How to create ads that sell

This page teaches you to write and design ads for social networks (e.g. Facebook, Instagram).

We'll cover:

  • Writing for specific audiences
  • Frameworks for effective messaging
  • Designing ads that don't feel like ads

The elements of an ad

In the ad world, "copy" is the fancy word for text. The distinction between copy and everyday text is that copy is carefully crafted for a specific outcome—such as selling a product or getting someone to click a button.

Whenever you refer to marketing text, refer to it as "copy" and treat it with the attention-to-detail it deserves. In growth marketing, words are your highest-ROI weapon. They cost nothing yet each affects conversion.

"Creative" is the ad world's term for multimedia, such as images and videos.

On most social networks, ads consist of both copy and creative. A Facebook video ad, for example, contains a video creative surrounded by copy.

The importance of copy

Aside from audience targeting, copy and creative are what determine the clickthrough rate of your ads. Just a 25% difference in clickthrough can make or break paid acquisition for many companies.

Who's your audience?

Before you write, know who you're writing for.

To do this, consider our Ladder of Product Awareness (LPA). The LPA illustrates how aware and in-need an audience is for your product. Everyone you advertise to falls somewhere on this ladder:

The closer an audience member is to step 5, the more time, energy, and money it takes to move them up the LPA so that they’re receptive to your pitch.

Only if you've already exhausted the audiences on steps 1-4 (unlikely) should you attempt to move people up from the bottom. In the meantime, focus on writing increasingly appealing copy to those higher up on the ladder.

We've run ads for dozens of startups, we can do it for you.

Ad channels and LPA

Let's consider how the LPA affects ad copywriting. Let's examine behavior- versus profile-based targeting:

  • Behavior targeting — Google Ads, YouTube, Pinterest, etc.
  • Profile targeting — Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter, LinkedIn

LPA and behavioral-based targeting

When writing Google Ads, you can locate someone's LPA position by categorizing how niche their search keywords are.

For example, their search may contain "used cars" or "used Toyota SUV's." The latter is higher up on the LPA. These people know what they want: Toyotas. How you write an ad for these two queries should therefore differ.

For example, if you're Toyota running Google Ads:

  • "Used Toyota SUV's" searchers should be targeted with copy highlighting specific product details that would grab their attention, e.g. "$18k gets you a 2014 Toyota with just 20k miles." Because they already want what you have, don't waste words moving them up the LPA—just grab their attention with the hooky details they're looking for.
  • "Used cars" searchers should be shown ad copy explaining why Toyota is the best brand for second-hand car purchases. By addressing the why, you move searchers up the LPA.

LPA and profile-based targeting

Non-search ad channels, such as Facebook and LinkedIn, don't surface keywords for you to identify LPA positioning.

Therefore, when switching from behavior-based ad targeting to profile-based targeting, you'll rely on social profile details as a proxy for LPA position.

For example, how would you distinguish whether a Facebook user suffering from male pattern baldness is or is not aware that drugs like Rogaine and Propecia could help their hair regrow?

There's no way to know unless they Like Rogaine's Facebook Page or have shared Rogaine articles on their wall. Then you could target them based off this behavior.

Meanwhile, on Google Ads, you simply target those searching for "hair loss."

Therefore, LPA identification on social networks like Facebook and Instagram often requires more generalized copy than what you'd write for search ads. This means you need to be wordier to inject context for those lower on the LPA.

For example, your ad may need to simultaneously address:

  • Why the problem you address is worth solving.
  • Why that problem is worth solving now.
  • Why your way of addressing the problem is better than the alternatives.
  • What next steps the reader should take to convert.

The takeaway: Always ask before writing ads, What does our audience likely already know? Write copy accordingly.

With this understanding of the LPA, you're ready to learn copywriting.

The ideation process

These are our steps for writing ad copy:

  1. Identify the product's benefits and its audience's concerns.
  2. Write a pitch addressing each.
  3. Make the pitch compelling.
  4. Make it concise.

1) Brainstorm value props and common concerns

Value props and concerns are the lifeblood of copy.

To source copywriting ideas, start by listing all of the product's value props: the benefits it provides. To do this, follow the process detailed on Landing Pages.

Additionally, list every concern that your audience likely has upon hearing your pitch. Identify their trepidations, disbeliefs, and uncertainties. You'll address these in your copy.

You can source value props and concerns by running customer surveys. Learn:

  • How would users describe your product to a friend? What non-marketing language do people use to communicate your product to others? Borrow this language to overcome overly-formal copy. For example, you may define your product category as “pre-owned vehicles.” But don’t people actually say (and therefore Google for) "used cars"? Yes, they do, so that’s the language you should use in your copy. Write like people talk.
  • What nearly prevented them from purchasing? Which competitors were they considering? If they haven't purchased yet, what deters them? Proactively addressing these objections makes for better copy.
  • How do they rank the importance of your benefits? Do certain demographics care more about one value prop over the other? If males respond better to value prop A than B, split your targeting across genders so men see A and women see B.

2) Address each value prop and concern

Using one-sentence pitches, convey every value prop and address every concern.

