The best copywriting formula depends on who you’re selling to, not what you’re selling them

Grabbing a reader’s attention is tricky. At the end of the day, there’s no one copywriting technique that’ll work 100% of the time. Luckily, popular marketing formulas have some things in common.

As you read through this list, study interesting copy you’ve found, and begin working on your own content marketing, keep some of the following questions in mind:

  • Who is your target audience?
  • What do they gain by using your product?
  • Why is your product the one they should choose out of everything in your market?

 

Value Propositions

A value proposition is a statement on why your product is the absolute best choice for your customer. It has numerous more potential uses, but we’re only going to talk about it as it pertains to marketing copy. Let’s imagine a customer wants a new chair for their office. They know what they need from a chair, and your chairs meet those needs – as do some of your competitors’ chairs.

Your product has something – maybe multiple things – your competitors’ don’t. A value proposition clearly explains what that thing is and provides evidence for it. It should include these basic elements:

  • Specificity: Generalizations don’t mean much to your customer. Tell them what they get with your product. Are they getting a nice chair, or a chair so comfortable they won’t even realize how long they’ve been sitting in it by the time they get ready to go home?
  • Support: You can make a claim, but it doesn’t hold the same weight in the customer’s mind as it would if they saw the evidence for it. How can you say, for a fact, your chair is so comfortable they’ll never want to get up?
  • Verification: Everyone says they’re the best. Not everyone has third party proof. Leverage reviews, customer feedback, awards, and more to inspire trust and confidence in your claims besides your word alone. People will put more credibility to the words of other sources than to the person they know is selling them something.
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A value proposition should state clearly what only you have, show the evidence for the claim, and allow the customer to decide for themself if they find your reasons compelling. With a clear, understandable explanation of why you’re the best choice, your customer will be inclined to believe you’ll fulfill their needs and thus choose your product.

An important element to achieving understanding is remembering to write to the customer, their needs, and their knowledge. Your average customer isn’t likely to know what that industry-specific certification is or why it’s relevant to your product. When you use jargon, they have to guess at your meaning. Meet your customer where they are.

An example value proposition might be, “Craftsmanship you can feel.” The following evidence could continue:
“All our chairs are handmade, down to the smallest details. We use the softest, highest-quality cotton fabric in the world; read the studies about our fabric supplier here. You’ll feel the care that goes into our chairs in the comfortable seating and smooth oak wood arms.”

These specific details provide a clear image in the mind of the customer: They know what a comfortable chair and soft fabric feel like. You’ve given a supportive third-party source for the curious or skeptical to use to investigate your claims further. Your customer understands what they gain with your product, the benefits of which they can find nowhere else on the market.

Problem, Agitation, Solution (PAS)

The Problem → Agitate → Solve formula is common because it jumps straight to an emotional connection with a customer.

As long as you understand your product and why people want or need it, you can use this formula effectively. The main idea is that a customer is looking at your product because they have a Problem to solve. Maybe it’s a tangible need, like hunger at lunchtime, or maybe it’s a want, like coffee from a cafe instead of home. Once you know what this “pain point” is, you can Agitate it. This is the emotional connection – you’re reminding the customer of how frustrating the Problem is. Your product is the Solution. By using it, the customer fixes all these issues in one fell swoop.

Here’s an example of the PAS formula:

“When you’re hungry, it’s harder to focus, and all the annoying things your coworker does become 10x more obnoxious. Place your order online and pick it up when it’s ready. You’ll be satisfied and productive for the rest of the afternoon, and you’ll be able to tolerate that coworker again.”

Feature, Advantage, Benefit (FAB)

The Feature → Advantage → Benefit formula is especially useful as a template for product descriptions. You take a factual Feature of your product, identify its Advantage, and explain its Benefit to the customer.

