30 timeless lessons on creating killer content from one of the greatest business minds and copywriters: David Ogilvy

Often referred to as the father of advertising, David Ogilvy was one of the most sought after advertising folk in his time. He pioneered the information rich, soft-sell ads like The Guinness Guide to Oysters that was a form of native advertising.

It therefore makes sense to learn from Ogilvy and his successful advertising campaigns to glean lessons on how to persuade prospects, influence your audience and create memorable, evergreen content.

In case you are still on the fence about having to improve your content and copy, listen to Ogilvy’s response to a copywriter who told him –

“I don’t need to learn copywriting; I write based on how it sounds to me.”

Ogilvy’s response was –

“Suppose your gallbladder has to be removed this evening. Will you choose a surgeon who has read some books on anatomy and knows where the gallbladder is, or someone who relies on his own intuition?”

What separates the best copywriters from the rest is that they know more.

To know more, you really need to have a process that works.

on writing well

You don’t need to be a natural writer to create excellent content, you just need the right process and key principles.

Here are the 6 steps to an effective copywriting process:

1. Research: customer, product and competition

skin the cat

Ogilvy worked for a time under George Gallup, founder of the Gallup Poll, an agency that does market research and surveys. That experience impacted his approach towards copywriting by developing a research based process. After all, if you don’t have any idea who you are writing for, then you will never be able to create effective content or create an effective communication strategy to influence and sell.

To write effective content or copy, you need to know:

  • Who you’re writing for
  • How the person thinks
  • What that person needs

David Ogilvy recommended stuffing your conscious mind with information.


Here is Ogilvy’s perspective –

on research for creating killer content

In other words, like miners, you need to dig and chip away until you have more information than you can use. Research is the cure for writer’s block as it gives you a host of possibilities to play with.

However, David Ogilvy also advises caution –

caution on using research

In other words, good research is great learning, not just confirming your hypothesis. It is also not a bad thing if our hypothesis does not stand up in research. So make sure you go into research with well thought out provocative stimuli and creative exercises to get people thinking out loud. That way you can get beyond the obvious and really understand your audience’s motivations.

After all, your audience is online searching for things they want answers to and socializing on social networks like LinkedIn groups, Google+ and Facebook. Therefore, it makes sense to explore these to better understand your customers. But yet businesses often neglect to research their customers.

What does good research do for your audience?

  • You can build a solid content marketing foundation for them.
  • You build a complete profile of your ideal client of how they think, feel, and what their interests and challenges are.
  • Your copy flows better and speaks to your audience directly. Your content is easier to put together.
  • You don’t have to contend with writer’s block.
  • It leads to better engagement, trust, click-throughs, opt-in rates, conversions, social media shares and positions in the SERPs.
  • You better anticipate your audience’s needs even before they know they need it.

2. Write an outline

on creating an outline

With an outline, you are essentially creating a road map of the areas you need to cover in your copy. It will allow you to complete the work faster and ensure you stick to the overall flow, which is dependent on the purpose of the page and the audience you are writing to.

The actual content of webpages will differ, but the outline below works well in highlighting your universal selling proposition.

Headline – What is the benefit you’re offering in a sentence. It needs to grab your audience’s attention and be easily understood.

Sub headline – A simple yet clear explanation of what you offer or do and for whom

Images – We tend to process in our subconscious everything we see on a website, and images or visual media help your audience process information much faster. So use related visual media to aid your audience’s understanding of the headline and sub headline.

Bullet points – A list of key features and or benefits

Call to action – A simple, brief, command oriented statement in a very visible button that tells your audience what they should do next. People don’t like to have to think when visiting a site.

3. Draft your copy

Now that you have an outline, you can use it to develop the points and your style of writing. But, how do you create copy that will be assured of success every time? Do you follow formulas or rules?

Here is what David Ogilvy had to say on the subject –

on rules

Instead, he suggested keeping the following in mind during this process.

