Now you’ve got to execute. You’ve got to tell the story in a way that works, and with a structure that succeeds.
A popular copywriting structure is AIDA (attention, interest, desire, action), which dates back to the early days of mass media advertising. AIDA is a useful framework, but it leaves too little room for a true understanding of what each element is intended to include.
The 4 P structure, on the other hand, consists of promise, picture, proof, and push in place of the four elements of attention, interest, desire, and action. The 4 Ps provide more expansive elements than AIDA, which is why it’s a favorite of many top copywriters.
But there was still something missing. Luckily, the missing element also started with a P:
When it comes to getting people to take action now, as opposed to “thinking about it” (and often never returning), it all begins with the premise. Your copy needs an exceptional premise that allows you to make a resulting bold promise that attracts attention and compels your ideal prospect to read, watch, or listen to the rest of your message.
As we’ve seen, it’s tempting to think of the premise as being the same as your positioning or USP. And when selling information, it’s pretty close. But it’s more helpful to think of the big idea as resulting from your USP, which leaves you room to test other promotional ideas in the future.
For example, here’s an idea for a book or online education program:
The Benjamin Franklin Guide to Small Business Success
Okay, so the wisdom and habits of successful entrepreneur and statesman Ben Franklin are your positioning, but what are you really selling? Most likely it’s a small business marketing and management system, right?
So, perhaps you key in on this particular Ben Franklin quote as the premise for your promotional copy:
“Drive thy business or it will drive thee.”
The premise in this case would be that the key to business success — even back in the days of ol’ Ben — is to have systems in place that allow you to work on your business, not in your business. This is just a random example, but hopefully you get the idea behind your premise compared to your overall positioning.
Next, we need to make a bold promise.
Here, it may be tempting to think of the promise as being the same as your offer, but in reality, your offer is simply a component of the larger promise.
Many copywriters swear that your promise in the headline must contain a tangible, valued benefit directed at the prospect. In other words, the ultimate benefit that comes from taking the action you want them to.
There will be numerous benefits to identify, and you should strive to find as many as humanly possible. But it’s the ultimate benefit you discover by working through the benefits pyramid (see graphic) that equates to your promise.
So, returning to the Ben Franklin example, the premise of creating systems to have a more successful business is a nice hook, but it’s not the promise.
After all, how many people sit around thinking “You know, what I really need are some systems for my business?”
Some do, and those will be your easiest sales.
But most businesspeople are thinking about how to make more money, become more productive, spend more time with family and generally have more of a life.
All of those are benefits of having systems in place, but what’s the ultimate benefit your customer is looking for?
Now you know the story your prospect wants to hear, and the general way it should be told.
Another school of thought on the promise in your headline is that it does not have to directly address the prospects ultimate benefit, because those headlines are too easily dismissed as advertisements. For example, copywriter John Carlton wrote a famous headline about a one-legged golfer and his secret to huge drives and a 10-stroke improvement in his golf game.
The secret, of course, is all about better balance and body positioning, which is the true way to get better at golf, but not exactly sexy. So the premise of the one-legged golfer (which was a true story Carlton discovered in his research, and as with Schlitz and the Collin Street Bakery, the business owner knew about but dismissed) was the key to the hugely bold promise.
In this case, making the story about someone other than the prospect — someone so counterintuitive to “common sense” — made the premise downright fascinating. But that’s not all.
The one-legged golfer story was unpredictable, simple, real, and credible, hitting all of our four conceptual criteria for a great premise. This made the promotion incredibly effective at achieving the intended goal, because the prospect came to the intended conclusion by telling themselves a story:
If a one-legged guy can do it, surely I can do it.
The important lesson here is that the promise is an attention-grabbing expression of your premise. Choosing the right way to tell the story is also vitally important, and that brings us to the next element — the picture.
Instead of the vague notion of “interest” in the AIDA formula, here we segue into painting a vivid picture for the reader. You’re fleshing out the premise, promise, and setting up the benefits of taking action now by using vibrant language that sticks in the mind.
The picture phase is all about using images, storytelling, and tangible language as a way to hold the reader’s emotional interest while you nudge them down the path to acceptance. It also keeps you focused on communicating the benefits associated with the features or facts that you need to get across.
The way to do this is to get prospects to imagine themselves enjoying the ultimate benefit or desired outcome. Then you get very specific about how your proposed solution or idea makes that benefit happen.