Listing features and their advantages are an easy way to identify the potential benefits a customer gets when they use your product. However, you might not always want to write your copy in this order. It might be more eye-catching to start with the benefit. Let’s imagine a bakery is introducing a new item, a chocolate chocolate chip cookie. One Feature is that it’s free of all 14 major allergens. Also, it costs the same for a dozen of these as for the bakery’s cookies without allergen-safe ingredients. The primary Advantage is the wide range of people who can enjoy these cookies risk-free. Price is an Advantage because, for example, the average gluten-free person can, on average, expect to pay over double the price for a food item as a person who can eat gluten. People will notice they’re not paying more, and it’ll impact their perception of a business significantly. The Benefit, then, might be the ability to provide these at social events at work or let your child pass them out at the end of a sports game without worrying about who can – or can’t – eat them, and you’re not breaking the bank to provide these. Everyone is happy, including the bakery – if the cookies taste good, there will be positive word-of-mouth about these benefits!

All of this together could look like:

“Show everyone in your office your appreciation with sweet treats free of the 14 major allergens, including peanuts, dairy, and wheat! Our new chocolate chocolate chip cookies are only $15 a dozen!”

Before, After, Bridge (BAB)

The Before-After-Bridge formula brings together the previous two techniques we’ve discussed. Commonly found in cold email marketing, it’s an excellent way to quickly introduce your customer to your product, establish an emotional connection, and call them to action.

Before is the customer’s pain point – what problem are they dealing with right now? How is it frustrating them? Pull on the negative emotion so the reader identifies with the copy. Paint a picture of what they’re already feeling and dealing with in their real life.

After, then, is the benefit the customer is looking for. Paint a new picture – a world that’s better because of a particular product. Life is so much easier with it, and all those problems from Before are nonexistent.

Now you Bridge this Before world with the much-improved After world by revealing it can really happen – you’ve got that solution! These problems don’t have to be problems. Removing them is easy, even!

Poe makes all communication easy

Here’s an example of what BAB might look like:

“Does it feel easier to let a dirty dog lie? No soaked clothes; no wondering how much shampoo is left in his fur; no wet dog smell all over the bathroom and hall because he decided to sprint away and shake out his coat instead of getting a proper towel dry.

“If bathtime could be a positive experience, or at least one he’s distracted throughout, then it’d be so much better. No more trying to recruit a partner or friend to hold him while you wash him. He stands still, you wash all the soap out of his coat, and you part ways in the hall without frustration.

“With our sticky rubber wall mat, you’ll have a spotless dog again. Hang it on the wall, coat it in peanut butter or another of your dog’s favorite treats, and let him indulge himself while you effortlessly give him that much-needed bath. The mat is easy to wash with soap and hot water, so it’s ready to go the next time he decides to roll in the mud.”

AIDA (Attention → Interest → Desire → Action)

The AIDA formula was developed a little more than a hundred years ago, but it remains a staple in marketing. It models the customer’s thought process from first becoming aware of a product to taking steps to purchase it. (The “A” is referred to as “Awareness” or “Attention,” depending on your source.)

Though AIDA serves as a general pattern of thought, the steps aren’t always all necessary. Someone’s Attention might be caught, and they could skip straight to Action. Desire and Action are often intertwined, so the moment someone decides they want your product is usually the moment they should be called to act.

Attention

You can’t assume people already know what your product or company is. By catching their attention, you’ll quickly inform them about both, and you’ll gain their interest. This is the most important step to keep in mind. Think of it as the foundation of the rest of your campaign. You might have an informative social media post, but if you don’t catch the viewer’s attention, they’re going to scroll right past it.

Interest

Once someone has heard of your product, you can encourage their interest. Why does someone need or want your product? This is an especially useful question if your product is more of a “want” than a “need.” If you run a pest control company, people know why they need your services. If you hand-make pottery mugs, you might have to do more to explain to people why they should want your product – especially when many people have access to cheaper, mass produced mugs in the same store they get their groceries at. This interest directly affects how much someone Desires your product. If they’re not interested, they’ll move on.

Desire

Someone is interested in your product. Why do they want it from you? This is the time to emphasize your product’s benefits. What problem is it solving that similar products aren’t? Do you have a limited-time discount on your services? Do you customize your mugs?

