Banner ads, PPC ads and social media ads are so deceptive.

Especially from a copywriting perspective, they seem so easy to create. How hard can three lines of text be, anyway?

That’s the classic rookie mistake.

The words themselves may be few, but the research, the insight and the understanding that led to their being placed on a great ad was extensive.

The legwork a good copywriter does is often not apparent, but the results are. Better copy is more relevant, more targeted, more precise — and the conversion rates will support this. Research is a huge part of this initial legwork, but so is simply getting your mind into the right frame to understand and communicate ideas clearly.

Below are five common mental mistakes that directly translate to weak copy in ads, and thus poor ad performance.


You Fall Back on Verbal Crutches and Tired Phrasing

Certain constructions enter adspeak and devolve quickly into cliche. When this happens, the phrases lose their meaning and impact with the audience.

Unfortunately, when we are searching for just the right words to express an idea, these cliches pop up because they’re so ubiquitous.

Freelance creative director and writer Bill Karl nails this in a piece for Ad Age. He spotlights three particularly cringe-worthy constructions we’ve all seen in weak ads:

  • The non-sequitur. These ads jump right into a message without sufficient context. It sounds like something from a 1950s radio spot: “When it comes to [market], there’s nothing better than [brand’s product]!”
  • The yes/no question. Leading an ad with a yes/no question is weak for the same reasons as above — the question comes without context — but it’s got the added burden of leaving the audience open to tuning out your message. You: “Have dirty windows?” Them: “Nope!”
  • The three-word tagline. Cut. It. Out.

In classical advertising, the three examples above simply represent awkward attempts at connecting a message to an audience member’s needs.

In search marketing, keywords have made relevance much easier to achieve, but as James Scaggs points out at Unbounce, it has created another problem, particularly with dynamic keywords.

“Best practice says always use the search term in the headline,” Scaggs writes. “Well, that advice was from five years ago. It worked then, but today everybody is doing it.

“Dynamic keyword insertion is great for quickly creating relevant copy on a large scale but it’s hardly a well-kept secret. It works great in many cases, but when too many advertisers are using it on the same search query, it causes choice fatigue.”

Case in point:

Email Marketing Screenshot

With a whole field of competitors leading their ads with the same keyword, no one stands out — Scaggs describes this as choice fatigue. You could also describe it as an opportunity.

How to Be More Thoughtful With Your Word Choice

Direct response marketers have a tendency to identify what has worked in the past and work to try to recreate that success. That’s why pro copywriters keep a swipe file for reference.

But this process can remove an important factor in the equation: You.

“Yes, you should study great copy,” Breakthrough Marketing Secrets editor Roy Furr writes. “Yes, you should use previous winning ads for inspiration. Yes, you can even ‘adopt’ a phrase here or there.

“But then, be yourself. Throw all that copy into your brain, jumble it up, and let your brain spit it back out from memory, and in your own voice. And when you are looking directly to your swipe file for inspiration, don’t look for phrases to copy, or formulas to fill-in-the-blanks. Think about the psychology behind the copy.”



You Neglect the Reader’s Emotions

Appeals to emotion have been a part of advertising since Day 1.

But just as those of us in direct marketing can lose our own voices in the copywriting process, we can lose sight of the emotions we need to tap with our messages.

“In PPC, write for the limbic system, not humans,” Andrew Nguyen writes at “The limbic system is the region of the brain responsible for motivation, behavior, attention and most importantly, emotion.

“We don’t care about the rational human in PPC. He gets overridden by his emotional counterpart.”

There is far more nuance to emotional appeals than simply reminding a small business owner, for example, that his/her business could fail. That would just be pandering.

How to Appeal to Emotions Tactfully and Effectively

David Alger at the Copywriter Collective recommends working through the following questions when writing copy, particularly headlines:

  • “What is keeping them up at night?
  • “What do they feel passionate about?
  • “What is their biggest fear?
  • “What do they secretly desire — but they aren’t going to tell anybody!
  • “How do they make their decisions?”

That’s only the first step of this process, though. If you try to express those raw emotions in your copy, you’ll only turn people off. Insurance company Nationwide learned this the hard way during the 2015 Super Bowl.

Rather, let those raw emotions inform your thoughtful word choice. Nguyen’s piece for Bizible offers one interesting example of how this could work.

He discusses how the marketing automation software market needs a little reassurance that a company is trustworthy. To reverse-engineer that thought: Buyers are afraid your marketing automation company will charge an arm and a leg for a service that is barely even useful.

