Resources Hub » Blog » 3 Old-School Copywriting Techniques to Drive Action in Your Ads

The way businesses promote their businesses has deeply changed in the last century. At the dawn of the 20th century, most business owners marketed their businesses through word-of-mouth.

As the business world got more complex and massive, business owners found media was an efficient way of promoting their companies. That’s when a group of creative people started using the written copy as the primary promotion tactic. The new art was known as copywriting, and it changed the way businesses promote themselves.

Since then, many new marketing tactics have come and gone, but copywriting continues to be an essential element of any successful marketing campaign.

Many copywriting techniques used today were invented decades ago. Despite their old age, these techniques continue to work as well as they did when they were invented. The reason is simple: copywriting taps into human psychology, and that doesn’t change.

Here are three old-school techniques that you can use in your next marketing campaign.

Specificity is key to persuasion

How many times do you see a restaurant say that their food is the best in the city? This is a common copywriting mistake that happens because we are proud of our offer and believe by stating its superlative difference, we will transform our opinion into a fact.

Copywriters understand how human psychology works and know superlative exclamations don’t persuade people.

Back in 1923, Claude C Hopkins, one of the first and most respected copywriters of all time, explained people are persuaded by specificity.
In his famous book Scientific Advertising, which has been called a “must read” book by copywriting legends such as David Ogilvy and Jay Abraham, he wrote the following:

To say, “Best in the world,” “Lowest prices in existence,” etc. are at best simply claiming the expected. But superlatives of that sort are usually damaging. They suggest looseness of expression, a tendency to exaggerate, a carelessness of truth. They lead readers to discount all the statements that you make.

But a man who makes a specific claim is either telling the truth or a lie. People do not expect an advertiser to lie. They know that he can’t lie in the best mediums. The growing respect for advertising has largely come through a growing regard for its truth.

So a definite statement is usually accepted. Actual figures are not generally discounted. Specific facts, when stated, have their full weight and effect.

This is very important to consider in written or personal salesmanship. The weight of an argument may often be multiplied by making it specific.

If we wanted to improve the previous restaurant example, a copywriter would change the “Our food is the best in the city” for something like “Our food has won multiple awards,” or “+20,000 customers have chosen our food in the past 10 years.”

Of course, it’s hard to specify the benefits of food as well as the example Claude Hopkins uses, but it still illustrates a point.

A dealer may say, “Our prices have been reduced” without creating any marked impression. But when he says, “Our prices have been reduced 25 per cent” he gets the full value of his announcement.

One statement may take as much room as another, yet a definite statement be many times as effective. The difference is vast. If a claim is worth making, make it in the most impressive way.

How specificity used to work

In 1934, not a long time after the launch of Scientific Advertising, copywriter F.N. Clark used specificity to sell a real estate investment opportunity:

Specificity – Real Estate Advertising

Throughout the sales letter, Mr. Clark gets into the specific details of the opportunity: how much money the reader needs to invest, how risky the investment is, and what they can get from it.

He takes the time to open up and explains why he’s offering the reader such an investment, creating a feeling of rapport and transparency which makes it more relatable.

But what makes the effectiveness of this sales letter is the specificity: if he just said “Make money from a real estate investment,” you wouldn’t feel as compelled to act. But those who have that kind of money (let’s remember $350 back in the 1930’s were valued much higher than today) and wanted to invest it, they’d take the offer.

How specificity works today

I took the following example from Google Adwords. Take a look at the difference between the first ad, which is broad in intent, and the second one, which specifies the money saved through the tax preparation services advertised.

Google Adwords – Specificity & Advertising

Both ads are the same, except the second part after the hyphen which changes in specificity. That simple difference makes the second ad much powerful.

Instead of talking about the “quality” of the services, they tell you how much money they help their clients save.

You can see the power of specificity in the following ad LinkedIn uses on Facebook:

LinkedIn – Facebook Ad Copy

LinkedIn sells you the idea of “social selling” by explaining how much more business opportunities and lead conversion on average you can expect to get by using the tool they promote.

After they mention the results, they offer you to use their Sales Navigator tool.

See how they structure the offer: they say “We know this works because our customers have gotten 45% and 51% better results.” They could have said their Sales Navigator tool is the best, yet they sell it by describing the results their customers get by using it.