Action

Once someone has decided they need or want something, you can give a push of urgency (the sale is limited-time only!) or position a call to action (like an appointment scheduling form) somewhere obvious. Whatever Action you’re looking for, make it easy and direct. If someone has to work too hard to act on their Desire, they’ll go someplace else.

Example: Wendy’s Campaigns

The AIDA formula is excellent for building a marketing campaign to raise awareness of your company or brand. A popular ad example is “Where’s the Beef?” by Wendy’s in the ‘80s.

Your Attention is caught initially by the funky music and the actresses’ comments on the big, fluffy bun in front of them. (In the ‘80s, the fact these actresses were three old women – rather than celebrities or conventionally attractive young people – would’ve also been attention-grabbing for an average viewer.) Your Interest is kept when they lift the top bun and reveal there’s not much substance. Clara Peller’s character asks loudly, “Where’s the beef?” This leads to the Desire and its question: Is this what you want to order? The narrator says Wendy’s uses more beef on its popular burger than the Big Mac or Whopper use. If you want better from your burger, then you’re “Wendy’s kind of people.” The Action being encouraged is, of course, for people to eat at Wendy’s instead. Wendy’s modern social media presence is an example of AIDA as an awareness-raising campaign, too.

It keeps the Attention and Interest of consumers with open responses to all feedback and a voice of likability and sass, as Wendy’s chief concept and marketing officer put it. It became especially popular on Twitter, since the platform encourages short, witty comments. This campaign captures Desire in the form of transparency. Wendy’s doesn’t hide replies, even to negative comments. It admits to mistakes. And, it’s amusing. People continue interacting with Wendy’s social media for entertainment. Wendy’s creates an image of itself not as another fast food brand, but a personable account for users to build an emotional attachment with.

It achieves Action by fostering this relationship. Continual interaction with other social media users and silly ad campaigns created with their help (e.g., #PrezelLoveStories) maintain the emotional connection. Theoretically, people will think of Wendy’s by association when they think of burger fast food chains.

The 4 Ps: Promise → Picture → Prove → Push

The 4 Ps formula relies on the ability to build a relatable scene.

Promise

This is your big claim to the customer. It’s usually going to be your headline, and you’ll typically expand on it a bit in your first sentence or two. You’re telling the customer everything they could gain by continuing to read. The Promise should be straight to the point. Although it needs to be big to stand out, it has to be believable at a glance. The reason is twofold: First, you have to back up your Promise. Second, people are overwhelmed with information constantly. They won’t give something they deem impossible a second glance.

Picture

Now you develop a bit of a story. You could build a scene highlighting a negative emotion by targeting the customer’s pain points. Or, you could build one highlighting a positive emotion, like the happiness, peace, etc., they’ll feel when they have the solution to their problem. With any emotion, you have to fully understand the customer’s problem to be sure you use the right emotive language to build their connection to the product. They should be able to Picture themselves in the scenario you’re describing, good or bad. The Picture should also reinforce the gains you promised earlier. Emotions drive decisions. If you’ve built a solid emotional connection with the customer, you’ve done most of the heavy-lifting in persuading them to choose your product.

Prove

The typical customer has to feel they’ve justified their emotional decision to purchase something with logical reasoning. You have to Prove what you’ve promised and show why it’s achievable. This could be in the form of statistics or case studies. It could be testimonials from customers or well-recognized brands. For example, Slack’s website displays prominently what major organizations – including NASA and Target – use its software for their own businesses. It includes quotes by leaders at companies like T-Mobile. For a smaller business, this might look more like traditional social proof. If people learn you have a 4.7 star rating out of over 200 reviews on Google, they’re going to lend more credibility to your Promise. Whatever proof you have, don’t be afraid to leverage it. If it feels lacking, then customers will lose interest in your product, no matter how emotionally invested they were initially. They want to know the purchase is worthwhile and that they’re not throwing money away.

