Making Ads

This is page six of a Growth Marketing guide. Start with page one to understand what you need to learn for your business model.

Making ads

This page teaches how to create ads for social media networks (e.g. Facebook, Instagram) — at a professional level.

The goal: Get cost-effective clicks from your ideal audience.

You accomplish this goal through an ad's 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 trackable outcome. Such as articulating a selling point. Or getting someone to click a button.

Whenever you refer to marketing text, refer to it as "copy" and treat it with the attention-to-detail it deserves. Because, in growth marketing, words are your highest-ROI weapon. They cost nothing yet each one affects conversion. 

"Creative," meanwhile, is jargon for multimedia, such as images and videos. 

On most social networks, ads consist of both copy and creative. A Facebook video ad, for example, contains a video creative surrounded by copy above and below.

Importance of copy

Copy and creative determine the clickthrough rate of your ads. Just a 25% improvement in clickthrough rate can make or break profitable paid user acquisition

Ad copywriting is critical work.

Yet most marketers wing it. Many delegate it copywriting to junior social media hires. As if writing ad copy is like writing a clever Tweet. It’s not. It's more than that.

No one becomes great at writing copy without months of practice.

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

I'll cover:

Who is your audience?

Before you write copy, know who you're copywriting for. This makes all the difference.

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

Everyone you advertise to will be somewhere on this ladder:

Great storytellers have the ability to fascinate everyone with their narrative; they don't settle on relating only to their core audience (i.e. the first step of the ladder).

However, the closer someone is to step 5, the more time, energy, and money it takes 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 to move people up from the bottom. That’s a luxury problem. Until then, focus on writing increasingly appealing copy to those higher up on your ladder.

Ad channels and LPA

Let's consider how the LPA affects copywriting on two categories of ad channels:

This is the behavior- versus profile-based targeting distinction discussed previously.

LPA and behavioral-based targeting

On Google AdWords, LPA identification is straightforward: You detect the ladder positioning of a search by identifying how niche its keywords are. 

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

How you write an ad for these two queries should therefore be different.

For example, if you're a company selling Toyotas, consider:

You typically want to try running both types of ad copy simultaneously. And everywhere in between. See how well the general public responds to your value props at various steps on the ladder. If you can get people lower on the LPA to click and convert, it expands the size of your audience. And helps you scale via ads.

LPA and profile-based targeting

Let's move beyond AdWords.

Non-search ad channels, such as Facebook and LinkedIn, don't have keywords for you to identify someone's position on the LPA.

When switching from behavior-based targeting to profile-based targeting, you rely on someone's profile details as a proxy to determine someone's LPA position. 

For example, how would you distinguish whether a Facebook user 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 Like Rogaine's Facebook Page or have shared Rogaine articles on their profile. Then you could target them based off this behavior.

But very few people will do either. Most people don't Share or Like business-related posts on Facebook. Most of what they share is personal or cultural. 

On AdWords, you simply target people searching for "hair loss products."

So LPA identification on social networks like Facebook and Instagram, which don't primarily surface feed content based on searches, is messy and requires insight.

Often, you should write more generalized copy than you would for search ads. This entails being wordier than usual to include context for those lower on the LPA.

For example, you may need to simultaneously address:

Here's the takeaway: Always ask yourself before writing ads, What does my audience likely already know? Write copy accordingly. Don't be out of touch and don't alienate.

With this basic understanding of the LPA, you're now ready to learn copywriting.


It's not hard, and it's not a black box.

Ad copywriting process

Before diving into copy tactics, let's identify copy's role in ad creation:

  1. First, you generate ad copy variations.
  2. Then, you run ads with your most promising copy variations.
  3. Once you've assessed ads' performance, pause those that perform poorly.
  4. Now, with your best-performing ads, test wildly different copy ideas on a recurring basis. Because you'll never land on the best variation from the get-go. Always try to beat your best performing copy.

It starts with generating your first set of copy variations. Let's learn how.

