5 Tried-and-True Copywriting Formulas (With Examples!) That Inspire Action
Copywriting is simply a type of writing used to get an audience to act, but as any copywriter knows, achieving that is not so simple. As there are a number of factors that influence whether a reader takes action, there exists a plethora of copywriting formulas to help you cover all your bases. So which one should you use?
Different formulas work for different goals, content types, and writing styles. To help you choose the best one for you, I’ve gone straight to the experts. Read on to get the five copywriting formulas they use, why they work, and examples of each.
Simple, effective copywriting from our ad copy blog post.
What makes a good copywriting formula?
According to freelance copywriter Bob Bly, the best copywriting formulas have a few things in common: They are easy to remember and to master, they can help new and experienced copywriters alike to quickly produce effective copy, and they also have successful track records—in some cases, decades-long successful track records.
So here’s a look at some of the most common copywriting formulas out there—and why you should consider them.
Copywriting formula #1: The 4Cs
According to the 4Cs formula, compelling copywriting has four characteristics: clear, concise, compelling, and credible. Let’s break that down.
Clear: Your copy must be understood by everyone. As Bly puts it, you can make your writing clearer by using small words, short sentences, headers, and bullet points, but true clarity starts with understanding your audience and your goals.
Concise: This is conveying information in the fewest possible words.
Compelling: Copy must also be interesting enough for your audience to actually read. The key? Focusing on the reader and their needs, problems, and desires.
Credible: Finally, your copy should be credible. Publish whitepapers, thought leadership articles, and customer testimonials. These content types can still communicate key brand messages while also surmounting reader skepticism.
Wealthsimple, an investment firm, uses credible copywriting to earn reader trust.
Copywriting formula #2: Problem, agitate, solution (PAS)
According to Maciej Duszynski, content writer at resume advice sites Zety and ResumeLab, this is an “old school” copywriting formula in which the writer introduces a problem the reader experiences, uses emotional language to hammer the issue home, and then offers a solution.
“When used correctly, the problem, agitate, solution copywriting formula results in the reader’s full attention,” said Michael Tomaszewski, another writer at Zety.
“They'll be dying to find out what the solution is, and when you finally offer it—and throw in a clear, concise, compelling and credible call to action— you'll have generated great-quality leads, I guarantee,” he added.
In fact, Benjamin Houy, founder of and self-study French course French Together, said PAS is his favorite copywriting formula because it’s easy for even novice copywriters to use and “has the ability to quickly turn prospects' problems into powerful copy.”
“The idea is to focus on a key problem prospects face, mention it with vivid examples, talk about it some more and finally offer a solution.”
The following French Together newsletter email uses this copywriting formula and has helped generate hundreds of thousands of dollars in revenue for the French course:
One point worth noting: Corina Leslie, PR manager for email validation company ZeroBounce, said that while she uses the PAS formula in emails and social media and it continues to yield results, she nevertheless suspects “it’s become a bit too popular among marketers, so people are less likely to react to it.”
Copywriting formula #3: Before-after bridge
As an alternative, Leslie suggested the before-after Bridge formula, which starts on a positive, aspirational note rather than the negative one in PAS.
“It invites the reader to picture paradise—and how to get there with your help,” she said.
In order to use before-after bridge, Leslie said you have to know the audience’s needs and wants and describe this in the first line. Then, you use examples to illustrate how other consumers have reached this ideal state—and how the reader can get there, too.
“Back up your claim by listing tangible benefits,” she added. “Finally, end with a powerful, irresistible call to action.”
The following email, which uses the before-after bridge formula, is what Leslie described as their “best-performing email ever”:
Shelby Rogers, content marketing manager at web experience platform Solodev, agreed before-after bridge works because it establishes a connection between the writer and reader, which, in turn, becomes a foot in the door for the rest of the copy.
“After making that connection, you show a solution … of what would be appealing to readers. Spend the bridge showing how your solution gets them from Point A to Point B,” she said. “If you’ve done your customer research before writing content, your Before section will grab your audience’s attention with a relevant pain point.”
