Think the best way to boost ad conversions is to become a better writer? Wrong! Here’s why…

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When I started studying the work of copywriting legend Gary Bencivenga, I admit I was kinda underwhelmed.  In fact, I questioned whether it was worth my time and energy to pore over pages and pages of his control copy while I waited for lightbulbs to start exploding around my head.

“Is this IT? Maybe I’m missing something here…”

In my search for a copywriting magic bullet, I’d hoped to find some linguistic wizardry I could borrow for my own work.

Did Gary Bencivenga have a killer formula to power up his bullets?  Not as far as I could see

Did he make clever word choices to add punch to his body copy?  No more than anyone else

Or did he deploy any ninja persuasion hacks I’d never seen before? Nope

I started to wonder what all the fuss was about.

Until my Copy Chief pointed out that I was looking at Gary Bencivenga’s copy through the wrong lens.  I was reading it like a writer, looking for writerly thingamy doodles to be impressed by.

Instead of looking at it through the eyes of the prospect, and understanding what makes the copy effective, from a sales perspective.

I’d been disappointed by the simplicity of Gary Bencivenga’s words.  When the reality was, simplicity was PRECISELY the thing that created the impact.  The reason Gary Bencivenga’s controls were almost impossible to beat wasn’t because he played words like a Spanish guitar.  

It was because of the way he THOUGHT about his copy. And because of the depth of his knowledge about his prospects and the psychology of the market.  This wasn’t the first time I’d heard people talk about Copy Thinking vs Copy Writing.  But it was the first time I truly understood what that meant.  

So how can you approach your ad copy as a copy thinker and NOT just a copywriter?

1) Do your research

Most advertisers HATE avatar research. The mere mention of avatars makes their eyes glaze over and triggers a bout of entrepreneurial narcolepsy.  But knowing precisely who you’re addressing is something you can’t afford to guess.

99% of entrepreneurs will do just that.  Or they’ll write a list of demographic characteristics that define the type of person they want to serve.

But none of this is based on actual evidence.  It’s simply a wild stab in the dark or wishful thinking.  It might get you some of the way to passable ad copy, but it won’t be enough to set fire to your ad account.

Before a single word is written or a single cent is thrown into the Facebook ad machine for a new client, the copy team at the agency where I work spends AT LEAST 20 hours studying reviews, customer service emails, phone call transcripts, Facebook comment threads etc etc.  And that’s just for a few lines of Facebook ad copy.

You can multiply those research hours many times over for pieces of long form copy like a sales page or a VSL script.  That’s the level of dedication it takes to truly know your avatar.  Which is precisely what you need to do if you want to nail your own ad copy.

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2) Read between the lines 

I spend around 75% of my time at the ad agency, carrying out deep dive research.

This involves trawling through hundreds of data sources to find the exact frustrations and aspirations of people inside our target market.  At first, I made a rookie mistake – I took the words I read at face value.

I read the language of the market, noted it down, made a list of common pain points and goals.  Job done, right?


Now, you might have heard the Robert Collier principle of entering the conversation already happening in your prospect’s mind.  It means that you can’t manufacture a desire that does not already exist in the market.  As an advertiser, you need to find that desire and tap into it using resonant language that speaks to the heart of the market.

Which is precisely what we attempt to uncover during the deep dive research process.  By speaking to your prospect’s inner voice, you’re able to connect with them deep inside their lizard brain.  This is where our visceral, emotional reactions take place. 

It’s also where we ultimately make buying decisions from (although we might kid ourselves that we’re logical about our purchases).

My first attempts at research only allowed me to scratch the surface of my prospects’ fears and aspirations.  I was speaking to the frontal lobe – or the logical part of the brain. What I needed to do was dig about ten layers deeper to find out their internal dialogue. I needed to uncover what they weren’t willing to share in public.

But how do you pull out your prospects’ secret fears and desires, if they won’t say them out loud?

THIS is at the core of copy thinking.

Copy thinking requires you to NOT JUST see (or hear) the words your prospects share with you.  It requires you to…

  • Hear what’s implied by the words their saying
  • Spot patterns in their language which gives clues to their insecurities 
  • Make presuppositions on what they’re not saying, based on what they ARE saying


Lemme give you an example.

Suppose you read this customer review on Amazon, relating to a book on dating:

“I finally found the man of my dreams.  For the first time, in my dating history, I feel at peace in my relationship.  My friends keep commenting on the spring in my step and the glow on my cheeks.  Buy the book.  It will change your life”

When we make presuppositions about what the prospect is NOT saying, we take their positive comments and invert them.  This will tell us what the reviewer did not have before reading the book i.e.

    • “I finally found the man of my dreams” presupposes she had never before found the man of her dreams.
    • “I feel at peace in my relationship” presupposes she used to feel inner turmoil in past relationships.  They were a big source of anxiety and stress.  She was insecure and never felt a sense of permanence or security.  She never felt worthy of her past men.
    • “My friends keep commenting on the spring in my step and the glow on my cheeks” for friends to notice a difference in this woman’s physical appearance, it’s likely this prospect was previously pretty depressed by her relationship failures.  Perhaps she was comfort eating.  Perhaps she allowed her relationship anxiety to carry over into the rest of her life.

As you can see, when you peel back the layers, you can paint a much more vivid emotional picture of the prospect that goes way beyond their surface fears and aspirations.  

3) Take your research and use the language of your market  

After all your hard work researching your market, it’s time to put pen to paper.

This is the part where people like me used to believe in the need for linguistic gymnastics, until my copy chief and Gary Bencivenga taught me otherwise.  

The copy thinkers approach is simple.  Copy the exact words and tone used by your prospects.  If your prospects speak simply, you must write simply (just like Gary Bencivenga).  If your prospects take a combative tone, so must you.  If your prospects speak with humour, tell some jokes.

The best part is, if you’ve done your research you’ll have plenty of ammo to throw into your ad copy.

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Here are some amazing quotes I ‘stole’ from review threads and used in my top line ad copy:

“I am nothing but an ATM machine in my life”

“I worshipped my lies.  But now I wage war on them”

“The battle and the fight isn’t in the streets.  It’s in my mind”

Truth is, I would struggle to pull this level of power out of my own imagination.  The words are there to be borrowed.  So do your research and borrow them.  

Next time you sit down to write a piece of ad copy, ask yourself if you’re doing enough copy thinking instead of just copywriting.

Too often, business owners and copywriters focus on the art of good writing. When the reality is, high-converting copy can often happen when you throw away your attachment to the craft of writing.

The majority of the magic behind high-converting copy happens before you write a single word.  Most people can’t be bothered to seize the magic.  Don’t let that be you.      

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