Advertising legend David Ogilvy was a master at using great headlines, fascinating pictures, and a caption to plant an initial image in the prospects head. Modern eye-tracking studies show that this layout continues to do well, even on the web. In this case, the story begins with that fascinating photo, and continues with Ogilvy’s words. The picture and headline got people to read, which then kicked in their own imaginations. The prospects then told themselves their own version of the story, powered by a desire for association with this fascinating character.
This is a crucial point, so let me repeat. The prospect has to tell themselves their own story based on the picture you create in their head with the elements of your landing page. Mamet gives an example from the world of film editing. When editing is done correctly, stories are told not by the director or actors, but in the mind of the viewer. It’s a great way to understand the picture phase of copywriting.
If shot A is a black-robed judge being handed an envelope, he opens it, and clears his throat; and shot B is the same as before—a woman raising her head from a desk—the audience creates the idea “hearing the verdict.”
The action of the woman is the same in each case, her snippet of film is the same. Nothing has changed except the juxtaposition of images, but that juxtaposition gives the audience a completely new idea.
Mamet is describing the theory of a guy named Eisenstein. The theory states that any technique that allows the viewer to tell themselves the story is vastly stronger and more effective than other approaches.
It’s the same with great copy. Here’s a classic example.
The following is an excerpt from the direct-mail piece that generated an estimated $2 billion in revenue for The Wall Street Journal. I’ve seen adaptations and straight rip-offs dozens of times. Here’s how it starts:
On a beautiful late spring afternoon, twenty-five years ago, two young men graduated from the same college. They were very much alike, these two young men. Both had been better than average students, both were personable and both – as young college graduates are – were filled with ambitious dreams for the future.
Recently, these two men returned to college for their 25th reunion.
They were still very much alike. Both were happily married. Both had three children. And both, it turned out, had gone to work for the same Midwestern manufacturing company after graduation, and were still there.
But there was a difference. One of the men was manager of a small department of that company. The other was its president.
What Made The Difference
Have you ever wondered, as I have, what makes this kind of difference in people’s lives? It isn’t always a native intelligence or talent or dedication. It isn’t that one person wants success and the other doesn’t.
The difference lies in what
And that is why I am writing to you and to people like you about The Wall Street Journal. For that is the whole purpose of The Journal: To give its readers knowledge – knowledge that they can use in business.
Two billion dollars from a simple story told on a piece of paper. This is the power of copy that begins with the right premise, and lets prospects imagine themselves as the hero (with the help of your offer, naturally).
Just remember, the goal is to get the prospect to persuade themselves through their own understanding, experiences, and desires. The emotional picture triggers a subconscious decision to buy, at which point the sale is yours to lose or retain as the prospects logical mind takes over.
You’ve communicated the foundational information you want readers to accept in an emotional and brain-friendly manner. Now you’ve got to back it up with supporting proof.
Statistics, studies, graphs, charts, third-party facts, testimonials, a demonstration that the features of your product deliver the benefits you’ve promised—these are all part of the Proof section of your piece. Now’s the time to play it straight and appeal to the reader’s logical mind to support the emotional triggers you pulled with the promise and picture.
Rhetorical arguments and promotional pieces fail when proof is missing, skimpy, or lacking in credibility. While your relationship with the reader hopefully carries trust and authority, asking people to accept your assertions without supporting evidence is an easy way for your writing to fail.
Remember, a great premise has credibility baked in, so the entire time, your premise is still winding its way throughout your copy. It’s the glue that holds everything together, or as copywriter Michael Masterson says, it’s the golden thread that connects initial attention all the way through to action. So, even the proof you offer is premise-driven.
Following proof, it’s during the fifth and final step that action takes place — the push.
Now we come to the all-important action phase of the piece, which incorporates and expands desire. While “push” can carry a negative connotation, here we’re using it as a more expansive persuasive element that makes action more likely.
The push phase is more than just a call to action. It’s about communicating an outstanding offer in a clear, credible, and compelling fashion, and then asking for action. It’s the grand finale where the premise and the purchase make as much sense to the reader as they do to you.
Persuasive writing begins with the end in mind, so during the push you’re tying the beneficial promise and the vivid picture to solid acceptance and concrete action. Don’t be shy about “telling them what you’ve told them” as a way to connect the dots. Assuming your prospect already “gets it” is a great way to kill your sale.