Bly Writes to Sell, Part 2

Robert Bly, The Copywriter's HandbookRobert W. Bly. 2005. The Copywriter’s Handbook: A Step-by-Step Guide to Writing Copy that Sells. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin. (Goto part 1)

Review by Stephen W. Hiemstra

In advertising books online, commercial ads often are sold in an auction framework where the advertiser pays the going rate for clicks on the ad. Clicking on the ad typically transfers one to a product page on an online retailer where the book cover is displayed along with details about the book and an opportunity to purchase it. The click through rate measures the ratio of views of the ad to clicks on the link and the conversion rate measures the number clicks required to yield a purchase. A high click through rate suggests a high-performance ad, while a high conversion rate suggest a well-written product page. Both are ads, but they have separate objectives.


In part one of this review, I gave an overview of Robert W. Bly’s The Copywriter’s Handbook. Here in part two, I will look in more depth at Bly’s approach to writing ads.

In his book, The Copywriter’s Handbook, Robert W. Bly describes two philosophies among copywriters—those that focus on the creative element and those (like Bly) that focus on the sell. He goes on to say that copy that sells needs to accomplish three things:

  1. Get attention
  2. Communicate
  3. Persuade (7).

This basic charge has not changed with the introduction of the internet because people have been inundated with advertising and have become more conscience of promotion and manipulation. The result is that consumers expect advertisers to get to the point quickly and provide actionable product information which raises the interest and value in good copywriting (9-10).

Getting Attention

Advertisers use headlines to get your attention (13). According to Bly, the headline can perform four tasks:

  1. Get attention
  2. Select the audience
  3. Deliver a complete message
  4. Draw attention to the body of the ad (16)

Words that get attention include: “new, discover, introducing, announcing, now, it’s here, at last, and just arrived” but the word—free—is in a class by itself (17). Other words include: “how to, why, sale, quick, easy, bargain, last chance, guarantee, results, proven, and save.” (18) Bly advises us: to “avoid headlines and concepts that are cute, clever, and titillating, but irrelevant.” (19) We have all seen ads that seem to feature all these words, but Bly’s philosophy is that the words also have to inform or, in other words, be true.

Bly advises copywriters to write headlines that satisfy the 4 U’s: urgent, unique, ultra-specific, and useful. (29)

Select the Audience

In advertising books, audiences are selected by focusing on keyword categories and names of authors of competing books. Recently, for example, my book, Spiritual Trilogy, used two keywords on—Billy Graham and C.S. Lewis—that might also fall in the categories of devotionals and Christian spirituality. While my books might conceivably sell to readers of romance and thriller novels, the click through rates and conversion rates would likely be rather low.

Bly makes the point that: “If you are selling life insurance to people over 65, there is no point in writing an ad that generates inquiries from young people.” (19)


Bly writes: “advertising is most effective when it is easy to understand.” (38) He gives eleven pointers on writing clearly:

  1. Put the reader first
  2. Carefully organize your selling points
  3. Break the writing into short sections
  4. Use short sentences
  5. Use simple words
  6. Avoid technical jargon
  7. Be concise
  8. Be specific
  9. Go straight to the point
  10. Write in a friendly, conversational style
  11. Avoid sexist language. (38-55)

Much of what he writes could be found in any business writing text, but the advice for advertisers is even more emphatic because it must not only communicate but also has to motivate the buyer to buy.


Bly begins his discuss of writing to sell by making a distinction between features and benefits. He writes:

“A feature is a descriptive fact about a product or service. It’s what the product is or has. A benefit is what the product does.” (64)

This distinction is important because it highlights the need to understand your customer. One category of customer may benefit from one feature while another category benefits primarily from an entirely different feature. Bly tells the story of a water purification system that sold to two primary categories of customers: marine customers who focused on reliability and light weight, and chemical industry buyers who cared only about technical features. (86)  Clearly, these systems either needed two sets of ads because the one customer category focused on an entirely different set of benefits than the other or a comprehensive ad that outlined both sets of benefits.

Bly provides lots of advice on understanding customer needs and product benefits. I will mention only one that goes by the acronym AIDA: attention, interest, desire, and action. Bly writes:

“copy must first get the reader’s attention, then create an interest in the product, then turn that interest into a strong desire to own the product, and finally ask the reader to buy the product…” (67)

Do you get the idea that the ad must tell a story? He makes the point that “Copywriters, like lawyers, are advocates for the client.” (67)

For those interested in learning about how to write advertisements that sell, Bly’s book provides a clear and complete guide. This book fascinated me—you may be too.

Bly Writes to Sell, Part 2

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Bly Writes to Sell, Part 1

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