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Push

The Push, sometimes called the Pitch, ties everything together. You wrap up the Picture you’ve painted with a call to action. The Push should reiterate the Promise with the emotional connections and factual evidence you’ve supplied.

Example: Sweaters

Let’s say we sell sweaters. Our Promise could look like:

“Sweater weather could be year round without making you sweaty and hot.”

Our Picture should put the customer in a scene:

“Your favorite sweaters are soft, cozy, and maybe just a little too big. They’re perfect for staying warm in the office, or your friend’s terribly cold apartment. With airy, light sweaters to bring comfort without trapping your body warmth, you could feel like you’re at the perfect temperature even while it’s 82F, humid, and the sun is beating directly down on you.”

Now we need to Prove it:

“Our synthetic material is specially designed for this purpose. In a survey of 200 participants, 184 – over 90% – said they’d recommend it to friends and seriously consider it as a gift this coming holiday season. 84% of participants said they didn’t begin to overheat until the temperature was at or above 90F. 92% said they were comfortably warm down to 64F.”

It should culminate in a final Push (and call to action):

“Through the end of the month, we’re having a buy one, get one free for any combination of our designs. Click the button below to explore all of our options. Start enjoying your sweater collection all year long!”

The 4 U’s: Useful, Unique, Urgent, Ultra-Specific

The 4 U’s are considered a helpful headline formula as much as a helpful copywriting formula because they describe exactly what should be included in all of your content.

An important aspect to remember is that you can’t always include all four, especially in a short piece of copy. You should aim to always have at least three of them, though. Which three you include depends on your goals – if you’re writing a headline about a sale that only lasts 48 hours, then Urgent is pretty important to include. If you’re writing a blog post that doesn’t have an expiration date because it’s about marketing formulas, then Urgent is probably the last one to worry about. All this said, the 4 U’s don’t have to be in any particular order, either. It’s better to think of them as a rubric. When you’re writing or editing, you should be looking for these and weighing how effectively they’re used. If you find something isn’t very Useful, but it is Unique, then you have a starting point to get to the root of what’s working (or not).

You’re probably asking, But how are these words defined? Luckily, their definitions are pretty straightforward:

Useful

Is the copy informative? Does it provide new information to the reader? This is especially worth thinking about in a headline. If a reader doesn’t see anything new and informative, they won’t have much interest in reading more. It must continue throughout the copy – if the reader is confused or bored, they won’t finish reading.

Unique

What makes this special and worthy of attention? You don’t have to reinvent the wheel to create something new, but you need to present it clearly and emphasize what your new thing has that hasn’t been seen before. As a personal aside, I’d recommend steering clear of actually using the word “unique” in your copy, though it’s an excellent concept to keep in mind. What does the descriptor “unique” tell us? Does it give us sensory information, like how a dish tastes or how a piece of leatherwork feels? Does it tell us something interesting about a person, like how they incorporate their love of soccer into their work as a children’s therapist? When you’re thinking about how to show off what’s Unique in your copy, identify what specific thing you consider “unique.” Then, tell your readers about it! Which example do you feel is telling you more?:

“The restaurant’s unique new dish is popular among customers.”

“The restaurant’s spicy new dish is popular among customers.”

Urgent

Why should the reader act? Why should they care? In very short copy, like a headline, this is the one you’re least likely to find necessary. Still, the reader needs to gain something by acting, whether the action is purchasing something or filling out a contact form. An easy way to instill a strong sense of urgency is with a time limit, but it’s not the only way to create an Urgent feeling.

Ultra-Specific

Details lend themselves to understanding and credibility. Ultra-Specific doesn’t mean you need to get into the nitty-gritty of everything you say, but you shouldn’t be overly general or give your reader zero supporting evidence for your statements. When you provide details, you make your content more Useful, too, which encourages the reader to stay on your page.

The 4 U’s: Useful, Unique, Urgent, Ultra-Specific

Example: Washington Post Headline

Since the 4 U’s are more useful when we think about them as a rubric than a step-by-step guide, let’s use a headline to think about these ideas in practice. This is a real headline from The Washington Post:

His emotional support animal is an alligator. They sleep in the same bed.

