From the November 2001 issue of Startups

When envisioning an ad campaign for your business, the message you wish to convey needs to be consistent with the format, style and tone that are appropriate for the communication medium(s) you've chosen. This is especially true for the Web. The words you use to express your ad's message online-be it in a banner, a pop-up window, a button, an interstitial or a tower-will determine whether a user notices it or ignores it.

Before you begin jotting down ideas, however, you need to choose a specific objective for your campaign (see "Make It a Banner Year"). Once this is established, the following copywriting tips will help summarize, strengthen and sharpen your ad's message:

  • Lead with a question. Want to write better online ads? Looking to ramp up your click-through rate? See how engaging this technique can be in getting potential customers' attention?
  • Create a lyrical rhythm. Well-written online ads follow a catchy word flow from frame to frame. The number of syllables chosen to convey the message is deliberate, like haiku. The pacing of the words is energetic, like a roadside Burma Shave ad. And the idea builds to a payoff, like a well-told joke (frame 1 is the set-up, frame 2 the fill-in and frame 3 the punchline).
  • Keep it single and simple. The more ideas you force your online ad to communicate, the more muddled it will be. Choose one easily digestible point and drive it home with as few words as possible.
  • Show, don't tell. If an image can get your idea across instead of words, use it. Your message will be communicated quickly, easily and memorably.
  • NEXT STEP
    Structure a successful ad campaign with Online Promotions: Winning Strategies and Tacticsby Bill Carmody.
  • Write visually. Online ads offer infinite choices of entertaining visual techniques that can enhance and sell your message (words and images shrinking, dissolving, stretching, morphing, zooming in, crawling, etc.). Keep these tricks in mind as you compose your text, and include them as suggestions for your designer.
  • Make an offer. When it comes to calls to action, offers rule. Free downloads, free demos, free white papers, free info kits, free shipping-pretty much anything free (or other incentives, such as percentage- or dollar-off savings) will get a potential customer clicking faster and more consistently than an uninspiring and ambiguous "Click here!" button.
  • Justify the click. If your online ad isn't offer-driven, continue its message by making the call to action specific to what the user would receive if the banner were clicked. For instance, "Click for more info!" or "Click to see it in action!" or "Click to get started!"
  • Drive home the benefits. Enumerate the enticing and absolutely essential benefits (i.e., save money, improve productivity, lose weight, etc.) that your brand promises.
  • Nix the tricks. Online ads using cute come-ons ("Catch the monkey and win $20!") may boost site traffic, but they can only work once. You also run the risk of alienating scads of potential customers who will never visit your site again.
  • Test as the user. Once your campaign has been conceived, imagine the mind-set of a potential customer who's viewing a Web page where your online ad will appear. Re-read each idea and ask yourself, "Is this ad's message communicated credibly, simply and irresistibly enough to compel a user to leave the site that he/she is in and click to my site?

Considering the newness of the Internet as a messaging vehicle relative to other media, the craft of online ad writing is still a work-in-progress. But when wittily, strategically and precisely composed, online ads can be a powerful and extremely effective component in your advertising arsenal.


Barry Zegeris the president of Vertical Cloud Inc., a provider of copywriting and content strategy services for ad agencies, venture capitalists and start-ups.