Generating copy variations

There are four steps to writing copy:

  1. Brainstorm what to write.
  2. Write it down in a particular way.
  3. Make it compelling.
  4. Make it concise.

brainstorm, write, make compelling, then make concise.

I. Brainstorm 1) value props and 2) common concerns

This step generates talking points for your copy.

First, list out all your value props — the benefits your product provides. To do this, follow the process outlined on the Landing Pages portion of this handbook here.

Second, bullet point every trepidation, disbelief, and question your audience will likely have upon hearing your pitch. You're going to proactively address them.

II. For each value prop and concern, write a sentence resolving it

See some examples here.

III. Make copy compelling

Now make your copy a bit wordier by injecting compelling factoids. Factoids are your opportunity to pique your audience's curiosity. (In the coming sections, we'll explore tactics for doing this.)

IV. Make copy concise

Identify the copy you believe will most motivate conversion. Then rewrite these as concisely as possible. Audiences lack patience for rambling ads.

Putting it together

This seems like a lot, and it is. But it's a straightforward and reliable process.

Here's an ad resulting from these steps:

With this process in hand, your next step is to learn how to actually articulate your value props on a sentence-by-sentence basis.

So let's dive into articulation tactics addressing Step III (make ad copy compelling).

Surveying for copy ideas+

In Step 1, generating value props by yourself may not uncover much. 

So, combine your brainstorming with customer surveys to uncover hidden gems. 

When surveying, seek three insights: language, concerns, and priorities.

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

Make copy compelling

You have your list of value props and concerns. But how do you turn them into copy?

Below are my tactics for turning ad ideas into words. Each of your ad ideas can follow one of the four tactics below. Once you've done that, you proceed to the final step in the ad copywriting process: making the copy concise.

I. Articulate the problem, solution, and benefit

For this first tactic, the goal is to be wordy in pursuit of being descriptive

Being descriptive means adding enough context to our problem and its solution that people along many steps of the LPA can identify with our pitch.

We're writing copy that identifies the problem, explains how we solve it, plus clarifies what the benefit of solving it is.

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

Or, "Streak is a CRM that lives inside Gmail. So you can stop switching between browser tabs when working. Plus, it automatically pulls contact information out of Gmail for you. No data entry and no tab switching. End result? Efficiency."

We identify the problem, the solution, and the benefit. (The order doesn't matter.) 

If you solve a complex problem, or a problem for which few people are high up on the LPA, it's okay if you have to use many sentences to fully present it. Go in-depth!

Unfortunately, only Facebook ads provide space for plenty of copy.

II. Highlight differentiation

In this alternative tactic, you write copy variations highlighting how you stand out from your competition. 

For example:

Lead with what makes you unique. Add additional details if important.

III. Ask a pressing question

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

For example, turn a factoid into a question with an intro, e.g. "Did you know..."

Did you know airlines will pay you ~$135 if you get delayed? 

But only ask questions that actually pique curiosity; do not ask questions that make people think, "Yeah/no, who cares."

Instead, ask questions that prompt responses like, "Wow, I didn't know that" and "No, tell me more..."

For example, this is a bad question:

Do you like saving money? 

Sure I do, so what...? I'm not going to keep reading your ad if that's your dumb hook.

Below is a better question that makes me think, "No, tell me more."

How well does your site rank in search engines? 

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

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

IV. Match a value prop to an audience

When people see themselves in your copy, they are more likely to click. 

In other words, the more targeted your copy, the better conversion will be. 

That's why this fourth tactic focuses on appealing to just a subset of your audience. A subset can be delineated by demographics (e.g. age, gender, job), behaviors (e.g. eat out a lot, play video games), and more. 

You appeal to them by tying your product to a quality used as an excuse to namedrop them. There are infinite qualities you could highlight. Here are a few:

Additional qualities include effectivebeautifulautomated, and so on. 