Therefore, both Marketo’s and SharpSpring’s marketing teams understand the importance of mention a free demo in their ads:

Marketing Automation Screenshot

That’s a far more subtle, more tactful way of saying: “We won’t overcharge and underperform. Here’s proof.”


You Are What You Eat, Which Is Spam

This is a corollary to falling back on cliches. Just as we are bombarded with lazy copywriting, we are all bombarded with incessant spam online.

This includes spammy emails, click-bait headlines and every other non-relevant message pushed your way.

“Has clicking on an overpromise ever changed your life?” copywriter Maaike Schutten asks on the Amsterdam Ad Blog. “Probably not, but we just keep on clicking.”

Schutten references something Jon Stewart told Vice:

“When I look at the internet, I feel the same as when I’m walking through Coney Island. It’s like carnival barkers; they all sit there and go, ‘Come on in and see a three-legged man!’ So you walk in and it’s a guy with a crutch.”

However, we’ve all been fooled by the three-legged man attraction so many times that we’ve completely digested the overpromises. And we are susceptible to repeating them in our own work.

How Not to Be Spammy

Clarity, relevance and honesty are the enemies of spam. Embrace those virtues.

“Be clear, not tricky,” Julie Neidlinger, freelance writer (and pilot, by the way), writes at the When I Work blog.

“Your copy must be clear. Your goal isn’t to trick people into buying (they’ll be angry later). Your goal isn’t to show others how creative you are.

“Instead, write copy that explains what the product or service will do, and why it matters to that person. Explain to people why they should buy.”



You Try to Communicate Too Many Things

Ads will have a headline and body copy; Facebook ads will also give you the option of writing in a comment above a sponsored post to make it look like an organic entry in a person’s feed.

This doesn’t mean you have two or three chances to get a message out, tempting as it might be to share as many great things about your business or your offer as you have room for. Instead, you need to have the restraint to focus on a single message.

How to be Disciplined in Your Messaging

“Treat the entire ad copy as one element, and try variations of it,” Sid Bharath recommends on the Crazy Egg blog.

This means the body copy needs to expand on the core message of the headline. The lead-in comment on a sponsored Facebook post should similarly harmonize. Bharath and Rick Mulready both spotlight the same AppSumo ad on Facebook as a textbook example of weaving a single message through all the copy in an ad:

AppSumo Ad

“The headline is ‘Make a $1000 dollar business,’” Bharath writes. “The text and description then go on to talk more about this hypothetical business. The ad wouldn’t make sense if the text and description were kept the same while the headline was changed to ‘Get 15% off on our course.’”


You Get Sabotaged By Rational Self-Interest

This is the bigger-picture issue behind the problem above.

For a variety of reasons, entrepreneurs, startups and small business owners inject way too much of themselves in their ads. That’s understandable when you have worked long hours to build a reputable brand or to create a successful business.

But you are not promoting your business with your ad. That mindset leads to irrelevant and potentially arrogant-sounding ads. Instead, you are offering someone else a way to fix his/her very specific problem.

How to Refocus on Your Potential Customer

Facebook ad consultant Claire Pelletreau and Pardot content marketer Jenna Hanington offer complementary pieces of advice.

  • Stop mentioning your brand. “If you worked hard on your branding, the name of your program or service, a pithy slogan or your spirit animal, that’s awesome,” Pelletreau writes. “They do NOT belong in your ad copy. I have never heard of you or your business before. I don’t even know your business’s name and I don’t need to right now. Focus on getting me to click, and I can get to know you and your brand later on.”
  • Use the second-person (“you”). “If you want to be as relevant as possible, who should you appeal your ads to?” Hanington asks. “Certainly not ‘me,’ ‘us,’ ‘I,’ or ‘we.’ Users will feel more drawn to advertising copy that is directed toward them, which means using ‘you’ in your ad copy.

Notice that these are really two sides of the same coin? Stop talking about yourself and start talking about the other person. It makes for a better conversation.

Framing your message around “you” also offers a check against coming across as too haughty, as if you’re shouting your offers down from a mountaintop.

Instead, Spiralytics’ Dandan Carpio offers advice for keeping your tone polite and sincere:

“Sometimes we don’t recognize that we tend to give orders to our target market, making our ad copy authoritative by selling too hard.”

images by:
Emanuele Bresciani
Nicole Eliason
Alec Weir

Eric Barrier