on copywriting

Shaun Smerling
19 min readJun 25, 2023

Copywriting, as defined by Wikipedia, is the act or occupation of writing text for the purpose of advertising or other forms of marketing.

The product, called copy or sales copy, is written content that aims to increase brand awareness and ultimately persuade a person or group to take a particular action.

Copywriting as a metaskill is the art of persuasian through the written word. In this article i’ll be relaying the framework for writing good copy derived from industry experts like David Ogilvy, Eugene Schwartz, Dan Kennedy, and Claude Hopkins

Part 1: Markets Research, Hooks, & Headlines

Step 1: Study the market

Any good copywriting starts with an incredible amount of research in the market and the product. Its important to understand the depth that lives within the market, the emotional forces that the market builds upon and causes action, as well as the main desire that customers have within the market

With the depth, the emotional forces, and the main desire — we’ll be able to harness these foundational bits of knowledge towards a problem which the product will solve.

Step 2: Study the product

Which problem does your product fix? Which desires lie behind the purchase of the product?

These are the questions you should be asking yourself as you do research about the market, and then eventually the product.

The product solves a specific problem that the market has. That problem includes the markets deepest desires. Those desires are the fabric of these emotional forces in which we will pull within our copywriting.

Its important to study the physical product i.e. for a car it would be iron, plastic, seats

As well as studying the functional product i.e. what is the product used for. For the car example, the car is used to get from A to B, for status, to attract attention, to instill confidence in one self

This is what makes the themes of your ad.

Now we have 3 integral components that will paint the picture of your ad:

  1. The desire that the market suffers from
  2. The emotional need expressed for this desire
  3. How the market identifies with and without this desire, and how that identification changes when this deep desire is met

Let’s now explore the ad’s theme:

To explore an ads theme, you need to first explore the state of maturity within the given market. We need to understand who we are speaking to by first understanding what they know:

  1. How much does your market know about your product / what it does?
  2. How much do they know about similar products?
  3. How much do they care?

Our communication style is built with the answers being the thread.

We start by coming up with our headline. Our headline represents our customers greatest interest mixed with their deepest desire finally met

When I say headline, I mean figuratively. We are trying to take all that we’ve talked about into a headline that can pull the customer to purchase. Where do include this headline?

  • the product
  • the price
  • the performance
  • the satisfaction the product promises
  • The market demands
  • The market itself

The headline must follow two rules: drive interest, and be believable.

Some examples:

Our market deeply desires high quality running shoes. Nike provides this.

Our market deeply desires to play the latest game of Red Dead Redemption. PS5 provides this.

Our market deeply desires full body relaxation. A massage provides this.

It isn’t necessarily about the cost or the deliverability.

It’s about what is the markets deepest desires, and how can I solve that the best.

How To Write An Ad

Step 1: Research

With the most powerful desire that applies to the product, we must research the deeper dimensions of this desire.

Every mass desire has three deep dimensions.

Every product appeals to atleast 2–4 mass desires.

In our headline, we only call out one.

Thats why headlines such as:

Cure A, Solve B, and Get Rid of C

They never work. Because there is no clarity, no singular focus. A jack of all trades, but a master of none.

Focusing on one key desire is what unlocks the maximum economics power at the particular time your ad is published

Your choice among these mass desires is the most important step of the entire copywriting process

Step 2: Headline

At this stage, the headline is very simple:

  1. Acknowledge the desire
  2. Reinforce the deep pain points
  3. Offer the means to satisfy

Also known as PAS (Problem, Agitation, Solution)

Your headline is the first step in recognizing this mass desire, justifying it, intensifying it, and directing the quench of this desire (the solution) along on specific path

Old Spice: Smell like a man

Disneyland: The happiest place on earth

Nike: Just do it

L’Oreal: Because your worth it

Notice, none of these headlines mention the product.

Step 3: Body copy

Now, all that is left is for you to take your product (what it does) and show how it satisfies this desire.

