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Get ready to create better copywriting ideas

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Why read this? : We explore different approaches to creating copywriting ideas. Learn creative thinking techniques to tackle this key part of copywriting. Read this to improve the quantity and quality of your copywriting ideas. 

Great copy doesn’t just happen. The advertising copywriting process drives it, and that starts with idea generation. You first create many ideas which you then use to craft compelling copy. 

However, “process” doesn’t sound very creative, right? Process is more associated with operational functions like supply chain or IT. They love processes.

But as creative types will tell you, producing regular creative work requires some sort of process. Some structure. Otherwise, you live in a state of stress and chaos. You don’t want that.

Advertising copy writing process

You can be unstructured within parts of the process. That’s part of being creative. However, you need an overarching structure to make sure the work gets done. To keep you on track. Copywriting is no exception. 

Our advertising copy guide covers each step of the copywriting process. But at its heart, and what we’ll explore in this article, is how you create copywriting ideas.

The first point to learn is that you don’t start with ideas. Instead, you gather stimulus to spark your ideas. This is about understanding the context and the impact the copy needs to have. 

Stimulus of copywriting ideas - Brand, audience and media

This context is driven by the brand, audience and media. The brand represents the brains behind the ideas and the voice behind the words you’ll write. The audience is who interacts with those words – the customer you want to influence. And the media is where and when those words will appear.  

These should all be in the brief. The brief summarises key parts of the brand’s identity like its personality, values and essence. It also describes the target audience so you can understand and visualise them.

The brief is often supported by :- 

Hunt for more stimulus for copywriting ideas

The brief, profile and tone of voice lay the foundations for your copywriting ideas. But they’re only the starting point. You use them as a springboard to hunt for even more stimulus. 

For example, explore what the brand currently does when it talks to customers. Visit their website. Review their product pages and FAQs. Research how they talk on social media

Ask yourself what a customer would think of these different brand experiences. What would they feel?

Brown and white cat peeking through gap in brown wooden fence

Is the focus on education? Entertainment? Providing a service? Does everything work as it’s supposed to? Is it enjoyable? Write these thoughts down. They’ll be helpful idea prompts later. 

Then, go further and explore other experiences going on in the customer’s life. Look at other websites they visit. Do some keyword research. Review competitor websites and materials. What can you learn from how other brands talk to these customers? Note these as idea prompts for later. 

Visit the types of places they do. For example, go to stores they shop at. Cafes and restaurants they eat at. Sports and cultural venues where they spend their free time. Take photos and notes. Again, more idea prompts for later.

Ideas don’t appear from thin air. Something needs to spark them. This stimulus-gathering process gives you the materials to ignite that spark.

What impact does the copy need to have?

Finally, before you jump into idea generation, read the brief’s objectives again. Copywriting always has a job to do. Usually to make customers think, feel or do something differently. 

Different adverts will have different objectives. This affects how you write the copy. 

For example, if your goal is short-term sales, you’re usually more factual, direct and focused on the call to action. Buy now with this special price promotion. Only 3 rooms left at this price. Exclusive offer unavailable elsewhere.

This type of copywriting is most often used close to the point of purchase. The customer is almost ready to buy and you want to nudge them over the line.  

On the other hand, you might be aiming for long-term brand building. This style is subtler and more emotion-led. It tries to build consideration. You want customers to feel connected to the brand so when they’re ready to buy, they’re more likely to choose you. Snap, crackle and pop! Finger lickin’ good. Does exactly what it says on the tin. These aren’t “sales” messages as such, but they bring the brand’s benefit to life for customers, so they’re more likely to consider the brand.  

Now that you’ve gathered your stimulus, you’re ready to start generating ideas. The good news is that your brain is already working on this. 

Use the Zeigarnik effect

This is due to the Zeigarnik effect. (See our thoughts about thinking article for more on this). Zeigarnik was a Lithuanian-Soviet psychologist who noticed that waiters in her favourite cafe didn’t write down customer orders. They could remember them easily. But when asked about those same orders hours later, they couldn’t remember them at all.

She hypothesised that the brain has a kind of quick-access and active memory that keeps working on unfinished tasks. When a task is finished, the brain discards the information or moves it to a longer-term, slower-access memory system.