Avoid jargon

The most effective copy is one that can be easily read and understood. It shouldn’t contain big, long, complicated words but rather short sentences, simple words and short paragraphs that make comprehension easy. No one wants to have to pull out a dictionary to understand the jargon you use.

avoid jargon when creating killer content

So write as though you are talking to your friends.

While it is wise to avoid jargon as a general rule, there are certain occasions where using jargon can be effective.

For example, the conference on advances in civil and materials research uses terms and acronyms that are familiar to those in the industry and most likely to attend the conference.

Don’t be boring

on boring copy

People don’t have a lot of time to read your copy; they are in hurry. So if your point isn’t obvious and engaging, they won’t get it or will be bored and move on to something else.

If you want people to buy, then you need them to see your product in their hands and be able to envision how much better their lives would be like with it. Creating awe with your words is fine as long as it does not come at the expense of the sale.

Be specific

on being specific

You get only one shot at trying to capture the attention of your desired audience and again only for a few seconds. So to stand out from all the other content and distractions, crafting a compelling headline is perhaps the most important task of drafting your copy.

Talk to your audience via your headline and demonstrate WIIFM (What’s In It For Me) in as direct a manner as you can.

How much information should you provide?

on information in ads

The more you give useful and actionable information for free, the more your audience will trust you and want to learn more and work with you. You want your readers to look forward to your content as they expect that the time spent will be worth their while.

Ensure your content is informative and entertaining and that your audience knows that there is more of the same to come, so that they will want to deepen their relationship with you.

Avoid fluff and tell your readers why they should buy your product or service.

Why your solution will solve their problem, why they should buy from you, and why they should do so now. Back up your copy with real data, case-studies or benefits that can be demonstrated.

Make it about your audience

audience focused

Always treat your audience with respect. Don’t put them off by talking down to them or by being condescending. Instead, treat them with respect and ensure your copy is reflective of this. After all, you need them more than they need you when trying to close a sale.

on personalization

make up adWhen someone reads, they usually do so alone. You need to keep this in mind when crafting your copy. You also need to remember that you cannot use a one size fits all approach. Different people will have different needs, so write to speak to the different segments within your audience.

For example, if you were crafting copy for a make-up brand, you cannot convince 18-year-old college girls the same way as you would a 45-year-old working mother of 2 children.

Ogilvy in the make-up ad that you can see along side made sure he specified who his audience was and spoke to them exclusively.

Long form or short form

advertising as a medium of information

Many case studies have since proven Ogilvy’s opinion to be true. In other words, what you say is more important than how you say it.

Take for example the Dollar Shave Club. They based their business off the idea that you get a great shave for a few bucks a month as opposed to some of the overpriced big brand name razors on the market. Sure their video ad was hilarious and went viral, but the audience got the message which resulted in the company’s success.

4. Fine tune your copy’s persuasion

Once you have a draft copy, you can fine tune specific areas to increase your copy’s persuasion. Consider how hard it can be to pull yourself away from an addictive book or TV show when one more episode or page never turns out to be one.

What makes these so addictive, and how can you apply it to your copy?

Authors and producers know that getting your time is hard, but they also know that people are looking for an escape from their daily grind and responsibilities.

They know that if they don’t capture your attention within the first few seconds, they have lost you, so they use the proven psychological principle as outlined in Maria Konnikova’s book Mastermind. Open loops are the equivalent of a cliffhanger in a TV episode designed to keep you thinking about what is going to happen next in the storyline, so it becomes harder for you to get up off the couch than it does to watch another episode. Daniel Goleman, the author of Emotional Intelligence, has proven through his research that to make people take action, you need to change their emotions. To do that, you need to use emotionally compelling copy if you can’t talk to them.

Here are a few things that Ogilvy believed were important.

Use a big idea

A big idea is used to sell products and stands the test of time. It is linked to the product and the experience of the product; for example, cut out coupons and toys in cereal boxes. These are ideas that have affected people’s decision making about whether to buy a certain product or not. Ogilvy had this to say on the topic.

on big ideas

In his book, Ogilvy on Advertising, Ogilvy shares this checklist to determine if an idea qualifies as a big idea –

  1. Did it make me gasp when I first saw it?
  2. Do I wish I had thought of it myself?
  3. Is it unique?
  4. Does it fit the strategy to perfection?
  5. Could it be used for 30 years?

