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600 Million – Hidden persuaders behind the most successful mail campaign in history

600 Million

Hidden persuaders behind the most successful mail campaign in history

(and How You Can Swipe Them for Yourself)

Let's meet the Hero of this story . . .

If you haven’t been acquainted, let me introduce you to Gary Halbert.

The ‘Prince of Print’ was arguably one of the greatest marketing minds of the twentieth century and certainly one of the greatest copywriters.

What's now referred to as the ‘coat-of-arms’ letter was his first successful direct mail campaign after several frustrating attempts.

Prior to this Gary lived in a house that occasionally didn’t have running water or electricity as he had spent the utilities money on failed direct mail campaigns.

It took about 18 months to work all the kinks out of this campaign, which itself is testament to his persistence.

But when the dust settled this single page letter was an unprecedented success.

It spawned an empire which generated sales over sixty-thousand dollars per day (this was the early 1970s remember) and was sold 30 years later to Ancestry.com for 75 million dollars.

It’s been estimated that this letter – or minor variations of it – have been mailed out 600,000,000 times.

Count the zeros. That’s six hundred million.

Some say it was a billion.

the letter was designed to fly stealthily under the junk mail radar

Suffice to say, there’s a few lessons in this direct mail campaign for all of us.

In a world of commercial bombardment, the letter was designed from the outset to fly stealthily under the junk mail radar and be perceived as a personal letter from his then wife, Nancy Halbert.

Gary went to extraordinary lengths to maintain the façade. For example, the letters were trucked from the offset printer in Illinois to Bath, Ohio so the letters’ postmark matched the sending address. Three semi-truck loads a week. No detail which may raise an eyebrow was unattended to.

At their peak they were mailing nigh on one million letters a week and taking in around 20,000 orders a day. They hired 40 staff simply to help process their bank deposits.

Rather than a lesson in slick salesmanship, the coat-of-arms letter is a striking – and rare – example of the effective use of hidden and subtle psychological persuaders.

These techniques and the lessons they provide are just as valuable and applicable in the Internet age. Their application may now vary, but the principles are timeless.

the most mailed sales letter in history

Barely a 100 words longer than ‘The Gettysburg address’, the coat-of-arms letter is believed to be the most mailed sales letter in history.

Laid end-to-end the letter total letters mailed would circumnavigate the Earth 4.2 times.

The coat-of-arms letter is presented in it’s entirety below. We'll spend the rest of this post dissecting it.

flying under the radar . . . 

The first obstacle in any direct mail campaign is simply getting your letter delivered. The next hurdle is then getting it opened (let alone read).

Halbert used several stealth techniques to address these obstacles.

To address the first, Gary used real, honest-to-goodness first class stamps.

Many other direct mail marketers thought they’d save money by using bulk rate mail or franking. In far too many documented cases, postal staff simply dumped postage which screamed junk mail hoping the sender and recipient would be none the wiser.

Just as important was the postmark – that official mark stamped on a letter giving the place, date, and time of posting.

To perpetuate the illusion that this was a personal letter and not the commercial pitch it really was, Halbert wanted the postmark to reflect the return address of Bath, Ohio where they had hired a house to act as their ‘office’.

To do this he had the letters delivered from the printer in Illinois by truck to the Ohio, Bath post office where they could receive the local post mark.
While this stealth approach did not lower the recipient's defenses it was one more tactic to ensure they wouldn’t be raised.

The second stealth technique was the envelope. This tactic was implemented in three parts.

Firstly, the letter was delivered in quality, plain white envelopes. The kind of nondescript envelope you might use to send a letter to a friend.

Secondly, while many direct mail pieces of the time had teaser copy on the outside of the envelope, this had none. There was nothing to give the recipient a reason to file it in the round filing cabinet.

Finally, many direct mail pieces affix the address with a self-adhesive label; typical of mass-mailings. This had the address printed directly on the envelope using a font which gave the impression it was typewritten.

There was nothing to indicate that this was anything other than a personal letter.

buying from people you know, like & trust

People are more inclined to buy if they know, like and trust you.

How do you address those concerns through a letter?