Business people, just like consumers, want to know what they get from an offer. If you explicitly tell them the benefits of what you are selling them, they are more likely to take it.

Measure the results of your offer and show them in your copy and ads. When it comes to copywriting, specificity rules.

Action Steps: Make sure to be able to validate or confirm the statements you make. If your offer saves people time, write how much time the audience can expect to save. If you can’t truly measure what you write, it’s not specific enough.

Use penalties and rewards to push people into action

Ads come in many shapes and sizes, but all of them have one thing in common: they need to make their audience want to take on the offer the ad is trying to sell.

Whatever the ad is trying to convey, if you don’t feel compelled to take action after you read an ad, the ad isn’t useful.

Even though not all advertising is action-driven (the billboards you see at the side of the highway tend to be brand-focused), copywriters are experts in what’s called  “direct marketing,” the form of advertising where businesses sell their products or services directly to the public. Their goal is for people to take action every time they create a marketing piece.

For that reason, if you want to make people take action from your ads, you need to know what makes them tick.

Copywriters deal with the “action taking” process by leveraging a simple human psychology trick: incentives.

Incentives are anything that motivates or encourages one to do something. If you read an ad which offers you a discount to make a purchase, the advertiser is trying to incentivize you into buying by making their product cheaper.

A copywriting legend who understood the concept of incentives was Robert Collier. Born in 1885, he’s known as one of the most important self-help authors of the first half of the 20th century and one of the first to lay the theoretical foundation of the art of copywriting.

In his classic book The Robert Collier Letter Book, written in 1931, he explains the importance of using incentives and how to use them:

[Your letter] may fit right in with the reader’s thoughts, it may win his interest, it may spur him to action, but if it does not tell him what to do, if it does not provide a penalty for his not doing it, your prospect will slip away from you like a fish off the hook.

There is just one reason why any one ever reads a letter you send him. He expects a reward. That is the key to holding his interest. All through your letter you keep leading him on, constantly feeding his interest, but always holding back something for the climax.

You come to it. You make your special offer. Your reader is impressed. He promises himself he will give it favorable consideration. But you do not want favorable consideration. You want an order or a payment. How are you going to get it? Start your impulse […]. Good! But if that does not work, what then? Provide a penalty!

There are only two reasons why your reader will do as you tell him to in your letter. The first is that you have made him want something so badly that of his own inertia he reaches out for your order card to get it. The other is that you have aroused in him the fear that he will lose something worthwhile if he does not do as you say.

It may be a delinquent debtor in fear of loss of credit standing or of court action. It may be a buyer fearing to lose his chance at a bargain. It may be the merchant fearing to lose your trade. It may be the ambitious youngster fearing to lose an opportunity for advancement. But unless your close can arouse in your reader the fear that he will lose something worthwhile if he does not do as you tell him, you will get no results.

So when you want to inspire fear, be definite! Be specific!

Mr. Collier refers to incentives as penalties and rewards, which is a more Pavlovian-conductist view of the same concept.

In the end, you can see he repeats the advice previously shown by Claude Hopkins: specificity. Your incentives must be specific; otherwise they won’t affect the consumer’s behavior.

How incentives used to work

Next, you will find an ad developed in 1984 by Parc Vendome, a luxurious real-estate property from New York City, which tries to sell the value of their property by playing with the “fear of missing out.”

Advertising and Incentives – Real-Estate Ad Copy

This ad, just like the one shown before, isn’t for everyone; it caters to the 1% of people who can afford such an investment.

By focusing on what the prospect could be missing, the company is playing with the audience’s possible winnings if they take on their offer.

You probably know rich people care about their status as much as their money. That’s why they also talk about the emotional benefits one would get from buying a Parc Vendome apartment. The ad says:

It’s an opportunity to buy an occupied apartment at one of Manhattan’s most prestigious addresses. […] Buying an occupied Parc Vendome apartment makes you an owner of prime New York real estate.

This two-pronged approach is quite effective; they focus on everything their prospects can be thinking about: money and status.

Finally, their incentives focus both on the rewards and the penalties. The ad first proves the apartment is a good investment based on past performance (rewards), then they tell you what a great opportunity you can miss if you don’t act (penalties).

That’s how professional copywriters work: focusing on both incentives, the positive and the negative ones.

