The first time I landed a copywriting client, my blood ran cold.
I sat in front of my laptop, staring blankly at the screen. My stomach felt like a giant empty hole. I only had one thought in my mind: what do I do now?
I felt like a fake. I felt like a sham. I felt like I was about to get found out.
Let’s be honest: I was so shocked and so anxious that I couldn’t think straight. I wanted to dig a hole in the ground and bury myself in it somewhere where nobody could ever, ever find me. Especially my client.
Because here’s the thing: I’d never really done copywriting before.
Sure, I’d read blog posts about it. I’d read stacks of books about it. I’d even copied out great pieces of long-form copy by hand just to get a feel for the style. But I’d never actually taken a copywriting project from beginning to end before.
How could I do it?
For several weeks up to that point, I’d been thinking of nothing except how I was going to get myself some clients. Cold calls. Prospecting emails. Social media promotion. It had been a constant grind to sell my work.
Suddenly it dawned on me that now that I’ve sold my work it was time to do the work. I felt like the proverbial dog chasing a car. I didn’t know what to do now that I’d caught one.
If you stick with freelancing long enough, you’re going to run into this problem. How do you deal with it? One word: AIDA.
A good writer knows that structure is one of the most important elements of writing. A good essay follows a certain structure. A good screenplay follows a three-act structure. A good poem is almost all structure.
AIDA is the acronym that gives you the four ingredients of good copy, in the order you need to provide them. Those four elements are:
First things first: you have to find a way to get the reader to look at your writing for more than a couple of seconds.
Once you’ve got the reader’s attention, you have to tease out her curiosity. Address her interests and convince her that it’s worth her time to read what you’ve written.
Gradually, you convince the reader (or even better—you allow her to convince herself) that the product or service you’re selling is valuable and desirable. This is a subtle thing. You don’t push it on her: you invite her to see what’s good about your offer.
Granted, there comes a time when you have to ask for the reader to buy, or to take whatever action you’re interested in having her take. This doesn’t have to be forceful to be effective. If you’ve done your job in the other sections, the right reader will be eager to take action by this point.
This is the basic structure of all good copywriting. Granted, you can experiment with this structure as you learn what you’re doing and improve your craft, but these are the fundamentals.
Those are the basics of the AIDA acronym: attention, interest, desire, action. The most effective copywriters already use this method, and it’s a crucial part of any copywriter’s education.
So let’s get in-depth about the application: how do you put AIDA to work?
I want you to imagine something for me. Imagine you’re scrolling on Facebook. You see two links come up, back to back.
One of them says “Hey, click the link and buy my thing!” The other one shows a picture of an attractive young woman looking sadly off into the distance and says, “17 Things Only People With Anxiety Understand.”
You probably already know what I’m going to ask, but I have to ask it anyways: which one are you more likely to click on? We both know it’s the second one.
Now, why is it the second one? Speaking for myself, let’s throw out a few possible explanations:
- I can identify with the title. I’m neurotic as all-get-out, and I know clicking the link will probably show me a lot of experiences I can personally relate to.
- It makes me feel a little special to feel like I can understand things that only people with anxiety can understand.
- The number 17 is a little off. It’s an unusual number, and it catches my attention because of that.
- I hope you won’t judge me too harshly for this, but (speaking only for myself) there’s no image more likely to get my attention than a picture of an attractive young lady.
Now, I know what you’re thinking: all I’m doing here is analyzing how clickbait headlines work. And you’re right.
But here’s the point: clickbait headlines work for a reason, and if you want to catch attention online you have to understand those reasons. Nothing in the online world gets read unless it gets clicked first.
Titles. Images. Headlines. These are all critical elements of making sure your content gets read.
Now that you’ve convinced the audience to click your link, you have to show them it’s worthwhile to actually read your content. How do you do that?
There are any number of ways to solve this problem but they all boil down to this: you need to show your reader enough of what you’re going to say that she wants to know more. This is key.
If the reader isn’t curious, the reader isn’t going to take the time to read your copy.