The coat-of-arms letter used several techniques:

One was by providing the sender’s contact details by way of a physical return address and telephone number.

Right off the bat, when you open this letter, you know how to get in touch with the sender. For the recipient, even though they have no intention of actually picking up the phone, it’s very comforting to know they can reach you.

This is more important in the Internet age where emails and websites can be opaque and anonymous. The quickest way to encourage trust is via transparency.

The second thing this suggests is that the letter was sent by a real person, not a company. This is one more technique to instill the impression that this is a personal letter.

When the letter was originally written in the late 1960s and early 1970s, computer generated letters were just coming in to vogue. Virtually all direct mail used a generic salutations like “Dear Friend” or “Dear Occupant”.

Gary used the recipient’s favorite word – their name – four times in the letter starting with the salutation.

Further emphasizing the personal nature of the letter, Gary estimated that this alone tripled the response rate which averaged 7% but was as high as 23% for some surnames.

To facilitate ‘personalization’, Halbert simply printed and mailed it in batches of the same surname, literally working his way through the telephone book.

the subtle art of hooking your reader

A headline would have screamed sales pitch, so the letter needed a more subtle approach to draw you into the body copy.

The letter tactfully hooks you from the first sentence with a question that engages curiosity and ego.

The most common response going through most people’s mind after reading the opening would be “No”.

This could feasibly be followed by questions going through the reader’s mind such as:

  • My family has a coat-of-arms?
  • Seven centuries! That long ago?

Whatever the internal questions the reader has, the letter starts out with a little known fact to appeal to the ego and arouse curiosity.

In the Internet world, where attention spans are short (and getting shorter) and people ‘scan’ copy rather than ‘read’ it, hooking your reader from the get-go is crucial. 

Remember, people won’t be bored in print. If you lose them for a moment, you’ve lost them forever.

So now that you have their attention you need to keep it . . .

reeling them in . . .

The letter immediately provides a legitimate answer to keep the reader engaged.

Notice the tone of the letter? It’s very casual and understated. It sounds like it’s coming from a person – a real person – not company.

Too many entrepreneurs try and give the illusion that their business is bigger than it is. Ironically people are much more comfortable dealing with an individual than a faceless corporation.

Notice the tone of the letter? It’s very casual and understated. It sounds like it’s coming from a person – a real person – not company.

Too many entrepreneurs try and give the illusion that their business is bigger than it is. Ironically people are much more comfortable dealing with an individual than a faceless corporation.

Mentioning her husband further reinforces the idea that this is a personal letter not a commercial sales pitch.

Given the letter is signed by Nancy, she doesn’t have to mention her husband but doing this makes Nancy seem real and the letter more legitimate.

It’s as though you met an acquaintance or neighbour with the same last name and casually mentioned, “oh, by-the-way, my husband and I did some research on our last name . . . “.

It’s very low key and under the radar.

This instils the idea that not only is this authentic (‘exactly as described in the ancient records’) but we’ve had it ‘professionally’ reproduced, suggesting value before price has even been mentioned.

And still here in the second paragraph there is no explicit suggestion that this is in fact a commercial, direct mail piece.

drawing your reader into the net

The letter continues drawing in the reader with more details about their ‘distinguished’ family name.

But like any compelling bullet list, it accentuates the ‘what’ but not the ‘how’, selling the sizzle without giving away the steak.

The description is very succinct but rich in detail listing features which appeal to pride and the ego. The reader discovers that they don’t have any old last name, but one that is “very old” and “distinguished”.

Genealogy is a growing interest and people are eager to know about their heritage. Mentioning the family motto and famous people in their lineage builds on this interest.

The copy also uses the reader’s last name two more times but without being blatant. It’s all done in context of the conversation.

This paragraph essentially gives a list of “product features” without stating as much and then goes on to suggest how it could be used (framing).

how to deploy testimonials when you don't have any

A strong sales pitch builds credibility through testimonials and endorsements.

The coat-of-arms letter is no different, but its approach needed to be more tactful while still managing to include a third-party testimonial.

The letter provides an implicit testimonial from the friends they prepared the report for, effectively stating that the only reason more copies were produced is because their friends were so delighted.