The New York Times, for example, didn’t just recount the prowess of Olympic athletes for their readers. Instead they used the Olympics to provide an interactive experience around athletes like Simone Biles, Ryan Lochte, Christian Taylor and Derek Drouin, while explaining how each excels at their sport.

Use power words

In 1963, David Ogilvy published his list of influential words which continue to be used effectively today. I have covered how power words can trigger emotional responses before.

David Ogilvy used them in his ads, including in his Hathaway shirt ad, which help create in the readers mind a vivid picture of the product and how it solves their problems.

So help your readers by using such words in the proper context.

Place your key points in the first paragraph

on caring about your content

Crafting your content and copy is something that requires nurturing, crafting, revising and redrafting over time.


So that you can be sure to capture your audience’s attention with the headline and opening lines of your text. Take the extra time to ensure you have the most important points in the first paragraph, that the copy flows well and captures the mood just so.

Here is a technique that you can use to do this. The inverted pyramid style of writing like you see in the image below is used by top sites.


The process involves placing the most important information to the reader in the first paragraph or 2. This, in turn, leads to better engagement rates and better conversions.

For example, sites like CNN use this to keep their audience engaged.

CNN article

Use visuals

We process visuals significantly faster than text, so use them in your copy.

on visuals

Take, for example, the Hathaway shirt ad.

Hathaway shirt ad

This ad by Ogilvy was quite successful because of the photograph in which he made the subject wear an eye patch. The result? It caught the attention of readers and put Hathaway on the map after 116 years of obscurity.

Stand out and emphasize value over process

on standing out

You want your product or service to have a unique selling proposition — a public personality that defines who you are and what you do. Moreover, as Ogilvy remind us, the more sharply defined that personality is, the more successful you will be as a content marketer. The Hathaway shirt ad is an example of Ogilvy using a unique selling point to help make the quality of the shirts stand out.

Emphasizing value is a key part of having your content stand out. Your content can be process oriented or value oriented. For example, take the following headlines:

  • Sign up for the WordPress speed optimization guide
  • Increase sign ups by 73% by reducing your WordPress load time to under 1 second

The first describes an activity, whereas the latter describes value that the activity would create. Your audience cares more about value than activity.

Use questions to guide

questions to guide

Questions are frequently used to help aid conversion because they help identify the right audience and allow for a response to be created.

Take this ad for example –

ford ad

The question helps confirm that the rest of the copy is for those interested in buying a car not just looking.

Aid readability

David Ogilvy believed that copy needed to sell. To overcome the enemy of distraction, he believed that your copy needed to be easy to comprehend. This is what he recommended –

aid readability

In his Shell ad, he breaks an idea into multiple lines. The use of italicized and underlined text only serves to help readers quickly grasp what the key points of the paragraph are.

grab attention

In making your content stand out and easier to read, you can expect better engagement.

Write for fifth graders

The following is from Ogilvy’s memo to employees on how to write:

write for fifth graders

One of the key tenets of conversion-oriented copy is to write in a way that children can understand.

Take for example David Ogilvy’s Rolls Royce ad.

ogilvy rolls royce ad

Even when writing copy for a luxury brand and describing the cars workings, he writes simply and clearly.

Aim to write for a fifth-grade student. To see how your copy fares, you can paste your text into the Flesh-Kincaid readability scale or just refer to the Yoast SEO WordPress plugin if you have it installed.

Fine tune headlines

on headlines

Ogilvy was known to spend months tweaking headlines before he even got started on the rest of the copy. It doesn’t matter whether you have the right sentence structure in paragraph 3 if you can’t grab your desired audience’s attention with the headline. So spend time coming up with the best headline.

