Writing Copy That Sells

Writing Copy That Sells: The Secret to Breakthrough Words

Writing Copy That Sells

Is there a secret to writing copy that sells?

Some dark-magic formula that breaks through the barriers, barricades, and psychological bulwarks?


And I have proof.

The year was 1976 and Martin Edelston, founder of the now more than $50-million annually producing and direct-marketing powerhouse Boardroom Inc., was broke.

Well, not quite broke broke. More like down to the nubs.

42 years old and working out of his basement, Edelston had burned through half his start-up capital with nothing to show for it save an empty desk … furnace adjacent.

Enter Eugene Schwartz: the hero of our story and a man who knew what words were worth.

“He came to me,” Schwartz recalled, “with $3,500 in his pocket, and I told him I’d have to charge him $2,500 as a copy fee.”

$2,500 might not sound crazy, but today that’d be a $10,497 price tag.

Of course, even more amazing is what that number represented for Edelson himself.

Imagine it:

Yes, Marty, I will write you an ad … just one. And all it’ll cost is 70% of everything you have.

Such is the stuff of marketing legend.

Thankfully, Edelston agreed. The two met. And that night Schwartz wrote it … all of it.

Of course, when you finagle someone out of 70% of their capital, you can’t just deliver on day two, so, in Schwartz’s words, “I put it away for two weeks. And in two weeks, I sent it to him and he ran it.”

What happened?

With one ad Schwartz rescued Edelston from the brink of bankruptcy and set Boardroom Inc. on a path to becoming the multinational marketing empire it is today.

Not surprisingly, Schwartz’s success with Boardroom Inc. was anything but a fluke. Over his career, Schwartz’s ads were responsible for …

  • 1.98 million copies of a $25 book.
  • 2 million orders for a fishing lure.
  • Nearly $50 million for a textbook on natural health.
  • $150,000 for a volume on car repair … in just three days.

Most legendary, Schwartz’s produced a single television campaign that resulted in purchases from 1 out of every 14 TV owners in America.

So what was Schwarz’s secret?

“5 to 10 words.”

Yep, that’s it.

5 to 10 words … or rather the right 5 to 10 words.

Of course, Schwartz didn’t mean that no ad should ever exceed 10 words.

What he meant was that the core of your copy, and in particular its headline, will always come down to 10 words or less — a single, all-consuming thought — that will make or break everything.

A month ago, I sat down with Schwartz’s 228-page classic Breakthrough Advertising and sixty pages in I came across three lines that stopped me in my tracks:Five to ten words will make up about 90% of the value of your ad.

Five to ten words will make up about 90% of the value of your ad.

If you are right, they may start a new industry.

If you are wrong, nothing you write after them will save your ad.

So let me ask you a question: what are your words worth? $50 an hour? $100? $200?

How about $10,497?

Or maybe (just to keep the math easy) 70% of your next client’s entire operational budget?

Is that something you could ever achieve? Could you get there?

Below, we’ll walk through exactly how to unearth and unleash the right “5 to 10 words” in your copy through three unbreakable laws.

We’ll also discover why — as Schwartz put it — “nothing” else you write matters without them.

1. Writing Copy That Sells: The Law of ‘Mass Desire’

Drawing from Schwartz, let’s start with a simple definition.

Another word for “mass desire” is emotion: “the public spread of a private want.”

An ad’s ability to sell begins and ends with identifying a “private want” and then channeling that want into “public” words. Only when an audience and an ad share the same dominant emotion does that ad stand any chance of compelling, converting, and closing.

Put more simply, writing copy that sells lives or dies by the right “mass desire.”

A friend of mine calls this the “Puppy Principle.” If you’re trying to sell puppies, forget about all the logistics of dog ownership.

Just show ‘em the puppy!


Because unless how you’re presenting your product makes your audience want to hold it, love it, and give it money … you’re not selling it right. And — chances are — you aren’t selling it at all.

Mass desire means majoring on dreams, fears, desires, needs, pains, and pleasures.