Even before the sale has been asked for, the letter implies scarcity by highlighting that they only have “few extra copies”.

selling on value, not on cost

At its most basic level, this was a sales pitch for a piece of paper.

Albeit a piece of paper with a picture of a coat-of-arms and historical details of genealogical interest on it.

The physical value of the report was a few pennies, but the intrinsic value was something deeper.

This sentence achieves two important things. Firstly it tells you the intrinsic value of what it was really selling. This was supported by later research.

It was selling wall hanging recognition. Boasting rights. Something you could show off to visitors. In essence, this was an ego purchase. In copywriting it’s crucial to understand what people are really buying.

Secondly, by suggesting it as a great gift for relatives it’s providing a reason to buy more than one copy. It’s many times it is easier for someone to buy something under the guise of a gift.

A good example is fathers who buy an electric train for their son. You know you always wanted an electric train; now you have a reason.

Also, by suggesting that the reports would ‘distinctive wall decorations’ the letter is future casting. This encourages the reader to create a mental picture of the coat-of-arms framed and mounted on their own wall.

This is a powerful copywriting technique, allowing the reader to create a mental image of themselves already owning or enjoying the benefits of owning the product. You want your reader to picture themselves already enjoying the product.

The letter could still have painted a more detailed picture without appearing ‘salesy’ like this: ‘...our friends mounted theirs in a distinctive picture frame and hung it in their living room...’.

the delicate art of a 'Call to Action'

And now we come to the ‘Call to Action’. There’s no hard sale. There’s no ‘Buy Now’ or ‘Stocks are Limited’. It exudes the feel of a personal letter right to the end.

It’s still very low key and under the radar: ‘hey, we just happen to have a few extra copies and we thought you might be interested’. If you were, the statement “All we are asking for them” infers that the yet-to-be-disclosed price was fair and reasonable.

This is very much a soft sell approach which uses two techniques to imply scarcity: “right away” and “supply is pretty slim”.

Like Warren Buffet’s annual letter to his shareholders, the language is still casual and folksy. It doesn’t belabour the call-to-action but instils urgency with a friendly “please let us know right away”.

Is he kidding?

Of course their name and address are correct otherwise they wouldn’t be reading the letter.

This is deflection; a diversion just before a gracefully segue into asking for the sale:

Note also that the letter doesn’t even suggest how many reports they should get. It’s left open ended, although the previous reference to a gift for relatives encourages more than one.

For the curious, the average number of prints purchased per customer was two.

Simply asking the reader to ‘upsize’ increased gross revenue by 50% and gross profit by almost 800%.

signing off

The letter was signed by Gary’s then wife, Nancy.

Like the contact details at the top of the letter, her signature reinforces the idea that you’re dealing with a real, live person and not a faceless corporation.

There’s no company name. No job title. Just her simple signature.

The letter was signed by Gary’s then wife, Nancy.

Like the contact details at the top of the letter, her signature reinforces the idea that you’re dealing with a real, live person and not a faceless corporation.

There’s no company name. No job title. Just her simple signature.

Criticism of Halbert’s letter include questionable spelling, poor grammar and colloquialisms and the suggestion the whole letter could benefit from a little polish.

On the contrary, the letter targeted its market exceptionally well. It spoke the readers’ language and intentionally came across as unsophisticated.

A more polished approach would have been seen for what it really was – a commercial sales pitch.

Looking like it could have been written by your mother, it built a level of trust and rapport that no amount of corporate speak could achieve.

The sales copy in the coat-of-arms letter is not so much persuasive as it is subtle.

Recipients of the letter would never believe that it sent to them by a business venture that would later be sold for $75 million.

the postscript

Like any good sales letter, there was a postscript:

Even in emails, more people read the P.S. than the body of your message.

If you’ve got something important to say, put it in the P.S.

Finally, there's one last hidden persuader in the postscript:

We all love a bargain.

If you order more than one you got a better deal – buy one, get one half price.

Not only that, there is a reason that you get the better deal – when ordering at the same time an delivering to the same address.