The study of your product should start with a number of different performances it contains. What does the product do? Then match it to the mass desire. Show how x performance solves x desire. To start, pick the greatest performance that solves the greatest desire. Then, work down from there.

A car, for example, offers transportation, dependability, economy, power, recognition, value, and novelty: your ad should only use all these performance towards towards only one mass desire.

Every product gives you dozens of keys, but only one will fit the lock.

If you want to go one step further:

Pick one performance to solve the mass desire. With this, your job is to find the one dominant performance and squeeze every drop of power out of it to convince the reader that this performance gives them the satisfaction that they crave.

Notice, the higher up we go in our copywriting — the simpler our focus becomes

Start with the market, end with your product. The bridge is your ad. Your ad should always begin with the market, and lead that market to your product.

Handling Stages of Awareness

The first question to ask yourself when understanding the awareness of the market is:

  1. What is the mass desire that creates this market?

When you understand this mass desire, then the question to ask is:

  1. How much do people today already know about how my product satisfies that desire?
  2. How many other products have been presented to them?

Take the market for period pains. The mass desire that comes with that market is to stop the pain. Although the pain can never be 100% removed, we can give products that help subside the pain. The products currently existing are:

  1. Heat Packs
  2. Painkillers
  3. IUV in some cases

These all have their pros and cons. Now lets say you are a brand like Ovira, which uses EMS stimulation technology to reduce period pain.

Your goal is to understand the desire deeply. What helps with the pain? Heat? Vibration? Stimulation?

What do the customers know about EMS?

What deep desire does EMS solve that the other products disregard?

Your job is to figure out the thread of all of this that would cause your prospect to stop and watch / read your ad. Your first scene / sentence must get your reader to the second scene / sentence, which gets them to the third…

You should force the reader / viewer to consume the whole ad.

An aware customer:

  • Knows your product
  • Knows what it does
  • Knows that he / she wants it

A less aware customer:

  • Knows of the product but doesn’t know if they want it
  • Isn’t completely aware of what it does
  • Isn’t convinced how well it can do it
  • Hasn’t been told how much better it is then what they have now

In order of your ad / copy, you should address:

  1. There reinforcement of the prospects desire and how your product solves it
  2. The sharpening of the image of how your product satisfies the desire
  3. Extending that image of when and where your product satisifes that desire (the more detailed the better)
  4. The introduction of proof, testimonials, documentation
  5. To frame your product as a unique solution to their desire
  6. To frame your products unique solution, proof, testimonials, and image as miles away from any competitor products they may have tried.

Fiji Water: This isn’t water, this is earth’s finest water.

Cold vs Warm Customer:

A warm customer either knows or recognizes immediately that he wants the product and what it does, but he doesn’t know if that product will do it for him specifically.

The solution is simple

  1. Name the desire + solution that ur product solves
  2. Prove it
  3. Show proof, again & again
  4. Include 3rd party testimonials to rule out biases

A cold customer has a desire but does not yet realize the fufillment of that desire in relation to your product

This is where your ad solves that problem

Name the need. Provide the solution. Dramatize the need so vividly that the prospect realizes just how badly he needs it.

The present your product as the inevitable solution

Some things to keep in mind:

Price: It means nothing to a person who does not know nor want your product

Name of product: It means nothing to a person who has never seen it before. This might even damage your ad. Remember, its the desire and solution that matter.

Here are some examples of hooks you can use in your ad or copy:
There are 38 ways to do that.

