If you work in sales and marketing, and more specifically, marketing communications, you might have heard of the AIDA model. (Some people also call it a “formula” or a “framework” or even a “technique.”)
As a copywriter / content writer / let’s just say marketing writer, I use it as a checklist. That’s because in marketing (and especially copywriting), anything that’s overly formulaic or strict ends up being quite useless—if anyone can come up with brilliant by “following a formula,” we’d all be stress-free writers and designers rolling around in piles of cash.
In this article, we’ll look at the AIDA model, how to use it in marketing writing to win over your target audience, and its limitations.
What is AIDA?
AIDA was conceived as a list of sequential stages that buyers go through when making a purchasing decision, which helps with brand awareness:
- Attention – The buyer’s attention is first drawn to the product or service.
- Interest – The buyer’s interest is piqued (ideally by your awesome marketing).
- Desire – The buyer wants to buy that specific product or service.
- Action – The buyer takes action—depending on what your conversion goals are in digital marketing, this could be a purchase or a subscription or any other action that you want a prospect to take.
When used as a business model checklist—and if you don’t ask it to do too much—AIDA is a great starting point for all kinds of copy including sales emails, landing page copy, and paid ads.
Pro-tip when learning what is AIDA? Ads are a unique beast—you can find many examples of memorable and successful (not always the same thing) ads that have only the A and I. That’s why I say that AIDA should be used as a checklist and not a rigid framework for your business model. If your ad is eye-catching enough and your goal is simply to increase brand awareness and get people interested, you could argue that you don’t need the Desire or Action components.
Is there a CTA when using the AIDA Marketing model? Nope. Does it need it? Not really.
Notice that each step of AIDA is focused on the buyer’s state of mind. Often on marketing websites and ad campaigns, you’ll see self-centered copy: copy that talks about how great the product is and lists all the (often very technical) features it has.
This means nothing if you can’t translate it into a benefit for the reader.
“Over 500 beautiful custom landing page templates available” isn’t bad, but does it evoke as much desire as “Ready-made landing page templates designed to convert more customers—no coding needed”?
Pro-tip: You might have noticed that AIDA doesn’t say anything about social media or third-party review sites, which can support (or negate) any good work you did in the Attention and Interest stages. This is one of AIDA’s weaknessesin digital marketing, as it doesn’t account for how marketing and sales have involved.
Let’s take a closer look at each of the four stages of AIDA from a copywriter’s perspective.
Attention: Buyers become aware of—and pay attention to—your brand.
Questions to ask when writing attention-grabbing copy:
- Which channels do our prospects use most? Do they get their news from social media? Do they read press releases?
- What should our advertising and/or content strategy look like?
- What’s our key message? Is it clear? (Does it need to be?)
- What’s the one thing we want our audience to remember about our product or service?
- How can we stand out from our competitors? What’s our brand voice? Do we have brand guidelines?
How to do it:
The average person and potential customer gets 92 business emails a day. When you count other types of marketing communication like print ads, radio ads, Google ads, social media ads, sponsored posts, and advertorials, it’s no surprise that hardly any brands’ messages manage to make it into our long-term memory.
To start, try writing headlines that are surprising or have that can’t-look-away element. You’ll have to experiment when focusing on this aspect of AIDA marketing and try many different angles. I’m not talking about three or four—I’m talking about 10 or 20. As many as you can, from as many different perspectives as you can.
If you’re selling toothpaste, you could write copy about:
- how many shades whiter it can make your teeth
- its unique super-secret scientific toothpaste formula
- what dentists have said about it
- the cost savings from not having to visit the dentist as often
- the perks of a beautiful smile
- how much younger you’ll look with clean white teeth
- how much tartar and plaque it’ll eliminate
- which celebrities use it
… You get the idea.
Even for something as boring as toothpaste, you should still be able to come up with a gazillion different marketing angles—and if you’re a marketing writer, you should be able to write at least 20 headlines for each of these angles.
Not of all these will be good. In fact, you should bank on writing a lot of crappy headlines during the brainstorm stage. That’s the only way you can get the bad ideas out of the way and find the brilliant ones hidden beneath the obvious and cringey, cliché copy that tend to come to mind first.
Pro-tip: A fun and effective ad writing exercise I learned from my first mentor (she’s brilliant, funny, and the best copywriter / creative director I know) is to start with a blank page and write as many headlines as you can—around one idea or concept. Go for 100. Yes, 100. Don’t worry about the quality of the lines; just write. The goal is to force your brain to explore every possible angle, no matter how ridiculous or unrealistic. This is by far the fastest way to get past the creative blockages caused by our own overthinking and neuroticism... and unlock the really good ideas laying dormant in our minds.
