Martin Conroy: Did he write the greatest direct mail letter of all time?

Copywriter Martin Conroy passed away on Tuesday at the age of 84.

Conroy’s claim to fame?

He wrote what might well have been the most mailed direct mail piece of all time. It ran continuously with minor changes for thirty-one years from 1975 to 2003.

Just two pages long, it was the workhorse circulation builder for the Wall Street Journal.

Here’s the text:

“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 men returned to their college for their 25th reunion.

They were 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, 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.

A Publication Unlike Any Other

You see, The Wall Street Journal is a unique publication. It’s the country’s only national business daily. Each business day, it is put together by the world’s largest staff of business-news experts.

Each business day, The Journal’s pages include a broad range of information of interest and significance to business-minded people, no matter where it comes from. Not just stocks and finance, but anything and everything in the whole, fast-moving world of business… The Wall Street Journal gives you all the business you need when you need it.

Knowledge is Power

Right now, I am reading page one of the Journal. It combines all the important news of the day with in-depth feature reporting. Every phase of business news is covered, from articles on inflation, wholesale prices, car prices, tax incentives for industries to major developments in Washington, and elsewhere…

And there is page after page inside The Journal filled with fascinating and significant information that’s useful to you. A daily column on personal money management helps you become a smarter saver, better investor, wiser spender. There are weekly columns on small business, marketing, real estate, technology, regional developments. If you have never read The Wall Street Journal, you cannot imagine how useful it can be to you.

Much of the information that appears in The Journal appears nowhere else. The Journal is printed in numerous plants across the US, so that you get it early each business day.

GREAT INTRODUCTORY PRICE!

A $28 Subscription

Put our statements to the proof by subscribing for the next 13 weeks just for $28. This is the shortest subscription term we offer – and a perfect way to get acquired with The Journal. Or you may prefer to take advantage of a longer term subscription for greater savings: an annual subscription of $107 saves you $20 off The Journal’s cover price. Our best buy two years for $185 – saves you $69!

Simply fill out the enclosed order card and mail it in the postage-paid envelope provided. The Journal’s guarantee: Should the Journal not measure up to your expectations, you may cancel this trial arrangement at any point and receive a refund for the undelivered portion of your description.

If you feel as we do that this is a fair and reasonable proposition, then you will want to find out without delay if The Wall Street Journal can do for you what it has done for millions of readers. So please mail the enclosed order card now, and we will start serving you immediately.

About those two college graduates I mentioned in the beginning of the letter: They were graduated from the same college together and together got started in the business world. So what made their lives in business different?

Knowledge. Useful knowledge. And its application.

An Investment in Success

I cannot promise you that success will be instantly yours if you start reading The Wall Street Journal. But I can guarantee that you will find The Journal always interesing, always reliable, and always useful.

Sincerely yours,

Peter R. Kann
Executive Vice President

Associate Publisher

P.S. It’s important to note that The Journal’s subscription price may be tax deductible.”

=====================================

Is that one smooth, clear-as-glass piece of persuasive writing or what?

If you’re interested in business success, the story hooks you right away…two men, same background, different outcome. Why? Don’t you want to know?

The answer given is something we can all agree with and nod our heads to. Useful knowledge.

Then the writer lays detail upon detail documenting that The Journal is an excellent source of useful and exclusive knowledge.

Once you’re sold on the premise – knowledge equals success and The Journal has the knowledge – then out comes the offer for the product. Three of them actually: Good. Better. Best. And the company wins no matter which option you choose.

Notice, the only option offered is action and that action is spelled out so there’s no possibility of confusion as to what the prospect needs to do to join the party: “Simply filled out the enclosed order card and mail it…” Then risk reversal, saying in effect “if it isn’t exactly what you expected, you will get your money back.”

And then, a repeat of the emotional hook that snagged you in the first place: Will you succeed or won’t you?

Isn’t that what every business person wants to know? Is there any question that goes deeper? Is it a question we ever outgrow?

Then the plain talk finale: “I can’t promise that success will be instantly yours…but I can guarantee…” Of course, one of the reasons this piece worked so well in that the Wall Street Journal already had a fantastic reputation, but reputation alone is never enough to get a customer to pull the trigger and buy.

There has to be a reason why.

And that reason why has to go deep.

