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Advertising copy

Why read this? : Great advertising copy comes from a mix of writing, marketing and market research skills. We show how you use it to attract and influence customers, and persuade them to buy your brand. Learn why context setting matters, and how you create and craft what you’re going to say. Read this for ideas on how to improve the quality of your advertising copy. 

Advertising Copy

How this guide raises your game :-

1. Understand where advertising copy fits into the advertising development process.

2. A step-by-step walkthrough of the advertising copywriting process.

3. Learn how to create, edit and integrate your advertising copy.

Advertising is often one of the biggest areas of spent in your marketing plan. It’s a key brand activation which takes up a lot of your time.  

You use it to gets your brand and its key messages in front of your target audience. It usually help you achieve one or more these objectives :-

  • make your audience aware of your brand.
  • influence those customers to consider your brand. 
  • persuade them to try your brand. 

The words you use in your advert play a big role in achieving those objectives. Word are so important in advertising, the skill behind it even has its own name – copywriting.

In this guide, we look at where advertising copy fits in (context), and how you use it (creation and crafting).

The best place to start is to look at the overall advertising development process. 

Blank Billboard seen from the ground against a clear cloudy sky

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The advertising development process

As per our how to advertise guide, great advertising doesn’t just happen. There’s a process behind it. A series of steps between the you (the client) and your agency.

It normally starts with you as the client setting out your business objective, and planning your budget.

Advertising is one of the main options you use when the objective is to move customers down the brand choice funnel (see our brand identity guide for more on this). 

It’s most often used when the objectives are awareness, consideration or trial. Advertising can do any or all of these objectives. But it’s important to be clear on what the objective is, as the advertising copy you’ll need will be quite different depending on the objective.

The brand choice funnel - trust - aware - consider - trial - loyalty - repeat purchase

From there, you write a brief. This outlines the objectives, as well as giving necessary background to the agency creative team. Amongst other things, it tells them :-

It’s the agency’s job to review the brief and come back to you with a clear proposal on how they’ll help you achieve your objectives.

That includes the overall advertising idea, initial creative thinking and a plan which includes who’ll be involved, budgets and timings.

The advertising development process - a guide on how to advertise successfully

Advertising objectives

Even though there can be 3 different sets of objectives, in reality, there’s really only 2 main styles of advertising as awareness and consideration usually work together. 

Advertising to drive awareness and consideration usually looks for longer-term results. It’s about grabbing attention and influencing customers to be ready to buy your product when the time is right. 

Advertising to drive trial is much more about short-term sales. It’s often time driven and linked to sales promotions and price discounts. The copywriting is more direct and persuasive to drive a sale. (see our separate sales copy guide for more on how sales copy is different).

For the purposes of this guide, we focus more on advertising copy that tries to drive awareness and consideration. See also our impact of advertising on sales article which covers more on the difference between long-term and short-term advertising impact. 

The advertising copywriter

In terms of advertising copy process, you next need to work out who’s actually going to write it.

As per our quick and easy copywriting article, there are a few cases where you might write your own copy. On product pages or social media posts for example

But in most cases, you use a professional advertising copywriter. These are experts in writing advertising copy. That expertise means they understand the marketing objectives you set out in the brief.

They also understand how to use psychology and behavioural science in their writing to be more influential and persuasive. You rely on their skills to write advertising copy which helps you meet your objectives. 

Man writing blue shirt

The proposal and advertising idea

The brief starts the copywriting process. The advertising copywriter will review your brief, and work with the rest of the creative team to develop the advertising idea. That might involve creative skills like photography, video content and graphic design.

That idea will go into a proposal which also cover other part of the plan including budgets, timing and other resource needs. (see our how to advertise guide for more on how the overall process works). 

You review the proposal, and give both overall creative feedback as well as any specific copywriting feedback. The agency and copywriter review and alter the plan until you get it to a point where everyone’s happy to progress.  

From an advertising copy point of view, the proposal will detail how much written copy is needed and where it’ll be used.

Once the client approves the advertising idea, the agency will then moves to production. The advertising copy process runs as part of producing the advert. 

Advertising copywriting process

Copywriting works in parallel with other parts of the advertising development process. 

The copywriter has to understands how it fits with the other creative skills needed to produce the final advert.

