General Marketing

Decoded: The Best Sales Letter of All Times

Toni Koraza
July 28, 2022
Decoded: The Best Sales Letter of All Times

The famous Wall Street Journal direct-sales letter from 1975-2003 is responsible for more than $2 billion in sales and subscriptions.

Let’s take a second to put that in perspective. Two billion dollars in sales over 28 years amounts to $195,694 a day. Every day, The Wall Street Journal adds $195,000 into their bank account because of a few well-crafted paragraphs.

Martin Conroy wrote the two-page copy that sold the business journal like hotcakes. The sales letter didn’t change much in its 28-year life, except for the year-to-year price changes and minor edits.

You’ve probably heard the narrative of this letter in one way or another. The story touches down on every copywriting technique known to man, and it's a great reference for junior copywriters.

What we’ll cover:

The greatest sales letter ever written

Snippet of a sample letter

These seven paragraphs made two billion dollars.

The rest of the letter talks about the price and subscription, and a sitting director ultimately signs it.

Origins: The Two-Men Narrative

The Wall Street Journal direct-sales letter could be a knockoff, according to rumors. The truth is hard to grasp, but it seems like a number of similar letters were in circulation way before Martin Conroy even sat behind a typewriter.

The first account of the two-men narrative might date all the way back to the Old Testament and the story of Exodus.

The two men in the Bible are Ramses, the pharaoh of Egypt, and Moses, a humble shepherd. Both men receive a similar education and upbringing. One man listens to the word of God, and the other plays god on earth. Moses returns decades later and leaves Egypt in flames.

You can even step a bit further to the book of Genesis, featuring brothers Cain and Abel. The Bible stories might be a bit of a stretch, but the resemblance is uncanny.

The first known example of a sales letter featuring the two-men narrative comes from a 1918 advert about two clerks. This ad sold the Roth memory course.

“The story of two clerks in New York City who started together a few years ago, side by side, each earning $12 a week.”
a newspaper copy of a story of 2 clerks in NY city
Source: Ray Edwards

The clerk with the better memory eventually earns $30,000 a year, and his colleague — a guy that has trouble remembering stuff — is earning only $20/week. The Ruthrauff & Ryan ad agency does the ad, but the name of the writer remains a mystery.

A year later, Bruce Barton — one of the first professional copywriters — writes a sales ad for the Alexander Hamilton Institute for self-help and business education.

“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.”
a newspaper copy of a story of 2 men who fought on the civil war
Source: Info Marketing

And, more recently, the blog story “A Tale of Two Copywriters” draws from the same premise.

Critics are saying the two-men narrative is nothing special. Individuals assume the WSJ would sell just as well with another copy. But the fact is this story is behind a number of famous products in the past century.

The Best Sales Letters Example for Copywriters

Storytelling is the most powerful tool in the writer’s toolbox. You can persuade people with a narrative that speaks directly to them. The story of two men speaks intimately to the fears and desires of businessmen in America.

The copy in The WSJ is speaking to men because men are the majority of business readers at the time. And men in business are afraid of never amounting to anything. Imagine working with the same intensity and making 10 times less than the next guy. Awful. The WSJ’s readers don’t want to lose time with faulty information.

The story touches on industry standards like 4P and AIDA.

AIDA is a widely used approach to writing sales letters and creating marketing funnels. AIDA touches on four elements, from the moment your customer is aware of you to the final moment of making a decision.

  • Attention
  • Interest
  • Desire
  • Action

The AIDA standard might be a bit vague for someone just starting in the business. The 4P outlines more specific steps.

  • Promise
  • Picture
  • Proof
  • Push

Good folks over at UC Davis have added another P to the mix, calling it a 5P Approach to Copy That Crushes It. The fifth P stands for Premise.

The story in The Wall Street Journal touches on every step outlined above. The narrative has a premise (two men), it plants a picture in the readers head (the reader becomes a hero with your help), the story offers proof of success (one man is the president of the company), and it includes a clear push (call to action) on the next page.

CTAs are art in and of themselves. The WSJ had more than one call to action, offering new customers different trials and subscription models. You can see the full two-page ad at this link here. The most benign offer is a trial. You can see this one all over the internet: Try our product for a month, and then decide.

The two men from the WSJ let readers persuade themselves through their own reasoning, experiences, and fears. Ultimately, the copy triggers a decision to buy the subscription.

Final Words About the Greatest Sales Letter

For 28 years, the sales letter has generated $195,000 each day, amounting to more than $2 billion in cumulative sales. Martin Conroy has earned his trophy in the Copywriters Hall of Fame as one of the most successful copywriters of all time.

You’ve probably read a variety of similar stories and ripoffs without knowing the story behind the sales pitch. The two-men narrative probably dates way back to the Old Testament and maybe even further.

Crafty marketers of the 20th century have used it to successfully sell all kinds of products from memory courses to business schools — and, most famously, The Wall Street Journal.

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