Create Winning Ads With These 7 Proven Techniques

Inverting competition, the curiosity gap, transformations & more

Today we're going to talk about how to write winning ads.

With algorithms taking over media buying, real value creation is returning to where it belongs: high quality marketing (on top of a great product).

I've seen a single ad generate millions in profitable revenue.

A great ad will often outperform a mediocre ad by 3x or more.

But it's not easy to find those winners.

Here's an astonishing quote to set the table:

"19 out of 20 ads fail (5% success rate). You need 20 new original ideas or more to sustain performance and scale!"


Today you'll learn 7 proven ways to create more effective ads:

These aren't rules.

These aren't step-by-step tactics.

These are approaches you can apply to whatever you're positioning, which will help you brainstorm better ideas and package them more effectively.

Here they are:

  1. Invert the competition

  2. Tap underlying emotions

  3. Create a curiosity gap

  4. Sell a transformation

  5. Tell a story

  6. Apply behavioral psychology

  7. Disrupt the feed

Estimated reading time = as long as it takes!

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The Key to Writing Great Ads

The key to writing great ads is to become an expert in both your product and customer.

When creating ads, many people jump head first into writing. I know I used to.

But jumping into writing leads to mediocre ads:

  • defaulting to the same obvious ideas as everyone else

  • lack of emotional resonance with your customer

  • weak / no differentiating value

Going with the obvious is the equivalent of throwing shit at the wall.

Even today I'm surprised by how many professional marketers operate this way.

The best marketers first seek to become experts.

Once you have a deep understanding of your product and customer, you're ready to create some amazing ads.

Here are 7 approaches to help you create winning ads:

[1] Invert the Competition

This approach is one of my favorites because it stands out by standing the conventional approach on its head.

The idea is: what's the inverse of this ad, and could it be compelling?

As an example: one of the most common billboards I see on highways are for attorneys who claim they "get" bikers because they ride.

Here's a typical example of this ad angle, which has been trodden to death:

Motorcycle Attorneys

Recently I saw the ANTI-AD to this trope, or what I call the INVERSION:

Motorcycle Attorney Ad

What I love about this approach is that it calls into question the flimsy premise of the conventional competition:

That whether or not they ride motorcycles somehow impacts their effectiveness at winning personal injury cases.

This ad comes out and says that they win cases, and that's what lawyer selection should be about.

What tropes of your industry are lame and ripe for inversion?

[2] Get Emotional

Desires are emotional by nature.

Weak ads often lack a strong emotional pull.

The truth is, whether big or small, any solution is either a way to:

1) Help your prospect feel / sustain a positive emotion

2) Help your prospect overcome a negative emotion

Here's an example of an ad that targets the frustration a golfer feels when they're consistently coming up short.

17 Yards is a Big Deal Golf Ad

He feels weak.

Inferior to his golfing buddies.

Feeling inferior takes the joy out of sport.

This club promises to put you back on an even footing.

Note: you don't always want to call out emotions explicitly.

The emotions in this ad are implied.

I've met more than 1 man who would be turned off if confronted with a direct statement about their emotional reality.

Nonetheless, this ad will speak to the golfer who feels inferior because he can't go the distance.

[3] Create a Curiosity Gap

Remember the last time you had to shut off a good movie in the middle of it?

You probably felt some psychological discomfort, knowing that some time would pass before you could finish the movie and find out how it ends.

This is called a curiosity gap.

Humans hate open loops (unresolved questions).

We naturally want to understand how a story ends.

The same principle works in ads.

When you intentionally leave important details unsaid, it creates a desire to finish that story (by clicking on it).

Here's an example from Motley Fool, which triggers self-interest and curiosity, by saying "These 5 Stocks Look Like Screaming Buys" without specifying what the stocks are:

Motley Fool Stocks Ad

You're left to either wonder forever about this missed opportunity, or dive into their funnel to get the potentially valuable information (and close that curiosity gap).

[4] Sell a Transformation

Dissatisfaction with the status quo drives many purchase decisions (and a great deal of unhappiness).

One of the most powerful motivators is our desire to transform ourselves in meaningful ways.

Aligning your product with a deep-rooted desire to change can produce powerful results.

On one end of the spectrum, here's an example of an internal change:

Nike Sells Transformation

The first-person angle of that pool far below, the young boy's tiny body contrasted with the chasm of air beneath him - these combine beautifully to make you want to dig deep inside for the best, boldest version of yourself.

On the other end of the transformation spectrum, Before | After ads are one of the most effective formats of all time, because they make clear the external transformation available to you:

Selling a Transformation in Advertising

Images are a great way to show your customer how you can change them either internally or externally.

[5] Tell a Story

People love to buy into the stories of real people.

In some cases, the people aren't even real.

Here's a 1925 ad for one of the most successful direct response mail order campaigns of all time:

John Caples - When I Sat Down at the Piano

Fast-forward to the advent of the "Farticle" in the mid-2000's (the Fake News Article):

If you were surfing the web back then, you couldn't fail to see these fake advertorials everywhere:


Similarly, the fake blog (FLOG) of yesteryear has evolved into what we call UGC - User Generate Content, of today.

"Real" stories, from real people, that we identify with, trust and [sometimes] want to be like.

User Generated Content

Note: I have no idea who this dude is or what he's up to but he fits with the energy drink vibe.

Influencers allow us to place ourselves in a story with a product or service and experience vicariously how it will change our lives.

[6] Apply Behavioral Psychology

Increase the effectiveness of your ads by applying a few principles of behavioral psychology.

These are the four most common:

Social proof: validation that others have tried the product and achieved the transformation we're after. Taps into the herd mentality that has kept humans alive for thousands of years.

Urgency: time-bound incentives to encourage immediate action, such as short-term promotions.

Reciprocity: offering a free gift or guide, common in lead generation and infommercials, is a proven approach to engender reciprocal buying behavior.

FOMO / scarcity: people hate to miss out. Loss aversion is real. Limiting the availability of a product makes it more desirable.

[7] Disrupt the Feed + Capture Attention

Your ad is useless if people don't notice it.

The famous copywriter Joseph Sugarman, author of The Adweek Copywriting Handbook, wrote:

All the elements in an advertisement are primarily designed to do one thing and one thing only: get you to read the first sentence of the copy.

Joseph Sugarman

Applied to digital ads, this premise means that the elements of your ad must conspire to get noticed.

Most forms of digital advertising are disruptive: a user is scrolling a feed and we want them to stop what they're doing to check us out.

We need to interrupt them without alienating them.

Here are 3 ways to do that:

1) Unexpected designs and colors - Nivea ad with undulating hair follicle

Nivea Undulating Ad

2) Peoples' faces - it's human nature to look into the eyes of someone who's looking at you. (A LinkedIn study shows posts with selfies get 3x engagement).

Girl Looking At You

3) Surprising context - This Milk Road ad uses an iPhone Notes screenshot as the canvas for their ad copy. It's unexpected, so your brain seeks to understand it.

The Milk Road ad

There you have it.

7 proven ways to create more effective ads:

  1. Invert the competition

  2. Tap underlying emotions

  3. Create a curiosity gap

  4. Sell a transformation

  5. Tell a story

  6. Apply behavioral psychology

  7. Disrupt the feed

If these don't help you create better ads, you may be in the wrong business.


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