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Advertising copy

Why read this? : You need a mix of writing, marketing and market research skills to craft great advertising copy. We explore how you use it to attract and influence customers. Learn why context matters, and how to improve the impact of your advertising’s words. Read this to learn how to write advertising copy that converts.

Advertising Copy

How this guide raises your game :-

1. Explore where and how advertising copy fits into the advertising development process.

2. Understand the priorities of each step in the advertising copywriting process.

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

Advertising is usually a big part of your marketing plan. It’s how most customers first see you, and it takes up a lot of brand activation time and money.  

You use it to get your brand and its key messages in front of your target audience. Its objectives are usually :-

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

Those key messages are mostly (though not always) delivered with words. Words matter so much in advertising, that there’s a specific name for the skill of writing words for advertising – copywriting.

This guide looks at where advertising copy fits into marketing (its context), and how you do it (creating and crafting the words). We start with 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 client and the agency.

You start by defining your business objective and planning your budget.

Advertising’s role is usually to help move customers down the brand choice funnel. (See our brand identity guide for more on this).  From not knowing your brand at all, to eventually becoming loyal customers. 

It’s most often used to drive awareness, consideration or trial. Advertising can do any or all of these objectives. Deciding the objective up front is key as it shapes how the advertising copy will be written.

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

You then work out a budget, based on how many customers you expect to move down the funnel, and how many of those will buy. Your forecast extra sales and profit determines how much you spend.

From there, you write a brief. This shares the objectives, as well as relevant background for the agency’s creative team. For example, it tells them :-

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

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

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

Advertising objectives

Most advertising objectives fall into one of 2 camps. 

First are those around awareness and consideration, which is about long-term brand building. These aim to grab attention and influence customers to be ready to buy your brand when the time’s right.

Then, there are those which aim to drive trial. These are usually more short-term and sales-focused. They’re often linked to sales promotions and price discounts. The copywriting is more direct and offer-driven.

This guide will focus on advertising copy which drives awareness and consideration. Check out our sales copy guide for more on how you write to drive short-term sales. (See also our impact of advertising article for more on the differences between long-term and short-term advertising). 

The advertising copywriter

At this stage, you’re also thinking about who’s going to write the copy.

As per our quick and easy copywriting article, there are a few cases where you might do it yourself. For example, on product pages or social media posts.

But usually, you use a professional advertising copywriter.

These are experts in writing advertising copy. They’re experienced in crafting words to help meet the types of advertising objectives you set out in the brief. They also understand how to use psychology and behavioural science in their writing to make it more persuasive.

Man writing blue shirt

The proposal and advertising idea

The advertising copywriter reviews your brief, and works with the rest of the creative team to develop the advertising idea. The idea can include other creative areas like photography, video creation and graphic design. That idea will go into a proposal which will also cover areas like budgets, timing and other resource needs. (See our how to advertise guide for more on how this works).

You review the proposal and give overall creative feedback and 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 you approve the proposal, the agency moves to production. The advertising copywriting process kicks in properly here. 

Advertising copywriting process

Copywriting has to integrate with what else goes on in the advertising development process. 

For example, the copywriter has to understand how their words will fit with the other creative skills used to make the final advert. Photography, video creation, storytelling and graphic design, for example.

But the advertising copy also has to fit with what matters to the target audience. Its needs, wants and emotions which have been uncovered by market research. Plus, the words need to support the brand identity.

And as if doing all that wasn’t a complex enough challenge, the advertising copy also has to be simple, concise and well-written.

Advertising copy writing process

Quite a challenge, then. To help address that challenge, the advertising copywriting process breaks it down into smaller, simpler steps :- 

  • context. 
  • creation.
  • crafting.

Context

The first step is context, which mainly comes from the brief. Context sets the direction for the advertising copy, and lets the copywriter know what they need to do. 

It usually covers :-

  • brand.
  • audience. 
  • media.

Brand

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

Marketing Communication brief - blank template

These help the copywriter understand what makes the brand different. What makes it stand out from competitors. How it’d think, feel and act if it were an actual person.

The brand’s tone of voice guidelines are either attached to or referenced in the brief. These sit within the brand book and define how a brand “talks” to customers. Advertising copy usually follows these guidelines. So the tone’s different for a serious, expertise-driven brand, versus a caring or funny one, for example.

Tone of voice is critical in advertising copy. Your advertising words have to fit with your brand identity and reflect your essence, values and personality. (See our making your brand sound right article for examples). 

The brand context also covers its business, marketing and communication objectives. The copywriter needs to know the goal for the advertising copy. You can’t write impactful advertising if you don’t know what impact you’re trying to make. 

Audience

The objectives will also cover the target audience. They’ll define the desired change in attitude or behaviour from those customers. 

The copywriter has to know who they’re writing for, and what they have to make the audience think, feel or do.

This clarity gives the advertising copy a clear focus and makes it more relevant to the audience.

