How To Swipe Successful Sales Letters

About every copywriter would boast about his collection of successful sales letters gathered from the masters of persuasion. This collection of winning sales copy is commonly referred to as a swipe file.

The reason behind collecting and studying these winning pieces is to provide inspiration for writing successful letters, sharpening your own writing skills and borrowing and adapting headlines and selling strategies to different markets.

The idea of studying great writers and artist in order to model them is not new. However, most writers who are new to copywriting may feel uncomfortable with the level of ‘borrowing’ that go on within the copywriting and direct marketing industry.

In other writing markets such ‘swiping’ practices may be considered as plagiarism. But like companies that quickly create a knock-off version of a successful product, marketers are always ready to borrow the ideas behind successful advertising campaigns.

Swiping can be the shortcut to writing winning sales letters or it can turn into a copycat and lame imitation of the genuine article and fail miserable. The debate is therefore not whether a copywriter should swipe or not but how to swipe successful sales letters effectively.

The practice of swiping can be considered as a continuum. On one end you have those copywriters who use the original sales letter as a fill-in-the-blank template, simply making substitutions for product names and other minor changes.

On the other end of the continuum is the practice of studying the swipe file to determine the selling strategies and technique behind the letter and adapting these same techniques in a new sales letter. In essence, there is copying on one end and adapting on the other end.

Copying should not be considered as swiping although some copywriters may argue for the practice. But copying and swiping are not even distant cousins.

Let’s take one of the most famous direct marketing letters, The Wall Street Journal ‘two graduates’ letter which brought in over $2 billion in subscription for the magazine. The letter tells of two young graduates with apparently equal advantages who on the 25th anniversary of their graduation from college found themselves in very different positions—one was the president of a company and the other a manager of a small department of the same company.

The letter goes on to explain how The Wall Street Journal was the reason for the success of the one graduate over the other.

Now as the copywriter wanting to use this letter as a swipe I can simply tell the same story of two graduates at their 25th class reunion and how my product made the difference in their widely differing successes. But how practical would this be if I were selling a lawn care or a weight loss product?

The question that has to be asked by the copywriter is why has this letter been so successful? What is the real selling strategy that could be adapted to any product?

According to Robert Collier, “The Adapting is the job. Many writers make the mistake of thinking that if they copy the wording of a successful sales letter, their letter is bound to pull too. There is no bigger mistake. The wording counts for little. It is the way you adapt the idea back of the successful letter that counts.” (The Robert Collier Letter Book, p. 148)

Taking this cue from Collier the idea behind this letter is the comparison between two normal, average people who made a simple decision that made a huge difference in their lives. Of course the simple wording of the letter, the use of a story, the subtle use of the rebirth of spring all go into making the letter appealing, but the big selling idea is the “what made the difference” angle to the letter. It’s basically a ‘before’ and ‘after’ shot as used in weight-loss ads.

Here are some suggestions on how to make the best use of swipe files:

1. Do not try to copy the rote wording but instead the selling idea behind the letter.

2. Try to adapt and not just copy the letter.

3. Study the market (historical context) for the letter before you try to adapt it to your present market. Probe for the answers to the questions as to what has changed and how the strategies that were considered novel at the time the swipe letter was written may be now overworked and ineffective.

4. Consider how much the credibility of the letter writer or product owner accounted for the success of the letter. For example, The Wall Street Journal already had a lot of credibility in the market before this letter was used. You may not be able to mimic that component of the letter.

5. Study the masters of copywriting so you know what to look for in winning sales letter. What may be transparent to you without the background knowledge can become visible if you know what to look for.

The bottom line is that there is an art and a science to swiping and if you blindly copy successful sales letters and, in effect, place new wine in old bottles your sales letter will flop.

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