Ad Copywriting
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This is page six of a handbook on Startup Growth. Begin here.

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Ad copy and design

Terminology

This page teaches you how to create online ads (e.g. Facebook, Instagram, AdWords) at a professional level.

The goal is simple: Get the maximum number of clicks from your ideal audience.

You do this through advertising copy and creative.

"Copy" is a fancy word for text. The distinction between copy and everyday text is that copy is carefully selected for a specific purpose. Such as pitching a selling point. Or warning someone. Or getting them to click on a button.

"Creative," meanwhile, is the fancy word for multimedia, such as images and videos. 

Importance

Copy and creative determine the clickthrough rate of your ads. Just a 25% improvement in clickthrough rate, which is achievable through improving copy and creative, can make or break profitable paid user acquisition

So ad copywriting is critical work.

Yet most marketers wing their copywriting. They delegate it to an intern. As if writing ad copy is like writing a Tweet. It’s not. 

No one is amazing at writing ad copy without practice. Without a structured approach.

So that's what this page teaches you: Systematic copywriting tactics for generating compelling words every time. I'll walk you through designing great creative too.

Your audience

To write ads well, know who you're copywriting for. This makes all the difference.

Consider my Ladder of Product Awareness below. The LPA illustrates how aware and in need an audience is of your product. 

Everyone you advertise to will fit somewhere on this ladder:

Great storytellers have the ability to fascinate everyone with their material; they don't settle on relating only with their core audience.

But, if we’re being honest, the closer someone is to level 5, the more time, energy, and money it’ll take to move them up the LPA so that they’re receptive to your ads.

So, only if you've already exhausted audiences on Levels 1-4 (unlikely) should you attempt moving people from the bottom. That’s a luxury problem to have. Until then, focus on better appealing to those higher up on the ladder. This can take years.

LPA and ad copy

On Google AdWords (which is an ad channel), LPA identification is straightforward: You detect the ladder positioning of a search by looking for its niche keywords. 

For example, a search may be for "used cars" or "used Toyota SUV's." The latter is higher up on the LPA. These people know specifically what they want. 

And it's easier to sell to people who actually know what they want.

These two queries — one broad and one specific — require their own ad copy.

For example, if you're advertising Toyota cars, consider:

You typically want to try running both types of ad copy. See how well the general public responds to your value props. If you can get them to click and convert, it drastically expands the size of your audience.

LPA and profile-based targeting

Beyond AdWords, however, non-search channels don't have keywords for you to clearly identify someone's LPA position.

In other words, when switching from behavioral targeting to profile targeting, you rely on profile details as a proxy to determine someone's LPA position. 

It's messy, and it requires a lot of experience to get great at.

For instance, how exactly would you distinguish whether a Facebook user who's suffering from male pattern baldness is or is not aware that drugs like Rogaine and Propecia help your hair regrow? 

There's no way to know unless they happen to Like Rogaine's Facebook Page or have shared Rogaine articles on their profile. Then you could target them based off this.

But very few people will do either. Most people don't share or Like company-related posts on Facebook. Most of what they share is personal (e.g. family photos) or cultural (e.g. inspirational videos and politics). 

So, on profile-based ad channels, like Facebook and Instagram, you'll often have no choice but to write more generalized copy. This means being wordier than normal in order to embed additional context for those lower on the LPA. You'll want to address:

In other words, sometimes your copy will have to simultaneously address people on Steps 1 to 4 of the LPA.

Got it?

With that context, we're finally ready to dive into ad copywriting.

Copywriting

As a reminder, "copy" is just a fancy word for text.

When you refer to marketing text on an ad, page, or SaaS dashboard, refer to it as "copy" and treat it with the attention-to-detail it deserves. 

In growth, words are your most powerful weapon. Each one affects conversion. 

Ad optimization cycle

Here's the ad copywriting process:

  1. In a spreadsheet, generate copy variations that individually cover all your value props. Set low expectations and put ego aside. This is not the time to be hard on yourself. You want to be open to being surprised by copy that you think is bad that actually performs great, and vice versa. 
  2. Run ads with the most promising copy. Throw in some "out there" variations too.
  3. Once you've assessed performance, pause ads that perform poorly.
  4. Given the top performers, test minor copy variations (such as differing word choice and phrasing). You want to find small tweaks that maximize conversion.
  5. Now, with your best-performing copy in place, test wildly different copy on a regular basis. Because you're never going to land on the best variation from the get-go. If you have, you’re not trying hard enough to come up with new copy.

Now, let's learn how to write good copy variations for Step 1.