When you’re judging how attention-grabbing your copy is, use both gut instinct and data. If you’re like me when I first started out in ad agency land, you might ask, “Sure, creativity is more instinctual, but where does the data come in?”
If you know your toothpaste’s target audience is people who are 55+, then you can reasonably assume that they would respond well to old-age and health-related messaging and that they would not care as much for copy that says something like “The toothpaste for first dates and job interviews.”
Unless of course, you have psychographic data that says that you’re targeting 55-year-olds who are young at heart and act more like millennials than baby boomers.
The more data you have, the more targeted and effective your copy can be. In an agency, the account planner would be responsible for including this very valuable information in a creative brief.
Interest: Buyers are interested in what you have to say—and sell.
Questions to ask when writing interesting copy:
- How can we make our brand/product/service interesting? Is it through surprise? Humor? Wit? Mystery?
When it comes to being interesting, there is no example better than The Most Interesting Man in the World.
- What is our content strategy?
- Do we need social proof at this point?
- What will our audience do once they see this piece of content? Is that what we want?
- Is it reasonable for this piece of content to get someone interested and to do another task (like signing up for a newsletter or contest)?
- Is it easy for someone who’s interested to get more information?
How to do it:
So you’ve captured someone’s attention and now, they’re intrigued by what you have to say. They’re in the “Okay, I’m listening” state of mind. Your next task is to pique their interest when using AIDA marketing.
There are a few ways to do this. The one that everyone talks about but that few do well is storytelling. I’ve resigned myself to the fact that “storytelling” is the buzzword that will never die.
The funny thing about storytelling is that (especially in B2B) we say that we absolutely must focus on the customer. “Don’t write about features; write about benefits.” “Use second-person (you) instead of ‘I’ language.”
But here again there's contradictory evidence: lots of brands do really well just by telling their own story. The Most Interesting Man in the World commercials speak exclusively about him in the third person—they ignore the customer completely until the end of the commercial where he addresses the viewer: “Stay thirsty, my friends.”
Same thing with the hilarious Camp Gyno ads. The main character addresses the viewer, but it’s all “I, I, I.”
Are you not entertained—and interested?
Granted, these are B2C brands so maybe that makes a difference... but the point is, it can be done. And of course, these are also incredibly creative pieces of advertising—and they don’t follow any formula.
If you’re a copywriter, this is where you groan and throw your hands up in despair because it’s just more proof that there is no easy formula for your work. You can’t just AIDA (or AIDACAS or AIDCA or DAGMAR or PAS) your way into writing a good story or ad.
That being said, there are good ideas for creating interest in your product or service when coming up with a marketing strategy. Think of these as launchpads for brainstorming different angles—not must-have formulas.
- Pain points are always a good area to explore creatively. They’re visceral, relatable, and convenient—you don’t need to create a need that doesn’t exist. Your audience is already hurting, and they know they’re hurting. That’s less convincing that you have to do.
- Achievement-bait. Your product can make your customers more efficient, faster, better—the tangible benefits it provides can be fertile ground for writing an ad. The key here is to not stop here. This is where almost all marketers will say “Cool, I wrote down the product benefits, I’m done.” If you’re in B2B, everyone lists the same benefits. You have to go a step further. Your software makes recruiters more efficient? Okay, how much more efficient? How are you measuring efficiency? So efficient that they’ll have time to interview eight more people every week?
- Okay… if you must be boring, discounts can always keep people looking. IMO, this could be used in either the Interest or Desire stages depending on your product’s pricing and if the target market is receptive to price adjustments.
Desire: Buyers want you. They really want you. Badly.
Questions to ask when creating desire with your words:
- What makes our product or service desirable?
- How are you creating desire? Is it through an emotional connection or practical discounts?
- Will your buyers want to tell their family and friends about you?
- How urgently do you need to create this desire?
How to do it:
Desire is often the hardest thing to create through writing. We talk benefits and value, but the kind of desire that marketers really covet, the kind of desire that makes people line up outside a shop for a 6am shoe drop is hard to manufacture.
Especially with words, and especially in B2B.
A photograph of mouth-watering food or a lush mid-century-modern leather ottoman.... That’ll be enough to trigger desire in most people.
