How To Sell Software By Mail
By Robert W. Bly

In March, I wrote a column on how to sell software by mail. Since then, I’ve produced dozens of ads, direct mail packages, and brochures for software clients, and in doing so have formulated a few more guidelines on the subject:

1. Price is more important than you think.

Pricing is not an afterthought but a key ingredient of the marketing mix. How much the software costs is terribly important to buyers—much more so than most marketers seem to believe.

When selling software through mail order, always give the prospect a discount price and identify it as such. Even sophisticated programmers and system analysts like to think they are getting a bargain.

2. One step or two?

Aside from pricing, the most important decision you face is whether to use a one-step or two-step selling process. One-step is the classic mail order approach, in which the reader orders directly from the ad or mailing. In a two-step approach, the ad or mailer generates an inquiry, which is then converted to a sale whether by a live salesperson, telemarketing representative, or a fulfillment package.

Which should you use? For one-step mail order marketing, the lower the price, the better. PC packages such as add-ons, simple utilities, and programming tools in the $59 to $299 price range are good candidates for the one-step approach.

In the $399 to $899 price range, you may want to test a one-step vs. two-step approach and see which works best.

Once you start to edge near $1,000 and above, the two-step approach is usually best. Very few people will send payment for a $1,999 software package without some extra convincing by a salesperson or demo diskette.

3. The free-trial approach.

This is sort of a hybrid approach. Here’s how it works:

You send the prospect a letter describing your package and offer to send a copy of the product for a free 30-day trial—no commitment or payment required. If the prospect responds, he gets the software. At the end of the trial, if he wants to keep it, you send the bill, licensing agreement, contract, or whatever, and the customer pays for the product.

One of my clients uses this approach with great success, selling mainframe systems software in the $8,000 to $15,000 price range.

4. To demo or not to demo?

The question of whether to use a demo diskette in the marketing of a software product comes up all the time. I have a few suggestions:

5. Visuals.

Although ad agencies are constantly pressured by their clients to come up with new and innovative visuals for illustrating software ads, no one has found a breakthrough yet. The old standards—photos of the product itself and of screens—still work best. Every screen should be accompanied by a factual caption that makes clear what is going on in the picture.

Most software buyers tend to be more screen-oriented than print-oriented, so showing pictures of print-outs usually doesn’t work as well as putting the same information on a screen.

6. “Concept products” require a lot more selling effort.

A “concept product” is one that requires the user to buy into a conceptual way of doing things.

For example, to sell project management software, you first have to convince the prospect that the way your package manages projects is best, then you sell the software itself. Another good example is the mainframe computer security package sold by one of my clients. Before they can sell the software, they first must sell the need for extra security protection.

Concept products usually have a longer sales cycle and require a more intensive, step-by-step selling effort. They are almost never sold directly off an ad or mailer.



Whether you’re writing an ad, brochure, or direct mail, selling software in print can be tricky. Here are 20 tips to help you tackle the job with success.

  1. Stress the benefits of the software—what it will do for the buyer—rather then the technical features, specifications, of how it works.
  2. Tell the buyer how he can use the software to do his job better. Give specific examples.
  3. Early in the copy, say what type of software you are selling (word processing, spread sheet, graphics, etc.). People are usually in the market for a package to handle one of the known, identifiable, major application areas.
  4. If you have a package that doesn’t easily fall into a category, describe how it goes beyond conventional software. But do try to compare it with something the reader is familiar with. Do not be vague about its specific function and utility.
  5. If your product has one key advantage over the competition, highlight it in your headline and copy. Bring in other facts to support this claim.
  6. Avoid what former Ted Bates chairman Rosser Reeves called “vampire video” irrelevant pictures that detract from the main message of your ad because they do not relate to the product or its benefits. The best visuals are those that dramatize the main benefit or advantage of the program.
  7. If you illustrate your ad with photos of screens and printouts, be sure the text on the screen or report is meaningful to the reader. If the screens or reports look complex, they may actually serve to unsell your product.
  8. Say how many people are using your product and are pleased with it. List some, if possible.
  9. Include testimonials from satisfied users.
  10. Try a hard sell approach instead of an image building approach. Go for the order, or at least, to generate sales leads or to get people to visit the computer store.
  11. Talk in terms that readers can understand and visualize. Instead of writing “28.8 Kbps baud rate,”—say, “Our SuperSpeedy modem transmits data at a rate of 28,800 bits per second—less then one second for a page of text.”
  12. Specifications should be scaled down to numbers the reader can relate to. “Stores a mailing list of 50,000 prospects” is better then “Stores 100 million characters,” because people have an easier time grasping the smaller number
  13. Offer a demonstration via a demo diskette (for micro-computer software) or a live demonstration (for more costly mainframe or minisystems). Be sure the demonstration gives a good impression of the system and its capabilities
  14. Use excerpts from favorable third party reviews of your product. Also highlight benchmark test results that prove your product's superior performance
  15. The headline or teaser should select the right audience for the ad or mailer. For example, a good headline for an ad offering a C-compiler is, “Attention C Programmers!”
  16. Always make it clear which machines and operating systems are compatible with your software. People want to know.
  17. This information and other vital technical specs should be highlighted in a separate box or page. This makes them stand out from the rest of the ad or brochure copy.
  18. Let the reader know about any special product support and service you offer, such as a toll free hot line or a network of service dealers. First time buyers are especially concerned with this.
  19. Mention years in business, gross sales, company size, industry reputation, and any other facts that can help build your credibility. People want to buy from a company that will be around for the long haul.
  20. Make it easy for the reader to respond to your promotions. Always include your address and phone number. Use coupons, reply cards, order forms, toll free numbers, fax numbers, E-mail addresses, and other devices that increase response.


Bob Bly is a freelance copywriter specializing in business-to-business and high-tech advertising. He is the author of The Copywriters Handbook, and has contributed articles to Direct Marketing, High-Tech Matketing, New Jersey Monthly, Cosmopolitan, and Computer Decisions.

Bob Bly
Copywriter, Consultant and Seminar Leader
22 East Quackenbush Avenue, 3rd Floor, Dumont, NJ 07628
Phone (201) 385-1220, Fax (201) 385-1138