Every piece of content you create has to do two things: (1) rescue its audience from their own personal hell and (2) deliver them unto their own personal heaven. Great copywriting is about salvation … not sales.

However, this means the real question isn’t “What?” or “How?” but “Where?”

Where does “mass desire” come from?

The answer might surprise you.

It doesn’t come from your product, your benefits, your USP, your value proposition, your copy, or even from you.

It comes from your market itself. Schwartz explained:

The power, the force, the overwhelming urge to own that makes advertising work, comes from the market itself, and not from the copy.

Copy cannot create desire for a product. It can only take the hopes, dreams, fears and desires that already exist in the hearts of millions of people, and focus those already existing desires onto a particular product.

This is the copy writer’s task: not to create this mass desire—but to channel and direct it (3).

Naturally, this assumes that you have a market — a narrow and clearly targeted group of people whose lives your product would be legitimately improved. But I realize, that’s kind of a big assumption.

Who is your target market?

Copywriters often obsess about what they should write: product features versus product benefits; using the right keywords; nailing the headline, subheadings, images, and first line of copy; banging out a rough draft, and then editing, editing, editing.


Your real obsession shouldn’t be what, but who.

Copy without a target market is worse than worthless. It’s costly.

Without a clearly defined target market — real people with real problems looking for real solutions — you inevitably end up writing for the one person you shouldn’t be: yourself. Self-centeredness is a plague, especially when writing copy.

Begin with the demographics of your ideal customer. Richard Lazazzera’s How To Build Buyer Personas For Better Marketing dives into the sea of personal characteristics and eventually this example of “Alex” for a fictitious company, Bold Socks, surfaces:

Writing Copy Demographics

Sample Persona via Demographics

Demographics, however, aren’t enough. Not if what you’re really after are words that sell. You’ve got to go deeper than age, ethnicity, income, location, and familial status.


Through personas. On this front, three brilliant (and, thankfully, free) resources stand out.

First is Jen Havice’s How To Create Customer Personas With Actual, Real Life Data over at ConversionXL. As Havice explains:

Patching together actionable information about your customers with gut feelings, good intentions and some duct tape is not a recipe for conversion success.

[P]ersonas are fictional representations of segments of buyers based on real data reflecting their behaviors. Their purpose is to put the people behind company decision making in the shoes of the customer.

Havice them shows how to shape personas through qualitative research.

The breakthrough insight — especially for anyone without a budget for focus groups — comes from her review mining work, which she’s consolidated into a recent book: Finding the Right Message. By all means, buy it. In the meantime, work through the above article as well as How to Boost Conversions with Voice of Customer Research [Case Study] that includes this free template:

Writing Copy Through Review Mining

Writing Copy Through Review Mining

Review mining to craft copy is one of my own copywriting hallmarks, especially when it comes to landing pages. You can see how I created this simplified copywriting cheat sheet directly from “feedback and comments on sites like Facebook, Twitter, Yelp, Amazon, Reddit, app stores, and blogs,” along with what the landing page itself ultimately looked like over at KlientBoost.

Writing Copy from User-Generated Content

Writing Copy Directly from User-Generated Content

Second, Demian Farnworth’s Empathy Maps: A Complete Guide to Crawling Inside Your Customer’s Head (via Copyblogger). Empathy consists of two parts:

1. The intellectual identification with the feelings, thoughts, or attitudes of another.

2. The vicarious experiencing of those feelings, thoughts, or attitudes.

After a brilliant overview of empathy in marketing — old school and new — Farnworth drops the gold (which you can download as a PDF simply by clicking the image).

Empathy Map

The Empathy Map Lets You Dissect Your Target Market into Four Quadrants on a Person-by-Person Basis

Third, my own The Only Copywriting Formula You’ll Ever Need.

That’s a post all about fear: hands-down the “most primal” human motivator. At the end are thirteen questions to help you haunt your target market (in the best sense possible).

Here’s a quick sampling:

What does your audience hate… about their life, about their job, or about your particular type of product or service?

