Essential guide to writing an advertisement

A small business owner thinks up an advertising campaign

A well-written and strategically-placed advert can significantly improve your brand profile, increase awareness and generate sales leads.

While writing a great advertisement is an art, the key principles are easy to understand - helping you prepare your own advert or evaluate the work of an agency or copywriter working for you.

Advert basics

Advert headlines

Advert illustrations

Advert body copy

Advert response mechanisms

Checking your advert

Advert layout and artwork

1. Advert basics

Choose the right media to reach your target market

  • You need an understanding of your target market and which media they pay attention to. Check the readership profiles of potential media outlets to ensure they match your target market.
  • Options include local, national and trade newspapers and magazines, online advertising and directories, sponsorship, radio and billboards.

Before writing anything, remind yourself of your objective

  • Who are the consumers or businesses that make up your target market?
  • What are you trying to achieve? For example, creating awareness, changing consumer perceptions or encouraging an immediate response.

Be clear about what you have to offer

  • What are the key benefits of your product or service, and how do they set you apart from competitors?
  • You need to be able to answer your target customer's primary question: "What's in it for me?"

Your advertisement needs to catch the reader's attention

  • A good headline is essential.
  • An illustration can add impact.
  • Good artwork and design will help your advertisement stand out.
  • A clear call to action will encourage response.

Follow the AIDA model - Attention, Interest, Desire, Action

  • After the headline has captured the reader's attention, most advertisements use the main body copy to build up interest, create a desire for the product and ultimately prompt the reader to take action.
  • If the advertisement is intended to provoke a response, make it easy for the reader.

Online advertising

Online advertising allows you to stand out in search results and get exposure on popular websites.

Banner adverts usually comprise an image and a compelling headline

  • These are specifically designed to encourage people to click through to your landing page.

Pay-per-click advertising allows you to appear at the top of online search results

  • Success depends on the use of appropriate keywords and phrases so that your ad appears when someone searches for a business like yours.
  • A compelling listing then encourages click-throughs.
  • You only pay when someone clicks on the ad.

A/B testing different ads allows you to find out what works best

  • Using analytics software makes it easy to track how effective different ads are. For example, you can see how many people click through to your website, which pages they visit and whether they make an enquiry or purchase.

2. Advert headlines

A compelling headline will catch attention and encourage people to read on.

Grab the attention of your target audience

Good headlines can:

  • Highlight the key benefit of your product or service. For example, expertise, convenience, reliability, service, value for money, or a unique selling point.
  • Contain news or be topical.
  • Arouse curiosity. For example, by asking a question which the advertisement can then answer.
  • Provide an endorsement. For example, "Recommended by dentists".

Bad headlines will fail to attract attention and may even put readers off

  • Overcomplicated headlines are unlikely to grab attention.
  • Avoid hackneyed phrases (eg "unique offer"), clichés and claims that cannot be supported. An empty boast is unlikely to be convincing.
  • A feature (as opposed to a benefit) of your product is unlikely to be of interest to your target market. For example, when advertising saucepans, describing the Teflon coating is less effective than stating that they are non-stick.
  • Jokes can cause offence.
  • Avoid repetition and redundant information.
  • A misleading headline may encourage interest - but readers will feel let down and angry when they find out what you are really offering.

3. Advert illustrations

An illustration acts in much the same way as a headline, to capture the attention of your target market.

A relevant illustration can help your message stand out

  • A photograph showing the product in action can be very effective.
  • Using people in a photo has been shown to help grab attention, particularly if they are making eye contact and smiling.
  • An experienced photographer or illustrator can usually come up with good ideas, and can make even boring or unattractive products look interesting.
  • A professional stock photo can work well if it supports the message.
  • If you have nothing to illustrate, do not include illustrations just for the sake of it.

The quality of the illustration will reflect on your product or service

  • Use a professional who has experience of your subject.
  • Show the photographer or illustrator the proposed layout for your ad, so they can come up with a tailor-made image.
  • A poor quality illustration will diminish the impact of your ad and make your product look cheap.

An illustration will increase your costs

  • You usually have to pay for a photographer or illustrator, or for the right to use a stock photo. Stock photos are relatively inexpensive.
  • Never use a poor quality image; it will damage your brand reputation.
  • Make sure you check the licensing agreement on any stock photo you're intending to use.

4. Advert body copy

Include only as much body copy as you need to

  • Advertisements that aim to increase brand awareness often contain nothing apart from the headline, an illustration and the product name.
  • By contrast, advertisements in trade magazines may be packed with facts and details.
  • Online adverts usually link to a dedicated landing page on your website. Key product information, delivery details and positive customer reviews can all help to encourage visitors to buy.