If a product like “The Journal” has to structure its sales presentation with such rigorous care, how can we do less for our lesser known products and services?

Clarity, simplicity, emotional significance, a clear offer, a clear call-to-action, a risk reversal, a re-statement of the basic premise at the end.

It just doesn’t get any better than this.

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32 Responses to Martin Conroy: Did he write the greatest direct mail letter of all time?

  1. Andrew Cavanagh December 23, 2006 at 10:20 am #

    The Wall Street Journal letter is a legendary piece of copy.

    I think what a lot of people forget is that the Wall Street Journal is an exceptional product.

    While it is a great model for a sales letter there’s an old saying “you can’t get blood from a stone”.

    When you take the time to create an exceptional product geared for a specific niche market it makes it many times easier to write exceptional copy.

    Kindest regards,
    Andrew Cavanagh

  2. Kathleen Gage December 23, 2006 at 10:49 am #

    Great product, excellent sales copy, commitment to excellence. A winning combination.

    Kathleen Gage

  3. Ken McCarthy December 23, 2006 at 11:13 am #

    Andrew,

    I agree and I make the point that the Wall Street Journal is an excellent product with a well regarded brand in my article.

    That being said, it would be a huge mistake to dismiss the sales this letter accomplished as a “gimme.”

    Frankly, I made the same mistake for years – until I put this letter under a microscope and really studied it.

    Believe me, if the Journal could have come up with a better sales tool over the thirty-one years they used this thing, they would have.

    During the same period this letter shined, most of The Journal’s peers abandoned ad copy all together and went the discounting route to build circulation.

    Read my analysis of the letter. Do your own analysis of it. This letter is a $5,000 course in how to structure a sales presentation.

    Does that mean you can “copy, paste, and smooth over” this – or any – ad copy for your product and make it work?

    Sorry. Real copywriting doesn’t work like that in spite of what the “get rich quick” crowd tells you.

    To write copy that works like this, you have to learn how to get beyond the surface and analyze the deep structure of the sales process.

    As far as I know, I’m the only person who teaches how to do this.

    For folks who want to take this further, check out:

    http://www.kenscopyclinic.com/

  4. Sharon Hague December 23, 2006 at 1:24 pm #

    And there’s the irony. The one thing that you can’t do with copy is just copy. Not on the surface anyway. But as Ken so rightly points out, the deeper you go the more the principles remain copy-able.

  5. John December 23, 2006 at 2:11 pm #

    I am interested in knowing if the story of the two men is true or not. Did the writer actually have two men in mind, or was it just a work of fiction meant to illustrate a point?

  6. Bart Gibby December 23, 2006 at 2:49 pm #

    I was skimming this blog post when I noticed that I had missed some vital piece of information. I kept thinking “When is Ken going to tell me about Martin? This whole post is a sales letter about the Wall Street Journal.”

    And then I was thinking “Wow, that’s a neat story. I want to be president of the company I work for. Where can I get the Wall Street Journal? Does Ken have a link?” I would hope to have made a difference in peoples’ lives like this before I die. This sales letter and its usefulness is a trophy of great achievement to any professional.

    Cheers to you Martin Conroy, this sales letter will speak of greatness for generations to come, thank you. Ken, thank you for the email and posting this.

  7. Roger Lodge December 23, 2006 at 2:59 pm #

    “You’re the only one who teaches this?”

    Please Ken, get over yourself.

    So, of all the people that teach copywriting,

    Bencivenga
    Makepeace
    Fortin
    Halbert
    Carlton
    Kennedy
    etc.

    YOU are the ONLY ONE who teaches people how to “get beyond the surface and analyze the deep structure of the sales process.”

    I’m sure the people I listed and dozens more would care to differ with you.

    Roger

  8. Scott Bradley December 23, 2006 at 3:17 pm #

    Ken, as always you deliver the intellectual nuts and bolts that motivate people to perform better. Thanks again!

  9. Erlingur Thorsteinsson December 23, 2006 at 3:36 pm #

    I send my deepest gratitute to Ken’s famely with regards from Iceland

    His lectures were outstanding open and informing

  10. joseph December 23, 2006 at 3:42 pm #

    I love it but the cost in terms of foreign exchange, when your dollar will have to be converted.