What are the real-world consequences of these problems? In other words, how can you quantify, in real numbers, their hates and headaches?

What’s the most awkward, confusing, or inconvenient thing about your type of business?

What are the two to three biggest barriers to becoming a customer?

What nightmare or hell (be as vivid and emotive as possible) does your business save its customers from?

In all those resources, the point is to define your target market as concretely and viscerally as possible.

What are your target market’s “mass desires”?

Once that group is fixed, the next step is to make a list of all the possible emotions — the raw emotions — that might inspire someone in that specific market to act.

On the negative side, it might be:

  • Fear
  • Anxiety
  • Depression
  • Anger
  • Rage
  • Uncertainty
  • Embarrassment
  • Envy
  • Resentment

On the positive side, it might be:

  • Joy
  • Happiness
  • Accomplishment
  • Satisfaction
  • Elation
  • Desire
  • Lust
  • Pride
  • Comfort

After you’ve selected two or three dominant, raw emotions, get specific.

For example, the most dominate human emotion is fear. But nobody (despite FDR’s sound advice) fears fear. What we fear are people, places, things, and events. We fear the future. Or we fear situations that may arise in the future. We fear loss. We fear uncertainty. We fear failure.

On top of that, every market — just like every person — has its own unique list.

Take the real estate market for instance. What do new homebuyers fear most?

Some of the obvious boogiemen are …

  • The fear of being overwhelmed by the process.
  • The fear of being turned down for a loan.
  • The fear of picking the wrong neighborhood.
  • The fear of not having enough money for a down payment.
  • The fear of something better coming along and missing out.

Whatever it is, by selecting one of those fears and placing it front and center in your copy, you “enter the conversation already taking place in the customer’s mind” (Robert Collier).

Actually, what you enter is the conversation already taking place in the customer’s heart.

Either way, the keyword is “customer’s.” Their mind. Their heart.

Mass Desire … in Action

To put a little more flesh on this idea, here are some classic examples of wildly successful headlines from Schwartz’s era that tapped into their market’s mass desires:

  • “Hair Coloring So Natural Only Her Hairdresser Knows For Sure”
  • “At 60 miles an hour, the loudest noise in a Rolls Royce is the electric clock.”
  • “The Skin YOU Love to Touch”
  • “How to Win Friends and Influence People”
  • “Stops Maddening Itch”
  • “Do YOU make these mistakes in English?”
  • “How a bald-headed barber helped save my hair.”

Of course today, with advertising exposure rising exponentially, you may think that such straightforward appeals no longer work.

Just to prove they do, here is a handful of my favorite mass desire headlines from the web:

Unbounce: Speed

Sweat Block: Embarrassment

Basecamp: Stress

Mint: Relief

Memit: Simplicity

eHarmony: Winning (and, of course, love)

Blue Apron: Authenticity

Weight Watchers: Release

Designed to Move: Justice

Shopify Plus: Easy

Dapulse: Vanity

Apple Watch: Flexibility

MacBook Pro: Creativity

AirPods: Intrigue

What each of these headlines (classic and contemporary) does beautifully is identify and channel one desire: love, greed, entertainment, the fear of inability, or the fear of difficulty. They use emotive language to capture their audience’s hearts and minds. Emotive language that already exists in the market they’re trying to reach.

To breakthrough, your ads must do the same.

One more law about the word “one”

Having generated a powerhouse list of market-inspired mass desires, your greatest temptation will be to employ them all, like a sort of emotional machine gun.


You only get one.

(Well, you may get to split-test more than one. But each ad only gets one!)


Because in Schwartz’s words:

Every product appeals to two, three or four of these mass desires.

But only one can predominate; only one can reach out through your headline to your customer. Only one is the key that unlocks the maximum economic power at the particular time your advertisement is published.

Your choice among these alternate desires is the most important step you will take in writing your ad.

If it is wrong, nothing else that you do in the ad will matter.

So remember: Just. One.

Up next …

Writing Copy That Sells:
Law 2

Why does your market’s understanding of their desire and your product unlock even the most difficult audience?