Generating copy variations

This process is the most valuable advice in the entire handbook. I know it seems generic and uninsightful, but — whatever you do —  never just wing your copy. What comes off the top of your head will never be as good as what you'll optimize through this process. And if you can get an ad to perform even 15% better, that can make or break your profitability. I've seen this at my agency many times.

Here are four steps to systematically writing copy variations:

  1. Brainstorm both value props and the audience's concerns

    This step generates worthwhile talking points for your copy.

    First, list out all your value props — what benefits does your product provide? Follow this process to generate value props yourself. Then also survey your audience.

    Next, bullet point every trepidation, disbelief, and question your audience will likely have upon hearing your pitch.
  2. Write copy that addresses your value props and concerns

    For each item in Step 1, write a dozen variations addressing it. Example.
  3. Make the best copy concise

    Identify the copy you believe will most motivate conversion. Rewrite these as concisely as possible. (Ad units don't provide a lot of room for text.)
  4. Make your copy compelling

    Take your concise pieces of copy and — don't worry, you have my permission — now make them a bit wordier by injecting compelling factoids. Factoids are your opportunity to pique your audience's interest and stand out.

    You pique someone's interest by either:

    A. Making them curious by teasing withheld information. Like the quick fix to their big problem.

    B. Offering significant, inarguable value. Like $100 off for the next 24 hours.

Here's a resulting ad:

Sure, that ad is dense. And there are multiple value props being pitched at once. But it wound up being the best performing variation.

The best way to have a good idea is to have lots of ideas.
– Linus Pauling

Surveying for value propsExpand

Generating value props yourself may not uncover your full surface area.

Combine it with customer surveys to uncover everything. 

Google Forms is a simple, free tool for collecting survey answers.

When surveying for copy ideas, you want to understand two things from your audience: language and obstaclesundefined.

The theme here is empathy. Get to know customers as they really are; go in with zero expectations. This means making sure you always allow for an "Other — Please Specify" open response to every question. 

Compile your survey answers then add them to your list of brainstormed value props and concerns. Then continue onto Step 2 of the four-step copywriting process (read on to the next section).

An effective means of getting people to thoughtfully respond to surveys is having the CEO reach out to a couple dozen users via email with an offer of a $15 payment via PayPal (or just a coupon) as a reward.
If you don’t yet have customers to email, write a post on your Facebook page asking for friends (who fit your ideal customer type — define it clearly) that are willing to be paid $15 in exchange for spending 15 minutes thoughtfully answering your survey questions over the phone.

Copywriting: Examples and tactics

Now you have your value props. But how exactly should you write them down?

These are the effective tactics for turning value props into words.

Tactic 1: Fully articulate your problem and solution

For this first copy tactic, we're experimenting with being wordy in pursuit of being highly descriptive. Being descriptive means adding enough context around our problem and solution that people on many steps of the LPA can identify with our copy.

Specifically, we're writing copy that: identifies the problem, how you solve the problem, and what the benefit of solving it is.

For example: "Kip makes therapy more effective by helping you track your weekly outcomes through self-assessments. No more guessing at whether you're improving."

First, notice the specificity of the language. Do not include vague statements like "powering the way you work" or "making your business secure." That is boring, generic, and simply ineffective for conversion-oriented copy. 

Vagueness is only appropriate for mega-brands that serve ads to keep themselves top of mind (e.g. Coke). Mega-brands don’t need to remind people what they do. In other words, vagueness is only viable for targeting users at the top of the LPA.

Second, notice how the example identifies one problem (simplicity) and one solution (automatic capturing) per copy variation. This has three benefits: 

I don't actually know the rules of grammar. If you're trying to persuade people to do something, though, it seems to me you should use their language.
– David Ogilvy

Tactic 2: Highlight something unique

Write copy variations highlighting how you stand out from the competition. 

For example:

Tactic 3: Ask a pressing question

This tactic involves writing copy in the form of a question. 

For example, you can turn a factoid into a question with "Did you know:"

Did you know airlines will pay you ~$135 when they delay you? 

(This is true, by the way. If you live in the U.S., check out Service.) 

But only ask questions if they'd pique people's curiosities. Do not ask questions that make people think, "Yeah, so what?" 

For example:

Do you like dogs? 

Sure I do, so what? I'm not going to keep reading your ad if that's all you got for me.

Now contrast this with a question that an audience of, say, online marketers, would actually be intrigued by: 

How well do you rank for SEO? 

Hmm. Not sure. I'd like to know.

A rule of thumb for comparing the ineffective "Do you like dogs?" with the effective "How well do you rank for SEO?" is to ask whether your question can be answered with a "yes" or a "no." If so, reword the question to force the audience to think deeper.

Don't ask questions for behavioral targeting

Be careful using this copywriting tactic with behavioral-based targeting (e.g. Google AdWords). Generally, search queries are best addressed with specific answers.