Skills like photography, video, storytelling and graphic design for example.

But beyond those creative skills, advertising copy also has to be built on a solid understanding of key marketing principles like market research and brand identity.

It’s important to understand the target audience, and its needs, wants, and emotions. It’s important to understand the brand development process.

Advertising copy writing process

And one last thing.

While it has to weave together these complex and multiple skills from creativity and marketing, advertising copy also needs to be simple, concise and well-written.

Quite a challenge, then.

To keep it as simple as possible, we see the advertising copywriting process as having 3 key steps :- 

  • context. 
  • creation.
  • crafting.

Context

The first step of the advertising copy process is context.

Context comes from the brief

This is when you document the requirements. It should give all the relevant context to produce the advertising. 

Filling in key areas of context in the brief sets the direction for the advertising copy, and lets the copywriter know what they need to do. 

The key areas to cover are :-

  • brand.
  • audience. 
  • media.
Marketing Communication brief - blank template

Brand

First, the brief summarises the brand identity. The focus is on the vision, essence, values and personality of the brand.

What is it the brand stands for which makes it uniquely different? What makes it stand out from its competitors? How would it think, feel and act if it were an actual person?

As per our business writing guide, these core elements define the brand tone of voice. This is a set of guidelines which directs how your brand “talks” to customers.

Your writing for advertising copy will be different if your brand is serious and professional, compared to if it’s light-hearted and funny. It’ll be different if you want to sound like a knowledgeable expert, or you want to appear warm and caring. 

Tone of voice is important in advertising copy. The words in your advertising need to be consistent with the brand identity. The tone of voice needs to reflect the essence, values and personality of the brand. 

This part of the brief sets the brand guidelines for the style of the advertising copy. These guidelines should already be familiar to the agency if they’ve worked with your brand identity before.

The next stage of the brief then covers the business, marketing and communication objectives. These are important for the advertising copy as they set the end goal for the writing. You can’t make impactful advertising if you don’t know what impact you need to have.

Audience

These objectives should also make clear who the target audience is. They should make clear what the desired change in attitude or behaviour is. The copywriter needs to know both these things to write great advertising copy. They narrow the choices the writer has. They focus in on a specific group of people and a specific change. That makes the advertising copy sharper and more relevant.

When customers read advertising copy, they’re more likely to notice and engage with copy which sounds like it’s talking directly to them, rather than to “everyone”. When you know the specific target audience for the advertising copy, it’s much easier to write this more targeted type of writing.

Customer personas which you develop as part of the customer experience process can be very helpful to copywriters.

Segment-based information about the target audience gives the copywriter a picture of who to write for.

There’s an opportunity to pull in any key information or insights you’ve gathered from your market research. Or even to carry out some specific market research before the advertising process starts.

Dig around to find out more about the audience. Look at their needs and wants. What benefit most motivates them? What’s their frame of mind likely to be when they read the advertising copy? 

Customer Experience Personal Template Blank.001

The answers to these types of question make it more likely you’ll get advertising copy which is relevant and meaningful to the target audience. Don’t try to appeal to everyone. That type of copywriting comes across as bland and generic, and appeals to no-one.

Media

The final context area needed for writing the advertising copy is how it fits into the media plan.

Media planning covers where and when the target audience will read, see or hear the advertising copy. And this media placement will influence what you say and how you say it.  

This may be from a purely practical limitation on the space or time available. There may only be so much space on the page or screen. There may be only a certain length of video that the media plan allows.

These will limit the number of words you can use in the advertising copy. 

Man calmly reading a newspaper while it's on fire

Plus, the time of day or day of the week the customer will see the advertising can also influence the advertising copy. And it could obviously be influenced by whether the media is traditional or digital e.g. if you need to make the copy interactive. The copy is also affected by the choice of broadcast message to many or a monocast messages to specific customers.

For example, a roadside billboard advert will need different copy from a social media advert seen on a mobile phone. An advert seen in a print magazine will need different advertising copy from an advert the customer sees on a display banner. 

These brand, audience and media considerations are important to define up front in the copywriting process. Before the writing of advertising copy begins, it’s important to make sure you’ve thought about what you need the advertising copy to do, who the target audience is. and where they’ll see it. 