Whichever quality you choose, ensure it's one your ideal customers would actually care enough about to purchase based on. When someone buys a camera, for example, they don’t care much if it arrives overnight (the fast shipping value prop). They care about its power or cost. So those are the qualities you should focus on.

One of my favorite books summarizes research into how to convince people to do things. I recommend it to understand the reasoning behind my tactics.

Polish your copy

When employing any of the above tactics to turn value props and concerns into copy, you also want to keep two optimizations in mind: word order and hooks.

Word order

Try to place the keyword describing your product at the beginning of your copy. 

Let me show you an example first, then I'll explain why:

Here's why placing your keyword at the beginning is better: People skimming the first few words of your ads (everyone always skims!) will immediately identify your product category ("retail space"). This quickly shows them the ad is for them.

(Assuming you're targeting the right audience to begin with.)

In contrast, the second piece of copy says a whole lot of nothing until you finally get to the keyword, "retail space." Consider how "Rent by day, week, or month" could be about anything — and many people won't bother finding out what that thing is because they won't bother reading all your copy. You didn't immediately hook them.

Word order is important.

You can also polish word order on a sentence-by-sentence level: The first sentence in an ad's opening paragraph should describe what the product is.

In summary, get to the point immediately.

Adding hooks

One more optimization technique for honing your copy: Pique your audiences’ interest by adding a concluding sentence that either:

  1. Makes them curious by withholding information, e.g. "Click through to see how little we charge to redesign your entire website."
  2. Offers significant, inarguable value, e.g. "We are 10x cheaper than the service you're using now. No catch. There's absolutely no reason not to switch."

Yes, hooks bloat your ad copy. But they are net beneficial to your clickthrough rate.

Sanity checks

Lastly, make sure your ad doesn't suffer from:

When I teach people how to write copy, those are their most common errors.

Make your copy concise

Your final step is to eliminate needless words. I'll just share this:

(Original text by Simon Heffer. Edits by Tom Freeman.)

Here's the summary

I recommend writing this summary down:

  1. First, you brainstorm value props and concerns.
  2. Then, you write short sentences to address each one.
  3. Next, you use one of the four tactics to convert the sentence into long-form copy.
  4. Then, you polish your copy through word order and hooks.
  5. You conclude by making your ad as concise as possible.

That's how you reliably write great ads. I've honed this process over four years.

Now, let's learn how to design ads.

Extra ad copy: Social proof+

Most ad channels, including Facebook Ads and AdWords, provide space alongside an ad's primary copy for supplementary copy. A few extra words you can sneak in.

I like to use this space to provide social proof: external validation that your product is as good as you claim it is. I've concluded social proof reliably increases clicks. (But is secondary in importance to explaining what your product does in the first place.)

Social proof can take many forms. It depends on your product:

Extra ad copy: Call-to-action+

The call-to-action (CTA) is the  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 ad's copy. 

For instance, if you use spammy CTA copy (e.g. "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 attention to the CTA to capture clicks from OCD people skimming your ad as it scrolls by in their feed. This is a real problem. Especially on video ads, which distract from the CTA.

Effective CTA copy begins with a verb that teases what the audience will encounter on the next step in the funnel: Will they watch a demo of the product? Or try it? 

A verb is important because it indicates that an experience proceeds the ad click — as opposed to suffering through more boring copy on a generic landing page.

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

CTA and the growth funnel

Avoid verbs that tease the final conversion event in the growth funnel. We're not yet coercing users to buy, order, trial, or sign up.

The audience doesn't yet have enough confidence in our product or enough context on what it provides to convert. All they've seen is your ad. They still have to be romanced by a landing page before they'll hand over an email address or credit card.

Never forget that visitors should be handheld through the entire growth funnel:

Acquisition → Conversion → Engagement → Revenue → Referral

Don't skip steps. The purpose of an ad is typically just to get people to your landing. Then the landing page does its own converting from there.

