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Why Most Copywriting Formulas Stink (and How to Really Write for the Web)

Teacher writing formulas on a blackboardDo you ever wish that there was an easy formula for writing persuasive web copy?

What if you could just follow a few rules to write web copy that converts web visitors into buyers?

Or just drop a few words into a machine and your seductive copy rolls out at the other side?

Well, I don’t have a robot that automatically generates copy that sells. But I have a couple of lesser-known formulas that will help you write more persuasive copy. And I have a warning about a smelly formula that leads to disaster and possibly chases your web visitors away.

Shall we start with the stinky formula?

AIDA – the eternal princess of copywriting formulas

AIDA is the best-known copywriting formula.

American advertising pioneer Elmo Lewis developed the formula around 1900 for designing and writing adverts.

The idea behind AIDA is that an advert has to

  1. attract the Attention of its audience;
  2. create Interest and Desire;
  3. encourage people to take Action – e.g., request a brochure, send in a coupon, or call to buy.

Most copywriting formulas are reincarnations of the eternal princess AIDA. They follow a similar process:

  • ACCA (Awareness – Comprehension – Conviction – Action)
  • AIDPPC (Attention – Interest – Description – Persuasion – Proof – Close)
  • IDCA (Interest – Desire – Conviction – Action)
  • AAPPA (Attention – Advantage – Proof – Persuasion – Action)
  • PPPP (Picture – Promise – Prove – Push)

If you haven’t given up yet, you can read about 27 more copywriting formulas here.

Mindblowing eh?

But they’re all just variations of good old AIDA.

What’s good about the AIDA formula? And why do I say this formula is a bit smelly?

Of course AIDA is a simple formula. That’s good. And it’s easy to remember as she’s an Ethiopian princess in a famous opera with the same name.

The process AIDA describes seems to make sense, too.

But does it?

The web is not like an advert in a magazine.

When people land on your website, you already have their attention.

This is an important distinction with old-fashioned advertising. Many advertising agencies still think they need to draw attention with a fancy, flashy presentation on their home page – but instead they’re just annoying their web visitors.

You don’t need to draw attention to your website like you need to draw attention to an advert in a magazine. Your web visitors already clicked through to find out more about you. Your task is to create interest and desire.

And that’s the problem with the rather stuffy princess AIDA. First she chases web visitors away if you follow her suggestion to focus on drawing attention. And then this decaying princess doesn’t explain much about how to create interest and desire.

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I only like the last A of AIDA because action is important on the web. Each web page needs a clear call-to-action that stands out and that encourages your web visitor to take the next step.

But let’s go back to the I and D of AIDA…

How to create interest and desire on the web

Remember:

On the average Web page, users have time to read at most 28% of the words during an average visit; 20% is more likely. ~ Jakob Nielsen

People don’t read web pages. They scan web pages.

To get your web visitors interested, you need a value proposition that entices a scanner to start reading. You need a clear and credible headline, bullet points, and an image. You need to let web visitors know they’re in the right place. Tell them there’s a strong possibility they’ll find what they’re looking for. Draw them into your story so you can create desire for your product.

You create interest with your value proposition; and then you describe your service to create desire. That’s when my two favorite copywriting formulas become useful: FAB and PAS.

A powerful copywriting formula: FAB

FAB stands for Features – Advantages – Benefits.

FAB reminds us to always focus on customers. Our customers aren’t interested in features, and they aren’t interested in specifications, they don’t even care about advantages. All they want to know is what you offer to them. How do you make them happier or richer?

In my book How to Write Seductive Web Copy, I use the following example to describe the difference between features, advantages, and benefits:

Imagine you’re selling an oven. One of its special features is a fast preheat system. The advantage of this system is that the oven heats up to 400º F (200º C) in just five minutes. The benefit is that a cook doesn’t have to hang around until the oven is finally warm enough. It makes cooking less stressful and you have a much better chance to get dinner ready in time even if you’re extremely busy.

