The Greatest Sales Letter of All Time

Copywriting 101

In line with my advice to study advertising copy that works, I thought I’d share what many consider to be the most successful sales letter ever.

The following is an excerpt from the classic direct-mail piece that generated an estimated $2 billion in revenue for The Wall Street Journal. I’ve seen adaptations and straight rip-offs dozens of times.

Here’s how it starts:

Dear Reader:

On a beautiful late spring afternoon, twenty-five years ago, two young men graduated from the same college. They were very much alike, these two young men. Both had been better than average students, both were personable and both – as young college graduates are – were filled with ambitious dreams for the future.

Recently, these two men returned to college for their 25th reunion.

They were still very much alike. Both were happily married. Both had three children. And both, it turned out, had gone to work for the same Midwestern manufacturing company after graduation, and were still there.

But there was a difference. One of the men was manager of a small department of that company. The other was its president.

What Made The Difference

Have you ever wondered, as I have, what makes this kind of difference in people’s lives? It isn’t always a native intelligence or talent or dedication. It isn’t that one person wants success and the other doesn’t.

The difference lies in what each person knows and how he or she makes use of that knowledge.

And that is why I am writing to you and to people like you about The Wall Street Journal. For that is the whole purpose of The Journal: To give its readers knowledge – knowledge that they can use in business.

What’s your story?

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  1. That letter is a classic. I didn’t know it was the greatest of all time though.

    And I like the font and size of the comment section. The text is big and makes me feel important. :)

  2. Glad to help with that, Chartreuse!

  3. That’s my first time ever reading that letter.

  4. It’s clear how this letter could work for the target audience.

    However, personally I find it rather shallow… I guess I am not the target :/

  5. I’ve never even heard of this story, let alone read the letter. I have no idea how or why this ever got “elected” as the greatest sales letter of all time.

    What’s interesting, and certainly what stands out the most, is the implication that the bloke who is president is somehow more successful than the bloke who is department manager.

    Maybe I’m in the minority, but I find that implication shallow and preposterous.

    • We have ourselves a few money monks. Two men who attended the same school, are both happily married, and for all the reader knows are equal in all ways… can you not draw the conclusion that the President is more successful?

      You guys are nutty

    • It wasn’t “elected,” it made $2 billion dollars.

      Nothing works on everyone. But this one worked more than any other one that anyone knows of.

  6. Ivan – my point exactly :) however, perhaps people reading WSJ think otherwise.

  7. You’re right – for the right target audience, this letter is pure money. What young college-grad would want to miss out on all of the knowledge that the WSJ has to offer and be left behind as some mid-level manager, while his classmate scrapes his way to the top. I’ve never seen this letter before, but I don’t doubt that it is supremely effective.

  8. I would have though the Bible was the greatest sales letter of all time. A bit longer though.

  9. Keep in mind that the above is only the introduction to the sales letter. It goes on to draw the reader through the sales process and eventually make a great call to action.

    What makes it so great is the profitability and life of the letter… though there are a few other other letters I’d rank up there as well.

  10. Keep in mind that the above is only the introduction to the sales letter. It goes on to draw the reader through the sales process and eventually make a great call to action.

    What makes it so great is the profitability and life of the letter… though there are a few other letters I’d rank up there as well.

  11. Awesome story Brian. Something we need to remember as new media content creators, we need to have a unique and powerful story of our own.

  12. Patrick Massengale :

    I am up all night and have been creating ways to convey content and ask for the close. I see why the letter has it’s appeal, but in today’s quick response mindset, the prospects attention span would not allow so many facts, the idea is to Condense, Convey and Close, this is why I’m up all night, and it’s a little TUFF!

  13. Elijah Street :

    There was an ad which ran for, what? decades? It featured a silver-haired man saying something along the lines of, “I want to share this with you while I still have time.”

    I’d love to have some information on this history of this ad, as I once read that *it* was the most powerful ad of all time.

  14. That’s also an effective headline you wrote to declare this “The Greatest Sales Letter of All Time.” It sure seems to have grabbed people’s attention!

  15. Great article and first time of seeing that DM. Is there a link to the full version somewhere?

  16. It looks like quite an old sales letter (1960’s, at a guess) and follows methods similarly employed in the old versions of the Reader’s Digest Magazine. I like it, I can see how it worked by creating empathy, showing sympathy, causing the reader to feel like an underachiever then sets out a solution that the reader jumps over himself to receive. Excellent methodology.

    Nowadays, it looks more like a 419 scam. Nevertheless, the methodology is as sound as it ever was – tell a great story that elicits an emotional response which can be used to generate a sale.

    Thanks for showing it.

  17. If you’d like to see what 1919 sales letter Martin Conroy used to model his winning sales letter you can read the history here:

  18. Brian, you never say why this is the best letter of all-time. What are your thoughts? Do people love stories? And if so, why? Is it because stories draw them in emotionally? Is it because they can relate to the story? Why does this work?

    • It’s considered the best of all time because it made $2 billion dollars.

      And yep, it’s the story, showing the contrast in two men who started at the same place and who came out ahead (and why).

  19. Matthew Shellenhamer :

    This letter is simple and direct. It says, ‘we will make you smart and successful’ without actually hitting you over the head with it. The language is not complex and once you start reading it, you want to see how it turns out. It is also personable. The use of ‘I’ and ‘you’ gives the reader a sense that WSJ sent it just to them.

    I would be curious to see how much longer this letter goes on. I am not sure a lengthy letter would be as effective today.