Marketing Bootcamp

7 Rules for Writing Better Ad Copy

7 Rules for Writing Better Ad Copy
Image credit: Klaus Vedfelt | Getty Images

Whether you’re writing direct mail sales pieces, a blog, a job application or copy for your website, there are certain basic rules you can follow to help you get and keep your readers’ attention -- and motivate them to action. Here are some of the rules you can put into practice:

1. Get the prospect into the promotion.

The first thing you have to do is get your prospects’ attention so they will look inside the envelope or click the link for more information. One technique for a direct mail piece is to put some great “teaser” copy on the outside of the envelope. If you’re selling through email, you need an irresistible subject line. Either way, make the reader curious about what’s inside. 

But coming up with a really good teaser can sometimes be difficult. So in direct mail you can make the envelope so personal looking and attractive the reader feels compelled to learn who it’s from and what it’s about.

Related: 10 Steps to Effective Copywriting

One way to make the envelope more appealing is to hide the name of the sender by using an address without a name, and maybe using an attractive insignia that’s intriguing without being recognizable. You can also change up the style of envelope, its color, the way the address appears, etc. Or make the letter look important by giving the envelope the look of a priority letter or a FedEx.

With email, the more you can personalize the better. Using the recipient’s name in the subject line or opening the message with a “Dear [person’s name]” line can be very effective.

2. Tell a story that gives people what they want.

A seasoned newspaper editor was once advising a cub reporter who was being sent out to cover a wedding. He enumerated the qualities of the ideal wedding that would appeal to tabloid readers: a beautiful heiress eloping with the chauffeur; an irate father with a shotgun; a high-powered car; a smash-up; a heroic rescue; a nip and tuck finish. The editor advised the reporter to approach the current wedding with this ideal picture in mind, see how many of those dramatic elements he could find and then build his story around them.

That’s what you have to do when writing your sales material. Put yourself in the place of your prospective buyer and think of everything that person could desire in the perfect form of that product. Make a list of all the features of the ultimate ideal. Then, with that in mind, create your promotional material, focusing on as many of those features as possible.

Let’s look at an example of how you might do this. Suppose you’re writing a recipe blog for busy career people who don’t have much time but want to eat healthy meals. What would the ideal recipe be for such an audience?

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It would have to be delicious (a key aspect of any recipe), it would have a minimal number of ingredients, it would be quick and easy to prepare, it would make a person more attractive, and it would be healthy. So, in describing your recipes, you would include as many of those features as possible. You might even highlight specific health benefits -- like it helps you maintain weight, it promotes muscle growth, it leads to glowing skin.

The idea is to make your own list of what your audience wants and then tell them how exactly how that what you will give to them.

3. Build a memorable picture.

Your promotional writing will be more effective if it presents a memorable picture. And you can do that for any product. Legendary adman Robert Collier used to quote an old saying that:

“There is nothing you can say about a 50 cent cigar that you cannot say about a 5 cent one.”

Really, the two cigars should have basically the same features; the differences are only a matter of degree.

Physically they can be described the same way.

But who’s to say that a poorer man might not get as much pleasure from his 5-cent cigar as a rich man does from his 50 cent cigar? The copywriter can paint an equivalent -- and equally memorable -- picture of enjoyment for each.

The job of the marketer is to create descriptions that will build the anticipation of pleasure in the mind’s eye of the reader, based on the physical facts of the product. You don’t want to exaggerate, or the prospect will disbelieve the whole thing. But you can create an attractive picture that builds a powerful desire for the product in your readers.

Add powerful images and arguments that illustrate and support that main argument as your focal point. This will make your letter strong and cohesive, leaving a memorable idea in the mind of prospects that can guide their behavior.

4. Add a sense of urgency.

Every kind of promotion you send out (online, through the mail, in newspapers or magazines, on TV or radio) must include a call to action. This is where you tell prospects what you want them to do -- for example, buy the product.

But just asking for the order is not enough. The ideal promotion provides a reason why the person must respond at once. You want to develop a sense of urgency because if people don’t act right away, they will put your offer aside -- and maybe never come back to it.

So, put a time limit on the offer. Or explain why supplies are limited and it’s first come, first served. Or maybe announce that a price increase will take effect on a specified date. Make it very clear that the opportunity in the offer will be absolutely lost if the prospect does not take action within the specified time limit.

5. Always make it about your prospect.

Ad guru Robert Collier said, “The point that sells your customer is not what your product is, but what it will do for him!” Or as promoters today describe it, stress benefits, not features. 

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For example, if you’re selling memberships to a health club, don’t just go on and on about the machinery and equipment. Few people care. Instead stress how great prospects will feel after working out on that scientifically designed equipment, how good they’ll look, how much more energy they’ll have and how many ways their lives will improve.

6. Always end on the positive.

Many advertisers today use scare tactics -- painting images of horrible health issues or economic doom and gloom. These advertisers swear by this technique -- while others say it’s best to avoid negative advertising. 

You have to determine what works best for your product and audience. But one essential rule is that if you use do fear, make sure you take prospects from the fear to the solution quickly -- which is what you’re asking people to buy. Many successful video sales letters today contain some of the scariest scenarios you can imagine, but throughout the letter the impression is made that an ideal solution will be provided in the end. They are fear-based, but also hope-based enough to make people want to keep reading or listening. So, fear works, but bring people along in a way that keeps up hope.

7. The length of the letter must fit the purpose.

Finally, here’s a question that’s often asked: How much copy do I need to make a sale? If all you want to do is get people to make further inquiries, a short and snappy letter will do nicely. But if you are trying to get someone to commit to a purchase, you need to provide enough information to make that decision. Just make sure that whatever the length, you keep it interesting.