Copywriting. It's that kind-of-an-art, kind-of-a-science mysterious force that is an inescapable part of of marketing. And it can be scary.
But it doesn't have to be.
The fact of the matter is that copywriting is more science than art. And what is science known for?
Other than confusing the hell out of me?
Copywriting is so scientific that it follows formulas. The comparison to science isn't exactly a one-to-one. There is a little artistry involved. That is to say that if you were searching for a secret recipe of just the right combination of words that could be used to sell any product or service ever then I am afraid you will be disappointed.
Not just with this post, but with the world of marketing in general.
Copywriting, and marketing as a whole, is all about putting your best foot forward, seeing what kind of an imprint your shoe makes, and trying again until you get it just right. That means think of these formulas more as guides or scaffolds. Use them to get started, but ultimately your success is up to you.
This is a long post. Use the navigation panel below to jump around, or skip the navigation and get right into it.
The PAR Formula
The PAR formula is a time-tested copywriting formula. PAR stands for
To start, ask yourself what the problem is that your product or service solves.
Think back to the difference between features and benefits.
Let's say you are buying a juicer because you are on a health kick. The packaging on one juicer reads "This juicer uses interlocking gears to maximize the amount of juice from each piece of fruit."
The feature of this juicer is that it uses interlocking gears. However, the benefit to you as the user is that you get more juice out of the fruit you put into the machine.
People don’t buy juicers because they have gears. People buy juicers because they are good at juicing.
People don’t buy products and services; they buy solutions to their problems.
Isn't it silly when you focus on features and not on benefits?
People buy solutions to their problems. This is why copywriting focuses on benefits, not features. Features don’t solve problems, and they don’t impact the lives of your customers.
That’s what benefits do.
For our example, let’s look at the ingredient packs that our juicing retailer sells.
A feature of these products is that they come pre-portioned. What this means for your audience is that they can save time, hassle, and guesswork. That’s a benefit of using pre-portioned ingredient packs.
People who want to enjoy fresh, healthy juice in the morning can be pressed for time. Tired from a long day at work? Don’t get out the cutting board and start pawing through the produce drawer. Throw in a pre-portioned ingredient pack.
Let's Agitate The Problem
The next step in the PAR formula is to agitate the problem, which is just a fancy way of saying make your readers connect with the problem. That means make the problem big and make it real.
Explore the problem and accentuate the associated pain points.
This is where the artistry comes in, and, admittedly, it can be tough to find the right mix and focus on the right pain points. Go overboard and your problem becomes larger-than-life and cartoonish. Don’t agitate enough and your audience won’t be impressed.
If you’re not sure where to start, make a list of all of the problems.
Rank them from the most disruptive (or most painful) to the least disruptive (least painful). Pull out the biggest pain point that your product or service provides a solution for. If that pain point doesn’t seem to have enough oomph, go for the next on the list as well.
Keep in mind that your problem doesn't just need to connect with some people somewhere. It has to connect with your target customers. This means that your ranking of how disruptive or painful these problems are should be from the viewpoint of your target customers.
Also keep in mind that your copy will be more effective if you stick to a single central theme or try to make a single point rather than trying to address every single pain point that your audience may feel.
It can be tempting to write copy that speaks to every single pain point your audience may have. The more pain points addressed, the more people you connect with, the more conversions, right?
Your reader will lose interest and identify with the ways that the copy speaks to the problems others face instead of the way it speaks to their own problems. Attempting to address too many pain points dilutes the persuasive power of your copy and prevents you from making the connections that convert.
After you have agitated the problem and made your audience’s pain points real and very big, it’s time to resolve the problem for them. By now you should have realized that the only logical resolution is to follow through with the call to action that is associated with this content asset, product description, or copy segment.
Resolving the pain point doesn’t just mean listing benefits. It means fitting the problem and the solution together in a way that makes a perfect fit. You have spent time crafting copy that connects your reader to their pain point; they have to believe that your resolution really will be a resolution for them.
Don’t forget to include a clear and direct call to action to seal the deal.