Build on your headline

  • For example, giving more details about the key benefit.
  • You may also want to introduce other benefits.
  • Longer ads can end with a pay-off line that relates back to the headline.

Support your claims with facts

  • Provide customer endorsements.
  • Give precise information.
  • Make sure your ad is not misleading. You can get advice from the Advertising Standards Authority.

Encourage action from the reader

  • Make it clear what you are offering and what you want the reader to do next.
  • See Response mechanisms.

Use the right tone and style

  • Write from the reader's point of view, focusing on benefits rather than product features.
  • Use simple, clear and concise language that the reader can understand immediately.
  • Be honest and confident, without being too salesy.
  • Break up paragraphs into easily readable points.
  • The best ads appear uncomplicated, but use phrasing the target audience can relate to.

Don't spoil your chances

Be careful with special offers and promotions

  • Words like "sale" and "discount" can make your business sound tacky.

Simplify clutter

  • If you cram in too many words and pictures, readers will find your ad hard work.

Avoid jargon

  • Obscure words and long sentences put people off. Keep it simple and direct.

Don't be boring

  • No-one wants to plough through a pile of statistics. Decide what is important, say it clearly, and stop when you have whetted the reader's appetite.

5. Advert response mechanisms

If you want readers to respond to a print advertisement, make it easy for them

  • Include all the relevant contact details: name, email address, website URL, street address and phone number.
  • Consider providing a coupon or a freephone number.

You can prompt readers to take action.

  • Provide an incentive, such as a special offer or discount.
  • Give a deadline by which your offer ends.

Devise a response mechanism that will allow you to measure effectiveness

  • For example, a dedicated landing page that you can measure traffic to.

6. Checking your advert

Before you design the layout of the advertisement, check the content.

Ask a few key contacts for their reactions

  • If possible, test different drafts with potential customers.

Look at the ad yourself through the eyes of your target customers

Ask yourself:

  • Will the headline - and illustration, if there is one - stop readers in their tracks?
  • Is the body copy compelling? Does it tell them something they want to know?
  • Are the benefits and USP of your offering made clear? Is the ad saying something different to those of your competitors?
  • Does the advert make the reader a promise? Does it back up that promise with facts or testimonials?
  • Does it encourage the reader to take action? Does it make it clear what to do next?

If your ad isn't good enough, try again or use a specialist

  • It may be worth paying someone to write an effective advert for you, rather than wasting time and money on one that does not bring in any business.
  • Advertising agencies are good at matching the style and content of an ad to the prospective customers for your product.
  • If you cannot afford an agency, shop around for a freelance copywriter and work together to generate ideas for ads.

7. Advert layout and artwork

Choose clear typefaces (fonts)

  • Use type that is large enough to be easily read.
  • Use a font that reflects the image you want for your company. For example, clean, crisp and smart; traditional, established and reliable; young and innovative.
  • Avoid ornate fonts, which can be difficult to read. Also avoid reversed-out type (white on black) for small print.
  • Do not mix too many different typefaces in one ad.

Emphasise important text

  • Use large or bold type to make your headline stand out
  • Highlight key messages or contact details (eg your phone number).

Lay out your advertisement with plenty of white space

  • Cramming illustrations and text together creates clutter, which is off-putting.
  • If everything will not fit in easily, you probably have too many words or images.

If necessary, get professional help

  • A graphic designer can lay out your advertisement and do the artwork.
  • A printer may also be able to design and produce the artwork. Their work may not be as creative as the work of a graphic designer.

Produce final artwork

  • Ask the publisher what size and format you must provide your advert in.
  • Provide any separate images or graphics that are needed.

Check a proof copy of your advertisement before it goes live or to print

  • Check once, without reading the words, to see what the overall visual effect is.
  • Ask yourself whether your advertisement will stand out from other ads appearing on the same page, website or elsewhere in the same publication.
  • Check that the ad gives the right impression of quality.
  • Check a second time to make sure there are no typographical or layout errors (spelling mistakes, missing text, wrong typefaces).
  • Double-check that your contact details are correct - an incorrect phone number or misspelled URL could cost you a lot of enquiries.
  • Check that images are not blurred.
  • Ask a second person to check it. Small mistakes can easily slip through.
  • Do not approve the finished ad until you are sure it will be effective.
  • If there are errors that are not your fault, insist that they are corrected at the publication's expense.


What does the * mean?

If a link has a * this means it is an affiliate link. To find out more, see our FAQs.