Done well, customers should read advertising copy and feel like it sounds as if it was written specifically for them. Defining the specific target audience for the advertising copy makes it much easier to stay relevant.

Customer Experience Personal Template Blank.001

It’s helpful to share any customer personas you’ve developed with your copywriters. This segment-based information about the customer helps paint a picture of who the copywriter is writing for.

It’d include key insights from your market research. Often, you do new market research before kicking off the creation of a new advertising campaign. You try to understand customer needs better. What benefits they’re looking for. What kind of advertising copy works best with them.

These types of insights help copywriters write more relevant and impactful advertising copy.

Media

The final context area for 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.

This media placement influences what you say, and how you say it. At a practical level, it limits the space or time available in which the words will appear. For example, there’s only so much space on a print advert or billboard. There are only so many words an actor can speak in a 30-second TV or radio advert.

Plus, the time of day or day of the week when the advert will appear also shapes the advertising copy. The words have to make sense when the customer sees or hears them. 

Man calmly reading a newspaper while it's on fire

These brand, audience and media factors shape the copywriter’s work. Before they write anything, they have to be clear on the goal for the advertising copy, the target customer and their need, and where and when their words will appear. 

Create

With the context in mind, the next stage is to create the writing. There are normally 3 steps :-

Idea generation

The copywriter reviews the brand, audience and media context and starts to generate initial copywriting ideas.  This often involves brainstorming and creative thinking approaches. 

The copywriter can do this on their own, or more usually with the support of the wider agency creative team. 

Brainstorming creates a long ideas list which you later narrow down and refine. There’s no filtering or criticism at this stage. The aim is to be exploratory, experimental and deliberately provocative.

These ideas can come from many sources :-

hand holding a black marker over a blank paper page with other marker pens and ruler
  • The brief and its brand identity and communication challenges. 
  • From market research or customer personas. You look for insights and inspiration about what’ll influence the customer.
  • What competitors say. You look at how you can stand out and differentiate the message.
  • Advertising from other categories or countries to look for ideas you can adapt to this specific writing challenge. 

Copywriters can end up with 100+ copywriting ideas at this point. The next step is to refine these by adding structure.

Structure

Unless your advertising copy is a single-line headline, normally this is about organising the writing ideas into some sort of story structure. That usually means you look at the beginning, the middle and the end.

The beginning - Headline

The beginning of advertising copy is usually a headline. It’s the first thing the customer sees and must grab their attention.

It does that by making it clear it’s for them, and / or bringing their need or want to life. The headline has to be immediately and clearly relevant to the target audience, otherwise they’ll ignore it.

The 2 most common types of headlines are :-

  • 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

The headline can lead with a fact or a piece of information the customer doesn’t know. For example, a number, a statistic or a claim. That’s why you see so many headlines like “10 things you didn’t know about …”. Finding out something new grabs attention. And it’s a strong motivator to read more.

That sounds like me

Alternatively, headlines which tap more into a recognisable emotion, insight or behaviour can also grab attention. When the audience recognises 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 …” headlines, for example. These make people think “Oh, that sounds like me” and want to find out more.

The big challenge in headline writing is prioritising. It often feels like you want the headline to do many jobs at the same time. So, you write it “long”. But audiences are less likely to read long headlines. You have to keep it short to ‘hook’ people to find out more. 

Advertising expert David Ogilvy believed the headline does 80% of the work in an advertisement. So, there’s lots of decision-making to narrow the headline’s focus. You take words out. Move them elsewhere so the headline can be single-minded and do its job. (See our copywriting feedback article for some example headlines for different types of jobs).

The end - Call to action

The call to action is the last thing the customer reads in the advertising copy. This tells them what to do next. 

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

This is usually closely linked to your business and marketing objective. Getting the customer to do something is usually how you hit your objectives.

The call to action spells out what you want them to do. It’s what drives sales. But it’s sometimes overlooked in the advertising development process. Especially, if the agency comes up with creative ideas which go a bit more ‘arty’.

But remember, advertising isn’t art. It may contain elements of “art”, but the main goal of advertising is to sell. Advertising costs money and has to drive enough sales and profits to pay for itself.

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 where you land your key messages. It’s where the audience spend the most time, so it’s important to get it right, and make it flow. Considerations include :-

  • How long have you got?
  • Show the benefits.
  • Objections and barriers.
  • Make sure it’s about “you”.

How long have you got?

As we said earlier, the media plan and channels will limit how much time or space you have. You have to make sure you get the right messages across within those limits. 

In general, shorter and sharper generally works better in advertising body copy. Audiences have low attention spans. Often, it can just be about landing a single message between the headline and the call to action. This simple approach can be very effective, especially if the objective is awareness or trial. You make your message short and to the point.

However, there are times when you may want to tell a longer brand story, especially with consideration objectives. In those cases, you have to be super-confident in your writing and story structure skills.

Show the benefits

The middle is where it most feels like you’re having a conversation directly with the customer. As if you were talking to them face to face.

