I’ll never forget my first client, shouting at me in frustration, “C’mon! It shouldn’t be this hard to make a decent advert! Anyone can do it!”
Twenty years down the line and hundreds of marketing promotions later, I’m no longer frustrating people so much because I’ve learned to take apart the meat and bones of promotions to better understand how to produce effective ads and literature.
But can anyone do it? I’m not sure I agree with my old client on that one, but there are certainly some message and design commonalities that can be taken apart and looked at in order to build successful marketing collateral.
Whether you’re a rookie designer or a client looking for some sound design and copy advice, this guide can help you understand the anatomy of your promotions and how each one should be built within tried-and-tested parameters.
Your headline is a critical part of your promotion. It is the heartbeat that gives it life and meaning.
A headline can be as obvious as the word “sale” or simply your product name. It is all about context. Why make it complicated on the cover of a brochure or sell sheet? But then again, why make it super-generic on the headline of a magazine ad that you want to get noticed?
Be effective rather than clever
A headline can be funny, clever, inspirational, seductive, and so on. But what it can’t be is unrelated to your product and business message. There’s an awful habit that many businesses fall into of trying to lever in puns or well-known phrases—a belief born from reading too many tabloid papers.
If you’re able to use clever wordplay to get your point across then that’s great. But trying to “be clever” should never be your motivation for writing a headline.
Don’t use humor for the sake of it (and avoid the dreaded “pun”)
Here is a comparison of actual headlines for similar products with very different treatments:
“Regardless of the right to bear arms, we in no way condone the right to bear feet.”
In view of the fact that this ad was also trying to somewhat make a social statement, it just seems like the wrong place for a “pun” and the whole thing results in a confusing statement with forced humor.
“Metro Shoes back-to-school sale—happy feet make happy people!”
At first glance, this headline (above) could be viewed as fairly unremarkable. However, this headline for Metro Shoes is doing its job because it’s clearly defining a message and a purpose for this piece of promotional literature.
A headline should tell the viewer:
Who you are
What you’re selling
What problem you’re solving
Here are just a few examples of headline strategies that you can adopt for your own business.
Scare the viewer: “A little mistake that cost the farmer $3,000 a year!”
Ease the viewer: “Good mornings follow a good Nytol.”
Impel the viewer: “Nothing hurts more than sitting on a couch.”
Intrigue the viewer: “How does the man who drives the snowplow drive to the snowplow?”
Inspire the viewer: “Don’t dream of winning. Train for it.”
Humor the viewer: “An English ale so authentic it’ll make your teeth crooked.”
2. The brain of a promotion: The copy
Be smart about writing your body copy. Whether you’re writing a paragraph for an ad or an entire brochure, the body copy should reflect your business’s brain and voice. Don’t just cut and paste a copy style; know who you are and who you’re talking to.
If you’re advertising a tech business, you need to sound informed and intelligent; however, if you own an events business, sounding “techy” rather than fun and upbeat is clearly the wrong approach.
Have a plan for your copy
Think before you write: consider what you have to offer and write down the features—and more importantly, the benefits of your products and services
Use simple words when you can: be natural but intelligent, and avoid marketing lingo
Never write passively: don’t say “we try to provide the best service” when you can say “we provide the best service”
Tell a story:
Tell people what you’re offering—not just on the surface, but what you really offer as a result of your product or service
Tell people why you’re offering it
Give people a firm conclusion: offer a takeaway from your story
Take action from the start
Describe the benefits customers get from your business as soon as possible. The benefit is really what customers are after; is it cheaper, is it faster, is it newer, will it make my hair grow back?
Split your copy into subheadings
Don’t write in long paragraphs. Make your paragraphs short and sweet and make sure each paragraph has a subheading to help organize your copy into an easy-to-follow story.
When people read your promotion, the subheadings should give a great summary of what you’re offering without the need to read each paragraph.
Bullets and other tricks are your friends
Don’t be afraid of bullets or itemized info. Summarized lists of features and highlights are a quick and effective way of drawing attention to major benefits while giving the viewer easily digestible information.
If you can put a complex piece of info in a simple data graph or graphic, then do so. A picture can say more in one second than an entire paragraph or even page of copy.
Include a call-to-action (CTA)
Don’t ever forget what you want people to do with the promotion you’re offering. Getting customers to do what you want is a bit like herding cats!
People have short attention spans and getting them to see your phone number, redeem your coupon, link to your web address, or visit your store is far more important than getting them to read any of your body copy.
Make your call-to-action easily seen and build in motivation as to why the reader should take that action. The following CTAs are just a few examples of commonly used CTA verbiage:
Call now at
Join the party at
Discover the secret at
See how we did it
Make a difference at
Go to our website
Sign up for free at
Indulge yourself now at
Call now to speak to a success expert
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Find your own style at
3. The body of a promotion: The design
The design of your promotion is not only what makes it attractive, it’s also what helps the viewer make sense of the information you’re presenting. It’s the meat of your literature that fills out the bare bones of an idea.
It’s imperative that you understand the relationship between words and images. Before you even start your design, consider the following:
Never use an image because it looks “nice”—every image you use in an ad, brochure, or other promotion needs to relate to a headline or a piece of information that you’re presenting
It’s all in the composition—have a visual plan of where your copy will sit and where the related images will best complement these info points
On brochures and other literature in which there are a lot of copy points, consider adding captions underneath each image
Use color blocking, different font styles, and other tricks—treat copy as another aspect of your design that needs design attention
Make every block of text readable—although it depends on the font and the reader, as a rule, each section of body copy should be at least 10 point in font weight with image captions no less that 7 point
Harmonize your promotion to include both images and copy. Think of your images and copy running down the beach, hand-in-hand together! They are supposed to be a team that works in unison.
Rule of threes
If you’ve never heard of this term, the rule of threes is a great composition guide to consider for every page of literature you produce. It’s a great rule to follow that allows you to design in a way that naturally conforms to the way a viewer sees and follows visual information.
By splitting your page into three vertical or horizontal sections, you can create a layout that has natural structure and eye-flow.
Every promotion is different, but whether it’s a brochure, sell sheet, flyer, or advertisement, it needs to have a powerful structure and a strong message to effectively support your business.
Ben Fellowes is Sr. Copywriter and marketing expert at Roland DGA. He has designed and produced content for some of the world’s top agencies and marketing companies. He's currently working (and getting his fair English skin burned) in Southern California! He loves art, punk rock, horror films, comic books, real beer, cooking, and eating too much!