Do Copywriting Formulas Really Work?

May 31, 2010  |   Posted by :   |   Copywriting,Corporate Messaging,Corporate Writing,Slideshow   |   4 Comments»

Direct response writers swear by them. Advertising copywriters swear at them. Where do corporate writers fall? Do copywriting formulas give us the freedom of a narrow focus? Or, infect us with a narrow mind?

Here are six of the most revered (or reviled) copywriting formulas of all time. You be the judge–and if you would, please share your comments at the end of this post.

1. AIDA.

Attention. Interest. Desire. Action.

28 years ago, this was the first formula I learned. My boss back then was a dyed-in-the-wool direct mail man. And he swore that the AIDA formula was the magic bullet for all communications: not just direct mail, but also advertising, collateral, sales presentations, your grocery list–you name it. (Alec Baldwin used basically the same formula in the movie, Glengarry, Glen Ross. Remember the sales contest? First place, new Cadillac. Second place, steak knives. Third place, you’re fired. Reminds me of my first boss.)

  • Attention: Do I have your attention? (Channeling Alec Baldwin now…)
  • Interest: Have I piqued your interest? Are you ready to hear more?
  • Desire: Can you really live without my product? (or service, or idea–whatever you’re selling)
  • Action: It’s so easy to satiate your desire–I have everything you need, right here, right now.

2. The 4 C-s.

Clear. Compelling. Concise. Credible.

Good advice, but a little weak on differentiation. Where’s the ONE idea that makes your prospect want what you have over anything else, right now?

3. The 4 U’s.

Ultra-specific. Useful. Unique. Urgent.

This one works best for packaged goods and other ‘hard’ products that typically compete on features and benefits. Not so relevant for complex, service brands that live and die by nuance.

4. The 4-legged Stool.

This is the work of Michael Masterson, regarded as one of the most successful direct response thinkers and writers today. I like his basic approach and have adapted it to better fit my needs as a corporate messaging strategist:

  • Corporate Credibility: Why should I believe in your company and what you have to say?
  • Promise: of highly differentiated benefits, in the context of a corporate messaging platform.
  • The ONLY Statement: What’s the ONE advantage you own that no competitor can?
  • Proof: Can you back up every promise you’ve made to me today?

5. PPPP.

Picture. Promise. Prove. Push.

I share this one mainly because of the first concept, ‘Picture.’ It sounds a little cliche, until you dig underneath and uncover the real concept at work (which doesn’t start with ‘P’, so I guess now I’m blowing up the simple formula). It’s transubstantiation, which any Roman Catholic  will recognize. (For everyone else, click on the word to learn more.) In a copywriting context, transubstantiation means drawing your prospect so close to your product that they become one and the same. Inseparability: a worthy goal for any messaging strategy.

So where do you stand on copywriting formulas? Let me know by leaving your comments below.

Related Posts

4 Comments for this entry

  • Andy Bartling

    January 15th, 2011 on 10:44 am

    Marion, from LinkedIn’s group Freelancers in MedComm, writes:

    “Good question, Andy. I look at it from the journalistic side – as well as having been on both the corporate and advertising sides of the equation. Formulas provide a means of checking the copy to be sure that key points are made and potential questions are answered. But, like all creative endeavors, it is the skill of the writer that makes the difference: How the writer presents the material, how the story or information unfolds, and the context in which the client’s or corporation’s message is presented.

    An unskilled writer may follow the formula, include all the “right” information, and still produce “flat” copy, or a letter or white paper that disappoints. While a skilled writer who uses the same formula, produces an editorial product that engages, informs, and persuades.”

  • Andy Bartling

    January 15th, 2011 on 10:45 am

    Well said, Marion. Formulas can get a writer started and can be a good tool for copy review. But they should never be a substitute for good judgment.

  • Andy Bartling

    January 15th, 2011 on 10:48 am

    From LinkedIn’s Copywriter group, Arfa writes:

    “As a Direct Response Copywriter myself, these formulas merely scratch the surface of the prospects’ inner desires. To REALLY get into the mind of prospects, you need to look much deeper at their actual buying and habitual behavior before you can translate this into a truly compelling message.

    The AIDA formula is ok – I used this myself before becoming a proper copywriter, and I must admit, when I learnt the ‘proper’ copywriting formulas, they put AIDA to shame. It’s all about the prospects’ fears and what keeps them up at night.

    Sure, the formulas help shape your communications and guide your prospect towards a better understanding of the problem/solution, but this is only the beginning. The real magic happens when the additional secret formulas are applied to each corporate message with due diligence.

    That’s when you see something amazing happen. It’s also the reason why huge corporate houses hire people like Clayton Makepeace and John Carlton to write their copy. Expensive, granted. But if they can’t get your message across, no one can.”

  • Andy Bartling

    January 15th, 2011 on 10:49 am

    Arfa, you make several great points. AIDA was the formula I grew up with, but it doesn’t come close to capturing the true emotion that drives prospect behavior.

    Thanks for your comments; please keep them coming!