Consider how people searching Google don't want their time wasted with your question-and-answer games because they already know what they're looking for. 

In contrast, profile-based targeting (e.g. Facebook Ads), are a perfect fit for questions.

It did what all ads are supposed to do: create an anxiety relievable by purchase.
– David Foster Wallace

Tactic 4: Match a value prop to an audience

This copy tactic appeals to a subset of your audience, as defined by their demographics (e.g. age, gender, job) or behaviors (e.g. eat out a lot). 

Generally, the more targeted your copy, the better conversion.

You generate copy by identifying the value prop that most appeals to each subset. Then you directly call out the audience in the copy.

There are many qualities or value props you could highlight. Here are a few:

Other qualities include effectivebeautifulautomated, and so on. 

Whichever you choose, ensure it's one your ideal customers would care enough about to make a purchasing decision based on

Consider how, when someone buys a camera, they don’t care if it arrives overnight (the fast shipping value prop). They care about its power, simplicity, and/or cost.

One of my favorite books summarizes the legitimate research into how to convince people to do things. I strongly recommend it for honing your copy.

Tactic 5: Match a value prop to an interestExpand

In addition to appealing to demographics and behaviors, you can match your product's qualities to audience's interests, e.g. sports, skills, and celebrities. 

Interest-based targeting should be as niche as your product allows you to go. The more niche an interest is, the more die-hard its fans are. And the more they pay attention to when they're called out in ad copy. 

For example, many people love watching the Superbowl, but what they’re truly fans of is a particular team. So this ad copy:

Calling all Superbowl fans!

Is going to be perform worse than this copy:

Calling all Seahawks fans!

... so long as the latter is targeted toward Seahawks fans.

Going one level further in niche specificity, anyone who's a fan of a minor league football team is probably more vocally passionate about that fandom than whichever major league team they support. 

This phenomenon of niche affinity applies to every interest category. Here are some examples of narrowing from a broad interest to a niche interest:

Ultimately, to improve conversion, your goal is to target every niche topic that still has sufficient volume for you to get the number of conversions you're looking for. (When you set up ads on most channels, they provide audience size estimates for you.)

Now here's a specific example of matching a product quality with a niche interest: 

"The next time you go wilderness camping, our unbreakable 4K camera will survive the crazy adventures you go on."

Copy Optimization

You have your value props written out. Now let's refine your word choice.

We'll do so using two copy optimization filters: word order and adding a hook.

Word order

Here's a human psychology trick that applies to every copy tactic on this page: Try to place the keyword describing your product at the beginning of the copy. 

Let me show you an example then I'll explain why. The copy below references thisopenspace, one of Bell Curve's clients, which is the Airbnb of retail space:

The former copy will likely perform better because software engineers skimming the first few words of your ads (everyone skims!) will immediately identify with the product category ("retail space"). This quickly shows them the ad is for them.

In contrast, the second piece of copy says a whole lot of nothing until you get to the keyword, "retail space." Consider how "Rent by day, week, or month" could be about anything — and many people won't learn what that thing is because they won't bother reading far enough into the copy.

Similarly, if you’re writing two sentences, the first must stand by itself by describing the product. You can't depend on someone to read the second sentence.

The greatest "word order" trick to copywriting is to be concise. The less fluff you have, the more of what remains gets read.

Adding a hook

Finally, pique your audiences’ interest by adding an additional sentence that either:

Supplemental copy: Social proof

Most ad channels, including Facebook Ads and AdWords, provide space alongside an ad's image and copy for supplementary copy

I like to use this space to provide social proof: external validation that your product is as good as you claim it is. 

Social proof can take a few forms:

Copywriting: Call-to-actionExpand

Here's the final component of an ad that needs copywriting: its call-to-action (CTA). 

The CTA is the ad button or link that takes the audience to the next step in your funnel:

Your CTA copy is as important as the rest of your copy. 

For instance, if you use spammy CTA copy, "Click here to get your HUGE discount today!," you will decrease your CTR. 

And if you use vague CTA copy like, "Continue…," you may fail to call enough attention to the CTA to capture clicks from OCD people skimming your ad as it scrolls by in their feed.

Now, in contrast, effective CTA copy typically begins with a verb that teases what the audience will encounter on the next step: Will they, perhaps, watch a demo of the product? Or will they test the product's features? 

A verb is important because it indicates that an experience is about to begin once the ad is clicked — as opposed to enduring more boring copy on a landing page.

Consider the verbs below. After the verb, notice I tease the ensuing experience:

CTA and the growth funnel

I avoid CTA verbs that tease the final conversion event in the growth funnel; I'm not coercing users to "buy", "order", "trial", or "sign up" — just yet.

