5 Steps to Writing Better Ad Copy

Following these easy steps will help you create copy that sells your products or services.
5 Steps to Writing Better Ad Copy
Image credit: Ezra Bailey
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The following excerpt is from Craig Simpson and Brian Kurtz’s book The Advertising Solution. Buy it now from Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes

Advertising expert Gary Halbert once said that deliberately trying to be clever and creative, to “dream up” an ad that would work, was a very dumb way to approach writing. You couldn’t possibly make up something in your head that would work. Really great copywriters are willing to “become intimately involved” with the people they’re trying to sell to.

They actively seek those people out. They want to talk with their prospects, meet with them and discover the secrets of their hearts and minds. Only from that knowledge will great copy flow. It won’t necessarily sound clever, but it will be powerful copy that speaks directly to prospects’ desires and motivate them to order the product.

Related: 6 Lessons From the Legends of Advertising

To help copywriters accomplish this, Halbert suggested five steps that progressively lead to closer interaction with prospects and the discovery of what it takes to sell them a product. Some of these steps may seem pretty extreme, and some may sound a bit outdated, but their overall message is still useful and adaptable.

If you’re a business owner, blogger or website creator who’s trying your hand at writing for the first time, this is an ideal program to follow. Be aware that Halbert primarily wrote sales pieces for direct mail campaigns, so his ideas are slanted to that application. Even so, there’s a lot here that can help anyone in the business of selling a product or promoting a person or a cause.

Here’s Halbert’s technique for writing better copy in five steps:

Step #1: Get a printout of the names and addresses of your customers and best prospects, and then sit down and read that printout

When you run a direct mail campaign, you may rent a list of names and addresses through a list manager or broker. This list is carefully selected to contain the names of individuals who’ve perhaps bought products like yours in the past or who fall into a certain demographic that you believe contains prospective buyers. Or you may have collected your own list of people who’ve already bought from you or who have inquired about your product or service. This is the kind of printout Halbert was talking about.

Even if most of your work is online, you may have a list of email addresses you bought from a broker or gathered yourself. Hopefully you also have these individuals’s names and home addresses. You may even have their phone numbers and other demographic information. You can certainly adapt Halbert’s method to this kind of list as well.

Halbert started with a regular mailing list. First he looked at the composition of the people on the list. Are there more men or women? Do the names indicate that the people tend to belong to one particular ethnic group? Are they Latino? Asian? Are they the type of people who use their full names, or do they tend to use initials? Do they have professional titles, like doctor or professor?

Next he looked at the addresses. What part of the country do they favor? Do they live in big cities or in rural areas? Do they live in apartments, multifamily dwellings or single-family homes? What kind of neighborhoods do they live in? If you know the area well yourself, you can tell by the names of the cities and towns. If you don’t know the area, you can research the demographics of different Zip codes. That will tell you if people tend to be wealthier or poorer. Do they live in upscale apartments or in public housing?

Step #2: Look at the mail you receive from your customers

If your company receives mail from people, it’s very instructive to look at it. Don’t even read the mail at this point (that comes later). For now, just look at it. This may not work for you if most of your customer interactions are over the phone or by email. Still, even a few letters or returned order forms may be instructive, although they’ll probably represent a limited sample of your customer base.

Related: 7 Tips for Getting a Bigger Response from Your Ad Copy

You can tell if letters come from a computer printer or if they’re handwritten. Do they have the spidery handwriting of an elderly person, or is the writing firm and robust? Are letters written on expensive stationery, or are they written on a sheet torn off a yellow pad? Is the return address label a freebie from Habitat for Humanity?

If people mail in orders, do they pay with cash, money orders, credit cards or checks? If it’s a check, is it written from a joint account or a single-owner account? And is it a plain check, or is it illustrated with kittens or American flags? You’re beginning to get a clearer picture of who your best customers are.

Step #3: Start reading your mail, and start taking phone calls from your business customers

Now actually read those letters, and find out what people are writing about. Are they writing to make a complaint? Are they making requests for a certain kind of information? Are they suggesting something they’d like to see from you that would improve their experience with your company or product? This will show you what’s important to them and give you clues as to what features of your product and service to stress in your marketing materials.

You’ll learn even more if you talk to customers when they call in with orders, complaints or questions. Turn the moment around by asking them questions. Why did they buy the product? What did they like or dislike? Why are they returning it? What would make the product better?

Then try to upsell them so you can find out what techniques work best. Is offering a discount effective? Or is it better to offer them a buy-two-get-one-free deal? This will teach you how to best position your offer in your sales pieces.

Step #4: Start making telephone calls to your customers

If you’re willing to reach out to your customers and call them on the phone, you can really get some great information. What Halbert suggests is to first send a letter to 100 of your best customers with a dollar bill attached to the top of your first page.  

In the letter, tell the customer that you enclosed the dollar bill to get his attention because you have something important to tell him, and then include the important information in the letter. This means you should plan to have something newsworthy to share with the customer -- perhaps a new product or a change or improvement to your service.

Then, several days later, call and remind him of the letter. Thanks to the dollar bill, if he did see the letter, he’ll surely remember it, and now you’re in a great position to start a conversation. Halbert said that if you ask the right questions, you’ll be able to learn more about what your customers want -- and how best to sell them your product -- than a thousand creative types who are writing from their imaginations.

Admittedly, Step #4 requires a bit of gumption -- most people don’t feel comfortable calling up a bunch of strangers. But only the most courageous will move on to Step #5, and I don’t necessarily recommend you follow it, but here it is nonetheless.

Step #5: Go to where your customers live, knock on their front door and ask to talk to them

This is pretty extreme, but if you do follow through on it, sitting at someone’s kitchen table will certainly show you firsthand how your customers live. It will give you the opportunity to find out exactly what they want, and you’ll get a pretty good idea how to tell them what they want to hear so they make the decision to buy. Halbert explained why you should take any or all of these steps: "When it comes to writing great copy, it’s not so much a matter of knowing how to write as it is of knowing what to write."

Related: 8 Laws for Writing Copy That Sells

You won’t know what to write until you know who you’re writing to, what they really want and what sells them the best. Halbert’s point was that if you learn everything you can about your customer, the writing will take care of itself.

One of the big lessons for you to take away from this is that “one size fits all” copy is never a good idea. You’ll want to create different copy for different market niches. Always keep in mind that you don’t have just one homogeneous target audience. There are many subsets within your big market, and Halbert teaches us that you must write to everybody.