Gary Halbert was a highly influential copywriter known for his innovative approach to marketing.
One of his key philosophies was the A-pile/B-pile concept, which posits that individuals sort their mail into two categories: A-pile mail, which is always opened, and B-pile mail, which is sometimes opened.
Halbert believed that the goal of every mailing should be to get it placed into the A-pile, which could be achieved by sending a personally addressed, white envelope first-class.
In addition to this, Halbert emphasized the importance of writing a personal letter that does not appear promotional until the end, as well as using common interests or problems to build a lucrative mailing list.
An example of this is the coat of arms letter, which was inspired by an article Halbert read about a woman who made personalized paintings of family crests and sold them through direct mail. Halbert saw the potential to scale this idea using print and direct mail and used the phone book to build a list of people with common last names and an interest in family history.
The following is a resharing of a 2018 article by a copywriter who goes by the name of “Robert.”
His original post can be found here.
I’m afraid you and I will never quite fully understand the mind of Gary Halbert.
I can’t listen to him speak without laughing, and it’s not because I find him funny… The way he thinks is humbling – humbling to the point of borderline hysteria. (I speak as though he’s alive because, for us copywriters, he is.)
And, as a copywriter, I’m sure you’ve come across and studied his work. I’m sure too you can empathize when I say it’s an almost meditative experience.
No matter how many times we read Gary’s letters, we expect to be floored… one insultingly brilliant insight after another.
If you are, on the other hand, one who has not yet had the pleasure, I urge you to first prepare…
Wear a seatbelt, a helmet, or light some sage and clear your mind.
Have a pen and notepad handy, and locate your “print screen” button – swipe the file at the ready.
So, we learned in day 1, of our 5-day copywriting crash course, Gary’s philosophy… but we need to recap:
He was at his wit’s end.
He had no running water… no electricity and his wife was soon to leave.
He had to think of a solution fast.
So, he asked himself this question:
“Gary, what would you do if you had to make your next mailing work? What if you could only mail one letter and if you didn’t get a response… you would, quite literally, be beheaded?”
The product was his A-pile/B-pile philosophy:
“…The average American sorts through his mail while standing over a waste basket.”
A-pile mail is always opened. This includes anything that looks like a personal letter.
B-pile mail is sometimes opened… includes anything that looks promotional.
So, rather obviously yet widely ignored, the goal of every mailing should be to get that piece of mail into the A-pile.
No more bulk rate postage.
No teaser copy.
No stylish flair.
No business name.
Just a personally addressed, white envelope… sent first-class.
Goal 1: get the letter opened – check.
Goal 2: get the letter read.
On the inside…
No fancy letterhead.
No flashy text or images.
No business name or order card.
Nothing that would even remotely hint “sale,” until the end of the letter.
An honest-to-goodness, personal letter.
This is the famous, coat of arms letter
The idea for this letter, in particular, came to Gary in the morning, while reading the newspaper.
He found himself skimming an article on how to make some extra cash, on the side.
In this article, a little old lady… who split her free time evenly between visits to the library and her workshop… told her story.
She supplemented her income by crafting personalized paintings of family crests.
During her trips to the library, she’d find a surname with a coat of arms associated. And she’d sketch a copy of it, in ink.
Then, she’d go to the phone book and compile a list of every person with that last name, and mail them a postcard… a postcard including the ink sketch, as well as an invitation to buy a painting of that coat of arms, in full color.
So, keen on exploiting the little old lady’s humble source of side income, Gary decided to start a company that would bring in today’s equivalent of $300,000 per day.
Steal her idea and scale using print and direct mail
At the time, no one in marketing believed in the telephone book… Names aren’t ordered by common interest. Lists built using it would never be lucrative.
For a list to be lucrative, everyone in that list must have some interest in common – some problem in common.
Then, you create a product solving that problem, and you’ve got a winner.
But, you see, there IS a common interest amongst people in the phone book… family history.
And, people on a given page of the phone book DO have something in common… a last name.
So, most people on a given page are, at least somewhat, interested in the history of a common name.
Gary’s mailing list came prebuilt…
And, the best part?
Each letter could be personally addressed to Mr. or Mrs. So and So.
Anyway, Gary had to run a number of tests before finding his winner. And, for example, he made this discovery: the rarer a name, the better the response.
Still, the campaign had to be worthwhile, so his goal was to find a name attributed to 7,500 people in the US. Profits could be made at 15,000, but 7,500 was ideal.
Macdonald was one of those names…
Here’s the letter:
coat of arms letter
We could talk about this letter all night, but here are just 8 of Gary’s psychology hacks:
This wasn’t the address of Gary Halbert…
No… Bath, Ohio has a population of 9,500 – an innocent, small town.