This correlates back to Cialdini’s findings on influence. When you ask for something, give a reason – any reason. Giving a reason has better results than no reason at all.

It’s not (about) you, it’s me

Okay, maybe it is about you.

Remember the last time you were at a party?

Not one of those swinging from the chandelier type parties, but one of those mingling and chatting parties.

You do? 


Now image yourself there and a suave guy (or gal if you prefer) saunters over and starts talking to you . . .

. . . about themselves.

All. Night.

They talk about what business they’re in. How long they’ve been at it. How their great-grandfather started it in 1872. All the "prestigious” customers they’ve got. And how they got their golf handicap down to singe figures.

Are you still awake?

Are you even still there?

If you’re like most (rational) people you’d be looking for an escape route soon after their entrance.

So, what was the problem here?

The conversation was all about “them”, “them” and more “them”.

And never about you.

Is this how your customers and prospects feel when they’re reading your emails, your sales letters or your landing pages?

The sweetest sound in any language

Dale Carnegie once claimed that “names are the sweetest and most important sound in any language”.

From a young age we’re conditioned to recognise and respond when people use our name.

So when you’re writing one-on-one communications, like emails, try to use your reader's first name whenever you can, especially in the opening.

“Hey Marcus” comes across as far more friendly and accessible than “Hey Subscriber” or just “Hi”.

Some marketers will also sprinkle their readers’ names through the body of the email.

This can make your emails seems more personalised, but don’t overdo it.

If you’ve ever felt your skin crawl from a salesperson using your name in every sentence (trying desperately to build rapport) you’ll know you can have too much of a good thing.

So, keep it casual using their name, just like you would if you were having a chat over coffee. 

A Rose by Any Other Name

But there’s times you can’t use your readers’ names.

Maybe it’s not on your mailing list or perhaps you’re writing a sales letter or landing page.

In these cases, you can’t use your readers’ name directly, but you want to ensure they still feel like you’re talking to them.

One way you can tell is by looking at the You-Me ratio of your writing.

What’s the You-Me Ratio?

The You-Me Ratio is a writing metric.

It compares how many times you talk about yourself compared to how many times you talk about your reader.

Words that refer to you include “me”, “my”, “our” and “we”. You want to avoid or at least reduce these as much as possible.

Words that refer to your reader include “you”, “your” and “yours”. You want to use these more.

A lot more.

This is how you can determine the You-Me Ratio of your email, sales letter or landing page:

First, count-up all the words which mention yourself. Let’s call these the ‘Me’ words.

These include:

  • me
  • my
  • mine
  • our
  • we
  • us

Then count-up all the words which mention your reader. Let’s call these the ‘You’ words.

This includes words like these:

  • you
  • yours
  • your
  • you're
  • yourself
  • you'll

Count them all up, divide one by the other and you have the You-Me ratio.

You-Me Ratio Calculation

So, what’s a good You-Me ratio?

So far in this post I've used 60 'you' words and 18 'me' words.

Altogether that’s 78 you-me type words (60 'you' words plus 18 'me' words).

Of those 78 words, a full 60 were all about you. So, I've talked about you 77% of the time.

Here's another way to look at it.

60 ‘you' words divided by 18 ‘me' is about 3.3.

You-Me Ratio Example

That is, for every 1 time I mentioned me, I mentioned you 3.3 times.

One rule of thumb is to talk about your reader at least twice as much as you talk about yourself.

For every “me” you mention, you should mention “you” two times (or more!).

 That’d give a you-me ratio of 2.0. So 3.3 is pretty good 🙂

How do I work this out?

Does that mean you have to manually count all the first and second personal pronouns and whip out your calculator every time you write an email, blog post or sales letter?

Not anymore 🙂

Copy-Fast now figures out the You-Me ratio for you every time you check the readability of your writing.

You’ll discover how personal your writing is every time you discover how easy it is to read with a simple metric.

Here’s the you-me ratio and readability scores for this post up to “What’s a good You-Me ratio” heading above:

You-Me Ratio Score

And to calculate all you had to do was press a button.

No math. Yee-hah!

Get closer to your audience and start checking the You-Me ratio of your writing today.