Creative problem-solvers can use this as a sort of creative “hack”. You let this active memory system work on the problem before you consciously try to come up with ideas. 

This is why stimulus gathering matters. It prepares your brain to hit the ground running with ideas.

The idea generation process for copywriting ideas

As an example, we gathered lots of different stimuli before we started writing this article.

First, we gathered what we’ve already written on related topics. That’s why there are several links to our advertising copy page and our idea generation article. 

We also pulled up our brand tone of voice guidelines. Plus, some external stimulus from some of our favourite copywriting books.

For this topic, Dan Nelken’s A Self-Help Guide to Copywriting was particularly helpful for ideas on how to come up with copywriting ideas. 

Start by thinking, not writing

For example, Nelken advises all copywriters to start by thinking, not writing.

It’s tempting to jump straight into writing. However, he argues this rarely helps you create better ideas or copy. It usually happens because you have a deadline, a blank page in front of you and it feels easier to get something, anything down on paper. 

However, as he points out headlines aren’t great sentences. They’re great ideas expressed in words.

You need the ideas first to prompt the words that’ll bring them to life. So you write those ideas down and use those to come up with the words. As you review your stimulus, he advises you to write your ideas as “buckets” of ideas. Broad concept areas that you then use as prompts to write actual copy. 

These are often based on the brand’s features and benefits. For example, in our benefit ladder case study article, we looked at how a pizza shop might list and explore its benefits. e.g. :-

man in a blue T-shirt looking at the ceiling
  • quality of its ingredients.
  • efficiency of the cooking process.
  • tastiness of the finished product.  
  • healthiness of the ingredients.
  • the convenience of pizza delivery.
  • hunger satisfaction.
  • time saved on cooking. 
  • happiness of more time with family (than cooking)

Each of these could be an idea bucket for more ideas, particularly if you can think of more benefits associated with that benefit.

Aim for quantity of ideas first

Nelken then also suggests that you come up with at least 20 of these initial idea bucket prompts.

This is based on another common creative belief that to find the best idea, you start with lots of ideas. It’s out of the many ideas, that the most brilliant ideas emerge. 

Luke Sullivan’s, Hey Whipple, Squeeze This, another great source of ideas about copywriting, recommends you aim for at least 100 ideas when writing key copy like headlines or slogans.

Your first ideas will be the obvious ones everyone else comes up with. Cliches and puns and instantly forgettable lines. But push past these and get to 100+ ideas and somewhere in the back of your mind, an unusual, different take on the challenge will emerge. That’s where you find copywriting gold, he argues. 

Nelken’s book recognises that hitting 100+ ideas is challenging. The idea of creating 20 initial idea buckets is that you can then aim for 5 headlines or key lines for each of those, which feels more achievable. That gets you to your 100+ ideas.

Give yourself time

Coming up with these copywriting ideas (or indeed other creative ideas) uses different parts of your brain. It’s a combination of :- 

  • logical analysis to solve the problem.
  • using your emotions to tap into memories and imagine future possibilities.
  • the instincts that you’ve built up over time as you’ve built your creative expertise.  

These different parts of your brain need time to work on these complex challenges.

Close-up of a clock face showing dial sitting between ten and twelve

Generally, the longer your brain has to work, the more ideas it’ll come up with. (The Zeigarnik effect again). 

But you’re often better off splitting this over a few shorter sessions versus a single long session. Leaving a gap between sessions helps you manage your brain’s energy levels and keep a fresh perspective. It also helps to set yourself targets for these short bursts. E.g. I must come up with 20 ideas in the next 30 minutes. Then I’ll take a 15-minute break. Then another 20 ideas in the 30 minutes after that, then another break. 

Give yourself space

Your environment also contributes to your creativity. (See our creative culture article for more on this). 

For example, many creative offices have ready supplies of toys and games, magazines, examples from other brands, design objects, arts and crafts materials and so on. 

The idea is that you take your specific brand, audience or media stimulus and combine it with this other stimulus material to spark new ideas.

Lego figures of Two Face and Joker with a background of an explosion

So you’ve got some Batman Lego over there. I wonder how the villains in that story would tackle this challenge. Oh, Taylor Swift is on the front of that magazine. I wonder how she’d say this. Oh, there’s an arty picture of a Red Bull can on the wall. I wonder how they’d express this idea. And so on. 