To create interest in and desire for your product you need to hone in on the benefits you offer to your reader.

Have you read product descriptions on Zappos.com? Most include a feature or advantage with a benefit. Take, for instance, this description for a pair of sandals:

  • Adjustable buckle strap [feature] allows for a secure, personalized fit [benefit].
  • 100% caoutchouc lite outsole [feature] with shock absorber heel [feature] reduces the jarring effects [advantage] for comfortable stride [benefit].

Or take the headlines for the Copywriting Academy of Andy Maslen:

  • How to be a better copywriter and make more money in 2013.
  • Do you want the respect, the rewards and the results you get from being a successful copywriter?

Andy Maslen focuses on benefits in his headlines. Features of his offer – like video-based course, 5.5 hours of video, 33 exercises, 2 marked assignments and a 300-page manual – are described later in the copy.

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An alternative copywriting formula: PAS

PAS stands for Problem – Agitate – Solution; and Dan Kennedy says this:

“When you understand that people are more likely to act to avoid pain than to get gain, you’ll understand how powerful this first formula is. (…) It may be the most reliable sales formula ever invented.” ~ Dan Kennedy

PAS is powerful because problems can attract even more attention than benefits. People want to avoid pain, hassle, risks, glitches, and problems.

How does the PAS formula work?

It’s simple: First you describe a problem, then you agitate by highlighting the emotions that go with the problem, and then you offer your solution.

The Premise landing page provides a example of PAS. It describes several pain points that online marketers experience and goes on to show how Premise provides solutions. The agitation might be light, but it works well. For instance:

Problem and Agitation:
To get action, you need a clean, great looking, landing page with effective copy, but finding a good designer on short notice is next to impossible and hacking code is no fun.

Solution:
Premise empowers you to quickly and easily build custom, graphically-enhanced landing pages without cost, code, or hassle. Plus, copywriting advice is delivered directly into WordPress for each landing page type.

The harsh truth about copywriting formulas

No copywriting formula can guarantee that your copy will sell.

You can write the most beautiful copy in the world, but if your copy doesn’t address your web visitors’ needs and problems, you’ve wasted your time with writing.

The only way to write powerful web copy is to understand what makes your reader tick. Use the PAS and FAB formulas to translate features into benefits your customers care about, and into problems they want to avoid.

Know the pain points you can solve. Understand the fears you need to overcome. Appreciate the desires you can fulfill.

The secret to writing good copy isn’t about picking the right formula; it isn’t even about choosing the right words; and it isn’t about using short sentences.

What you write is more important than how you write it.

Understand your customer as if you can read his mind. Know how to sell to him. And your words will flow almost naturally.

Image credit (adapted): BigStockPhoto
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Comments

  1. Awesome Henneke– will be sending this to several people who I’ve worked with in the past. “Appreciate the desires you can fulfill.” is a beautifully worded statement that really resonates with me: I sometimes find myself second guessing my own value.
    Jordan Coeyman recently posted…Vine vs Instagram (round 1)My Profile

    • Henneke says:

      Thank you, Jordan :)

      It’s a simple statement – but it’s often the most difficult part of copywriting. It’s not easy to know what exactly your customers are looking for.

  2. Mark Farrelly says:

    Henneke,
    I simply love reading your posts. Your writing style is so captivating.. even enchanting!

    As I’ve said before, I’m a 25 year veteran of the advertising industry, been a copywriter all that time. But you, you write with a freshness, a heart and soul, an interest and intrigue that always makes me feel you are more interested in me, the reader, gaining benefit from what you write, than you are trying to “impress” me. The ego of many writers gets in the way of them communicating effectively, but yours never does.

    And again, I’ve found myself reading one of your posts and thinking to myself… “wow, that’s great, I could really apply what Henneke’s saying to my job.. tomorrow!”

    Keep them coming.

    :)

    Mark

    • Henneke says:

      Hey Mark – that’s a great comment. Thank you so much.