  11. Scott Shubert December 23, 2006 at 4:02 pm #

    Than you, Ken, for this piece of inspiration. The most remarkable thing that happened as a result of your bringing this letter to my attention, was that I realized how easy it is to write a truly great sales letter. I keep thinking I need to discover some magic formula or imitate some great copywriter while this letter reveals that a great sales letter lies inside of anyone who uses just a little creativity and focuses on the benefit of their product. Discovering how easy great copywriting can be is a true inspiration for me.

  12. Jen McIntyre December 23, 2006 at 4:28 pm #

    Hundreds of times, I’ve reached for my tattered copy of Martin’s letter as my thought-starter. His work inspired me, reminded me that I’m not as accomplished as I sometimes believe and to stretch with determination for excellence. What a teacher he was!

    Through the years, I thought I should take a moment and write to Martin to express my gratitude. I began a few times but whittled my words to nothing and ditched the effort. I wish I’d sent that note. I wish I had shared with Martin that he made a positive difference in my life.

    For Martin’s family and all that mourn his passing, I wish you strength, courage and peace. I’m sorry for your loss.

  13. Ed Osworth December 23, 2006 at 4:45 pm #

    When I started reading this post I figured I would just “skim” the great salesletter as I have read it dozens of times.

    But I couldn’t. Once I read the first sentence there was no way to stop reading. It seduces the mind. It pulls you in. It is like great poetry – the mind has to follow even if it knows “the ending”.

    That is what makes it so special.

    Thanks Ken – for reminding us.

  14. Ken McCarthy December 23, 2006 at 6:29 pm #

    Mr. Lodge,

    Thanks for you provocative comments.

    You’ve made quite a claim.

    Please point me to any copywriting course that specifically teaches people how to:

    1) identify great sales letters on their own and
    2) extract principles from those letters that they can apply to their own sales
    challenges.

    I’m not talking about handing people a swipe file and analyzing the letters for them. Or listing dos and don’ts and battle stories.

    I’m talking about showing people how to identify and analyze sales letters on their own.

    It’s one of the hardest – and most important – skills for serious copywriters to master and I repeat my claim: no one but me has even attempted the heavy lifting necessary of to convey this essential skill in a course.

    I’m personally familiar with all the people you list and their work.

    Do they teach copywriting well?

    Yes.

    Do they put the kind of effort I do into giving ad writers the insight they need to draw their OWN conclusions and make their OWN discoveries?

    Absolutely not.

    It’s not their focus.

    You’ve never taken my couse and you’ve never spoken with any of the people who’ve taken it.

    How on earth can you possibly make a comment like the one you made without basic information like that?

    For people who don’t know it all:

    http://www.kenscopyclinic.com

  15. Matt Connelly December 23, 2006 at 8:23 pm #

    LOL! I have to agree with Ken on this one Mr. Lodge…

    Anyway, it’s a good reminder to anyone about the importance of a STORY in good copy.

    All great salespeople know how to tell a great story. And the funny thing is even “if” you know they are embellishing, or even “B.S’ing” a bit- that doesn’t stop the fun of listening to a good story teller.

    When you are involved in the story, and it has a “parable” (for lack of a better word) that naturally ties into your product, I have personally found it literally works wonders for sales.

    After all, the #1 job you have at hand is to get your offer read- and stories are a great way to get your audience to fully reading your story/offer…

    It’s funny, as I look back at all of the sales letters I have wrote in the past, the best performing ones have always had a great “hook” in the headline and a wonderful story to immediately follow that up.

    BTW- Ken, was there a headline in this letter? I’d love to know what it was if there was one…

    I’ve taken note of this letter and already am making preparations of getting this concept into several of my newest offers!

    Ken, thanks again for nuggets like this that no one else seems to find…

    Matt

  16. Daniel Levis December 23, 2006 at 8:54 pm #

    Has anybody seen the letter Conroy swiped to come up with the Wall Street letter? Here’s how it starts …

    The Story Of Two Men Who Fought In The Civil War

    From a certain little town in Massachusetts two men went to the Civil War. Each of them had enjoyed the same educational advantage, and so far as anyone could judge, their prospects for success were equally good.

    One man accumulated a fortune. The other spent his last years almost entirely dependent upon his children for support.

    He has “had hard luck” the town explained. He “never seemed to catch hold after the war.”

    But the other man did not “lose his grip.” He seemed to experience no difficulty in “catching hold” after the war.