Rogers said Solodev also uses before-after bridge in its CMS comparison guide e-books because one of the most consistent complaints they hear from prospects and new customers is that the CMS landscape is cluttered and confusing.
“We then offered a solution—an easier way to comparison shop—and used the ending to show a bridge to those comparisons,” said Rogers. “We parallel the formula in our landing pages for the e-book downloads as well, and we’ve found success with it. Our comparison guides remain the highest-downloaded e-book offerings on our website.”
Copywriting formula #4: Attention, interest, desire, action (AIDA)
Bly said that AIDA—Attention, Interest, Desire, and Action—is one of the oldest copywriting formulas. Like the formulas above, it calls on the writer to: get the reader’s attention with persuasive writing; attract the reader’s interest in the related product or service; make that reader desire the product or service; and, in the end, call on the reader to take action.
Bly called it one of his favorite formulas and said he has used it for decades.
If you’re looking for a good example of this copywriting formula, look no further than tech giant Apple, which uses AIDA throughout its website to encourage consumers to join—and expand their presence in—its product ecosystem.
Copywriting formula #5: Storytelling
While perhaps a less formal formula per se, Lou Hoffman, CEO of PR firm The Hoffman Agency, said his vote is for the anecdote because it’s a tool employed by journalists in their stories, like this one.
Billy Bross, consultant to digital agency Linchpin Media, also suggested what he called “stories by default” as a potential alternative to formulas. He uses “heavily story-based” emails to his list five times weekly.
“Many people pay lip service to the power of stories in copywriting, but few actually use them. It's more an afterthought, ‘Oh, I'll just sprinkle in a story later,’” said Bross. “I thought to myself, ‘If stories work so well, why not use them by default? And then only remove them if there's a good reason to.’”
SEO Blogger Rob Powell of the Rob Powell Biz Blog also advocated for storytelling—provided those stories include character, conflict, and resolution.
“We’ve been telling each other stories for hundreds of thousands of years. It’s part of our evolution. And that’s why storytelling is so effective as a copywriting technique,” he said. “In the copy that you use on a landing page, the character could be your customer. The conflict would be the problem that she faces. And the resolution would be your product."
But Powell added that storytelling can also be about the company or the person selling the product.
“In this scenario, the character is you, the conflict is the years of struggle and frustration that you went through. And the resolution is the aha moment when it all clicked for you...This is a formula that you see on many sales and about pages. It’s a very effective way of positioning yourself as the solution to your customer’s problems.”
Powell mentioned that you can see this strategy in use from brands like Toms Shoes. Founder Blake Mycoskie’s bio says, “While traveling in Argentina in 2006, Blake witnessed the hardships faced by children growing up without shoes. His solution to the problem was simple, yet revolutionary: to create a for-profit business that was sustainable and not reliant on donations. Blake's vision soon turned into the simple business idea that provided the powerful foundation for Toms.”
Alice Corner, content writer at online infographic maker Venngage, said to take this a step further by embracing snark to sell your product in stories.
“For example, when I'm sharing an article I've written on social, I would say something like, ‘Women in tech don't usually occupy leadership positions. But at Venngage, they do,’” she said. “Obviously this doesn't work for every business, but if the tone is right for the brand it can be super effective.”
Lean on these copywriting formulas when you need them
Copywriters might not always need formulas, but it’s always good to expand your repertoire. These formulas may be especially useful for new writers looking to enhance or even validate their style.
“With experience, you'll notice that your copy flows in a natural way and is in line with some (or most) actual formulas simply because you focus it on the readers' benefit,” he said. “This is not to say that formulas, acronyms and other kinds of tricks are useless.”
These copywriting formulas are also helpful to get started copywriting quickly. So whether you’re suddenly tasked with writing ads or find yourself struggling to get words on the page, give these formulas a try for a quick copy boost.