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How to Create a Great Ad

How To Create Your Own Great Ad — Or Get One You Like From an Agency, the First Time!

By Jeffrey Dobkin

Armed with the solid knowledge of who your audience is, grab a pen and come up with a great headline.  Not a good headline, a GREAT headline.

Usually this is by showing, offering, providing or proving the biggest benefit of using your product.  An easy way to do this is to think “What is the best, the ultimate result that can happen when a customer uses my product?”  Now cleverly craft that into a headline with impact.  You have under three seconds to capture the attention of the page-scanning reader.  Man, today’s readers are tough.

The headline is the ad for the ad.  If you have a mediocre headline no one will read the brilliant copy that took you three weeks to write. No one will see the great offer you’re making.  They won’t get that far.  If your headline isn’t the most captivating headline on the page, no one will bother reading the rest of the ad.  They’ll simply turn the page.  You won’t even get a second glance.

Your headline must make an immediate appeal to the reader about what your product is going to do for him.  The secret formula I personally recommend is “NEW PRODUCT OFFERS BENEFIT, BENEFIT, BENEFIT.”  When writing the headline – if it’s not great, or it doesn’t stress an immediate benefit to the reader, nothing else matters.

When I write an ad I usually write between fifty and 100 headlines.  Then over a period of a few days I sift through them and select the one great one.  And people wonder why ads from me are expensive: after all, I only had to write one line.  The only purpose of the headline is to catch and hold the readers attention, and demand he reads the rest of the ad.

Space permitting, next I use a sub-head.  This appears in slightly smaller type, but continues the compelling reasons to keep the reader reading the ad.  That’s the purpose of the sub-head.  Expound on the main benefit, or if there is a strong secondary benefit, add it here.

When developing your copy strategy, exactly what do you want readers to do?  Call?  Send money?  Inquire?  The body copy of the ad depends on this, and on whether you plan a one step sale – asking the reader to make a purchase directly from the ad; or an inquiry generating two step sale – asking the reader to request more information (which gives you the chance to send a longer, harder hitting direct mail package.)

Smaller or classified ads demand a two step selling posture.  Since you have only a few words, there isn’t really enough copy to sell a product – so you must go for the inquiry.

Then decide on how tightly you want to qualify your prospects.  Throw as loose or as tight of a qualification net as you like.  A loose net is asking anyone and everyone to contact you: check off the reader service card, call you on your own toll free 800 number, or send back your reply card that is postpaid by you.  This increases the response, but adds plenty of expense from people who have no intention to buy.  Your competitors will love you for this!  So will the “just curious.”

A tight qualification net screens respondents in some way, and increases the value of each response depending on the toughness of your qualifier.  A minimal qualification may be to make respondents call on their dime; send back a reply card they have to place their own stamp on; or saying response cards won’t be processed without phone numbers.  On the high end, a tight qualifier may say a minimum investment amount of “so-much” is required, or that your sales rep will personally call on each inquirer in person.

You can also offer a interim package for a nominal amount to pre-qualifiy interested parties.  I send excerpts from my book, “How To Market a Product For Under $500,” to potential prospects who want to see what it’s all about without buying it for $29.95, but I charge $2 for postage and handling.  It’s a good deal for them, they get a lot of information in the excerpts for two bucks, and I get only the more serious inquirers.  If I just said FREE EXCERPTS – CALL TOLL FREE AND REQUEST THEM, everyone and their mother calling would call because it’s a free offer with a free call. Ugh.

I once ran a campaign to the teaching profession.  We received thousands of responses from a reader service bingo number, but further mailings to respondents resulted in a scant few sales.  I asked the magazine publisher for some of the response cards, and when he sent them I found out why: half the cards had ALL the numbers circled. Some teachers even drew one big circle around all the numbers en masse. What did I learn from this?  Not who liked my product, but that teachers just like to get mail. I guess if you’re a teacher in rural Nebraska the Saturday mail delivery is a whopping big event.

Write the body copy enhancing the benefits. Make your offer sound sensational.  To increase response offer a free trial or a money back guarantee.  Hammer home the benefits, and ask for the reader to call you several times and place their order.  Give your phone number several times in the ad also.

 The Secrets of a Direct Response Ad

Go for the call.  For an ad to be successful, it must generate a response.  So get the call.  This is your number one priority, and the objective of the ad. That’s right, the objective of the ad is usually not to sell the product, it is to generate a response – and that’s usually a phone call.  Show the benefits to the readers – then sell the call hard – that is the secret of direct response advertising.  

“Call now for free information.  Call for free sample.  Call now to place your order at this special price.  Call Toll Free and order right now – you’ll get…”  If a person doesn’t call right now, your chances of any response drop off significantly with each passing moment.  Request immediate action, offer a great deal or a limited time special.