    The differences in the two men was not a difference of capacity but of decision. One man saw the after-the-war tide of expansion, trained himself for executive opportunity, and so swam the tide.

    The other man merely drifted. The history of these two men will be repeated in hundreds of thousands of lives in the next few months.

  17. Colin Goehring December 23, 2006 at 9:56 pm #

    Ken,

    Great analysis of this classic sales letter. It is my understanding that this letter has generated over 2 billion dollars in sales for the Wall Street Journal.

    I’ve posted this letter as a downloadable PDF on our website at http://www.mastermindclubs.com

    I’ve also used a variation of this theme as our follow up letter for selling $1500 memberships and it has proven to be very effective. I’m now going to take a closer look at your comments to see if I can further refine and test our letter.

    Thanks for your excellent feedback on this Ken.

  18. Barbara Rozgonyi December 23, 2006 at 11:56 pm #

    Thanks for this post – and your dedication to improving and advancing the art of copywriting.

    Although I’ve read this letter dozens of times, your analysis enriched my understanding of why the copy works so well on so many levels.

    For those who are interested, here’s the link to the New York Times story about Mr. Conroy’s letter and his life: http://www.nytimes.com/2006/12/22/obituaries/22conroy.html

    Barbara Rozgonyi

  19. Judy "NextDayCopy" Kettenhofen December 24, 2006 at 12:44 am #

    Love the WSJ letter — Conroy took lovely and lyrical words and images to create an instance in our minds of a story whose history goes far beyond the WSJ story, or even the Civil War story.

    There is a timelessness to the story…

    Another one of my favorites in this “genre” is Caples’ “They Laughed…” headline.

    When exposed to these, I start thinking more about Joseph Campbell than, say, the headlines that might be created using Headline Creator Pro.

    These are stories and words that harken to the questions we have about being human, as opposed to practical questions that we may have about “How To…”, or “57 ways to…”.

    Archetypal, I think is the term that would/should be used…

  20. Mareta Varner December 24, 2006 at 12:47 am #

    Ken,
    Thanks for bringing this letter to my attention. I had never seen the letter. I could not stop reading the letter after the first sentence. That to me is ad writing at its best! I will be analyzing it over and over. Thanks for being so willing to share with your students! I appreciate your enthusiasm for the topic.

  21. Dan December 24, 2006 at 1:40 am #

    Wow! Imagine the best sales letter…ever, based on a myth. Have you researched the study? Who conducted it? Where are the published results?

    Check this link and you may be surprised.
    http://www.realscienceofsuccess.com/YaleStudy.htm

  22. Swans Paul December 24, 2006 at 2:04 am #

    Dear Ken,

    I have been trying to “steal” the magic behind this letter, but I couldn’t capture it.

    Sure I saw the equation

    useful knowledge=success in business
    The Wall Street Journal gives Useful Knowledge

    then implied conclusion

    reading The Wall Street Journal=Success in business

    But in my case, as an advertising copywriter, it’s quite hard to find a premise, and then equate the premise to the service I am providing…

    I have tried this using the “Selling Strategems” of Clyde Bedell…but the market didn’t respond or I didn’t test enough.

    One last thing: Daniel Levis signaled that Martin might have swiped the idea for his letter from another source…so if anyone is interested in knowing where to find the other “Two Young Men” then here’s the answer.

    It’s in Advertising Copy by George Burton Hotchkiss, on page 180.

    This book is a rare find and I believe that I bought because

    John Caples “They Laughed When They Sat Down At The Piano” said, that he took an advertising course and this is the book that was used to the JOHN CAPLES, how to write story copy…not absolutely, but Caples says something similar in Making Ads Pay

    Well,

    Maring Conroy is sleeping…Long Live Marting Conroy, and may we all be “Two Young Men”

    Swans G Paul

  23. Harrace December 24, 2006 at 3:30 am #

    I am also teaching copywriting in Asia and I found this sales letter one of the greatest pieces I’ve ever read!

    By the way, Wall Street Journal has been sending me complimentary copies to my Hong Kong office since two months ago and it’s a nice read to get updated business stories. This is an example of offering free trial to targeted customers. But I’m not sure when they will stop sending me the free copies.

  24. Ken McCarthy December 24, 2006 at 5:06 am #

    “But in my case, as an advertising copywriter, it’s quite hard to find a premise, and then equate the premise to the service I am providing…”

    It may be hard, but that’s the art.