Create

So now the context is set, the next step is to create the writing. This normally goes through a few steps of its own.

First, you generate ideas based on the stimulus given in the brief. Then you take these ideas, and organise and structure them to more closely fit the needs of the brief. And finally, you gather feedback and edit the advertising copy to get it close to the final recommendation.  

Idea generation

Based on the context of brand, audience and media, the first stage to create advertising copy is to generate ideas.

This may involve brainstorming and creative thinking where the writer aims to generate a list of potential ways to meet the copywriting needs of the brief. 

This can be done alone by the copywriter or with the support of the wider creative team. Creative teams in agencies often work together on ideas and pull in multiple creative skills. 

In brainstorming, the aim is to generate a large number of ideas which you then narrow down and refine later. There’s no filtering or criticism of these early ideas. The aim is to be exploratory, experimental and deliberately provocative.

hand holding a black marker over a blank paper page with other marker pens and ruler

These ideas can come from many sources :-

  • The brief obviously with its identification of the brand identity and communication challenges. 
  • From market research or customer personas. You can use these to generate insights or inspiration about what you might need to write to persuade or influence the target audience.
  • You might look at what competitors say. See how you can stand-out and differentiate the message.
  • The copywriter might look at advertising from other categories or even other countries to look for ideas they can adapt to the particular writing challenge. 

At this stage, you may end up with many ideas for what you want to say, how to say it and different options for how it will work. A normal range would be 20-30 ideas at this point. When you have those big ideas, that’s when you then need to move on to decide how to structure the advertising copy.

Structure

The media plan will define the ‘limits’ of the advertising copy from a space and time point of view.  Page dimensions, screen time and also the channel format will limit the space for your advert. 

As per our business writing guide, you need a strong beginning, end and middle so your story structure is clear. 

The beginning - Headline

The beginning of the advertising copy is the first thing the target audience sees. It needs to grab attention.

The headline should link back to your understanding of the target audience.

What is it they need or want that is likely to capture their attention? If the headline isn’t immediately and clearly relevant to your audience, they’ll ignore it.

There’s 2 types of headlines which are most common :-

  • I didn’t know that (a surprising fact).
  • That sounds like me (a relevant message).
Outdoor billboard with writing that says this will drive $1m in sales - probably

I didn't know that

They can lead with a fact or a piece of information which the customer didn’t know. So, for example, a number, a statistic or a claim. That’s why you see so many headlines online which start with “10 things you didn’t know about …”. Finding out something new is a strong motivator to read beyond the headline.

That sounds like me

Alternatively, headlines which tap more into a recognisable emotion, insight or behaviour can also capture attention. When it’s relevant to the audience and they recognise the message as something they think, feel or do, they’ll want to read more. That’s why there are so many “Why you’re feeling tired / sad / angry during the Covid-19 pandemic …” headlines for example. These types of adverts make people think “oh, that sounds like me”.

The biggest challenge with writing headlines is it can feel you need the headline to do many jobs at the same time. So, you write the headline “long” to do all these jobs. But audiences are less likely to read long headlines. The headline needs to be short, to the point and ‘hook’ people to find out more. 

Advertising experts like David Ogilvy argued that the headline does 80% of the work in an advertisement. So, there’s a lot of decision making that needs to be done to narrow down the focus of the headline. You often need to leave things out. Or move them elsewhere to allow the headline to stand alone and do its job.

Check out our copywriting feedback article for some example headlines and how they can do different types of job.

The end - Call to action

The call to action is the last thing the customer reads in the advertising copy. You need to tell them what to do next. 

Click on a link. Visit a website. Go to a store. Call a number. Send an email. 

This is important from the point of view of the advert delivering against your business and marketing objective. If the advertising leaves the customer unclear of what’s next, they won’t do anything. And you’ll miss your objectives. 

It’s easy to get distracted in the advertising development process. Especially, if the agency comes up with clever or innovative ideas which go a bit more ‘arty’.

But remember, advertising isn’t art. It may contain elements of “art”, but the primary goal of advertising is to deliver against a commercial objective. There’s a cost to all advertising. Advertising needs to drive enough sales to pay that cost.

