The genre of sales letters: What counts as good advice?

aida-sales-funnelsale sign

A sales letter (or email) is designed to entice a reader to become a customer of the writer. The most common approach to training writers to create a sales letter is called AIDA, standing for

  1. Attention
  2. Interest
  3. Desire
  4. Action

It was developed by Elias St. Elmo Lewis based on his practical advertising experience in the US before the end of the 19th century. You can read more about the AIDA funnel at ProvenModels. I appreciate advice based on personal experience. I really do. Sometimes it’s all there is.

But, as a critical thinker, I value advice backed with quality data even more. I don’t mean I only trust numbers. I like the way Joseph A. Maxwell, author of Qualitative Research Design, defines “validity.”

I use validity in a fairly straightforward, commonsense way to refer to the correctness or credibility of a description, conclusion, explanation, interpretation, or other sort of account . . . the idea of objective truth isn’t essential to a theory of validity that does what most researchers want it to do, which is to give them some grounds for distinguishing accounts that are credible from those that are not. Nor are you required to attain some ultimate truth in order for your study to be useful and believable.

My quick search in research databases suggests the AIDA approach to writing sales letters is untested. That doesn’t make it a platitude. But to me it does mean a lack of validity — or credibility.

In contrast, applied linguists have identified the rhetorical moves (content + purpose) in sales letters by collecting a sample of them and then analyzing their similarites. I’ve written about a sales letter my husband and I wrote before in Pros Plan Message Content Strategically and Pros Plan Message Organization Strategically.

The table below summarizes the moves, their general purpose, and an example from our sales letter.

Order Rhetorical Move[1] Primary Purpose[2] Secondary Purpose[3] Example from Our Sales Letter[4]
1 Establishing credentials To inform To direct Did you know The First Tee of Tuscaloosa has grown from serving 85 local children when it was established by the Tuscaloosa County Park and Recreation Authority in 2006 to serving more than 400 in 2011?
2 Introducing the offer To value To direct I am writing to offer your organization an opportunity to show our community–and our kids–that you support the values we teach through golf. I hope you will allow us to list your organization as a sponsor on our new signage at Ol’ Colony Golf Complex.
3 Offering incentives To value To direct Your sponsorship of First Tee of Tuscaloosa will make a tremendous difference. No child from age 6 to 18 is ever turned away. Although it costs $500 to provide year-round programming and mentoring to a child, families pay a subsidized fee of only $85. And more than one-third of the kids we serve are on full scholarships.
4 Referring to enclosures To inform To direct The enclosed form provides more details.
5 Inviting further communication To direct To value If you are interested in supporting The First Tee of Tuscaloosa in other ways, please contact me at (111)222-3333 or Executive Director, XXX, at (111)999-8888.
6 Using pressure tactics To direct None We are a non-profit organization, and our entire budget is dependent on our community.
7 Ending politely To value None Thank you in advance for your support.

[1] From genre research by applied linguists.

[2] From competing values research by management communication scholars.

[3] From competing values research by management communication scholars.

[4] From the letter I describe in previous blog posts.

I teach my students several ways to maximize the credibility of their conclusions without relying on numbers. Let me share two of them with you here as they might be applied to guidance for writers of sales letters based on rhetorical moves research.

The first technique, Triangulation, requires that you present multiple and diverse types of evidence to support a single conclusion. For instance, the same rhetorical moves identified by Bhatia have been identified in studies of letters in other languages, as well as in those written in English by non-Westerners. The fact that the moves describe many diverse sales letters makes guidance based on that research credible.

The second technique, Analytic Induction, requires that you discuss any evidence you have that does not support your conclusion. For example, we didn’t follow the exact move structure from research in our letter. More specifically, we decided we could put almost all details about the offer in an enclosed brochure so move #4 (referring to enclosures) appears right after #2 (introducing the offer), which could then be very briefly covered in the letter itself.  That choice was strategic because we believed we needed to devote more of the letter’s real estate to move #3 (offering incentives), which we saw as primarily altruistic in the case of this solicitation letter. I don’t believe that would be true of sales letters, in general. So I still think rhetorical moves research is credible.

All of this explains why I rely on the rhetorical moves research rather than the AIDA model for guidance on writing a sales letter. While AIDA’s value could be tested with actual letters, rhetorical moves already have been.

2 thoughts on “The genre of sales letters: What counts as good advice?

  1. If AIDA was developed based on “personal experience,” then how is it “untested”? Experience-based heuristics are as valid as scientific theory (and some, for example David Weinberger of «Too Big To Know», might argue that they may in fact be more useful than scientific theory in this age of “big data”); it does not necessarily follow that the latter be always valid.

    • Hmmm . . . OK. I see what you’re saying about personal experience as a form of “testing.” I’m not familiar with Weinberger’s work. But I did not say anything about the QUANTITY of data as evidence for a conclusion. The focus of triangulation and analytic induction is on the QUALITY of that data. I think I’ll follow up with another post . . .

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