Here’s a clue: it’s all about matching your headline to your audience’s “State of Awareness”

Writing Copy That Sells:
Law 3

How do you apply the three most valuable headline hacks ever directly to your copy?

The keywords are power, novelty, and pull.

  • Peter Kanayo

    Aaron you have such superb content that I cringe that your readers do not comment. It then struck me that the reason is because there is just no easy way to get your post published on twitter on g+ Perhaps it’s because your article breath such life that people are scared of dropping a comment.

    I can’t say precisely, but your article stopped me cold and I just had to sign up. Because I saw magic and simplicity pour out from your writing

    • Aaron Orendorff

      Wow, Peter. Well thanks! Gotta love that kinda feedback … especially first thing in the morning.

      And your note about twitter, g+, and commenting is really helpful. I’ve been struggling a bit with integrating all that with ease into SquareSpace and am gonna make the switch to WP.

      Thanks again!

  • Krithika Rangarajan

    Well, you are a brilliant writer. Absorbing your website right now – lol

    Thank you

  • Krithika Rangarajan

    Well, you are a brilliant writer. Absorbing your website right now – lol

    Thank you

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  • Hey dude
    I wanted to comment over here on the post and show it some love, rather than just in FB

    First off, I’m a HUGE fan of Breakthrough Advertising
    My only wish is that I had a physical copy to reference

    Secondly as I said over on FB
    I know you are a ‘content marketer’ but you’re actually a great copywriter and you can see it in your content

    It pulls you down the page, it connects/resonates and there’s no wasted word or sentence

    I would even say that’s what makes you a good content marketer is that the content is very much like a sales page in that it has a single goal and pulls you into it

    Not many people can do that (Jon Morrow springs to mind)

    Great work


    • Aaron Orendorff

      Wow, man … didn’t expect all that. Thanks so much.

      I’ve actually ordered physical copies directly from Brian Kurtz. And I love what you said about pulling the reader “down the page.” That’s totally the goal. And singularity? Oh indeed. One pitch. One CTA. One big idea. All that.

      I’d say the plagues of content and copy alike are (1) self-centeredness (rather than really serving the audience) and (2) plurality, not having a SINGLE goal that governs everything.

      Pumped to check out your book recommendations too!

      • No problem at all
        I would hazard a guess that you write content like a copywriter writes a sales page…

        Content idea
        Goal for the content
        Idea to anchor/Point of belief
        Research on topic
        Research on audience
        Initial Draft
        Edit for flow/image/headlines/whitespace/open loops
        Edit for tone and audience
        Edit for mirror language/empathy etc
        Test and improve…

        What makes a killer piece of sales copy is often how many times that person is willing to edit the post

        I think when a lot of us write content we do it to get it done
        It takes time and we want to get rid of it after that and never see it again
        But that epic content is what goes through each edit and filter
        Like a good comic alters the timing and framing with every new audience until its the best it can be

        I think that’s the secret really to content

        Enjoy the books
        As its the weekend you should get any of the ones by Dave Trott

        Some of the few books that I buy for people when ever I see them in a store
        His stories are sooooo good

        I’m also reading Bryan Kurtz’s new book atm

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  • Bill Widmer

    Aaron, you have a way with words that makes me cringe (in a good way). I really look up to you and your writing. As others have said before me, your words suck me down the page. I won’t lie, I envy you quite a bit. I’ve been writing for years and feel like I’ve hit a plateau and can’t seem to get over it. I think I’ve been wasting my words on uninspired content and things I simply don’t care about.

    I can see I’ve been making the fatal mistakes of self-centeredness in my writing and not understanding my target audience. I have to ask…

    1. Being that you have so many different clients under so many different subjects (cloud software?), how do you understand such vastly different audiences and get the writing right?

    2. How long did it take you to become so good at writing? Did you ever feel an apparent shift in your skill, and if so, when?

    Keep shining, man. You’re an inspiration.

