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The Elements of Breakthrough Advertising

“Breakthrough Advertising” is a famous book written a few decades ago. Some people say it’s the “Best book ever written about persuasion, copywriting, marketing, and human behavior”. A must-read, a bit long, and painful though. Below some key concepts outlined in the book that I think are worth sharing.

The difference between “Traditional copywriting” and “Conversion copywriting”?

In short, traditional copywriting is here to inform & educate while conversion copywriting wants you to act (convert to whatever it used for). This distinction is important as we learn the magic of conversion psychology. It’s pretty much what makes a journalist different from a marketer. A journalist writes his copy to inform. A marketer writes copy to convert. Simple. In the following paragraphs, we consider copy from the standpoint of the marketer.

The Purpose of Advertising Copy

In an ad, the copy has a simple role. It connects consumers (with problems) to products (that solve them, supposedly). Technically, the copy doesn’t “create” problems in the consumer’s mind, they are already here. The copy only makes existing problems and advertised solutions obvious and actionable for the reader.

Essentially, the advertising copywriter in his work uses three tools:

  • his knowledge of people’s hopes, dreams, desired and emotions;
  • his product or his client’s product;
  • and the advertising message, which connects the two.

Writing an Effective Copy

The marketer, to succeed in his mission, must consider the following :

  1. The consumer’s need: What is the mass desire that creates this market?
  2. The consumer’s awareness: How much do these people know today about the way your product satisfies their desire?
  3. The consumer’s sophistication: How many other products have been presented to them before yours?

Mass desire (The Need)

The mass desire is defined as the “public spread of a private want”.

Talented marketers will pick the hopes, dreams, fears, and desires that already exist in the mind of millions of people, and focus those already-existing desires into a particular product.

To simplify, we can classify “Mass desire” into two distinct categories:

  • Permanent forces (mass instinct, widespread technological problems)
  • Forces of change (consumer trends, mass education, influencer economy)

Forces of change (trends) are harder to predict and exploit than permanent forces like the desire to be attractive, or the desire to be well-liked.

A good example of a trend has been the one towards larger, wider cars. In certain parts of the world, it is still very vivid. Auto manufacturers who attempted to buck the trend failed to sell cars, even when the car was superior to the larger “status symbol” cars in every practical way.

When, as a marketer, you examine a product or service being sold, you can expect that it’ll appeal to 3-4 desires. You must pick, for your ad, the most urgent desire to be satisfied.

Nowadays, it’s common to notice how influencers impact on trends, for the benefit of whoever is paying them. Influencer or micro-celebrities pushing on a trend, or creating a new one has become much more common with the advent of social media networks. People are simply more exposed, and easier to manipulate.

States of Awareness

Identifying the state of awareness is key to functional copywriting. A consumer who is ready to buy only has to be shown the brand and a reduced price to buy. A consumer who doesn’t know they even have a problem the product can solve will react to a brand and price with indifference. A succinct explanation of their problem, however, will get their attention and move them down the funnel towards the next states, until they make a purchase.

Consumer awareness can be split into five stages, with the first level requiring zero creativity to make a sale, and each subsequent level requiring an increasing level of planning, creativity, and effort from the marketer:

  1. **Problem and product aware:**The prospect who wants to buy, just needs an invitation to do so. (Price, special offer, brand)
  2. Product aware: The customer knows of the product but doesn’t want it (yet).
  3. Desire aware: The customer knows their desire but not the specific product to realize it.
  4. Need aware: The customer has a need but hasn’t considered products to satisfy it.
  5. No awareness: The customer is completely unaware that she even has a need.

It’s valuable for work around creating copy to catch search traffic in keyword groups, as this grouping is a more nuanced version of the “specials > reviews > what is…” level of consumer awareness.

Overcoming the Objections of the Prospect

Every prospect has objections when in the context of a sale. They are reasons (s)he is hesitant to buy your product. Practically, objections are almost unavoidable, because if the prospect didn’t have reservations about your solution’s price, value, relevance to their situation, or their purchasing ability, they would have already bought it.

This said, there are a few methods for overcoming objections that hold back a sale. Each of them plays on a different angle :

  • Redefine the adequation of the product with the problem. Simplify a complex problem to de-mystify it in the eyes of the prospect.
  • Redefine the product to meet additional needs and escalate the value perceived.
  • Redefine the price in terms of value by reducing the price.
  • Redefine the landscape of alternatives by eliminating competitors' solutions. Destroy, in the eyes of the prospects, the relevance of all other ways to satisfy a desire.

Irrationality, at the core of consumers behavior

Why is the desire for a higher status a strong enough lever to make someone buy a car that’s twice as big and expensive as what they need? Why buy a product of the Apple brand when Android is arguably just as good?

This is where character roles enter the scene, as a personification of these irrational desires. Subtly played with, they are a powerful way to have prospects envision a path to their desires through your product.

For example, advertisers can cater to men’s desire to be more virile by suggesting that tobacco smoking makes you more manly. But since this is absurd to state, it’s shown implicitly: by making the star of cigarette ads cowboys and similar masculine archetypes.

Camouflage: Match Content to Context

Customize ads to fit the context of the page they’re published in. Ads should match the format, style, tone, and voice of the context brand. Why? Mainly, to borrow credibility from the context.

In the internet context, most of the consumers are “banner blind” because most of the banners don’t match the context of the content they’re willingly engaging with. That’s why Google Adwords sponsored results or content marketing copywriting are so much more effective than random banners.

Actionable Takeaways

  1. Determine the reader’s desire, awareness, and sophistication, and sell to that specific group. Effective copy can only work on one group at a time.
  2. Products satisfy the desire to fit in or attain status as much or more than they satisfy actual problems. “At least half of all purchases today cannot be understood in terms of function alone”.
  3. The headline should never sell. Headlines or any “first impression copy” has one job: make them keep reading. (Unless the customer is in the last state of awareness and only needs brand/price/discount to buy.)
  4. Overcome objections: simplify the problem, escalate the value, reduce price, or invalidate alternate solutions.
  5. Preventative products are best sold to someone who cares about the prospect, not the prospects themselves. Example: life insurance. A person is unlikely to buy unless convinced of the suffering their family members would undergo if they were to have an accident.

References & Credits

~ Thanks for reading ~


By Alban Leandri

I am an engineer with a soul-devouring passion for sciences and the digital space. With experience in startups and technology companies, I'm always keen to face new challenges, improve my craft and share the love :)

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