  • Measure the size of the claim: lose weight fast → lose 4kg fast
  • Measure the speed of the claim: lose weight fast → lose weight in 30 days
  • Compare the claim: lose weight fast → lose weight faster than athletes
  • Metaphorize the claim: lose weight fast → obliterate your fat fast
  • Sensitize the claim by making the prospect feel, smell, touch, see or hear it: lose weight fast → feel lighter fast
  • Demonstrate the claim by showing a prime example: lose weight fast → It’s just her diet!
  • Dramatize the claim, or its result: lose weight fast → they all accused me of working out in secret…
  • State the claim as a paradox: lose weight fast → lose weight by eating more!
  • Remove limitations from the claim: lose weight fast → lose weight fast without exercise
  • Associate the claim with values or people with whom the prospect wishes to be identified: Lose weight fast → Usain Bolt’s diet
  • Show how much work, in detail, the claim does: lose weight fast → burn up to 300 grams of fat per day
  • State the claim as a question: lose weight fast → who also wants to lose weight fast?
  • Offer information about how to accomplish the claim: lose weight fast → how to lose weight fast
  • Tie authority into the claim: lose weight fast → US army surgeon shows how to lose weight fast
  • Before-and-after the claim: lose weight fast → 10 kg lighter 30 days later
  • Stress the newness of the claim: lose weight fast → BRAND NEW: diet gets you to lose weight fast
  • Stress the exclusivity of the claim: lose weight fast → IN HERE ONLY: lose weight fast
  • Turn the claim into a challenge for the reader: lose weight fast → Can you sustain rapid weight loss?
  • State the claim as a case-history quotation: lose weight fast → I float in those pants!
  • Condense the claim — interchange your product and the product it replaces: lose weight fast → lose weight out of your meal!
  • Symbolize the claim: replace the direct statement or measurement of the claim with a parallel reality: lose weight fast → eat as much as you want and lose weight!
  • Connect the mechanism to the claim in the headline: lose weight fast → burn fat for energy!
  • Startle the reader by contradicting the way he thinks the mechanism should work: lose weight fast → eat as much as you can!
  • Connect the need and the claim in the headline: lose weight fast → the only way to avoid heart disease is to lose weight!
  • Offer information in the ad itself: lose weight fast → why the keto diet works
  • Turn the claim or the need into a case history: lose weight fast → she ate so much meat!
  • Give a name to the problem or need: lose weight fast → Can’t lose weight? This diet is the last solution
  • Warn the reader about possible pitfalls if he doesn’t use the product: lose weight fast → Don’t even think about working out if you don’t try this first!
  • Emphasize the claim by its phraseology, by breaking it into two sentences, or repeating it, or a part of it: lose weight fast → Finally a diet that works! The keto diet!
  • Show how easy the claim is to accomplish by imposing a universally-overcome limitation: lose weight fast → if you like meat, veggies, and dairy, you can build your dream body!
  • State the difference in the headline: lose weight fast → the difference is that it actually works!
  • Surprise your reader into realizing that former limitations have now been overcome: lose weight fast → no need to be hungry to lose weight anymore!
  • Address the people who can’t buy your product: lose weight fast → if you have failed to lose weight on a diet, don’t even think about reading this — you’ll hate yourself for it.
  • Address your prospect directly: lose weight fast → to those that lost all hope of losing weight fast!
  • Dramatize how hard it was to produce the claim: lose weight fast → A diet a century in the making!
  • Accuse the claim of being too good: lose weight fast → this will bankrupt the weight-loss industry!
  • Challenge the prospects’ present limiting beliefs: lose weight fast → you are one meal away from “thinner”
  • Turn the claim into a question and answer: lose weight fast → Don’t know how to lose weight? We didn’t either, until we found out about this….

Conclusion:

What you are looking for in this product and this market is the one element that makes them unique. The idea you want — the headline you want — the breakthrough you want — are all wrapped up inside that product and that market.

Nowhere else. No outside formula will give them to you. You are facing a product-market-timing relationship that never happened before, that is unique.

And the solution you need is just as unique.

Part 2: The Body Copy

Your body copy sells by influencing your customers view → Your product becomes the solution to their deepest desires.

To create this world, your copy must alter the already-existing world.