Advertising with a clear call to action helps to drive sales. It brings in more customers at the start of the brand choice funnel. Or it uses sales copy to convince them at the trial stage. It helps to deliver return on investment. 

Advertising with unclear or no call to action is a waste of money.

Person holding 6 hundred dollar bills in front of them which have been set alight

The middle - the key points of the message

The “middle” of your advertising copy is then what happens between you capturing attention with the headline, and you telling people what you want them to do with the call to action.

You need to give some thought to what goes in the middle.

How long is the message?

The media plan will obviously guide how much you can actually say here. There might be limits on the space on the page or screen. There might be limits on time if the words are used as a script in video content. You might even only have room for the headline and call to action.

What and how much advertising copy you need to go between the headline and the call to action very much depends on the context of the audience, brand and media.

In general, audiences are more likely to notice and read shorter messages in advertising copy. Less is usually more, when it comes to advertising copy.

Often, you have a single message you want to hammer home, so very little is needed between the headline and the call to action. This simple approach can be very effective, especially if the objective is awareness.

But it’s by no means always the case.

It may also be you need to tell a longer story to drive consideration. That means pulling in lessons from storytelling such as the story arc which can help give structure to the message.

Explain why the message matters

Whatever your limits though, the most important part of the “middle” is to write as if you were having a conversation directly with the customer. Imagine you’re talking to them face to face.

This is where you can explain directly “why” they should believe what you say. And “why” it should matter to them. Refer back to the positioning including the key benefits, the reason why and reason to believe. 

Consider whether you need to cover functional benefits. emotional benefits or a combination of both.

This will depend on the type of product or service and how engaged the customer is likely to be. 

Which benefits will matter most to customers? How will these benefits make the life of customers easier or better?

As a general rule of thumb, emotional benefits tend to create deeper, stronger, more motivating connections in the minds of customers.

But obviously, in some categories where the product is low value and functional, this can be hard to do.

Brand benefit ladder - four key levels of benefit

No-one will want to get too emotionally involved in everyday objects like toothpaste or toilet roll, for example. But they might connect with the idea of “clean” or “comfortable” in categories like this.

How much emotion you build in to the message is also important.

Strong positive emotions like love or humour and help advertising copy create a stronger connection between customer and brand. But negative strong emotions like anger or fear can also be impactful if handled sensitively.

Plan for objections and barriers

If you’ve got a clear picture of the target audience in your head, you can also anticipate objections they might have about the message.

Typical objections might be that something is too expensive, not right for them, not the right time for them or they already have something which gives them this benefit.

If you can provide answers to these objections and barriers in a natural and authentic way, you increase the chances of getting a positive response from the advertising copy.

Running track with hurdles set up for a sprint race

We’re talking to “you”

You should consider how you talk to the customer themselves. Do you talk in the first person (“I”), second person (“you”) or third person (“They”) for example. 

You’ll find a lot of second person writing in advertising copy, because it talks directly to “you”. 

So, when you talk about making the message more relevant to readers, that’s for everyone. But when you talk about making the message more relevant to “your” business, that feels much more specific. 

Editing

Once you have your core ideas, and the structure of headline, call to action and key messages, the next stage is to edit and refine the advertising copy.

As per our business writing guide, the process of editing can take average writing to another level.

This is especially true with advertising copy. You should run basic checks like spelling and grammar. You should also check the accuracy of any claims, references or links that the advertising copy makes.

But it’s also the time to reflect on and refine your choice of words you use in the advertising copy. 

Check the thesaurus to see if there are alternatives which might work better. How do the words read when they sit together? Do they sound natural or stilted? Is there a flow to the way the words sound?

Get feedback from relevant parties to refine the words. Review the ideas and structure and try to fit together the words you have into a natural flow and order. Make that flow and order fit the context of the audience, brand and media. Read the words aloud, do they sound like words someone would actually say? Like something your brand would say?

Memorable and distinctive

Think about how to make the words more memorable or distinctive. What about acronyms or alliteration for example? Our copywriting feedback article for examples talks about a pizza shop headline as Perfect Pineapple Pizza. 

What about words which rhyme or repeat the same structure?  Our advertising copy for example talks about “outthink, outplay and outgrow”. The repetition of “out” pulls those 3 words together, better than if we just said “think, play, grow”.

