Is Your B2B Copy Going
Into the “A-Pile”?

Marketing and copywriting legend Gary Halbert has passed on, but he left a great legacy. If you're not familiar with Gary, he was an extremely successful direct-response copywriter. In addition to writing for clients, Gary was an entrepreneur at heart and started many successful ventures and businesses.

As a B2B copywriter there are many reasons to get familiar with Gary Halbert's marketing tactics and strategies. One of those is Gary’s theory of “A-pile/B-pile direct mail.”

In a nutshell, the A/B-pile theory says every piece of mail a prospect receives gets sorted over the trash bin. As he goes through the mail, items that appear interesting or important go on his desk in the “A-pile” while everything else is tossed in the trash (the “B-pile”).

The same theory holds true for emails. When the prospect scans her emails, she immediately deletes emails that don’t interest her, opening and reading the ones that do.

So, how do we make sure our B2B copy gets read instead of deleted or thrown away?

The History of the A/B-Pile Theory

To make the A/B-pile theory work for you, it’s helpful to understand the history behind it. At the time he developed the theory, Gary was stuck in a cycle of failures in his business ventures, despite having studied the most successful direct-mail strategies. He tried multi-colored letters and envelopes, envelope teaser copy, and more.

After a string of failures, Gary’s wife laid down the law, and said that water and electricity bills take priority over direct-mail tests. Gary was undeterred:

If I had to make this work … if my life depended upon my next mailing … what would I do? How would I create it? What are the key elements? My life is on the line here, so HOW do I make it work?

And from there, the A/B-pile theory was born. The project that proved the theory was Gary’s “Coat of Arms” letter, which created a multi-million-dollar business back in the 1970s.

The A/B-Pile Theory in Action

Gary’s theory was that people sort their mail into two categories. The A-pile and the B-pile. The A-pile is the personal mail, like a letter from grandma, or a postcard from your friend in Hawaii. The B-pile includes the bills, glossy direct mail that screams sleazy sales, and any other mail that you will get to later, or just don’t care about.

Gary knew that to be successful, he had to have mail that was personal or looked like A-pile mail. So his method was to hand address the envelope, leave out the company name in the return address, and attach a real stamp. No metered mail or bulk mail stamps.

It’s the same for B2B copy. Let’s see how …

The A/B-Pile Theory for B2B Copy

In both direct response and B2B, your goal is to get your mail opened and read. That’s where Gary’s A/B-pile theory comes into play for B2B copy.

You can make it fun and attractive, and making it personal-looking is a good way to do that. Then, after your prospect opens the envelope, he finds a personal letter. These strategies will open the door for steps two, three, and beyond.

I can say from experience that this works very well. This leads us to …

Real-Life Examples in B2B

The best way to fully grasp the power of Gary’s A/B-pile theory for B2B copy is to see how it works in action. So let’s look at some real-life examples.
In middle school, I took an elective class called “fun with postal mail” or something like that. I learned how to properly address envelopes, use business letter format, and other fine details.

I also learned that if any object is properly addressed and stamped, it will go through the postal system. My first success with this was in middle school, when I mailed myself one of my shoes. I attached a piece of paper with a proper address, and took it to the post office to be weighed and properly stamped. Needless to say, NO ONE at the post office was entertained by my little postal adventure, but it was by the rules, so they had to accept it. A few days later, I received my shoe in the mail. My mother was not amused. The post office staff wasn’t amused either, but I was absolutely THRILLED!

(Unfortunately, the post office has since changed their rules so my shoe-mailing days are over.)

Next, once we had covered the basics, we were given a list of companies and organizations we could send a properly addressed and formatted business letter to. In return, we got stickers, coloring books, and catalogs sent to us.

I was hooked! That led to my first company (sort of).

These little successes in this elective class made me think about business, and that I could start a business by mail and run it by mail order. So using everything I had learned, I picked 10 skateboard companies and wrote a letter on my computer. I printed out 10 copies, and addressed 10 envelopes by hand, and then attached a stamp to each one. I was unaware of it at the time, but I was using Gary’s A/B-pile theory.

What is quite interesting is the major success it was. I had a response rate of 60%. Six of the 10 companies replied by sending me a full package with forms to fill out.

Unfortunately, this is the point where my business completely fell apart. The companies wanted pictures of my store or warehouse as part of the forms. Pictures of my parent’s garage weren’t going to work. So my endeavor ended there, but the excitement of my 60% response rate success was still in me.

That excitement led to my next success, by using the Gary Halbert/Robert Collier “Dollar Bill Letter.” Along with the letter, I attached a crisp one-dollar bill.

Years later, when I got into marketing and copywriting, I began using the dollar-bill strategy in some of my direct-response mailings. It has almost always opened the door, and to this day, I have had a 95-100% success rate.

Final Thoughts

Gary Halbert’s A/B-pile strategy is another powerful tool for you to use for your own B2B copy. Use it for both email and direct mail to get better results. You may even be inspired to learn more about Gary Halbert and his copywriting tricks.

This article, Is Your B2B Copy Going Into the "A-Pile"?, was originally published by B2B Writing Success.

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Published: August 18, 2016

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