What makes this Useful? It gives us two interesting facts immediately.

What makes this Unique? When we think of emotional support animals, we typically think of dogs. We don’t think of alligators as a potential pet, let alone as an emotional support animal we share our bed with.

What makes this Urgent? Because the information is so unexpected, we’re pulled to it. We expect to read a story about a man and his alligator and get a break from the constant bombardment of major world events we otherwise see in the news. The Urgent factor pushing us into clicking the link is the chance for a (hopefully) fuzzy, fascinating story.

What makes this Ultra-Specific? Every word in each sentence gives us a new, relevant detail. The first sentence tells us who the story’s protagonists are – a man and his emotional support alligator. The second sentence hooks us into learning more – they share a bed. This is normal with a pet like a dog or a cat. Not so normal for an alligator.

A news outlet has the same reason to write a compelling headline as you: It needs to make revenue. Don’t be afraid to explore genres beyond marketing as you develop your own style.

The 4 Cs: Clarity, Credibility, Consistency, Competitiveness

There are multiple sets of “4 Cs” in marketing – what would marketing be without jumbles of letters and acronyms to mix up? The four Cs we’re talking about here are called the 4 Cs of marketing communications.

The 4 Cs of marketing communications can be thought of as a strategy guide. They give you a concise way of organizing your company’s voice, branding, and expectations of employees, and they can be used to formulate a slogan. For the most part, each C is asking you for exactly what its name is.

For example, Clarity. You need to have a way to clearly communicate your brand to customers. If they don’t understand what they’re looking at or why, they’ll lose interest. Be concise and straightforward.

Credibility is the reason customers believe you. How Credibility looks in practice depends on your voice and industry. In short copy, like a slogan, you don’t have the space to go in-depth about why you’re credible, so your voice should reflect your Credibility instead. If your slogan makes someone think of dishware when you sell electronics, you won’t sound credible.

With Consistency, you’re capable of keeping your brand’s voice familiar across all of your communications content. It’s also where your employees can represent your brand in their behavior. If your brand pushes having the best customer service, then your employees should reflect it.

Finally, Competitiveness is asking what makes you stand out from everyone else. Another way to think of this final C, Target Internet suggests, is as “Difference.” Is it your product quality? Your prices? Incorporate what makes you competitive in your branding.

Slogans are the most common examples of the 4 Cs. The New York Times’ encapsulates all of these principles: “All the News That’s Fit to Print.” Let’s break down each of the Cs. Even if you’ve never heard of the NYT, this sentence clearly tells you who is speaking: a newspaper. Knowing it’s a newspaper lends Credibility to the comment about what it publishes. The slogan is consistent with what the average person would expect a newspaper to sound like: straight to the point. Finally, it claims Competitiveness by stating it publishes all the stories relevant to the public. There’s no picking and choosing. You’ve probably heard of the NYT, though. You probably know it’s generally regarded as a respectable news outlet, and you know it’s been around for a while now (almost 200 years, in fact). You’ve probably read something by an NYT reporter, which means you have some concept in your head of the paper’s voice.

All of this outside context contributes to the validity you associate with its slogan. But, if you’d never heard of the NYT, or you didn’t have this context, the slogan would still achieve all four marketing communication Cs.

ACCA: Awareness → Comprehension → Conviction → Action

You might be thinking, ACCA sounds similar to AIDA. You would be correct.

ACCA is newer, having been developed in the ‘60s, and it’s typically used in a particular marketing strategy called DAGMAR (Define Advertising Goals for Measured Advertising Results). A major distinction between ACCA and AIDA is the increased focus on building understanding as a tool to create an emotional connection with the customer.

The first step is Awareness. This is where you mention pain points your customer is dealing with.

“Your broken stereo is forcing you to sit in silence during your morning commute. It’s boring, it’s frustrating, and it’s a hassle to get fixed when you’re at the office all day.”

The next step is Comprehension. You show you understand your customer’s problem, and you share your solution.

