What a 1960s Ad Man Can Teach Us About Successful Facebook Advertising

Opinion: Levels of Awareness from Eugene Schwartz still holds true

1966 was a very different time for advertising vicnt/iStock

Hello from 1966! The TV’s reign over American households is in full swing. An actor named Ronald Reagan has been elected governor of California. Families crowd around the television set, grab a newspaper and turn on the radio to catch the breaking news of the day together.

Meanwhile, an advertising pioneer named Eugene Schwartz is crafting a theory about the way people respond to ads. He calls it the Levels of Awareness formula. By adapting to a consumer’s existing level of awareness, he theorizes, brands can craft more compelling, effective copy.

1966 was a very different time for advertising. Attention spans were longer, and there was less competition for airtime. Fast-forward 52 years, and now consumers are in a constant dance with news updates, pings from friends and colleagues, new matches on Tinder and everything else in between. All the while, advertisers try to snatch whatever remains of consumers’ attention.

But what about Schwartz’s formula? Does it still ring true?

I’d argue yes—and perhaps even more so—because today, more than ever, we need to tailor advertising messages to capture readers’ imaginations in order to make up for their fleeting attention spans.

How Eugene Schwartz can help with your Facebook ads

Facebook recently revised its News Feed algorithm, changing the way it judges content. The algorithm is designed to favor posts from friends and family over those from brands and publishers and to boost posts that receive more comments.

This move from Facebook isn’t a jab at brands. Rather, it’s a reaction to the fake news epidemic, and this change will likely impact publishers much more than brand advertising efforts. However, this change does create a moment for marketers to take a step back and reassess the ways that they’ve been trying to stand out on Facebook.

Marketers that align their Facebook messaging strategies to their targets’ awareness and interests will find greater return on their Facebook advertising investments. This can be done with Schwartz’s Levels of Awareness formula, paired with Facebook’s ad units, such as carousel ads and Canvas.

If someone knows nothing about your product, you need to craft content that will grab his or her attention with engaging intrigue. But if someone knows everything about your product, you need to give a final nudge that will get him or her to commit.

Three lessons from Schwartz that still hold true today

The insights have been here for decades, and despite their age, these lessons from Schwartz are far from outdated:

  1. Lead with a story: According to Schwartz, stories draw people in who are unfamiliar with your product by intriguing them and stimulating their imaginations. Studies show that humans are wired to love storytelling. When content soars with a narrative angle, the human brain fires more neurons, which increases engagement, understanding and memory. When it comes to your brand, you can use stories to make your product stand out. Present your product’s advantages in narrative form, and consumers will be more likely to remember and appreciate them. Tell the story of the problem your product solves to tap into consumers’ emotions and get them rooting for your product just as they would for a lead character. Stories also provoke readers’ desire to share. If the plot is surprising, delightful or shocking, the consumer will have an impulse to retell it to friends and family. In 2018, this means they won’t think twice about clicking the share button.
  2. Retarget ads with emotional benefits: Schwartz realized that once readers were aware of the product being advertised, they responded better by learning about the specific benefits of the product. Think of it like a formula: story first, benefits second. Once you have confidence that a targeted consumer has read your original story, it’s then time to retarget this engaged audience member. To do this, find the people who have clicked on prior ads or visited your website, and shift your lead message toward speaking to the benefits your solution provides. When it comes to choosing which benefits to flaunt, aim to put emotions in the star role. Tapping into a reader’s emotion really pays off. In fact, according to a study of 1,400 successful ad campaigns, those whose content was primarily emotional had a 31 percent conversion rate, compared with 16 percent for rational content. When crafting your next headline, think of emotions one would feel after experiencing what your ad offers. Selling lawn seed is a classic example. Of course, you would mention the rich, green lawn your seed would yield, but also consider using a stronger emphasis on customers becoming the envy of their neighborhood as friends and family walk barefoot on the nicest lawn on the block.
  3. Continue to adapt your message: Although Schwartz might not have called it retargeting at the time, his Levels of Awareness theory definitely provides support for sending multiple messages that adapt to users’ knowledge. Today, Facebook’s retargeting capabilities are a gift to brands. Use them to get closer to customers without overselling or being creepy. For audiences with zero awareness, send out several unique stories to give them the best chance of engaging. Then, mix up your messaging for more in-tune users so that you’re telling different angles of your story. Focus on a new emotional benefit after a user indicates interest. Next, develop your narrative so that your ads feel like an unfolding story that the user can’t wait to read.

We might not live in the glamorous Mad Men era anymore, but our friend Schwartz still has a few evergreen lessons to teach us. Remember, one message does not fit all. In order to make your brand’s voice pierce through the noise on Facebook and other digital media platforms, align your messages to the levels of awareness of different users, make the most of the targeting tools at your disposal and tell an emotionally engaging story that brings your product to life.

After leading successful direct programs for AOL, Tim Carr founded Lift Agency. As chief lifter, he has dedicated his career to driving response through effective strategy and creative.