Off topic, to read handbooks (like the one you're reading now) a few months before I publish them, you can provide your email below. I'm releasing how to write fiction, think critically, and play piano. I only email once every three months.

I have another handbook that's already been released: The Science of Building Muscle.

Ad creative

Creative is marketing jargon for an ad's multimedia — its image or video. 

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

To optimize a creative for conversion, adhere to two content rules:

In other words, don't be vague.

Next, adhere to two styling rules:

The rest of this section covers these four principles. Then we're done with copy and creative, and I'll show you how to make professional ads on Facebook and Instagram.

For advice on optimizing video creative, see the video section of Landing Pages.

I. Literally depict the product in action

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

I've confirmed this principle across thousands of ads.

Avoid visual abstraction. Being literal is key to conversion. Abstracted imagery is typically aspirational imagery (two people sitting on a beach), and aspirational messaging is only suited for brand marketing — not conversion.

Here's a great essay busting the myth of the "aspirational ad."

Examples of literal depiction:

Given the volume of ad exposure everyone is subjected to, people lack the patience and motivation to guess what your ad is selling. So, remove the ambiguity and just show them the goods.

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

II. Say what the product is

Say your ad creative depicts a group of friends at dinner, but those friends aren't doing anything in particular.

Is it clear what's being advertised? Maybe it's an alcoholic beverage? Or an app that helps you find clubs? Or maybe the ad is for the club itself?

Who knows.

Not all ad channels clearly foreground ad copy next to its creative. So sometimes it's squarely on the shoulders of your creative to be independently self-evident.

And, since most viewers don't read complementary copy when it does exist, it's actually helpful to add copy onto the creative itself

Sprinkle a few words describing what the product is. But, first and foremost, try to use imagery that is self-evident.

If your ad doesn't clearly specify what's being sold, you'll attract clicks outside your target audience. Because ill-fitted people will click out of curiosity or confusion. And you'll be billed for this.

III. Be purposeful

The second rule of creative design is to be purposeful with visuals.

Many (most?) companies see poor performance from online advertising. So do not blindly copy visual tactics from popular ads thinking they're necessarily effective.

For example, never show a random businessperson smiling next to a computer. What is that even about? That can be an ad for anything. It's not purposeful. It's generic.

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

Beware logo placement

Don't place your logo at the top of an ad. People regularly scan ads from top to bottom, so whatever imagery you place at the top bears the burden of motivating users to continue carefully looking down. 

If the first thing they see is corporate iconography, they're reminded this is an ad instead of the organic content that they came for.

IV. Match surrounding aesthetics

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

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

The goal is to ensure your creative isn't too contrasted against real, organic stories that it's reflexively identified then dismissed for being an ad.

In fact, when I design Facebook ads in Sketch (a Photoshop alternative better suited for non-photography), I start with a screenshot of the Facebook Newsfeed. I design the ad with surrounding context in mind.

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 hadn't yet built up a reflex to ignore them. Today, non-elderly people are decent at pattern matching ads from organic content.

Something standing out in the middle of a feed is often dismissed — not given extra attention. 

That said, I'm not advising you blend into the surrounding content like wallpaper. You want bold imagery and brand presence. But, you also need to look like you  belong on the site: Mimic as much of the surrounding colors, font, spacing, and so on. 

If Facebook's design is predominantly blue, for example, then maybe red would stick out too much. If Instagram is predominantly square, then maybe horizontal ads would stick out too much. And so on.

This is what ad testing is for. Try everything.

Match surrounding content

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

But, you still should 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. That would be fitting for a magazine cover, but for Pinterest? 

No, on Pinterest, you typically see close-ups of dinner plates with steak on them. Not magazine promotional art.

So, blend in just like that. Then, with this organic style as your creative basis, place copy on the image with a subtle contrast that blends in without screaming "ad!"

When to revamp ads+

Even if your ads perform well, whenever the following occur, create new ads:

Here's the point

Three ad creation takeaways:

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