How incentives work today

The following ad, made by a large PPC software company, starts by touching a rather broad problem (fixing costly Adwords errors), but then in the description mentions how fast you can solve them (in 60 seconds) and what benefits you can get (more clicks and lower costs).

With the short space, Google Adwords give advertisers, the following ad is an excellent example of how to touch on an audience’s incentives.

WordStream – Google Adwords Ad

The next ad is much simpler than the one shown above. Kayak shows the benefit of using their service highlighting the minimum savings one can get. It’s not specific enough (it mentions “Best Rates” without mentioning what they are), but it still plays with the audience’s incentives.

Kayak Advertising – Based on Audience’s Incentives

Action Step: Focus on the benefits the audience gets from your offer, not on the features. Also, when you mention the benefits, also highlight the possible losses of not acting on the offer.

Add credibility to your copy

Words are a dime in a dozen. You can be specific and use incentives, but if people don’t believe in your copy, it won’t make much difference; people won’t act on your ad.

In order to convince people of the worthiness and value of your offer, you need to add credibility to your copy.

Eugene Schwartz, the author of the copywriting classic Breakthrough Advertising which he wrote in 1966, recommends the following:

[…] The most obvious kind of believability copy [is] your proof: your statistics; your tests; your testimonials: your authorities; your trends; your documentation; your seals of approval; your awards won. Any fact at all that you can use, anywhere in the copy, to show that your product does what you say it does.

There are no special rules to phrasing proof—except, perhaps, to keep it as short as possible, as dramatic as possible, as specific as possible.

And, above all, remember that proof copy, like every other word in your ad, is selling copy. It cannot merely offer proof alone. It must offer the kind of proof that makes the prospect hungry to read every word of it. And it must make him want the product more and more at the end of every line.

How credibility used to work

Gary Halbert, one of the most acclaimed copywriters and author of the famous book The Boron Letters, created the following ad back in the 80’s:

Health-Related Ad – Incentive to Your Ad Copy

The ad starts by giving a benefit (losing weight), and right after that, a specific reward (losing weight without running 98 miles per week).

Since this is a health-related ad, people need to see who’s behind such claims. That’s why Mr. Halbert starts the ad by putting himself in the shoes of the doctor Don Schwerdtfeger, who’s also shown in the image in the right with a further explanation of his background.

I can’t say for sure if that doctor really exists (I’d imagine he does), but for the rest of the ad, Mr. Halbert writes the copy as the expert on the subject. Writing an ad from an authority perspective gives it immediate credibility, which makes it more effective.

It closes the ad with the signature of the doctor and a clear call-to-action.

How credibility works today

The following Facebook Ad promotes a webinar from the IT industry. While the image, headline, and description focus on the webinar itself (what’s about and what people can learn from it), the text gives credibility to the webinar by mentioning the expert who’s giving it.

Veeam - Advertising and Credibility to IT Expert

The next ads, from two different flower order companies, promote their services by featuring their price and main benefits (delivery times and flower types offered, respectively). But in the small space available, Google Adwords give advertisers, both feature a credibility-boosting element: a famous news site’s endorsement.

The fact that a huge news site like CBS News or the Wall Street Journal recommend them makes both companies stand out from the rest.

It only takes a simple quote like the ones seen below to make an ad more credible.

FromYouFlowers – Credible Advertising

ProFlowers – Credible Advertising

Action Step: Every piece of ad needs to have some element of believability. People need to trust your ad to act on it, so make sure to add anything that can prove its copy. A simple way to solve that problem is by getting an authority to endorse it or give you a quote.

Wrap up

Copywriting is an old art which still works up to this day. That’s why copywriting continues to be a desired skill most marketers need to have.

When using copywriting, don’t reinvent the wheel. There are old techniques that are as useful as when they were created decades ago.

Today you saw three of these techniques that you should use in all your ads. Try them in your next marketing campaign, and you will see why they continue to work.

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About the Author Ivan Kreimer
This blog provides general information and discussion about email marketing and related subjects. The content provided in this blog ("Content”), should not be construed as and is not intended to constitute financial, legal or tax advice. You should seek the advice of professionals prior to acting upon any information contained in the Content. All Content is provided strictly “as is” and we make no warranty or representation of any kind regarding the Content.
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