    • First off, Bill … thanks! For developing those words that “suck [you] down the page,” Copyhackers (i.e., Joanna Wiebe) and Copyblogger (Demian Farnworth) are fantastic models. What’s really been helpful recently, however, is Joe Sugarman’s book The Adweek Copywriting Handbook: https://www.amazon.com/Adweek-Copywriting-Handbook-Advertising-Copywriters/dp/0470051248/

      For the other two questions:

      1. People are people. There’s really only so many negative and positive emotions. Pain is universal, so I try to focus on uncovering the 1-3 things holding them back from the thing they want: (1) it’s too hard, (2) it feels like a mystery (they’re lost), or (3) there’s one thing they’re doing wrong that killing them (obviously there’s always more than “one thing,” but I just focus on one thing at a time).

      2. It’s a mix. I’ve always loved writing and speaking … but the turn took place around three years ago for online stuff. I talk quite a bit about it here: http://www.marketingforowners.com/podcast/593/

      • Bill Widmer

        I’ve read Joe’s book – absolute genius. I’ll have to revisit it, I haven’t fully absorbed it.

        Thanks for the insights!! I’ll go give that article a read. 🙂

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  • Sayed shahnur

    A massive content does not do any wonder unless it can target the “pain point” of the audience and speaks about it. A content can sell when it can earn trust of the reader of its validity and relevance to the problems surrounding.

    However, “Five to ten words will make up about 90% of the value of your ad” this line totally nailed it. I normally visit your blog everyday and do find something useful often. Keep up the great work.

    • Hear, hear … to ALL that. Reading Breakthrough Advertising was a revelation for me.

      Thanks for all the kind support, Sayed!

  • Clayton M. Christensen, the author of “Innovator’s Dilemma,” in his new HBR’s article on innovation and growth, emphasizes on “identifying poorly performed “jobs” in customers’ lives (what the customer hopes to accomplish)” and putting all efforts around those jobs. He explains that customer profiles and correlations unearthed in data do not provide such an insight. He believes that persona, ethnographic research, focus groups, customer panels, competitive analysis, and so on can be a good start point, but the primary objective should be identifying those jobs. He calls his theory “jobs to be done.”

    How can content (inbound) marketers help identifying the “jobs to be done”? And what to do then?

    Hey, great topic for a research and article!

    Thanks for the great contents.

    • Oh wow … so sorry it took me a while to respond. I’m grabbing that article now! Thx. 🙂

  • segito

    Hi Aaron, what Eugene Schwartz wrote? Do you have the ad he wrote for Martin Edelston?

    • It’s floating around there in the Internet. I’d track down Brian Kurtz … he has some MASSIVE swipe files he makes available from time to time from Schwartz and a host of other old school masters. http://www.briankurtz.me/

  • Excellent advice Aaron as always 😉 Tweeting to my 50K followers. Thanks for sharing!


    • Thanks so much, Ryan … for the kind words and the shares 🙂

  • Hey Aaron, my bad. My bad for not being a regular visitor to your site for this whole time to get to read great content like this.

    Honestly, wow.

    I’m a HUGE copywriting fan and a person that love Eugene Schwartz. Although I’ve never been able to get my hands on a copy of Breatthrough Advertising. So after reading your post here, I’m even more motivated to get it.

    This is the line that did it for me: “Every piece of content you create has to do two things: (1) rescue its audience from their own personal hell and (2) deliver them unto their own personal heaven. Great copywriting is about salvation … not sales.”

    Talk about useful information shared here. Keep up the great work.

    – Andrew

    • All is forgiven, Andrew. Thanks so much for your comment and the shares. Super encouraging to get this kind of feedback. I know Brian Kurtz has republished Breakthrough Advertising as a physical book. Still kinda spendy … but worth checking out: https://www.breakthroughadvertisingbook.com/

  • Thanks for the information

  • Ines

    Aaron, this is a great article! And it’s an absolute true that writing a copy but not knowing your target audience is the biggest waste of time! As you said here – it’s not about what, it’s all about who!