How Copywriter Michael Dongilli Turned a Self-Promo Letter Into a Substantial Paycheck

Michael Dongilli could be called a victim of the "dot-com bust." But not by him. Instead, he feels reborn. Four years ago, the company Michael worked for went belly-up. Rather than wallow in misfortune, he decided to start a business of his own, Blank Page, and became a freelance copywriter.

We interviewed Michael to learn what went into the self-promotional letter that got him noticed (and paid) by Agora, and launched his challenging and highly lucrative new career creating direct-response packages for consumer newsletters.

Here's what he had to say …

"I wanted to expand beyond the work I was doing in my hometown of Pittsburgh, and began researching how other successful writers were able to grow their long-distance client base. One of the more helpful resources I found was Bob Bly's 'Selling Yourself' teleconferences.

"In one event particularly, the panelists discussed the value of a strong sales letter that markets 'you' as vividly and forcefully as one that would sell a product.

"On the panel was Sandy Franks from Agora, who urged those interested in writing for her to use this approach. I did and it worked. It resulted in my getting an assignment with her at a substantial beginners' pay rate.

"I approached this letter as I would any direct-mail sales letter. It was hard initially 'writing about myself.' I think most people are like that, but especially writers. I got over that block simply by focusing on 'me' as the product.

"Knowing your prospect is key. What do Sandy and Agora need? What emotions could I touch with my promise? How could I make Sandy's life easier, better, less stressful?

"Some ideas included giving her the chance to discover new talent, at no risk. (I offered to write a renewal package on spec, stressing she had nothing to lose.) I also subtly hit on the idea that if she missed this opportunity, she might regret it later.

"I made sure I had all the components of a strong sales letter, concentrating on the teaser, headline, and first paragraphs. If there were 300 participants listening in on Bob's teleconference and one-third of them took Sandy up on her offer, I'd have to stand out among 100 eager copywriters.

"My letter had to say 'buy me' better than the others. I wanted her to feel I could be the copywriter writing their next control. I wanted her to feel she had nothing to risk in trying me. I kept stressing this point to make it easy for her to say 'yes.'

"I let my ideas – what the promise should be, the emotions to hit, and my USP – percolate a couple of days before writing.

"I labored 2 to 3 days over the first draft and kept revising it. The entire process took maybe two weeks, mainly because I was worried about sounding too egotistical. I really didn't care if my letter was the first one to reach her. It was more important to get it right."

A quick summary of Michael's excellent advice:

  1. Don't be apprehensive about writing good things about yourself. You have to believe in your product. With a self-promo letter, YOU are the product. Sell all your features and benefits.
  2. Approach the self-promo letter as you would any sales letter. Know your prospect (the marketing manager). How can you benefit her? What emotions you can hit? What can you promise? In other words, understand your core complex.
  3. Make sure your teaser, headline, and lead are as strong as possible. Remember the 4 U's and make it Ultra-specific, Useful, Urgent, and Unique.
  4. Start simply. Ask for the opportunity to write a package that will let you shine, but stay away from the stuff the company's top copywriters are already doing. Like Michael, for example, you might do a renewal letter.
  5. Make an offer the client cannot refuse … because they have nothing to lose. This probably means writing on spec initially.
  6. Clearly delineate the benefits and your USP. If you haven't figured out your USP, do it NOW, before writing your letter.
  7. Take your time … and do it right. You will not get a second chance.
The Professional Writers’ Alliance

The Professional Writers’ Alliance

At last, a professional organization that caters to the needs of direct-response industry writers. Find out how membership can change the course of your career. Learn More »


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Published: October 4, 2004

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