See examples here.

3) Make it compelling

Make each sentence more compelling by injecting intriguing context. In the coming sections, we'll explore tactics for doing so.

4) Make it concise

Rewrite each sentence to be as concise as possible. Audiences lack patience.


Here's an ad resulting from these steps:

Copywriting frameworks

Below are our tactics for turning your value props and concerns into ad copy. For each ad, choose one of the following approaches or mix-and-match them.

1) Articulate the problem, solution, and benefit

This approach identifies a problem, explains how the product solves it, then clarifies what the benefit of solving it is.

For example:

"Kip makes therapy more effective [problem] by helping you track your weekly progress through self-assessments [solution]. No more uncertainty [benefit] as to whether you're really improving.""Streak is a CRM that lives inside Gmail [solution]. So you can stop switching between browser tabs [problem] when working. Plus, it automatically pulls contact information out of Gmail. No data entry and no tab switching. The result? Efficiency [benefit]."

Interweave the problem, solution, and benefit. The order doesn't matter.

2) Highlight your differentiation

In this second tactic, write copy highlighting how you differ from the competition.

For example:

  • Are you the only dog food company endorsed by the SPCA? Say so.
  • Are you the biggest, cheapest, fastest, or highest quality in your market?
  • Are you the only product using a patented, next-generation technology?

Lead with what makes you unique. Then add details to support your claim.

3) Ask a pressing question

This third tactic involves posing an intriguing question. For example:

Did you know airlines will pay you up to $135 if you get delayed?

However, avoid questions that make people respond with a simple "yes" or "no." Those don't compel curiosity. And avoid questions that make people think "I don't care what the answer is to this."

For example, this is a bad question:

Do you like saving money?

Sure I do, so what? I'm not going to keep reading if that's your overplayed hook.

Below is a better question:

How well does your site rank in search engines?

Hmm. I don't know, but I'd like to find out.

In short, ask questions that prompt responses such as, "Wow, I didn't know that" and "No, tell me more."

"It did what all ads are supposed to do: create an anxiety relievable by purchase."

—David Foster Wallace

4) Match value props to audiences

When people see themselves in your copy, they are more likely to click.

This fourth tactic focuses on appealing to only a subset of your audience. A subset can be delineated by demographics (e.g. age, gender, job), behaviors (e.g. eats out a lot, plays video games), or anything else.

Appeal to a subset by matching your value props to the benefits they uniquely care about:

  • Cost — "The only full-featured, 4K camera that’s affordable [quality] on a student’s [audience namedrop] budget."
  • Powerful — "The only language learning tool with the advanced [quality] features that hardworking students [audience] need to master French, Chinese, and more.”
  • Simple — "The analytics tool powerful enough for developers but built with a super intuitive [quality] interface for marketers [audience]."
  • Fast — "The only delivery service with a guaranteed delivery time of 60 minutes [fast]—for people who make last-minute dinner decisions [audience]."
  • Quality — "Extremely high quality shirts for people who obsess over details."

Whichever value prop you choose, ensure it's one your subset cares enough to make a purchasing decision on. When someone buys a camera, for example, they don’t care whether it arrives overnight (value prop = fast shipping). They care about its picture quality and cost. Those are the better qualities to use.

Make your copy compelling

Now that you've turned a value prop or concern into copy, it's time to make your copy more compelling. We'll use two techniques:

  • Re-order your words
  • End with a hook

Re-order your words

Place the phrase that explains your product at the beginning of your ad copy:

  • Good — "Looking to rent retail space? Rent locations in your city by the day, week, or month."
  • Bad — "Rent by day, week, or month—that's the flexibility we bring to retail space rentals."

Placing the product explanation at the beginning is better because readers skim the first few words of an ad (everyone always skims!) to identify whether what you're selling is for them.

In contrast, the second example says a whole lot of nothing until you finally get to the phrase, "retail space." Consider how "Rent by day, week, or month" could be about anything—and most people won't bother reading to find out what.

Get to the point immediately. Word order is important.

End with a hook

Pique readers' interest by concluding with a factoid that either:

  1. Makes them curious to know more — "Click to see how little we charge to fully redesign your website."
  2. Offers them significant and inarguable value — "We are 10x cheaper than the option you're using now. There's absolutely no reason not to switch."

Leave people wanting more. That's how you get them to click.

Common copywriting errors

These are the most common copywriting mistakes we encounter:

  • Not twisting the knife enough to make readers really feel the pain you solve.
  • Disjointed sentences that don't logically flow from one to the next.
  • Value props that are vague. Every benefit claim should be specific.
  • Not being concise. Your final step is to eliminate needless words. See below.
(Original text by Simon Heffer. Edits by Tom Freeman.)

Here's the summary

  1. First, brainstorm value props and concerns.
  2. Then, write short sentences to address each.
  3. Next, use one of the four frameworks to convert pitches into long-form copy.
  4. Refine your copy through word order and ending hooks.
  5. Conclude by making your ad as concise as possible.