What would you do if you could have 29 hours of your time back this year?
Catch up on your reading? Go sailing? Finally clean out the garage?
(Problem) If you start your day with a healthy juice blend, you’re doing your body a ton of favors. But not your schedule. Between weighing, washing, chopping, and cleaning up, daily juice drinkers use about seven minutes every morning just to prep the ingredients for their morning blends.
(Agitation) Over the course of a year (not counting weekends), that adds up to 29 hours’ worth of could-have-stayed-in-bed. That’s 29 hours of “hey, it’s me, running a little late this morning, be there in ten.” The next time you’re standing in your kitchen in your socks and underwear pleading with your juicer to hurry up, know that it doesn’t have to be that way.
(Resolution)Just one five-count Juice-Ease Veggies & Kale Super Green Recipe package will save you half an hour this week alone. Each pack is perfectly portioned for a delicious, nutrient-packed juice blend that comes with seven extra minutes in the morning. Just tear open, pour in the contents, and add water.
Tear, pour, and add. What will you do with your 29 hours?
(CTA) Tell us your seven-minute story and learn how you can take back your mornings at www.29hoursofjuice.com.
The above example is a complete segment of copy that follows the PAR formula.
The problem—the time consumed in the mornings by a juicing habit—is clearly presented and repeated. The problem is agitated with some humorous examples where those seven minutes per morning have caused people to run late, and the resolution is presented as the product we are trying to sell.
Notice the call to action.
While our ultimate goal is, of course, to sell as many Juice-Ease Veggies & Kale Super Green Recipe packages as is humanly possible, the fact that this CTA isn’t something like “Shop Now” or “Buy Today” should tell us that this copy segment is an external ad, or some other form of copy that is not being presented to traffic that we own (hot traffic).
Furthermore, we should be able to infer that this ad is being presented to “cold” audiences, or those who probably have never heard of our brand or products.
This is a fictitious example, but we can expect that if we visited the URL in the CTA we would be directed to a landing page full of more copy, testimonials, long-form sales letters, and/or product videos. The CTAs on that page would reflect a higher-commitment action on the part of the reader, such as purchasing a value-sized bundle or requesting a trial size.
Cold traffic—audiences that have never heard of our brand before—are unlikely to buy simply because we made them imagine the vulnerability of juicing in their underwear on a time crunch. This is another example of the copy being subordinate to the strength of the offer.
It will take significantly more than a chuckle to convert cold traffic.
Words are indeed magical, but words without value behind them are like a magician without a wand.
What I Like About the PAR Formula
The PAR formula is built to be a workhorse for all but the coldest of traffic.
What I also like about the PAR formula is that it forces copywriters who are using it to get creative about the ways in which they make emotional connections with their audiences. Sales aren’t rational. They are emotion-based, then rationalized later.
The term “agitate the problem” means to make the problem big and to make the problem real. How do you make things big? Make them emotional. How do you make things real? Make your audience experience them—make them emotional.
Here’s another thing about the PAR formula. It is a tweaked version of the AIDA formula (up next) that has been a copywriting standby since before you and I were born.
And I can say that with confidence because it was developed over a hundred years ago.
So the PAR formula has the pedigree of stemming from one of the industry’s standbys, while reflecting some modern twists for modern audiences.
Don’t give your readers a reason to object. Instead of asking “Why not call today?” use a more decisive alternative such as “Give us a call today.” Better yet, make your call to action ultra-specific: “Give us a call and book your free consultation today!”
What I Don’t Like About the PAR Formula
Experienced copywriters have an instinct for finding angles, hooks, and quirks. What I don’t like about the PAR formula is that for the new copywriter, it doesn’t preach interest, attraction, or intrigue.
The PAR formula is all business. Here’s your problem, here’s why you should care about it, and here’s how we can fix it for you.
Remember that when you put a message out on the internet, unless you own the traffic you are speaking to, you’re competing for eyeballs every second of the day. So what if your juicing ingredient packs save me time in the morning, I’m watching a video titled “Top 10 Silliest Cat Tricks of All Time.”
