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Your headline has grabbed the reader. That reader is on side and interested.  You have a fish on the hook.  Now you have to secure the fish and land it.

But this is where a lot of writers lose it…

The first paragraph of a sales letter or ad is vitally important.  It can have a significant bearing on whether your mailer or ad is successful or not.

Your opening paragraph has two objectives.  Firstly, to seamlessly continue the thought or approach that is contained in the envelope copy line - if you have one - and the headline of the letter or ad.

And secondly to create enough interest to make the reader move on to the next paragraph.

The first two elements, if delivered correctly, will have attracted and interested a percentage of your readers.  Those are the ones you want.  They are interested.  They are looking in YOUR shop window.

You now have a great opportunity.  You are in control.  Totally.  The reader is being led down the path that you want the reader to go.  Don’t blow it…

Keep the reader reading.  The way you do that is to use the arrows in your quiver that you KNOW will do the job.

If you are a regular reader of this column, you will be aware of these…

Keep it short.  Three lines are OK. Two are even better. And one word can sometimes be sensational. Of course, when applying the latter approach, the second para will have to contain a bit more substance for obvious reasons…

A long first paragraph will discourage readers to continue.  Every time.  So don’t do it.

Deliver a strong benefit.  Quickly.  Restate it and add another. Maintain the connection you have made by gently involving the reader, with ‘you’ and ‘your’…

If you are telling a story, make it relevant.  And make it interesting for God’s sake.  That means not talking about you or your company, by the way…

Then lead the reader on…and on…and on…

If your headline is a testimonial, talk about it. Expand on it. Show the relevance to the reader.  Interest and seduce the reader some more.

But don’t change tack or you’ll lose them right there.

Remember, if you don't get that reader past the first paragraph, your letter or ad will fail.  Not a debatable point either.  It’s a fact.

Over time, trillions of pages of ads have been turned over unread, because of limp and useless first lines or paragraphs of copy.  It’s the same with direct mail packs.

Here’s a great example in an ad...

“The modern woman demands something more than comfort and utility in the appointments of her home.  She is a devotee of style and beauty.  She knows colour and design.  Her taste is cultivated and refined.  She is informed, detests spuriousness and expects authentic value for money”.

That bit of useless fluff was written by someone who hasn’t got a hope in hell of selling anything to anyone.  It was the first paragraph of a 4-colour full-page ad in a national magazine. 

It cost a lot.  An awful lot.  And delivered very little.

But you see it all the time.  Can you guess what product is being advertised?  Can you guess its benefits and what it might do for you?  No you can’t.

There is not one clue there.  That copy is, in actual fact, a barrier between the reader and the product details and benefits.  The reader will not read on.

The reader will just turn the page and be lost to the advertiser.  Wasted money.  Wasted time.

Here’s another more recent one, from a full-page colour ad by Eurotel:

“You can rely on us - Eurotel offers the best coverage of more than 99% of the Czech Republic’s population and ensures continuous improvement of coverage inside buildings”

“Rely on us”.  I ask you. I despair…

And another, from Daewoo:

“At Daewoo we believe that owning a car should be a hassle-free experience”

What on earth made them think that anyone would be interested in what they think?

Here are a couple of unbelievably poor examples from mailings:

Washington Envelopes

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The worst line, or variation of it, that you could ever use to start a letter.

“May I take this opportunity to introduce my company to you?”  The answer is “No, you may not, you dope…“

Then they follow it with 5 lines about them.  Not a snowball’s chance in hell of paying for itself.


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Starting a sales letter with an apology…!  Can you believe it?  A classic for all the wrong reasons.

Now here’s how it should be done…

Orient Express

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An opening paragraph that follows on from the headline, arouses curiosity and is full of benefit.

And a classic ad, the quality of which, shines like a beacon…


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The master, John Caples, in his book Tested Advertising Methods, shared with his readers a study he did on first sentences.  The results were fascinating.

He copied down the first sentence of every article in the current edition of Readers Digest…

…35 articles in all…

“I wanted to find out how the editors of the world’s largest circulating publication handled the problem of holding the readers interest after that interest has been sparked by the title of the article”.

The results of his study were very revealing indeed.  So much so, he repeated the exercise with a number of back issues as well.  His findings were confirmed.

There were a number of successful formulas repeated again and again…

What should be interesting to us contemporary scribes, is that a lot of these formulas are just as appropriate for writing successful letters and ads as they are for article writing.

Here’s what the great man found:

Interrupting Ideas

A number of the openings began with a sentence that Caples described as “a startling statement or a novel twist that breaks through the boredom barrier”

An example was an article on deodorizers entitled “ It Makes Bad Air Good”

“The hit of the annual Chemical Show held in New York City a few months ago, was a pair of skunks  housed in a plastic cage”

The Shocker

Pretty closely related to the above, but more direct…

“I used to think that women who did nothing but have babies were stupid creatures”


Everyone is interested in news…

“Something exciting and heartening is happening on the American college campus these days”


An opening that gives you a quick peep at the article…

“Until about 15 years ago, Japanese beetles seemed unstoppable”


Here’s an opening that will appeal to all of us who work with words…

“Daniel Webster said, if all my possessions and powers were taken from me with one exception, I would choose to keep the power of words, because with them I would recover the rest”


I’m keeping the best until last.  Over half of the articles that Caples reviewed, began with a story.  This is a non-fiction magazine, yet half the pieces began with an anecdote or a narrative of some kind…

“The time was 1am.  The place, a police station on Chicago’s South Side”.

In summary, he found that most of the openings…

Were full of facts

Were telegraphic

Were specific

Contained few adjectives

Aroused curiosity

Of course, if you feel that none of the above are appropriate for the copy challenge you face, you can fall back on the simplest formula of all…

…continue the thought as expressed in your envelope teaser line or headline of your ad or letter.

In Richard Hodgson’s book The Greatest Direct Mail Sales Letters of All Time, he talks about how the late Paul Bringe created six different test lead paragraphs for a sales letter.

All were equally good, Paul felt.  But the test mailing suggested otherwise ...

Staggeringly to the writer, one of those lead paragraphs produced a response that was over 300% better than the best of the other five.

Unusual?  Yes, perhaps, in the numbers generated in this particular example.

But it undoubtedly emphasises the vital importance of the opening paragraph in a sales letter or advertisement.  Anyone writing copy for response must recognise this.

What’s more, it underlines once again that the writer has to apply high levels of skill and technique in message delivery, otherwise the communication will not be acted upon and will disappear into the morass…

…which is a place where no one wants to be….

See you next month,

Keep the faith.


About the Author

As well as his international speaking engagements, Andy runs in-house copywriting sessions and workshops for companies and organisations all over the world. If you feel your company could benefit from this, please contact Andy for details.

If anyone would like further information on any aspect of copywriting for direct marketing, please contact Andy direct at andyowen@aol.com or mailto:copydeskUK@aol.com%20

Andy Owen is Managing Director of Andy Owen Associates, a leading international strategic marketing consultancy specialising in all aspects of contemporary direct marketing. The company has offices in the UK, Middle East & North Africa, with Associate Offices in Europe & the USA.

The company’s corporate website is http://www.andyowen.co.uk/ The specialist copy devision has its own site at http://www.copywritingthatsells.com/

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