Writing Sales and Direct Response Copy That Works

By October 3, 2013marketing

I was recently sitting in a meeting with several other marketing professionals and copywriters. We were discussing the rules for writing advertising copy that works for direct response. While the only rule I follow is that there are no rules. I do believe there are some good guidelines. Below is a compilation of guidelines from several sources and weeks of discussions. If you follow every guideline below when creating an ad I can promise that your ad will suck. But you may hit pay dirt with your ad if you pick a few key elements that are pertinent to your objective to keep in mind while orchestrating your prose.

I recently saw a president of a marketing firm create a checklist of almost every element below. He would check off the element if he found it in the ad. If the element wasn’t checked off, he would send the ad back to the copywriters. He couldn’t understand why the ads weren’t performing since implementing this new checklist. In my opinion, he missed the number one element: how does the ad make you feel? If you get too scientific with your ads you’ll miss the emotional side. And the number one reason someone responds to an ad is because it hits them on an emotional level.

Headlines: Purpose is to turn the casual browser into a reader of your ad.

Promise some kind of benefit or reward for the reader in trade for the valuable time it take to read more.

The Four U’s to Writing Good Headline:

  • Be Useful
  • Create Urgency
  • Convey idea that main benefit is somehow Unique
  • Do all of the above in an Ultra-specific way

Types of Headlines:

  • Direct Headline: Go straight to the heart of the matter without cleverness.
  • Indirect Headline: Subtle approach using curiosity to raise a question in the reader’s mind which the body copy answers.
  • News Headline: Announcement, improved versions, scoop as the basis of a compelling news headline as long as the news is actually news.
  • How To Headline: Used everywhere
  • Question Headline: A question the reader can empathize with or would like to get answered that the body copy will answer.
  • Command Headline: Tells prospective ready what to do, strong, demanding action
  • Reason Why Headline: If body text consists of a numbered list of product features or tips
  • Testimonial Headline: Outside proof that you offer great value. Use quotation marks to let reader know it’s a testimonial

Other Key Components of Headlines:

  • Keep it simple
  • Grab attention
  • Communicate a message
  • 8 words or less


  • Useful to the reader (or don’t use one)
  • Provide sense of urgency, curiosity, question or benefit driven

First Sentences:

  • Keep it simple
  • Support the headline
  • Use: a. Power statement b. Ask question to get reader to engage c. Statistic or evidence supporting headline and story

Structure of Persuasive Copy:

  • Back up everything you said in the headline and first sentence.
  • Easy to understand (no big words or complex ideas, use common spelling, avoid industry jargon).
  • Stay laser focused.
  • Structure it so there is a good “feel” to it, caring, best interest, talking with and not “at” the prospect.
  • Urgent but positive (avoid negative phraseology).
  • Be persuasive and engaging.
  • Sell with benefits, support with features. One of the most repeated rules of compelling copy is to stress benefits, not features. Identify the underlying benefit that each feature of a product or service provides to the prospect, because that’s what will prompt the purchase. Make sure they are not fake benefits.
  • Ask why or how does the feature “connect with the prospect’s desire. Get to the root of what’s in it for the prospect at an emotional level. (Features alone may do the trick if selling to businesses or highly technical people where pandering to emotions will only annoy them.)
  • Focus on the reader – make an important promise early on (with your headline and opening paragraphs) that tells the reader what’s in it for her. Never allow readers to question why they are bothering to pay attention.
  • Be ultra-specific in your assertions, and always make sure to give “reasons why.”
  • Demonstrate large amounts of credibility, using statistics, expert references and testimonials as appropriate. You must be authoritative – if you’re not an existing expert on a subject, you had better have done your research.
  • After building your credibility and authority, make sure you get back to the most important person around – the reader. What’s STILL in it for him? Restate the hook and the promise that got readers engaged in the first place.
  • Make an offer. Whether you’re selling a product or selling an idea, you’ve got to explicitly present it for acceptance by the reader. Be bold and firm when you present your offer, and relieve the reader’s risk of acceptance by standing behind what you say.
  • Sum everything up, returning full circle to your original promise and demonstrate how you’ve fulfilled it.

Scientifically-Backed Copywriting Tips

  • Make them feel something – walk in someone else’s shoes, what keeps the reader up at night, what makes the reader tick
  • Be wary of “selling” savings – selling “time” is far more effective that selling money. Referring to time typically leads to more favorable attitudes – and to more purchases. Speak to what really matters to a reader like time, troubles, or objectives. It’s more valuable because when time is gone, it’s gone and that makes it a more scarce resource and meaningful.
  • Sweat the Small Stuff – The devil is in the details. Keep tabs on performance and test even the smallest detail like adding the “only” $99.
  • Be Authentic – Since many consumers are hesitant to believe crazy claims, they’re more likely to glaze over your copy, rather than get swept up by it. So create strong copy that addresses objections head-on. Point out common concerns a prospect may have then assure them with facts and evidence that they have nothing to worry about.
  • Don’t rely on adjectives alone – Verbs beat out adjectives more often than not. Verbs get specific and are harder to ignore. Win people over with by describing what we actually do.
  • Include “power” words – Top 5 Persuasive words are: “You” (most powerful word used in selling), Free, Because, Instantly, New
  • Use transportation for persuasion – People can block out sales pitches but everyone loves a good story. Transport the prospect to another place
  • Detailed imagery – paint a picture for the story:
    1. Suspense – lead with something exciting first, not later. Get them to finish story
    2. Metaphors and irony – Tell a hidden tale through a metaphor. Use an “Aha” moment
    3. Modeling – To have someone take action, model the action via a story. Allow the prospect to re-imagine themselves as the main character.

Copy Length:

For many products, long copy outsells short copy by a long margin but make it as long as necessary and no longer. The length depends on:

  • Product: the more features/benefits, the longer the copy
  • Audience: Certain people want much information as they can get before making a purchase.
  • Purpose: What is the goal? An ad that aims to make a sale MUST overcome every objection the potential buyer may have.
  • Price point: The higher the price, the more copy required to justify or create the need.
  • Unusual item: the more unusual the product, the more prospects need to relate to it by clearly demonstrating benefit


  • Makes copy more interesting. Don’t overuse.
  • Usually tightly focused on benefits
  • Should be Useful
  • Demonstrate Urgency
  • Convey what is Unique
  • Highlight benefits, offers
  • Not to be written like complete sentences, keep them brief, concise

Call to Action:

  • Create urgency
  • Use action words
  • Be clear on how you want them to take action (phone, email, website, QR code)
  • Bold/Highlight
  • Instructions, phone number, promo code, and website (contact info) in same area


Document sources for claims made