Change direction when you start to run out of ideas

As you start to list ideas, each should spark more ideas. But eventually, the chain of ideas from the initial idea starts to dry up. This is where all the pre-work stimulus gathering you did pays off. 

When you feel the ideas starting to dry up, don’t push yourself too hard. Look for another starting point from your stimulus materials which will take your thinking in a different direction.

For example, if you’ve mined all of your brand benefits for ideas, try exploring what your brand doesn’t offer for more ideas.

Close up on a man's hand on the steering wheel of a ship

Many brands overcomplicate their offer. The simplicity and directness of your offer could be where a great copywriting idea lies. 

Try using the product or service. What does it look like? Feel like? Sound like? Even smell or taste like if that’s relevant. Our senses tap directly into our emotions and memories and these are often a rich source of ideas.

Think about where and when the brand is used. What if you used it in a different place or time? Or in a different way? What could a customer do with this brand that they couldn’t do with any other brand? 

You can find more creative prompts like this online at Deck of Brilliance, and Nelken’s book also has plenty of prompts for copywriting ideas e.g. :- 

  • Embrace your dirt – think about what your brand is worst at and try to make that into a positive. 
  • Less is more – chop away at an idea until it’s expressed in the fewest and simplest words. 
  • Leave a piece m*ssing – deliberately omit a key part of the idea, or piece of copy so that the audience has to fill in the gap – this can lead to very engaging copy.

There are no bad ideas at this stage

Lastly, remember at this point of the process there are no bad ideas.

It’s often tempting to self-edit. To reject ideas straight away. Don’t do this. Give all your ideas a fair go. There will be time to screen out bad ideas later when you start to structure and edit.

A bad idea could still be valuable as it might prompt you to think of its opposite, helping you find an unexpectedly good idea. 

Close up of a hand with thumb up

Next step - structuring your copy

You should end up with an organised list of different copywriting ideas. Think of these as the raw ingredients in your copywriting pantry. The next stage is to experiment by putting them together to see what copy you can cook up with them. It’s about adding structure to your copy so that it becomes a recipe for success.

Copywriting structure copy is similar to how you structure stories. You have an opening to grab attention, usually the headline. You have a middle section that dramatises your story. And then you have a close that completes the story and leaves your audience a clear call to action.

Overhead shot of two people preparing a salad, chopping lettuce, tomatoes, cucumbers and avocados

You review all your copywriting ideas and apply them to the start, middle and end of your copywriting story. This is also when you re-check the brief to make sure you’re still on track with your business goal, branding and target audience. See our advertising copy guide for more on this next step.

Conclusion - Get ready to create better copywriting ideas

Copywriting is a creative process. You follow a series of steps to create and craft compelling words. This takes time, effort and practice. 

At the heart of this is idea generation. You gather stimulus materials including the brief, the customer profile, the brand’s tone of voice and other materials to prompt your copywriting ideas. 

Initially, these are in the form of ideas “buckets”. High-level prompts, usually related to the brand’s features or benefits. You use these as springboards to write the words you’ll use for the final copy.

A 6 sheet poster advertising board with a large question mark on blank background

This article explored several ideas to make that process more effective. From gathering a broad and varied range of stimuli to creating the right environment for idea generation and using creative prompts to generate more ideas when you get stuck. 

Check out our advertising copy guide and our copywriting challenges article for more on this. Or get in touch if you need help with creating better copywriting ideas.

Photo credits

Street Sign (adapted) : Photo by Bram Naus on Unsplash

Cat behind fence : Photo by Sergey Semin on Unsplash

Dartboard : Photo by Silvan Arnet on Unsplash

Coffee cups : Photo by Nathan Dumlao on Unsplash

Man looking at ceiling : Photo by Anton Danilov on Unsplash

Clock : Photo by Agê Barros on Unsplash

Two-Face and Joker Lego : Photo by Mehdi MeSSrro on Unsplash

Steer Ship : Photo by Nathan Lindahl on Unsplash

Thumb up (edited) : Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

Food preparation : Photo by Maarten van den Heuvel on Unsplash

Surprised Monkey : Photo by Jamie Haughton on Unsplash

Leaf growing : Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash

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