Why? Because the audience doesn't yet have nearly enough context to convert! All they've seen is our ad. They still have to be romanced by our landing page before they'll fork over their email address or credit card.

Remember, users have to be handheld through the multi-step growth funnel:

Acquisition → Conversion → Engagement → Revenue → Referral

Don't skip steps. Ads are only responsible for sending people to landing pages. Then the landing pages do the converting.

Ad creative

"Creative" is marketing jargon for your ad's multimedia — its images and video. 

Most ad units, including Facebook's and Twitter's, provide space for both copy and creative. (Whereas Google AdWords is pure text.) 

To optimize creative for conversion, I try to adhere to two content restrictions:

And I always adhere to two styling restrictions:

Let's cover these principles one by one. Then we're done with ad copy and creative!

Creative: Literally depict the product in action

Step one is to ask yourself, How can I most literally depict the product in action? 

Avoiding visual abstraction is key to increasing conversion. Because abstracted imagery is typically aspirational imagery (two people sitting on a beach), and aspirational messaging is better suited for raising brand awareness, not conversion.

Here are some examples:

We want consumers to say, 'That's a hell of a product' instead of, 'That's a hell of an ad.'
– Leo Burnett

Creative: Match the creative to the copy

Your ad copy, which is your methodical approach to pitching an audience, should determine your creative. Not the other way around.

Consider:

Creative: Be purposeful and minimalist

With creative, never show a random woman smiling next to a computer. And never slap copy over it and call it a day. 

In other words, don't do what 99% of ads do.

When you follow this vapid pattern, you're forgoing the opportunity to have your imagery directly reinforce your value props. Plus you blend into every other ad online.

Instead, select imagery with purpose. Every major visual component (e.g. a person, product, logo) should depict the product in action or depict its value.

Consider how each component is a potential focal point for a viewer. The more purposeful and minimal your imagery, the less likely it is that viewers get distracted by a visual component that doesn't drive conversion.

Finally, consider each component subject to variation testing. As with copy variation testing, start with the simplest instantiation of the component then refine it as you incrementally prove what performs best (which has the highest clickthrough rate).

Don't place your logo or other blatant corporate imagery in the top third of an ad. People most often parse ads from top to bottom, so whatever imagery you place at the top shoulders the burden of motivating users to continue looking downward. And if the first thing they see is corporate spam, they're reminded this is an ad and are more likely to skip parsing the remainder.

Creative: Match surrounding aesthetics

Don’t design an ad before knowing how it'll look in its published form. 

On Facebook, for example, your ad appears as a Newsfeed story alongside organic stories. Just like organic stories, your ad consists of an image, surrounding text, a comments section, and a CTA button. 

The goal is to ensure your creative isn't so oddly contrasted against organic stories that it's reflexively dismissed as an ad.

In fact, when I design Facebook ads in Sketch (a Photoshop alternative that's suited for non-photography work), I start with a screenshot of the Facebook Newsfeed. I crop out the ad and design on top of it so I can design in context.

You might be thinking:

But don't I want to stand out as much as possible? 

Nope. That worked when banner ads ruled the web and people weren't accustomed to what usable sites should look like.

Today, people are much savvier. For many of them, anything that stands out in the middle of their feed gets immediately dismissed.

That said, I'm not advising you blend into the surrounding content like wallpaper. You still want bold imagery and a unique brand presence. But, you also need to look like you visually belong on the site: Mimic as much of the surrounding colors, font, spacing, and so on. And try to do it while maintaining your brand identity.

Also match surrounding content

On a channel like Pinterest, where your ad appears among dozens of highly contrasted images, you're in less danger of being dismissed as an ad because it's harder to accidentally stand out. 

But, you still need to contextually blend into the content surrounding your ad. 

For example, if you're targeting Pinterest audiences searching for "steak," ensure your ad isn't, say, a celebrity chef holding up a plate of steak in his hands. That would be fitting for a magazine cover, but for Pinterest? 

No, on Pinterest, you would find close-up photos of dinner plates with steak on them. 

So mimic that and you won't blatantly stand out like an ad. With this organic-like content as your creative basis, place copy on top of the image with a subtle color contrast that blends in without triggering audiences' reflexive ad dismissal.

When to revamp copy and creativeExpand

I haven't walked you through your first Facebook Ads campaign yet, but now's the time to tell you when you'll need to create new copy and creative variations. 

Even if your ads are performing well, whenever the following occurs, create new ads:

Next page: Facebook ads

The next page shows you how to run a Facebook Ads campaign. Professionally. As I do for my clients. Once you master Facebook, you can master every other ad channel.

Next →
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