The length of your ad thus depends on:

  1. How much convincing you need to build the desire as much as you can
  2. How much convincing you need to fill their imagination of life with your product
  3. How much time you need to spend dealing with objections

The answer to these three questions determine the lenght of your ad, its structure, its development, style, and pace

Desires: they drive your prospects through life. Desires can be physical (being strong, thin, getting rid of acne), material (money), sensual (a cold beer, a hot partner).

You can’t create desires, but you can expand them or channel them. This is the art of salesmanship.

Remember this → advertising is the literature of desire

A copywriter’s first qualifications are imagination and enthusiasm.

Your job is to show your customer in detail all the tomorrows that your product makes possible for him -> must take unformulated desires and translate them into reality.

The sharper you can draw your pictures, the better it is.

How much space can you give to this process of Intensification?

This depends on two factors:

  • the amount of space allotted to you for the entire ad.
  • the number of ways you can present your images without giving the feeling of repetition or boredom

You are working against two opposing forces:

  • The ads that the customer saw about similar products (market sophistication). If your prospect has read the same phraseology before, he will be bored by it.
  • The phraseology of your own ad. Once you have presented your basic fulfillment in a certain way, you must vary your viewpoint in your second description, or not present it again.

Identifications: These are the people your customer wants to play in life. People buy a diet for health, but they also buy it to project an image of health and attraction. Put these identification traits in your product.

Beliefs: These are the opinions, attitudes, and conceptions of reality that your prospect lives by.

Seven Ways To Write Damn-Good Copy:

Firstly, the structure:

  1. First present the product or the satisfaction it gives directly with a specific description: MORE ROSES THAN YOU EVER SAW ON ANY ROSE BUSH
  2. Put the Claims in Action. Show not only how the product looks, and what benefits it gives the reader, but exactly how it does this (explain how the plane works).
  3. Bring In the Reader. Tell your customer what will happen to him the first day he owns that product.
  4. Show Him How to Test Your Claims. Turn the demonstration into a test. Let your reader visualize himself using the product. Must be specific.
  5. Stretch Out Your Benefits in Time. Show not for just an hour or a day, but over a span of weeks and months.
  6. Bring In an Audience. Tell the audience what happened with the people that actually got the product.
  7. Show Experts Approving.
  8. Compare, Contrast, Prove Superiority. Show the difference between those that have the product, and those that do not.
  9. Picture the Black Side, Too. Make their problem worse, and solve it for them.
  10. Show How Easy It Is to Get These Benefits.
  11. Use Metaphor, Analogy, Imagination. There are infinite opportunities for the use of imagination to present those facts in more dramatic form, outside of the rigidly realistic approach.
  12. Before you’re done, summarize.
  13. Put Your Guarantee to Work. Call to Action.

Now, the components:

Intensification: Intensify the desire.

Identify: Create roles that a prospect can act out in their mind of which their life would be like with this product. Who do they identify as when this product is there own?

Every product you work on should offer your prospect two different reasons for buying it.

  1. The fulfillment of a physical want or need.
  2. A method of fulfilling that need that defines him to the outside world.

The product can serve the prospect in three distinctive ways.

  • Achieve mastery of his chosen character role.
  • It can help simplify condense or speed up this mastery, such as a Speed-Reading Course.
  • And third, and most important, it can serve as a symbol of that mastery.

They satisfy a need + play a role in representation. (buying a book on philosophy to learn AND impress your friends).

At least half of all purchases made today cannot be understood in terms of function alone (think about the Lamborghini).

These are often subconscious -> it’s your role to unearth them in your copy.

Your prospect is more likely to believe in the character roles you assign to him, than he is in the actual capabilities of the product. Tell him that the product makes him sophisticated etc.

  • The second type of role is achievement role: executive, home-owner, entrepreneur, NYT bestseller.

Display is vital because these are not obvious. This car is not any car. It is the number one car driven by top executives.

Thus products become more than products. They are status symbols. They announce our achievements, define our role in life, document our success (Rolex…).