Gary used this house as a hub for his new business.
He hired “little old ladies” to work there too… Again, how innocent.
When people called, they wouldn’t be met by some professional, well-dressed sales rep. And, when they visited, “Mrs. Nancy” was always away, seeing family.
You should notice too that he didn’t choose something like Main Street or Corporation Avenue.
And “Road?” That had to be spelled out. “Rd.” would sound too rushed, right?
Dear Mr. Macdonald
How many people do you know named Mr. Macdonald? Not many, I’d imagine.
I’ll tell you what I CAN imagine… No Mr. Macdonald is going to have the impression that this was mailed from someone making $300,000/day.
Why would anyone mail in bulk to a list of Macdonalds? That’s just inefficient.
If his name were Smith, it might be a different story… but I guarantee Mr. Macdonald has never received a personally addressed, promotional letter.
Yeah, he’d read… especially when his name appears 4 times throughout the 361-word letter.
Every time he sees the name, he’s drawn in closer.
Nancy L. Halbert
“My husband and I discovered this while doing some research for some friends of ours…”
Already, the tone is so inviting…
Gary was NOT close to his wife. He very seldom said anything positive about her, but all he needed was her name.
Who’s more likely to be interested in family history and heirlooms – someone named Gary, or someone named Nancy? Male or female?
“My wife and I…” or, “my husband and I…” Which would get the better response from Mr. Macdonald?
He even signs her name like an old lady with shaky hands…
The letter certainly wasn’t written by some tight-assed executive… or even someone who writes letters often.
No, this was sent under special circumstances.
Whoever wrote this doesn’t spend much time writing, at all.
Too many prepositions.
Too many repeated words.
Long, unplanned sentences.
No auditory flow.
I’ve even spotted a couple typos.
…Certainly not written by a copywriter.
It truly sounds written by an honest old woman, just trying to pay for her hobby.
“The report so delighted our friends that we have had a few extra copies made…”
“If you are interested, please let us know right away as our supply is pretty slim.”
Well, we know Nancy doesn’t have the need for a warehouse. In fact, she probably only has a couple copies left by the time Mr. Macdonald receives this letter.
Better respond soon!
No “act now’s” to be found here… Remember, Nancy doesn’t know a thing about marketing.
You won’t make a killing, selling a $2 product by mail… but you CAN build a list – a list of proven buyers who are interested in family history.
And, Gary’d mail this list regularly with new offers.
In fact, a few days after the report, Mr. Macdonald would’ve received a follow-up letter. And, in that letter, he’d be asked whether he liked the report, AND whether he’d be interested in (quite an expensive) wall-mounted plaque…
You’ll notice he says explicitly, the report looks great, framed and mounted on a wall. But, of course, he knows most us Americans are too lazy to frame it ourselves.
…Why not upsell Mr. Macdonald on a beautifully painted, wall-mounted plaque?
The initial letter just got him in the door.
“…For some friends of ours.”
The question, at the beginning, intrigues Mr. Macdonald. The 2nd paragraph builds trust.
How kind of Nancy and her husband to take the time and research their friends’ names. And, they even have the heart to reach out to me, a complete stranger, and offer the same kindness?
Gary says there are 3 reasons why people don’t buy:
They don’t want what you’re selling.
They can’t afford what you’re selling.
They don’t trust you as a salesman.
The first two are rather hard to overcome… but the 3rd is easy, and should always be overcome.
I don’t know about you, but I already trust Nancy after just the 2nd paragraph.
And, she reinforces that bond using her ignorance of marketing psychology… She doesn’t sound like a salesman, at all.
Hell, it doesn’t even sound like she’s trying to turn a profit.
Nancy spent quite a lot of time researching
Even knowing this letter is full of lies, I can see little old Mrs. Nancy slaving away in a library, piles of books on her desk, digging frantically to discover the history of her dear friends’ names.
“…Coat-of-arms in ancient heraldic archives more than seven centuries ago?”
She spent all that time learning the name’s meaning, its origin, the original family motto, and its place in history.
And, ALL of this work was done specifically for someone with the rare name of Macdonald.
I don’t know about you but, if I were Mr. Macdonald, I’d buy.
So, what to we do with this letter?
I’d recommend swiping it.
Use it to model future campaigns…
As a matter of fact, I’m writing a letter for a local lawn care business now. And I’m modeling Gary’s approach.
I’m picking one name in the Valdosta area, and writing up a personalized letter from the wife of the man who owns the lawn care business.
It’ll be educational – the pre-autumn “must do’s” for going into winter with a healthy lawn and why it’s important.
At the bottom, I’ll offer a free lawn analysis and quote, along with “my husband’s” phone number.
Great application. I’m working my own version. Thank you, Robert.