7 Lessons from Advertising

Elizabeth Miller WoodGuest Blogger: Elizabeth Miller Wood (@ElizMillerWood)

As an advertising copywriter, my job is to sell stuff using words. Regardless of what I’m selling—a product, a service, a destination—the copy strives for two goals: capture readers and compel them to take action.

For the next few minutes, pretend you’ve got something to sell—in this case, your writing. You need to “sell” that agent on requesting your manuscript. You need to “sell” that reader on continuing to the next chapter. You need to “sell” your blog followers on coming back again.

Here’s the catch: advertising copy allows very little word count. You have to sell your writing quickly and efficiently. This takes discipline! And discipline is a valuable skill for writers to hone. Here are seven lessons of advertising writing to help writers of all genres make every word “sell.”

1. Maintain brand consistency. As a writer, you are a product. And all products have a brand identity. (Think: Apple = simplicity, innovation, imagination.) What’s your identity? Be aware that every word you send into the world—Facebook, Twitter, blog—is driving your brand forward. Hint: If you’re a children’s book author, avoid tweeting about your hangover.

2. Make it sing. Good ad writing has rhythm. It’s immersive and multi-sensory, roping in readers on multiple cylinders. Don’t let your readers simply SEE the copy. Make them also FEEL it, HEAR it, TOUCH it. Try it: Read out loud the first paragraph of your newest blog post or WIP. Can you feel its beat? Can you sense its tempo?

3. Every word matters. With short ad copy, a single word carries a lot of responsibility. Even if it’s one of 85,000, each deserves careful consideration. Spend the extra five minutes to find that standout verb, instead of settling for the first one that pops into your brain. Tip: Keep an online thesaurus open while you write.

4. Clichés are the Devil. I don’t think I’m letting the cat out of the bag by saying that clichés are as boring as watching water boil. I know, I know. They’re so tempting. So convenient. Do not be fooled! Clichés will sabotage the purity of your writing. Readers gloss over them, rendering the words wasted. Dare to be more creative. Challenge: Think of three new ways to communicate “old as dirt.”

5. Create urgency and reward. Ad copy convinces people that your product will add value to their lives, and that they need it RIGHT NOW. What are the readers’ consequences if they don’t keep reading your story? What will the agent be missing if she doesn’t request your proposal or manuscript RIGHT NOW? Reflect: What was the last page-turner you couldn’t put down? What “reward” was waiting for you at the end?

6. Readers are lazy. Make their jobs easy. Well-written ad copy flows like a stream of syrup; it doesn’t tumble down like sticky raisins. If you stumble (even slightly) over your own sentences, others will, too. If you make readers labor through convoluted phrasing, they’ll give up. Making readers re-read a sentence is giving them a reason to stop reading. Test yourself: Does your writing contain any complex phrases that must be re-read to understand?

7. Chop till it hurts. We have a saying at my advertising agency: “When in doubt, leave it out.” Let’s all agree that whittling copy is painful. You love that beautifully crafted sentence, but it’s got to go if it doesn’t propel your story forward. Think of it as pruning a vine. In the long run, your cut-back copy will produce better-quality fruit. Practice: Write a 500-word story, then chop it to 300 words. Notice how much smoother it reads, and notice where you tend to add unnecessary fat.

What characteristics of advertising copy have compelled you to purchase a product or service? Do any specific magazine, billboard, or internet ads come to mind?

Elizabeth Miller Wood is a Cincinnati-based copywriter whose work appears in regional inserts of Good Housekeeping, Redbook, Woman’s Day, and Seventeen magazines. You can find her at www.ElizabethMillerWood.com, on Facebook, and @ElizMillerWood. (Ahem, she’s brand new to Twitter and would be eternally grateful if you’d help bolster her embarrassingly low follower count.)

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  • http://chiarasbalancingact.blogspot.com/ SolariC

    I’ve just been learning the power of points 6 and 7 from your list. Smoothing and cutting are difficult processes, but I can definitely say my novel has improved by leaps and bounds since I realized it needed to be shorter and more silken in style.

    I guess if I reflect on ads, the ones I remember most are the most clever ones – so perhaps writers can learn to look for a clever way to execute their plots, rather than a typical, unsurprising one. Just a thought to add to the conversation :) Thank you for an interesting post!