    I had a long talk with Doug D’Anna about
    this very point recently. He put it this way:

    “Copywriting is not building a bridge from your product to the prospect. It’s building a bridge from the prospect to your product. That may seem obvious, but 99% of copywriters get this wrong.”

    Who is Doug D’Anna?

    Like Gary Bencivenga, the big mail order publishers like Philips and KCI pay Doug $25,000 a letter plus 5 cents for every letter mailed which puts Doug in a class way beyond the “usual suspects” who are mentioned when it comes to copywriting.

    (You can look Doug up in “Who’s Charging What?” – a print resource for the direct marketing industry.)

    BTW, Doug has made himself available as a mentor to members of the System Club… It’s the only contact he has with the Internet marketing world for the time being.

    http://www.thesystemclub.com/

  25. Harold December 24, 2006 at 6:15 pm #

    Hi Ken, and thank you for sharing this very interesting and I’m sure also valuable insight. Martin really does entice the reader (well at least me) to want to continue reading.

    It has triggered some thots on what a great copy ad is for me.

    I also want to comment regarding your sharing about the statement by Doug D Anna – that “Copywriting is building a bridge from the prospect to your product, and not the other way round.”

    This is really great food for thot! I’m definitely gonna scrutinise how i can model what I write after these great writers! Thanks a million!

    Merry Christmas, and Blue Skies Always!

  26. Ed Osworth December 28, 2006 at 6:53 pm #

    Does anyone have a link to the “The Story Of Two Men Who Fought In The Civil War” letter Daniel Lewis referred to. I tried Google and lots of other places but wasn’t able to locate it.

  27. Derek Naylor January 2, 2007 at 5:03 pm #

    Ken,

    As you know, copy is only part of the equation. Since I have never received this letter personally, (am I the only one in the U.S.?) I am curious if anybody knows what type of package this was mailed in and what list they mailed to?

    Regardless, it is a great letter and obviously worked very well. In the days of long copy magalogs, etc. it’s refreshing to see letters like this and Halbert’s “Coat of Arms” letter that are short, sweet and most of all, EFFECTIVE!

    Thanks for everything Ken!

  28. Swans G Paul January 3, 2007 at 5:53 pm #

    Who wants to get a copy of ” The Story Of Two Men Who Fought In The Civil War”?

    Well, in my previous post, I gave the title of the book, and I said that it could be found on Ebay.

    I even gave the page number.

    Now, I have the book and the ad. My only problem is: “Would it be ok to post a copy of this letter on this blog?”

    If it’s legally ok, then I can return and type up the ad (without the illustration) of course.

    Do you think it’s ok to post the ad?

    Swans G Paul
    http://www.magazine.instantresultsadvertising.com

  29. Doug D'Anna January 9, 2007 at 6:40 pm #

    Since Ken mentioned my name here, I thought I would pipe in with my own two cents regarding Mr. Lodge’s comments.

    The fact is, there is much to be learned from looking at classic sales letters.

    The insights Ken offers in his blog are very valuable since we all look at these letters in different ways.

    I don’t know about you, but I’ve had Martin Conroy’s letter in my file for many years.

    Yet, the fact that Ken mentioned it here in his blog has given me reason to go back to my file and look at this letter in a whole new way.

    The big ah-ha that Ken has directed me to here is in the last line of the letter, specifically, Conroy’s last line finale…

    “I cannot promise you that success will be instantly yours if you start reading The Wall Street Journal.

    “But I can guarantee that you will find The Journal always interesing, always reliable, and always useful.”

    So while Ken sees a plain talk finale, I see a great and believable guarantee that assures leadership and trust.

    But–and this is an important point–I would have never seen it if Ken didn’t direct me back to that letter and that line in particular.

    There is much to be learned by looking back at classic sales letters. Thank you Ken for giving us a fresh new look on this one.

  30. Joe Trevison June 24, 2007 at 2:06 am #

    That ad breaks all the rules of copy and succeeds. That shows you that the rules can be broken and results greater than every.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

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    […] you know what to look for, this technique will start to jump out at you.  Let’s take a look at one of the more famous examples of this written by Martin Conroy: “On a beautiful late spring afternoon, twenty-five years ago, two young men graduated from the […]

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