When you have two identical products with the same price that perform the same thing, the differentiation factor will come from the achievement role the product highlights. It is your job to create this role in your ad.

Identification longings are a separate and immensely powerful form of desire. A desire not for physical satisfaction, but for expression and recognition.

Here’s an example of identification in an ad: Marlboro

The male virility naturally associated with cigarettes is a definite sales ad, even with women. The sheer physical act of smoking — of “playing with fire” — of “breathing fire” — has been for centuries an assertion of manhood and of daring.

Marlboro took this image of virility and intensified it in three ways:

  1. First, they presented men who were themselves, virile.
  2. Second, they presented these men in situations or occupations that demanded virility.
  3. And third, they took the further “Creative Gamble” of affixing to these men’s hands one of the most primitive symbols of virility known to history: tattoos.

If you demand that your prospect jumps across a believability chasm, your ad will fail. If, however, you build a bridge of ideas or images across that chasm, starting on his side, take your prospect by the hand and lead him over the chasm, then he will let you lead him almost anywhere.

Gradualization: Making your prospect believe your claims before you even state them

What is belief?

It is your prospect’s mental picture of the world he lives in. But even more important is the vast amount of emotional security he derives from these beliefs.

NEVER VIOLATE YOUR PROSPECTS’ BELIEFS.

But, if you can channel the tremendous force of his belief behind your claim, then your ad will be powerful.

Beliefs cannot be changed but must be complied with at every step.

Every one of the statements you make in your ad must fit in with your prospect’s version of “the facts” at that precise moment. It is not the function of your ad to change those facts — but you can extend them.

You do so by building a bridge of belief

Start with beliefs your prospect has then lead him logically and comfortably through a gradual succession of more and more remote facts until the sales of your product. It’s called Gradualization.

Gradualization determines the structure of your ad.

Every claim, every image, every proof in your ad has two separate sources of strength.

  • The content of the claim, image, and proof themselves
  • The preparation you have made for the claim, images, and proofs

We can strengthen the power of each of these statements in two separate ways:

  • By increasing the intensity of the content: by making greater promises
  • By changing the place or position of the work you have done.

Make no mistake, it is acceptance that we are looking for.

You can follow a three step framework for gradulization:

Simply because, the reason for, as an example

Simply because you’ve experienced x problem a thousand times, we can promise you Y result”

“Sound impossible? Not at all. The reason we can do this is…”

“Now let me show you. As an example…”

Redefinition: Removing objections to your product

Give a new definition to your product. The objective is to remove a roadblock to your sale, before the prospect even knows it exists.

Some products have drawbacks that repel buyers. Your purpose is to take care of the drawback before the buyer is aware of it.

There are three types of drawbacks.

  1. Too complicated to use

In that case, one needs to use simplification, which is framing the problem in another way.

Ex: a very effective soap had a strong smell. To turn it from liability to asset, they framed people’s need to use their soap because otherwise they would smell bad and turn their friends away. In order not to smell bad, one needs the strongest of soap, one so strong its smell is smelled miles away. Fixed.

When something new brings in a new way of doing things that people do not accept as valid or important enough, you need to redefine, then mechanize the new simplicity.

The more revolutionary your product is, the more resistance you will face.

2. Not important enough

Escalation is giving your product more importance than it is credited for. You need to redefine your product, widen its application, broaden benefits, and show it applies to a dozen of vital situations.

Eg: You are paying 20 000 dollars for your car…and a 10 dollars part could rob you of the enjoyment and service the car is providing to you.

Suddenly, that 10 dollars part seems important.

3. Too expensive

Your product costs too much because customers compare them to other products in the same field. You need to get the customer to focus on the product.

-> inflate the value of the product and give a great discount at the end. Say that each added to one another, the product is worth 30 or 40 dollars but if you act now you’ll have the chance to get them for 3 each.