  • http://www.gabrielle-meyer.blogspot.com Gabrielle Meyer

    I recently saw a billboard on the highway advertising the little, out of the way town of Alexandria, Minnesota. The billboard was very simple – it had a lakeside scene with Adirondack chairs lined up facing the lake and this underneath: “Alexandri-ahhh.” It did the trick – it made me feel like I needed that little bit of ahhh in my own life and it was simple to read, understand and it made me want to take action.

    Thank you for your tips and ideas! I’ll be by to follow you on Twitter. :)

    • http://4broadminds.blogspot.com/ carol brill

      love the simplicity in that ad!

    • Elizabeth Wood

      Great example of making readers FEEL the copy, Gabrielle! AAHHH…feels great :)

  • http://blessed-are-the-pure-of-heart.blogspot.com Andrew Budek-Schmeisser

    Most of the ads I remember have stuck in my memory for the ‘wrong’ reason – the ads were so laughable or irritating that I’d never buy the product. (“Where’s the beef?”…I rest my case.)

    I think that one of the hallmarks of a good ad is that it speaks successfully to who we think we are, or who we think we’d like to be.

    These ads invite the reader to step into the world of their product, and to play a role, with the active imagination, in that world.

    And yes, I emphasized ‘who we think we are’ deliberately. Much of the active imagination consists of a Mittyesque fantasy, and ads that subtly tap that are standouts.

    • http://pjcasselman.wordpress.com/ P. J. Casselman

      There’s definitely fantasy in a good ad. “If only I had that car, I’d be on my way to success.” Nah, it’s a car.

    • http://www.talesfromtheredhead.blogspot.com Jennifer Major @Jjumping

      Seriously? You know who Walter Mitty is??? I LOVE that movie!!!

      • http://pjcasselman.wordpress.com/ P. J. Casselman

        I directed it in college and had to play the lead when my star got sick. It’s a fun play to put on.

  • http://www.cgblake.wordpress.com CG Blake

    Thanks for these tips. What compels me to buy are brands that consistently deliver on the brand promise–whether it is toothpaste or a novel. What irritates me are ads that insult my intelligence, like that ad for the satellite TV company that claims if an individual sticks with cable, a whole chain of unlikely catastrophes will befall that person. Really? If your life is that tied to watching TV I’d say you have a more findamental problem.

  • http://myquirkycity.wordpress.com Heather

    Thanks not only for the tips but also for the practical applications. I’m definitely going to try #7 this weekend to see where I add more than I need.

  • http://www.diginhappy.blogspot.com/ Tedra

    I remember the GAP Summer ad for the classics or something like that. It wasn’t the clothes that got me but the boy wearing them. I’d been searching for my Sebastion (main guy in my Ubiquitous series) in a lot of faces and when I saw Sean O’pry, I like tottally fell in like with him. I didn’t need much more but that one pose. The sign may have had Gap at the bottom or somthing.

  • Roxanne Sherwood Gray

    Thanks for these great tips.

    I have a journalism background, so I tend to write tight. I’ve also entered contests with limited word counts. It really helped me see where the “fat” is in my writing. And I’ve written long enough to chop beautiful sentences, even fabulous scenes, when they didn’t propel the story forward.

    I do save my little darlings in a file in hopes they can be used one day. ;-)

    • Elizabeth Wood

      What an awesome idea to save your golden sentences for a later re-birth! I’ll have to try that. It pains me to kill them off for good!

  • http://pjcasselman.wordpress.com/ P. J. Casselman

    I enjoy their funny ads, but I’ve never got a free credit report, don’t drink beer, have no use for a vacuum that washes cars. Ads that create impulse buying can get to me, but my rule is never to buy something for at least two days after seeing the ad. There’s a reason for that. I have a few of those plastic pieces of Ronco garbage in drawers. “Jaded” best describes my attitude towards buying.

    I like your comparison and emphasis on the reader. My story telling improves when I imagine the reader on a couch with a cup and my book.