So, if you need to explain why your message matters, and why they should believe you, the middle is where you do that. It’s where you land key elements from your brand positioning, especially the benefits. 

You should cover functional benefits. emotional benefits or a mix of both in the middle of the advertising copy. How you do so depends on the type of product or service, and how engaged the customer is likely to be. 

Try to work out which benefits will matter most to customers.

Brand benefit ladder - four key levels of benefit

As a rule of thumb, emotional benefits tend to create deeper connections with customers. They work well with high-value or more important product decisions. That could be positive emotions like love or humour to make customers like the band more. Or negative emotions like anger or fear which can drive them to act.

Functional benefits tend to work better where the category is about low-value or low-involvement purchases. But there’s no hard and fast rule. It’s often trial and error to find the right mix for that target audience and that brand.

Objections and barriers

The middle of the advertising copy is also a good place to tackle any objections or barriers to purchase the target audience might have.

Typical objections might be the brand’s too expensive. Or it’s not the right time for them to buy. Or they already have something which gives them the same benefit.

If you can answer 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

Make sure it’s about “you”

Lastly, think about the tense you use in this middle section.  

For example, do you talk in the first person (“I”) and make it about your brand? Or, in the second person (“you”) and make it about them? Or keep it general and use the third person (“They”)?

Most advertising copy uses the second person. It makes clear the writing is talking to “you” (the customer). This helps make it feel more relevant. More specific to that customer. 

Editing

Once you’ve got your core ideas, and structure in place, the next stage is editing the advertising copy. This is about refining and polishing the words to take your writing to another level. 

Start by checking the basics like spelling and grammar. You should also check the accuracy of any claims, references or links you’ve used.

But it’s also the time to reflect on and refine the words in the advertising copy. Is there a shorter and simpler alternative to that complex word, for example? Do the words flow well? Do they have a good rhythm when you read them? 

Get feedback from other people in the team to help the edit. Look for ways to make the words flow better by playing around with the ideas and structure. Read the words aloud, do they sound like words someone would actually say? Like something your brand would say? Are they the right tone of voice

Memorable and distinctive

Think about how to make the words more memorable and distinctive.

What about acronyms or alliteration, for example? They’re easier to remember . Our copywriting feedback article, for example, talks about a pizza shop headline as Perfect Pineapple Pizza. Same for words which rhyme or repeat the same structure.  For example, our brand’s advertising copy talks about “outthink, outplay and outgrow”. The repetition of “out” makes those 3 words more memorable than if we just said “think, play, grow”.

Think about how to make the advertising copy stand out from other messages the target audience sees. Is every word absolutely necessary? Could you say the same with less? Is it single-minded and on brand?

Editing aims to refine the words to improve their impact. Your goal is a single agreed version of the advertising copy. 

Craft

Once you have this final version, it may feel like the end of the process. But you’re not quite done. You also need to integrate the advertising copy with the other advertising elements which have been created. You need to craft the copy to fit in with the visuals and any video content

Integrate

As the advertising idea develops, copywriters will work with those looking after any photography, video content and graphic design aspects of the advert. There’ll be sharing of ideas, thoughts and work 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 space and time limits of the media, particularly if the advertising copy is a script for video. And the advertising copy should fit with graphic design choices like the typography.

Brand fit and copy evaluation

As a final check, you (as the client) should go back to the brief and make sure everything is doing what it’s supposed to. Check our how to evaluate advertising guide for the full low-down on what to do at this stage.

But broadly, this stage is mainly to check the advertising copy is :-

  • credible. 
  • unique.
  • relevant.
  • engaging.
  • readable. 

Credible

For example, does the writing sound believable? As if comes from the brand? And if it claims a benefit, is that benefit actually delivered by the brand? Would customers trust what the brand says?

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, it won’t stand out or be remembered.

Relevant

With your insight in mind, does what’s been written meet the needs of your target audience? Will they understand that it’s meant for their specific needs or wants?

Engaging

Is it written in a way that’ll appeal to those customers? Think about the context of where and they will read it. What is it they’re looking for? Is it practical guidance? Or entertainment? Or even to find out 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 to use market research to evaluate the writing (and the other creative elements) with the target audience.

This pre-testing of advertising is covered in detail in our advertising evaluation guide.

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 ongoing 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

Great advertising copy does amazing things for your brand. It’s memorable, impactful and game-changing. But as we’ve shown, the process to get great advertising copy can be complex and challenging.

There are tough conversations about what to include. And what to exclude.

Most of the actual writing in terms of words gets discarded. Only the best 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 those in our how to be a better writer guide. But it also needs a good understanding of branding and especially brand identity. And most of all, it requires deep customer understanding. 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 advertising copy

The Three-Brains team know a lot about business writing and advertising copy. From creating and commissioning advertising copy to the editing and refining of it for marketing and e-Commerce purposes. 

We work with businesses to improve the impact their advertising copy has on customers. Get in touch to learn how our coaching and consulting services can help you raise your advertising game. 

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