But unfortunately, you’re not a designer or a photographer. Creating that kind of visceral “that looks beautiful and I want it” reaction through words? That’s freakin’ hard.
It’s messy, unpredictable work. Don’t despair though—here are a few ideas when considering the AIDA model:
- Go after the senses. Desire usually has less to do with reason and more to do with gut reactions and instincts. So try writing copy that tickles the senses. “But I’m selling software! It’s B2B! How can that be sensual??” Does your software have designers? I sure hope so because a beautiful CRM (like ahem, Copper) can be, dare I say, sensual. If you have the misfortune of writing copy for a product that is utterly dull in every possible way, then maybe move on to the next idea...
- If you don’t think a prospect will desire your product or service, try looking at what they might desire in themselves. After all, this classic marketing image says so.
While this might sound similar to the “it’s not about the features, it’s about the benefits” idea, it’s a little more nuanced than that. Yes, it’s better to talk about saving time than it is to say, “Automation ta-da!” but you can still go further than that.
After all, would you desire time savings—or would you desire to become a writer who can come up with the funniest, most creative, and sales-boosting ideas (thanks to those time savings)?
- Testimonials and social proof are a great source of ideas. No one knows your weaknesses—and strengths—better than your customers. You’d be surprised at how many reviews and testimonials sound as if they were written by a brilliant marketing team.
- And of course, depending on how your product is positioned, a well-framed discount (“Nah we’re not cheap, but our eccentric CEO just decided it’s Surprise Customer Appreciation Day, so it’s 15% off all new subscriptions today only!”) or free trial can make your prospects feel some urgency—which is often mistaken for desire, no?
Action: Buyers are buying.
Questions to ask when writing action-inducing copy:
- What’s the call to action (CTA)? Where’s it going to lead?
- Does this CTA make sense for this piece of content? (e.g. don’t expect someone to buy something from you right away if this is a cold email)
- Do you have more than one CTA? Is it clear what the primary CTA is?
How to do it:
You’ve done it. You’ve gotten through arguably the hardest parts of AIDA, and now all that’s left is for your prospect to hand over their credit card information.
Make sure it’s easy for them.
Reduce friction as much as you can. (Does your buyer need to fill out a huge form with 10+ fields to check out with their shopping cart? That’s a lot of friction and even though it seems minor to you, it might be enough to deter your customers from completing checkout.)
Your CTA has to be clear and easy to do.
If your goal is for the reader to click a link in your email, make sure you’ve got a verb in there or something that makes it dead obvious that there’s something useful behind this link and they should get it.
“See how it works.”
“Sign up for free."
Pro-tip: The reward that you’re offering for has to be proportionate to the amount of work you’re asking this person to do. There’s a reason why email newsletter signups only ask for your email address—who’s going to fill out a form and give you their address and phone number just for a weekly email?
Whether you’re writing an email, an ad, or a script, the CTA and your marketing strategy has to be clear.
Again, if we’re talking giant out-of-home ads on the side of a building for a B2C product, this is up for debate because it’s a totally different game—Apple ads seem to do just fine with just a droolworthy photo of a phone and a logo. And sometimes, a brilliant campaign idea might require that you drop the CTA in favor of extreme mystery.
Like these mysterious ads, which got people talking and were later revealed to be part of Jay-Z’s campaign to promote his album 4:44.
But if you’re writing online content and you want to be able to measure results (or test the effectiveness of different headlines), it doesn’t hurt to have a CTA.
You might ask someone to call you. Or visit your website. Or (if you’re desperate) just answer your email.
Be clear about what you want them to do, and make it easy for them to do it.
AIDA has limitations, but do they make it unusable?
Of course, AIDA’s been around for a hundred years, and times have changed. It was designed as a step-by-step linear model—but marketing and sales processes today are anything but linear.
Sometimes you’ll be writing a line of copy on a page whose audience is already interested, so you only really need to add the elements of Desire and Action. Other times, a customer churns out and you’re trying to win them back, so you really need to focus on the Desire step.
Which leads us back to the question: “When is AIDA applicable?”
There are many answers out there, but here’s how I approach it:
When treated as a starting point, AIDA is always applicable, if only to check yourself and make sure that you’ve covered the essentials. Your better judgment might say, “Hey we don’t need to follow AIDA to a T for this one—it’s just an email subject line.” And that’s fine. As a writer, you have to be flexible.
Just don’t expect that all four AIDA elements will always occur in your writing. It’s a good way to lose your sanity.
Learn strategies to reduce churn and keep customers longer with this handbook.