  • Jeanne

    Elizabeth–what a practical post! I’m going to have to think on ads I’ve seen to be able to quote one. :) Commercials I’ve seen that resonate with me are the Hallmark ones that resonate with the emotional side of viewers. It’s been awhile since I’ve seen one, but I used to enjoy their stories in 30 seconds. :)

    I laughed when I read: “Readers are lazy. Make their jobs easy.” So true. :)

    • Elizabeth Wood

      Haha, thanks! And I will fully own up to being one of those “lazy writers” myself :)

      • Elizabeth Wood

        Eek, no! I meant READERS. Lazy readers. But I guess that typo makes me a lazy writer, too! :)

  • Turney

    Old as dirt… This is what I did in my book – coming out in June.

    In December of 1999 I attend my first Galleon holiday party. It’s held at a brightly lit restaurant in Midtown. The décor and tables are a few decades old. This place might have been cool twenty years ago. The staff looks like the cast from the movie Cocoon.

    • Elizabeth Wood

      LOVE this. Great example.

  • http://www.AdelleGabrielson.com Adelle Gabrielson

    LOVE this – so true. I’m an ex-copywriter turned author and this is how I write…I can’t do it any other way!

  • Elissa

    I majored in commercial art and was required to take advertising and copy-writing courses. I worked on the advertising side of the town newspaper for a while.

    I guess I’m a bit jaded, but I can always tell when someone is selling me something. Ads are more likely to make me NOT buy. I can think of a few campaigns that so turned me off that I will NEVER buy those products.

    But none of that changes the fact that there is some great advice here Elizabeth. Writers frequently forget that we are indeed selling a product (even if it IS “art”).

  • http://showknowgrow.com Melinda Viergever Inman

    Great practical advice! Thanks, Elizabeth, for sitting in Rachelle’s seat today!

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  • http://www.garyfultz.com Gary

    Very helpful.
    Thanks

  • http://www.stephanie-mcgee.com Stephanie McGee

    The only example that comes to mind is from when I was really little, probably about six. Cap’n Crunch advertised their new prize: the magic 8 ball. If you found the gold magic 8 ball, you got your choice of prizes. So I ran to my dad and told him we needed to run to the grocery store right then and buy a bunch of boxes of the cereal because I wanted rollerblades. Instead, my dad opted to take me to Toys ‘R Us and and buy me rollerblades.

    Yeah. That’s about the only example I can think of. I tend to be a skeptic about advertising. I tend to doubt all claims in all advertising.

  • http://www.peterdehaan.com/ Peter DeHaan

    I don’t normally write ad copy, but have received positive feedback when I do. Your tips will help me do even better next time. Thanks so much!

  • http://www.talesfromtheredhead.blogspot.com Jennifer Major @Jjumping

    Got milk?
    KILLER ad, great product and all kinds of people drink it and it’s cute every time.

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  • http://shewritesforme.com Margaret Crum

    Thanks for the article. Lots of great tips. I write advertising copy too and have used many of these methods. I also find it helpful to stash those dynamic words that don’t seem to fit elsewhere for those times when I’m asked to come up with something fantastic and the deadline is pending.

    Advertising copy doesn’t have to be cheesy. It can be an opportunity to educate a potential customer of the benefits of your product, especially when that product is yourself.

    • Elizabeth Wood

      Great point, Margaret. When your goal is to educate readers, the copy always feels more genuine. And when it’s more genuine, it’s more effective.

  • http://Klockreations Tim Klock

    Great tips! Makes me think before I write, especially choosing my words more carefully so as to not sound boring or repetitive.
    One thing that really attracts me in ads has always been the bit about how you are a wage slave, how you’d love more free time, to save money for your kids’ educations, how you could afford to go on vacations and enjoy life. I see this, especially in home business opportunities. Everybody craves freedom, to be their own boss, to set their own schedule. To be honest, those are some of the reasons that I hope to be a published author some day. The main reason I write, though, is because if I don’t my heart or brain will explode.

  • http://www.rebastanley.com Reba

    Elizabeth:
    Thanks for your helpful post. I plan to put those words into practice. :0)
    Reba

  • http://www.facebook.com/rhollidaywrites.com Rob Holliday

    Elizabeth,
    All great points; I can’t ever hear “cut til it hurts” often enough. And when we’re done, it’s funny how the emotional trauma of taking the editorial blade to our precious words evaporates so quickly.
    Rob

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