That’s a big hurdle to clear, and that’s why the sample copy segment started off with a non-sequitur open-loop question.
The irony of having the world instantaneously available at our fingertips is that none of us lives in the moment. It takes a non-sequitur question to pique interest and stop our audience from scrolling, swiping, or half-paying attention to four devices at once.
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The AIDA Formula
The AIDA formula is over a hundred years old. It was developed in the early 1900s and is attributed to an American advertising pioneer by the name of Elias St. Elmo Lewis.
It has long been a copywriting staple and has spawned a large number of other copywriting formulas. We’ll take a look at some of the variations of the AIDA formula, but my opinion (and the consensus of many other copywriters within the advertising and marketing community) is that they are often just watered-down versions of AIDA.
AIDA stands for Attention, Interest and Desire, and Action.
• Attract the Attention of the audience
• Create Interest and Desire
• Encourage people to take Action
See? Even 100 years ago, copywriting was still all about the action. Let's take a look at an example.
Before you wash your face again, you need to know what's really going on.Your daily facial cleansing regimen is SCRAPING AWAY YOUR BEAUTY!
Like a gorgeous wood floor that slowly loses its luster through improper cleaning, your beauty regimen is scuffing your skin and destroying your pores on a microscopic level. Even though you can't see this damage right away, day in and day out use of harsh cleansers and heavy makeup is slowly stealing your natural radience.
(Interest & Desire)
There is a better way. Your pores will thank you for the gentle and nourishing touch of avocado. No damage and naturally nourishing - that's the power of fresh avacado.
(Call to Action)
For a limited time, you can claim your free sample of our newest nourshing avacado facial rinse and END the cycle of damage. Click to claim your offer.
What I Like About the AIDA Formula
An interesting aspect of the AIDA formula is that it is impressively scalable. We’re discussing it here in the context of copywriting, but a business’s entire marketing campaign could conform to the AIDA model.
For example, if our online juice retailer decided to open a juice bar, the AIDA model could be used to plan the high-level marketing execution.
A PR campaign is run three months prior to opening the bar, promoting the assortment of juices available, the unique and healthy ingredient pack add-ins, and the trendy atmosphere. This awareness campaign is reinforced in the last month prior to grand opening with a direct mail campaign and neighborhood door-hangers segmented between business customers and regular consumers. Focus on high-leverage, high-visibility placement environments.
All materials (PR, direct mail, door-hangers, etc.) focus on the healthy aspects and exclusive unique blends that the juice bar will feature. These aspects are a direct comparison to “boring” offerings in the area. Taste, health benefits, and convenience are highlighted.
Close to the opening of the juice bar, an invite-only campaign is run for a first-look party before the bar opens to generate buzz and create a premium brand experience. The limited guest list drives desire through scarcity; the first-come-first-serve policy drives desire through urgency. Sign-ups are handled through a squeeze page that collects customer info for marketing campaigns later.
All communications include a clear, frictionless CTA.
This near-infinite scalability is a testament to how robust the AIDA model really is and is an interesting look at its applications outside the field of copywriting.
What I Don’t Like About the AIDA Formula
The AIDA formula is just like any other writing guideline in the sense that it shouldn’t be treated as an exact template.
Today’s audiences aren’t reading product catalogs or newspapers. They are reading your copy on websites, in emails, and on social media. More specifically, they are scanning your copy on a multitude of different devices while multitasking and splitting their attention.
For this reason, I like more straightforward and compact copywriting formulas like the PAR formula or CopyBlogger’s 1-2-3-4 formula (up next). They’re concise and get right to the point, and when matched with the right audience, they have a proven track record of converting time and time again.
Some Variations on the AIDA Formula
Remember how the title of this post includes 3.5 copywriting formulas? Here is the .5 for you.
The AIDA formula isn’t the only game in town, and it has been tweaked for specific applications. Since these area really just adaptations of the AIDA formula, I hesitate to call them full copywriting formulas.