Here are a few tips to help:

  • Use a tool like this one to guide your headline development
  • Use numbers – Research by Outbrain revealed that those with numbers performed better than those without
  • Ask readers a question – A study found that headlines with questions got 5 times as many clicks as ones without a question
  • Evoke emotions in your readers – Use emotional words to get your audience engaged with your content. A study by Jonah Berger around New York Times articles showed that articles evoking anger were among the most shared.

Be specific in your CTA

be specific in your CTA

Just as headlines need to be specific, so do your calls to action (CTA). If you want your audience to take some action, then you need to be clear and upfront about it.

For example, in this ad, Ogilvy highlights the call to action by placing it in a box and including a guarantee.

dove ad

It’s a similar principle that is used on sites like homehello.


The CTA is clearly articulated and the action encapsulated in a few words on the button.

Limit commitment

Though I am not aware of David Ogilvy talking specifically about this technique, I have noticed him using it in his copy and so am including it.

No matter how good your copy is, your audience will inevitably have concerns, fears or doubts about buying your product. So emphasize the lack of commitment in your call to action and copy. Instead of trying to get customers to commit to contracts, give them the option to try out the service at little or no cost.

David Ogilvy used this tactic in his copy for Shell ads.

shell ad

Sites like Netflix do the same on their homepage.


5. Revise and edit

revise and edit

Done with converting your audience. Take a break and come back to it the next day.

A fresh look will help you spot inconsistencies, missing information and flaws in your copy. You can also fix up spelling mistakes and rearrange your copy to make it flow better. It also helps to get a few ideal customers and peers to read it and give you feedback. Listen for areas that could be made better or more credible.

Once editing is complete, make it live. Don’t get into debates about whether it is good enough. Instead, test it.

6. Test, test, test

test test

There is no way to predict accurately how well your copy will do. It could be an overnight success or a complete dud.

If it doesn’t work well, there could be a problem with the following areas:

  • The value proposition is weak
  • The offer doesn’t match audience needs
  • The headline isn’t compelling
  • The benefits are not clear to your audience

When all you have is a hypothesis, it is near impossible to accurately diagnose the problem. The only way to know is to test.

So start with A/B testing value propositions and monitor your conversion rates as you progress.


Research is critical to identifying what the customer wants from you and thinks of your brand. Be analytical with your business or it will fall by the wayside as your customers increasingly ignore it.

A final key ingredient

ogilvy on creativity

When you have all your research, you still need to put all of that together in some order and form so that your content makes sense and compels your audience to engage with it and your brand. In other words, it requires you to be creative, and as we have covered in this post on creativity, it requires work.

This is what Ogilvy had to say on the subject.

on originality

Being creative alone doesn’t help with selling. In fact, if you aren’t connecting with your audience, building trust and selling your products or services when you write marketing copy, you need to reexamine your motivations.

In other words, don’t write to win awards but create content that will be helpful and interesting to your audience.

big ideas

Ogilvy believed in researching products well before writing any copy.

In fact, I like the creative process Ogilvy describes. It is similar to ideas we have covered in a previous post. So stuff your consciousness with research and then let your unconscious mind take over to see what ideas bubbles up to the top.

on creativity

In other words, inspiration comes to those who persist and deal with procrastination.

Eugene Schwartz, a contemporary of Ogilvy’s, avoided distraction and multitasking by using a version of the Pomodoro technique to focus on the work at hand.

Over to you

Ogilvy shared the same thoughts as writer Stephen King, who said that to be a great writer, you need to read a lot and write a lot. Copywriting is a skill that can be learned like most other things. Use the process above to get started on the right track.

The best copy is not one that uses flowery language or sophisticated persuasion techniques but rather is open and transparent in providing information about the product, its benefits and makes clear to your audience whom it is meant for.

This memo by David Ogilvy on how to write seems to sum it up pretty well.

To help with creating content that is geared towards converting your audience, download the free guide to creating a content conversion funnel below.

killer content - guide to creating a content conversion funnel


Vinay is the content marketing manager for WP Curve. Follow him @wpcurve

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