Understand this: it’s hard to get your content read. You’re competing against the rest of the world for your reader’s attention. For the moment, you have to be more interesting than Neil deGrasse Tyson. You have to be more inspiring than Oprah Winfrey. You have to be more seductive than Kim Kardashian.
That’s the crucial challenge. In copywriting, you have to achieve two things: you have to A) convince the reader to read your content even after it becomes clear that you’re selling something, and B) convince the reader to actually take action.
If you can’t seize the reader’s interest, you’ve got nothing. If you can’t keep the reader’s interest, you’ve still got nothing. Without interest, there is no copywriting.
Make your reader feel something. Emotion is the trigger to action.
Now that you’ve hooked your reader, it’s time for the fun to begin. The magic happens when you’ve caught the reader’s interest enough to keep reading, but not yet enough to get them to buy.
This is the part where you seduce the reader. You show the reader how wonderful things will be if he buys what you’re offering.
You show the reader what’s so great about your offer. You have him imagine buying from you—but you don’t directly ask him to do so yet. You show the reader how great it will be to own your product or service.
You show him why it’s desirable. But you don’t only do that.
You also show him how bad it will be if he doesn’t own it.
Because that’s the subtletly of desire: it’s not only a matter of wanting to have something pleasurable. It’s also about avoiding something painful.
You have to make not buying appear as painful as possible. You have to show the reader how bad things will be if he misses this chance to buy. You have to make the reader feel that intense fear of missing out.
That’s the key to copywriting: you have to show the reader how good it will be to buy from you and how bad it will be not to buy from you. Ninety percent of copywriting is emotion.
So tell the reader that buying your product or service will lower his monthly costs by 50 percent. But also tell him that the window of opportunity to get the edge on the competition is shrinking. Alternate positive and negative emotion, and you can work wonders.
In a way, this is the simplest part of copywriting. You’ve already got the reader’s attention. You’ve already convinced the reader to read your content. You’ve already given the reader the chance to fall in love with your product.
So you’ve put in the leg work. But a bad call to action can kill all the hard work you’ve put in up to this point. It can take all the tension you’ve created and leave it flat.
So what are the elements of a good call to action? Let’s name a few:
- A good call to action doesn’t pressure the reader.
If there’s any time for pressuring the reader, it’s in the “desire” phase. Sure, you might add in a few phrases like “Act now!” or “Supplies Limited,” but you don’t try to make the decision for the reader. It’s always the reader’s decision.
- A good call to action tells the reader exactly how to order/buy.
In other words, make sure your instructions are clear. You don’t want somebody to give up on the buying process because it’s too complicated, do you?
- A good call to action gets written.
I’ve seen amazing pieces of copywriting go south because the writer was too afraid to actually make the ask. Copywriting is not for the timid. Ask for the purchase or suffer the consequences.
That’s your call to action.
AIDA: Yes, You Have To
I know you might be thinking, “This is all good and well, but do I really have to write this way?”
The short answer: yes.
The long answer: yes, but after years and years of practice you might be able to figure out a better structure if you happen to be a genius.
These are the fundamentals of copywriting. The best way to learn good copywriting is to practice using these techniques till you’re sick of them. Write, and write, and write. Try, and try, and try.
AIDA has been developed over the long history of the profession of copywriting. It’s the best basic structure anybody’s been able to come up with.
Remember what we were saying earlier about three-act structure in filmmaking? Well, three-act structure has been around since the time of Sophocles. Maybe we’ll never know why that’s the most effective way to write a story, but it is.
It’s the same with AIDA. This is the way you convince people to buy. As long as there are copywriters, copy is going to be written this way.
So it might be worth your while to get in touch with an experienced copywriter who can help you along your way. The experienced copywriters of the world probably know a little more about the subject than you do. You could definitely do worse than to put their expertise to work for you.
Let me know if you have any questions or concerns about freelancing. I’m always trying to tailor this blog to your needs, so I’d appreciate the help.
And I know some of you don’t like to post publicly, so feel free to contact me by email at firstname.lastname@example.org if you’d rather do it that way.
Good luck, and good copywriting!