Think about how you will make the advertising copy be distinctive from other messages the target audience will see. Is every word you use absolutely necessary? 

Could you say the same with less? 

Is it single-minded?

Your aim in the editing process is to refine the words and narrow down the options. You want to end up with a single agreed version of the advertising copy. 

Craft

Once you’ve this single agreed version, it might feel like the end of the process. But there’s a final series of steps to feed the advertising copy back into the advertising process. You need to craft the copy a little more.  

As we said before, the advertising copy is only part of advertising development. Now you need to integrate it back into the rest of the creative work. 

Integrate

As the advertising idea develops, copywriters will work with the producers of the other creative elements. So, as they write, they need to be aware of what’s going on with the photography, the video content and the graphic design elements.

And equally, they should be sharing their ideas, thoughts and work with those creatives to make sure when all the elements come together, the final advert feels integrated and consistent. 

The tone of voice should match the photography style for example. Writing and images should feel connected. The advertising copy should meet the physical limitations of the media, particularly if the advertising copy is script for video content. And the advertising copy should fit back into any graphic design choices like the typography.

Brand fit and copy evaluation

But with those creative connections, there’s also then a need to check all those elements fit back to the brand and the brief. We cover how to evaluate and respond to these in more detail in our guide to how to evaluate advertising. 

But from an advertising copy point of view, there are some specific areas you should check. These are to check the advertising copy is credible, unique, relevant, engaging and readable. 

Credible

Does the writing sound like it comes from the brand? And if it articulates a benefit, is that benefit actually deliverable by the brand? Would customers believe the benefit?

Unique

Does the writing sound like something which could only come from the brand? If the writing sounds like it could come from any brand, you need to make it sound more differentiated.

Relevant

With your insight in mind, does what’s been written meet the needs of your target audience? Will they find it interesting enough to read all the way through?

Engaging

Is it written in a way that’s likely to appeal to the target audience? Think about the context they will be reading it in. What is it they’re looking for? Is it practical guidance? Or entertainment? Or even to find our more about what you offer?

Readable

Finally, is the writing readable? Check for typos. Make sure there are no confusing or ambiguous words. Look at where the writing will appear. Check how it reads when you see it in context, rather than in a Word document or an email.

Copywriting and market research

The final stage of the advertising copywriting process is when you use market research to evaluate the writing (and the other creative elements) with the target audience.

This pre-testing of advertising we cover in our guide to advertising evaluation.

But from a copywriting point of view, you want to make sure the audience understands the copy first. And then, that it has the desired impact you want it to have. 

Based on client feedback on the brand fit and market research, the advertising copy might need to go through a further round of editing and crafting to make it work.

Person holding glasses in front of them against a blurry street background

And even, when the advertising copy is finally approved and goes live, don’t forget the importance of on-going evaluation.

You can use quantitative research to understand the impact of the advertising copy. To understand if real customers get the message, and do what you wanted them to do. 

Conclusion - advertising copy

There’s huge benefits to your brand when you can create great advertising copy. Done well, great advertising copy is memorable, impactful and game-changing.

But as we’ve shown, the process to get to great advertising copy can be complex and challenging.

There are tough conversations about what to include and what to leave out.

Most of the actual writing in terms of words gets discarded. Only a few words make it to the final advertising copy.

It’s like a writing version of the Hunger Games.

Close up on person writing (typing) on a MacBook

Whether you write your own advertising copy, or manage it through an agency, it’s a skill which needs practice and constant learning.

It needs good technical writing skills such as we cover in our how to be a better writer guide. But it also needs good understanding of brands and especially brand identity. And most of all, it requires a deep understanding about people. And how you can use writing to influence or persuade them to think, feel or do something differently. That’s what happens when advertising copy does the job it’s supposed to.  

Three-brains and writing

We’ve a lot of experience and expertise in business writing, and especially in advertising copy.

From creating and commissioning writing to the editing and refining of it for marketing and e-Commerce purposes.

We specialise in coaching and advising on how to raise your business writing skills. Whether you use writers, manage it in-house or want to build your own writing skills, we can help. 

Contact us, if you want to know more about how we can support your business writing needs  through our coaching and consulting services.

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