’s just say it’ll take you more than two hours to read it.
For now though, let’s skip to some of the lessons I learned from the book. It’s worth noting that I’ve written pages of notes on this book, so I’m by no means covering most of it.
Lesson One: Imitation Isn’t Just Flattery
The book starts out as it means to go on; filled with information on every single page.
Seriously, if this book were written today, it’d be a 27-DVD feature set that you had to pay $99 a month for in twelve easy instalments.
Anyway, the first point that Collier makes is that advertising is scientific, and if you’re a copywriter, you should also be an imitator.
By that he means copy what works. Do not reinvent the wheel.
Remember yesterday’s topic?
In the discussion I linked to about whether direct marketing is “scammy,” there were tons of people saying, “Those video sales letters are scams!” and “Nobody falls for those marketing tricks!” and “Those old long-form sales letters have no place in modern marketing!”
I guarantee those people have never split-tested any ads.
Copywriting – and direct marketing – has been built over decades in a pretty scientific manner.
The basis for that is copy what works.
You can spend hundreds of hours and millions of dollars testing new methods of advertising, only to wind up making less money than you spent. Needless to say, this isn’t too smart. (If you’re doing it with a client’s money, it’s even less smart. You’re probably going to get a slap.)
It’s better to start with a tried-and-tested method of advertising and then improve upon it than start from scratch and throw mud at the wall.
Lesson Two: Bring The Talk Around To Your Subject
In modern copywriting, many sales letters start with what’s called a pattern interrupt.
You’ve seen the video sales letters that start with something stupid like, “Here’s a fish. You might be wondering why there’s a fish on your screen… and how that fish helped me lose 500lbs and score the girl of my dreams… And I’m going to tell you in just a few minutes. But first, let me tell you about the time I…”
Essentially, those things are designed to get your attention and keep you on the hook long enough for your interest in the solution that’s going to be proposed to build.
That same solution wouldn’t work if you said, “HEY. BUY MY WEIGHT LOSS AND SEDUCTION PILLS” as soon as a reader hit your page.
Collier proposes the soft sell and the pattern interrupt. He frames it as thinking of your sales letter as a personal letter. If you hadn’t seen a good friend in a while but you needed their help, you wouldn’t write a letter saying, “Hey friend… help me out.”
Instead, you’d ask after their kids, give them some juicy gossip and say, “I know you had trouble with your car… here’s how to solve it.” Then you’d give them the request afterwards. This would all happen naturally, and your sales letter should feel like that to a reader.
Lesson Three: The Challenge With Any Sales Letter Is Making It Seem Personal
This lesson is true now more than ever. Realistically, everyone knows that you’re going to send thousands of visitors to your sales page, send out your emails to every subscriber on your list and give everyone the “Just the first 100 people” discount.
The challenge with direct marketing – now as it was then – is overcoming that scepticism and making people feel like you’re talking to them personally.
People who are not in your target market will say,
- “That’s a scam!”
- “Nobody would fall for that!”
- “This is just evil sales!”
- “Everyone knows you’re trying to sell stuff!”
To an extent, they’re right. (Sidenote: Don’t ever listen to a person who’s not in your target market.)
But you know what?
Everyone knows that professional wrestling is fake too.
More than that, everybody knows that movies and TV shows are fake too.
It doesn’t matter that your sales letters aren’t individual. You need to convince someone momentarily that they could be individual.
Kind of like at Christmas time where your local church is desperately trying to find someone to dress up for the kids. They’re probably going to settle for the local drunk wearing a fake beard and a $10 costume, but as long as he says, “Ho, ho, ho” he’s the real Santa to the kids.
This year, I even saw a sheep with some fake reindeer antlers on. If someone can sell a reindeer experience with a sheep, then you can convince someone a letter has been personalised for them!
When you write sales letters, you are creating a world for people to step into. Despite what the ivory tower academics would have you believe, this is creative and critical writing.
This article covered only three of the eleven points I was going to talk about. I’ll probably come back to the others at a later date.
This isn’t due to my wordiness; those eleven points comprised about ten percent of the notes I’ve written on the book.
(I know in the challenge you’re not supposed to write notes until the second read-through, but I’m creating these articles for you guys.)
My point is, The Robert Collier Letter Book, despite its dense language and enormous size, is well worth reading. You’ll gain far more insight from reading it than I could give you, so get it here. You’ll be glad you did.