It’s selling dollars for dimes.

Mechanization: How to verbally prove that your product does what you claim it does

When your prospect reads copy, reactions are happening in his brain.

1. Demands for more information, more image, more desire.

2. Demands for proof. He knows he wants it. Now he wants to know whether what you are saying is true.

3. Demands for a mechanism. How does it work?

Let’s focus on this mechanism thing. The question about mechanism is not whether you should include it in your copy or not, but merely how much of it should you include?

Stage one: name the mechanism

If your prospect is aware of the mechanism, just name it: “take astounding pictures with this Sony Camera”.

Sometimes, the mechanism cannot simply be named because:

  1. Because the prospect doesn’t understand their mechanism.

You build a strong, quick promise — and then you follow up with the reason why you can deliver that promise.

“Who else wants a whiter wash with no hard work?

2. Because everybody else has the same mechanism, and the same promise, and the same price. And the market is getting tired, and you need a new way to compete.

Stage two: Feature the Mechanism

When the market is highly sophisticated, or your mechanism is extremely strong.

The mechanism can be inside your ad, to prove your main claim, or on top of the ad, elevated by the state of your market to becoming the main claim.

Concentration: How to destroy the alternative ways for your prospect to satisfy his desire

No successful copy ever sells a product. It sells a way of satisfying a particular desire.

Ways to beat up the competition

  • Get the best product
  • Better promise (in the copy, in the product, like “guaranteed for life”)
  • The product role, the role the person that buys the product can play (Ferrari)
  • Response and reaction: the capacity to adapt one’s marketing faced with the competition
  • Direct attack: the technique we will discuss here: it’s the art of showing your prospect the weakness of a competitor’s product that your product does not have.

Concentration is the process of pointing out weaknesses in the competition then proving to customers that your product gives them what they want without them.

“Most lamps consume huge volumes of electricity while being detrimental to the eye and brain. Not Electra. Electra lamps feature a…”

Camoflouge: Make your ad stick in with the crowd. Make it camoflouge. In style, words, apperance, etc

No sentence can be effective if it contains only the facts alone. It must also contain emotion, evaluation, impact, if those facts are to be given meaning and importance to the reader.

The same is true for every sentence you write of copy. That sentence should contain not only promise, not only image, not only logic, but as much of all three as possible.

You start your ad by creating your headline. You develop your copy story from that headline. But if the copy story doesn’t develop — if you gradually find that the headline isn’t really that good after all — then perhaps the very elements that are begging to come out of your 6-point type should be at the top of your ad.

This is what makes copywriting so interesting. You’re always being surprised — with ideas from the most ungodly places.

Just make sure you’ve got your eyes open wide enough to catch all of them.

Momentum: the energy which draws your reader into your copy and incites him to read it.

There are two types:

  • The actual momentum: The first type, the momentum-phrases, are time-honored. You insert them in your copy primarily in your transition sentences, to keep interest from flagging. Examples:
  • “They paid up to $22.50 a person to learn priceless techniques like these:”
  • “Here’s how”
  • “Here is the information you will find in this book.”
  • “Let me explain.”
  • “All I ask from you is this.”
  • “What you are going to do, in the very first hour that you receive the book, is this.”
  • “And yet, it’s only the beginning.”
  • “THEN put this simple trick to work for you — that VERY SAME HOUR”
  • “For example — ”
  • “Read the thrilling answer below.”
  • “To start with . . .”
  • “Just wait till you try this.”

Incomplete statements, or teasers, that draw the reader further into the copy in order to complete them: It’s based on the simple principle that if YOU make a statement that interests your reader, and if you purposely do not complete that statement, so that there is a question of how it can be done, then he will read on to find out more. In other words, you are continually:

  • Creating interest in a specific point.
  • Raising a question in his mind about that point.
  • Implying an answer to that question later in the copy.

Use these to pull the reader in. The best ad in the world means nothing if nobody consumes it.

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