Check out the AIDA adaptations below.
The ACCA Formula
ACCA stands for
This is an AIDA variant that’s tweaked for colder audiences.
Instead of focusing on attention and desire, it presupposes that your audience is not aware of the problem, the solution, or your product.
The task then becomes increasing their awareness, helping them understand the problem they face, persuading them to believe that they do in fact have a problem or that your solution is the best one, and finally, persuading them to take the next steps.
The AIDPPC Formula
Ignore the fact that AIDPPC is not a word. It stands for
This is an AIDA variant designed for sales letters that would be sent to very warm or hot audiences. In the case of a sales letter, the “close” takes the place of a CTA; however, the close of a sale can simply be thought of as a call to action to buy the product or service enclosed in the sales letter.
The 4 P’s
Not to be confused with the four P’s of marketing (Product, Price, Place, and Promotion), the four P’s copywriting formula consists of the following steps:
This AIDA variant captures the attention of your audience by involving them in a story or some other presentation of a future state where their problem will be solved. Next, the copy promises a certain result, demonstrates proof, then encourages the reader to take action.
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The 1-2-3-4 Formula
Here’s a copywriting formula that comes straight from the experts at copyblogger.com.
They call it the 1-2-3-4 formula, and it really is that simple.
(1) What I’ve got for you
(2) What it’s going to do for you
(3) Who am I?
(4) What you need to do next
The folks over at copyblogger.com are consummate professionals, so when they say they have a copywriting formula that’s as simple as 1-2-3-4, I’m inclined to pay attention.
This formula is designed for an audience that is at least warm enough to be aware of their problem. It starts out with the solution. A reader who is aware of their problem will immediately understand that this solution—in the form of a product or service—applies to them.
Next, we move on to benefits. This formula doesn’t get bogged down harping on the difference between features and benefits. It simply answers the question “what will this do for me?” The only way to answer that question is with benefits.
Attempting to answer the question with features simply wouldn’t make sense. For example:
Question: What will this juicer do for me?
Answer: It will use a pair of interlocking gears to juice for you.
Element number three is the answer to the question “who are you?” Right away, you will notice that this element is missing from other copywriting formulas.
This element is especially useful if you’ve been cultivating a persona or a trusted brand. The “you” in this step doesn’t have to be a person, it can be a brand.
Of course, element number four of the 1-2-3-4 copywriting formula is the action that you want your audience to take after reading your copy—your call to action.
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What I Like About the 1-2-3-4 Formula
I really like this formula for copy that relates to opt-ins, content upgrades, and other non-sales-related CTAs. When your offer is something to the effect of “let me give you something valuable for free,” then telling your audience up front, right away what you have to give them is great.
This formula also revolves around the benefits and the value proposition at the core of your offer. That makes it a tremendous guide for new copywriters. Tape those four questions to the wall in front of your desk, then get into your reader’s shoes every time you write a segment of copy. Ask yourself those four questions as the reader and think about your confidence in the answers.
This is a great complete, rinse, repeat formula and I see it as a great fit for digital copywriting.
What I Don’t Like About the 1-2-3-4 Formula
This formula is set on autopilot to be a poor fit for cold audiences.
That’s okay—not every messaging method is going to be a good fit for every messaging opportunity—but it does mean that the copywriter who uses this formula will have to do some tweaking or use some imagination when using this method to communicate with cold audiences.
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The Bottom Line
The bottom line is that there is more than one way to tackle the challenge of writing compelling copy that converts. Remember to use the formulas in this post more as guides rather than recipes, and always be sure to measure your results and make changes as necessary.
Copywriting is more of a science than an art, but that doesn't mean that it will always go your way if you follow the rules.
Do you have a burning question about the process of copywriting? Ask me in the comments!
John co-founded ClydeBank Media in 2013. Focusing on adding as much value as possible to the market, John, with the support of the exceptional team at ClydeBank Media, has helped guide the early growth of the company. He currently serves as the Director and as a contributor to the ClydeBank Media blog.