On the bottom of the ad place your phone number again in fairly large type – so that someone who is thinking about calling can find it easily while they are reaching for the phone.

Read your ad again from the eyes of a prospect.  If you haven’t persuaded someone to call you by the end of the ad, start over and compose the ad again: no one will know you had to create the ad twice, they’ll just see the end product and think it’s great.  You should see the first efforts in my wastebasket.

On the bottom of the ad place a small copy of your logo if you have one.  The value of a logo is so people will recognize it and your firm when they see if again.  If you are running a solid schedule of ads, your logo should be distinctive so people will remember it, not necessarily large.  If you place ads occasionally, it’s not a benefit to the reader and not that important to you either – use the space more wisely and show a bigger phone number.

Concentrate on anything that may increase your response.  With every element in your ad, with every conscious decision you make, ask “does this increase my response?”  If yes, leave it in.  If no, trash it.

Finish writing your copy by letting it sit for a day or two, then coming back to it for a final editing and polishing.  Edit severely.  Then edit severely again.  Cut out everything that doesn’t make someone pick up the phone.  If you don’t cut your copy by at least 1/3, you aren’t nearly tough enough on yourself – let someone else do it.

The last step is the design.  My first choice is to use a compelling photo or illustration to capture the eye of the page-flipping audience, and direct their attention to your space.  Too bad I can’t draw even a reasonable resemblance of a stick figure without everyone wondering what the heck it is.  So I usually rely on tastefully laid-out large type in the headline with strong enough copy to make people read it – and the rest of the ad.

If you use a photo make sure it has a caption, and the caption is a strong benefit or makes the reader call.  A photo caption has exceptionally high readership – what a great opportunity you waste if you describe the photo; readers can already see what it it.  Better you should increase your response with this universally read hot spot.

 Designing a Great Ad.

Start out with some thumbnail sketches of how your ad will lay out.  Pick up any magazine and find one to emulate.  Draw some fast, smaller than actual size likenesses of all the elements in your ad.  Hand letter the headline.  Does it look better on one line, or two?  Can you break the wording logically?  Use straight lines to represent the body copy.   One column or two?  Will all the copy fit?  Are you sure?  Hint: better edit again.

When you get a thumbnail ad you like, move up in size.  Draw a boarder the size your actual ad will be.  It’s easiest to trace the boarder of an ad the same size in a magazine.  Now pencil in your ad copy following the thumbnail sketch you made as a guide.  Don’t spend a lot of time on this one, this is just a “rough.”  Does everything work?  Everything fit?  Enough room for the photo?  You don’t have to write the body copy, but rule some lines in its place to get a feel of what it will look like.  Sketch in your logo, and your company name and address at the bottom.  Pencil in your phone number.

Now – do all this again.  Yep, it’s part of the process and everyone does it.  Tighten up the ad.  Make your headline more perfect.  Tighten where the copy will print.  Exactly where will you place the headline, and where will the line break?  Pencil in the subhead to size, and where does the break fall?  Refine and define all the elements.  Work out all the details.

Sorry: now make a third and final ad, crisp enough to show people.  This is called a comprehensive layout or comp.  If there are colors, show them.  Show the boarder style. Everything should be as it will appear in the final ad, but in pencil.  Don’t hand write the body copy, but have it represented with straight ruled lines.  Hand letter the head and sub head to approximate size.  Shade in where the photo or illustration will be placed.  Complete with your logo and name at the bottom, and the large phone number.  It should be nice enough to show around.

Now show it around.  Does everyone like it?  Get opinions.  Do they read it?  No, don’t just ask if they would read it, hand them the ad and the typed copy on another sheet and SEE if they read it.  Hint: If they don’t smile the moment you show it to them, you’re in trouble.  It they don’t read it in entirety, you’re in deep trouble.

Everyone like it?  Read it?  Good.  Now you have two choices: 1. set the ad on your computer, at a typesetting house, or a copy shop like Kinkos; or 2. take it to an advertising agency and have them set it.  If you’ve selected door number 1, you’re almost finished.  The people at Kinkos are generally friendly and helpful.  Everyone will respect you if you come in with a well thought-out tight comp.  Create your ad on their computer.  Ask them to help you if you need help.  Best of luck.  Drop a sample to me for a very fast review.

But I recommend option number 2.  Since your ad is already written and in final layout form, it shouldn’t be too expensive to have an agency look it over and get the type set.  Included in the price – you’ll get someone qualified looking over your work: they should let you know if you have any gross errors in your ad, or anything wrong at all.  They’d be stupid to set a typo or misspelling, and should give you some feedback on if it has a structural defect and will not be effective – and why.

Having the agency set your type is the final frontier for your ad before you place it – it’s nice to have a knowledgeable stranger look over your work before it becomes very expensive to make changes or very expensive to run.  An ad is only expensive if it doesn’t work.