      And you’re right: I’d rather be helpful (and teach something) than impress people with my writing skills. You’ll never hear me calling myself a guru. ;-)

  3. Henneke,

    Thanks for reminding me that it’s all about my customer.

    Sometimes in the day to day tasks of managing my business, I forget about the person I’m writing to – her name, her favorite food, what car she drives, and most importantly – what keeps her up at night, and how my product can help.

    In the beginning I created a very elaborate representation of her – and then out of the blue, she showed up!
    Lisa recently posted…Congratulations To Qpractice Members Who Passed the NCIDQ Practicum!My Profile

    • Henneke says:

      So you actually met your “avatar” after describing her?

      • Yes!

        Although her hair was a different color, she turned out to be one of early supporters and instrumental in the development of our product after she signed up for our mailing list.

        We asked for readers to fill out a survey and if they would be willing to be interviewed by phone. She was one.

        Now, we’ve met many who are are ideal, and it all started from the exercise of creating and writing to the avatar.
        Lisa recently posted…Live NCIDQ Office Hours Summer 2013My Profile

  4. This is easily the best copywriting blog I follow. Thanks for the amazing quality you give away so freely.
    Paul Keep recently posted…The Truth about FREEMy Profile

  5. Dear Henneke,

    Thank you for this post.

    After reading I instantly re-checked my ‘finished’ translation of the packaging of a our new type of shoe-inlays.

    I ‘think’ I have to re-write some paragraphs using the ‘feature-advantage-benefits’.

    I think I will… :)

    My best

    Moniek

    • Henneke says:

      That’s great to hear!

      You’ll probably find product descriptions on the Zappos website quite useful as source of inspiration.

      Thank you, Moniek :)

  6. Great article, Henneke.

    You stopped me in my tracks this morning, and made me read the whole thing. Valuable reminder regarding Dan Kennedy’s PAS formula being the leader of the copywriting pack, too.

    I need to use this PAS approach more often in my clients work.
    Kevin recently posted…5 Ways To Make Your Brand Remarkable In The Next 5 MinutesMy Profile

    • Henneke says:

      I hope you didn’t arrive somewhere too late because you were reading my article, Kevin ;-)

      I guess that focusing on benefits feels more natural than problems. That’s why most people tend to follow the FAB rather than the PAS formula?

      • Yeah probably.

        We also see/hear the competition focusing on the benefits and features of their stuff, so we get sucked into their vortex, without giving thought to the importance of rubbing some salt in the problem before proposing our [hopefully unique and relevant] solution.

  7. Oh Henneke. I love you and your blog <3

    For me, I will combine PAS and FAB for more enchanting. And of course the detail are important. Right? ;)

    Best,
    Danial.

  8. As regards AIDA it’s interesting how many times people need to reinvent the wheel. Well, the wheel is still round. :)

    Makes me thinking about how many times Think and Grow Rich has been reinvented too. Or How to win friends and influence people.

    Very interesting post as usual, I’ve noted down those copywriting formulas even as you say they are probably not enough to beat Google and their permanent updates.

    Anyway very good.

    P.S. I’ve mentioned your ebook in a comment on the last post at The Sales Lion, hope it’s cool. :)
    Andrea H. recently posted…Anger Management: Are You a Pitbull or a Rottweiler?My Profile

  9. Richard Canfield says:

    Boiled down to essentials, presented with ease, and, all in all, nicely done. I will remember the point well. Indeed

  10. Your article is interesting as always, Henneke. The copywriter’s job is to be a salesperson, a salesperson who writes copy that sells products or services. The formulas are just there to aid the writer.

    The most important thing is the customer. And as the writer, you use the formula that best help you get the customer to take the desired action.

    • Henneke says:

      Yep, I fully agree with you, Terrence. Formulas are just an aid for writing copy that sells.

      I’m never quite sure whether a copywriter should be a marketer or a sales person. Maybe both?

      Thank you for stopping by to leave a comment. I appreciate it! :)

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