“You only have one car, which means you can’t afford to leave it at a mechanic’s shop. You need someone to replace your stereo quickly, who can fit with your schedule. You need someone who will come to YOU to get your stereo functioning again.”

The third step is Conviction. If the customer doesn’t believe you, they won’t take action. You must show them why you’re the right choice to fix their problem.

“We’ll travel up to 30 miles from our shop to your workplace or home to repair your stereo. No need to leave it for hours or days in a parking lot until the other cars in the mechanic’s queue get serviced. Get back to enjoying your favorite radio hosts without wasting time!”

Finally, there’s Action. Give your customer one final push to take advantage of what you’re promising.

“Schedule an appointment now, or contact us to find out more about our affordable repair services!”

Jobs To Be Done

The Jobs To Be Done formula was developed by Clayton Christensen. Essentially, it views your product as a “job” a customer will “hire” if it fulfills a specific need. If your product isn’t filling a customer’s need, they’re not going to be interested in it, no matter how great it is on paper. This means you must understand what is motivating the customer. What are similar products, and what fundamental need is fulfilled for someone when they use those products? What is a reason for someone to “fire” the similar product they’ve been using to switch to yours? Christensen’s famous example has to do with milkshakes. A restaurant conducted research to find out what type of milkshake would appeal the most to its customers. But, after they created this perfect recipe, the restaurant had no change in milkshake sales. Christensen and his colleague decided to find out why. If the milkshake is the Job, what need is it filling for a customer to Hire it? They learned most milkshake sales were to people on their way to work. They had a long, boring commute. They didn’t want a full meal yet, but they’d get hungry soon if they didn’t have anything at all on their stomach. They found they could fill these needs with a milkshake. A milkshake is easy to transport because it fits in the cupholder. The fact it’s in a cup in the first place means it’s not very messy. It makes the commute more stimulating. It’s heavy enough to keep someone from getting hungry until they’re at a point in the morning when they can enjoy a real meal. The restaurant asked, “What would make the product better?” But, most likely, their customers were just as happy with the original milkshake because flavor wasn’t their primary reason for ordering it. By asking, “What Job is done for the person who buys a milkshake?”, Christensen and his colleague found it was the ability to use it as a mess-free snack-in-a-cup. It’s not something a donut can be – donuts are messy, and a hand is always occupied with it. A candy bar can’t do it, either – you also can’t put it down easily, and it’s not filling.

Robot and human hands doing the E.T.

There’s a formula you can use to start developing an idea of what Job is done when the customer Hires your product. We’ll keep using the milkshake example:

When I’m on my commute, I want to have a snack that isn’t messy, so I can have a less boring commute and avoid getting hungry.

Don’t focus on what the product has. Focus on what the customer wants. The customer has a specific need to meet, and they need to know your product will meet it. You might have the chocolatiest milkshake in town, but if people associate it with the lunch menu, then “chocolatey” won’t be seen as a benefit by half of your potential customers because it doesn’t apply to what they need.

So, your ad copy could look like,

“Treat yourself to a chocolate milkshake on the way to work!”

Conclusion

Writing copy is a skill. No one woke up knowing how to create good copywriting. They practiced – a lot. Don’t be afraid to experiment with these and other formulas you come across until you find which ones work the best for you.
Remember: Copywriting isn’t one-size-fits-all. A technique that’s great for making a fast emotional connection with your customer might not be the ideal technique for explaining why your product, specifically, is the best one out there.

These are reasons some business owners choose to outsource their marketing. They just might not have the time to run a successful business and become familiar with dozens of marketing formulas and strategies. With a reputable marketing service, they can relax while people who already understand these concepts handle the process of increasing their business’ visibility. However, if you understand your customer’s problem and what they need to gain from the solution, then you have a good foundation to start writing your own copy.

Here are more questions to keep in mind as you begin honing your marketing copywriting skills:

  • What problem does my product solve?
  • Who does it solve problems for?
  • Why do they need or want this problem solved?
  • What do they gain by using my product, specifically?