Here's how this process fits into the higher-level ad experimentation process:

  1. First, generate ad copy variations.
  2. Then run ads with the most promising variations.
  3. Once you've accrued ad performance, pause those that perform poorly.
  4. Test new copy ideas against your best-performing ads on a recurring basis. Always try beating your best ads.

More ad copy: Social proof

Most ad channels, including Facebook Ads and Google Ads, provide extra space alongside an ad's primary copy for supplementary copy.

I like to use this space to provide social proof, which is external validation that your product is as good as you say it is.

Social proof can take many forms:

  • Show off your customer count — "Over 5,000 dog lovers rely on us."
  • Highlight marquee customers — "Used by Microsoft, Salesforce, and IBM."
  • Plug great reviews — "5 stars in the App Store" or "Best-reviewed Thai restaurant in San Francisco."
  • Press quotes — "Bell Curve is the world's leading growth agency." — TCN

More ad copy: Call-to-action

The call-to-action (CTA) button or link is what takes readers to the next step in the journey:

  • For most products, the next step is your website.
  • For B2B companies, it might be a lead capture form.
  • For mobile apps, it's often an app store.

Effective CTA copy typically begins with a verb that teases what the audience will encounter at the next step in the funnel:

  • Watch the product in action…
  • See the high-res photos…
  • Browse the full inventory…
  • Experiment with our demo…
  • Play our first level…

A verb is important because it indicates that an experience proceeds the ad click—as opposed to having to suffer through more copy on a generic landing page.

When choosing verbs, avoid those that tease the final conversion event in the funnel. If audiences are still getting to know you, they're not ready to "Buy Now." Focus on getting them to the next step in the funnel, e.g. "View" or "Sign Up."

Designing ad creative

Most ad units, including on Facebook and Twitter, provide space for both copy and creative.

To optimize creative for conversion, we recommend three rules:

  • Depict the product in action — Don't beat around the bush; literally show the value of the product.
  • Say what the product is — Add text to reinforce what is being advertised.
  • Be purposeful — Avoid stock imagery and other generic visuals.

In short, don't be vague.

1) Literally depict the product in action

Step one of ad design is to ask: How can we most literally depict the product's value?

We've proven this principle across thousands of ads. Examples include:

  • If you're selling software, show a decluttered screenshot of the product's dashboard instead of an abstract vector illustration of your services.
  • If you're selling services, show the service in action, e.g. a dog walker walking a dog instead of an image of a happy dog next to a leash.
  • If you're selling a physical good, show it in use alongside a closeup photo.

Given the volume of ad exposure we're subjected to, assume readers lack the patience and motivation to guess what your ad is selling. Make it obvious.

We want consumers to say, "That's a hell of a product" instead of, "That's a hell of an ad."

—Leo Burnett

2) Say what the product is

If your creative depicts a group of people at dinner, but those people aren't doing anything in particular, is it clear what's being advertised?

Maybe it's alcohol? Or an app that helps you find clubs? Or maybe it's an ad for the club itself?

Who knows.

Readers skim by default. They're not looking to decode the meaning of your vague imagery. The antidote? Overlay a few words that describe the product.

3) Be purposeful

The third rule of creative design is to be purposeful with visuals.

For example, never show an anonymous businessperson smiling next to a computer. What is that even about? It's not purposeful. It's generic.

Instead, select imagery with purpose: Every visual asset (e.g. a person, product, logo) should help depict the product in action or depict its specific value.

4) Match surrounding aesthetics

Don’t design an ad before knowing how it'll look on its ad channel.

On Facebook, for example, your ad may appear as a Newsfeed story alongside organic stories. Just like organic stories, your ad consists of an image, text, and a CTA.

The goal is to ensure your creative isn't too contrasted against organic stories that it's reflexively identified and dismissed as an ad.

When we design Facebook ads in Figma (a Photoshop alternative), we start with a screenshot of the Facebook Newsfeed and we design the ad within that context.

Now, you might be thinking:

But don't I want to stand out as much as possible?

Not usually. That worked when banner ads ruled the web and people hadn't yet built up a reflex to ignore them. Today, people are good at distinguishing ads from organic content. Content that stands out is glossed over.

That said, we're not advising that you blend into the surrounding content and fail to draw attention. You want to have bold imagery and presence. But, you need to balance it with looking like you belong on the site.

If people on TikTok are sharing candid selfie videos, then maybe a polished, high-production value video would stick out too much. If Instagram is predominantly square content, then maybe horizontal ads would stick out too much. And so on.

Your goal, ultimately, is to test everything. Let experiments reveal what works.

Match surrounding content

On a channel like Instagram, where your ad appears alongside dozens of highly differentiated images (e.g. food, travel, and fitness), you're in less danger of being dismissed as an ad because it's harder to accidentally stand out.

But on a channel like Pinterest, it's easier to accidentally look like an ad. For example, if you're targeting Pinterest users searching for "steak," ensure your ad isn't, say, a celebrity chef holding a plate of steak. That would be fitting for a magazine cover, but for Pinterest? No, on Pinterest, you normally see close-ups of dinner plates with steak on them—not promotional art.

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