If you’re on the wrong side of 50 and you haunt the meme-ish corners of the Web, the following is probably both recognisable and somewhat insulting…
But this post isn’t trying to spark another skirmish in the generation war. It’s to explore a golden marketing rule that came from the boomer era on Madison Avenue…

The 40-40-20 rule.

A product of the “Mad Men” advertising era of the 1960s and brainchild of marketer Ed Mayer, the 40-40-20 rule mapped how to find success in an industry becoming VERY big business. 60 odd years later, it’s still just as relevant to marketing success, even if us Gen Xers and Millennials have forgotten it or dismissed it as out-dated. 40-40-20 lists the three elements every direct marketing promotion needs, and their respective importance. 

  1. Audience: 40%
  2. Offer: 40%
  3. Creative: 20%

Let’s take a closer look at each…


Reaching the right people is easier than ever in today’s media-saturated society. Yet, it’s often overlooked or given lip service (“Hey, I sketched up this avatar!”) when planning a promotion or campaign.

That’s a problem.

It goes without saying (even though I’m about to…), but a promotion that can’t connect with enough ideal customers won’t last long. Your audience is the stage that everything else stands on. Your offer and creative revolve around the ONE prospect who’s a perfect match with your offer.

So, who is your one prospect?

You might have several people in mind. But your one prospect, out of all the segments you’re thinking of, is the #1 fit for your solution. If you’re selling an online recipe book for over 40 female career professionals who are vegan, a 35-year=old male, meat-eating mechanic is not who you’re targeting, obviously. On that same note, a 41-year-old stay-at-home mum who eats the odd vegetarian meal isn’t your one prospect either.

(Note: this doesn’t mean they won’t or can’t buy the book. It just means that your marketing and messaging isn’t aimed at them.)

Learn as much as you can about your one prospect so you can soak your copy in the pains, wants, beliefs and thoughts of that person. However, pegging them as a “40-year-old male living in the US earning about $70,000” just isn’t enough.

Demographics Are A Start, Not A Finish

Demographics are an excellent place to get to know your one prospect, but you can’t stop there.

Knowing where they live, how old they are, income, education, and so on guide your offer and messaging, and help targeting for your ads. But on their own, they paint an incomplete silhouette of your prospect. For your messaging to really connect, you need to understand much more:

  • What their desires are
  • What problems they want to solve
  • What they’re afraid of
  • What excites them
  • Their interests, activities and opinions (known as IAO variables) 

With these, you flesh out the silhouette into a living (albeit virtual) person who your messaging can have a conversation with… a conversation that starts and ends in their world. The challenge with these details is discovering them, so you may spend hours digging them up. If you want to build a winning promotion though, it’s time well spent. 

How To “Build” Your One Prospect

Transforming your one prospect from a vague idea rattling around your head into a fully formed avatar you can practically talk to is a subject in itself. There are plenty of ways you can do it, and many don’t need massive budgets or techno-sophistication.

Talk to customers informally: This is stupidly simple, but it’s one of the best ways to get to know who buys from you (and if you’ve been in business for any length of time, you’re probably already doing this). It’s easier to do with a brick-and-mortar business, but an online business isn’t left in the cold: emails or online chat can be great tools to dig up nuggets of customer goodness.

Interview customers: Casual conversations are great because you’re more likely to get natural answers. But you may not always get answers to questions you want. Pre-planned interviews can help get those. Interviewing people is an art form though, so take the time to not just prepare good questions, but to learn how to interview customers effectively.

Run customer surveys and polls: Don’t want to talk to people? Create a survey or poll, then add a link to your homepage. Got an email list? Send them a friendly email asking them to fill out a couple of questions (you could even offer an incentive to encourage response). On social media? Add the link there to get the word out. Customer surveys are a fantastic way of learning more about them, and are cheap and simple to run.

Watch social media: Sometimes the best way to get answers is to watch your one prospect in their natural habitat (like David Attenborough). Social media is the “telescope” that lets you do that. What they talk about on Facebook, post on Instagram, ramble on Reddit — even games they watch or stream on Twitch — can help you build up the picture of your one prospect.

When You Don’t Have A One Prospect

As a fitness copywriter, I see and study a lot of fitness marketing. And a lot of what I see are prime examples of what happens when you don’t have a one prospect: you end up sounding generic, with nothing to help you stand out. Targeting “men wanting to get fit” or “women looking to get healthy” is nowhere near enough to separate you from the hordes of competition.

Take the 8fit homepage. As a fitness and nutrition app, it’s aimed at “people who want to get fit and healthy”. But that’s a wide-ranging and rather non-specific group… and without a specific audience, it can leave your messaging sounding generic.


Without an audience, you’ve got nobody to sell to. Without an offer, you’ve got nothing to sell. Every business has something they want to sell, so not having an offer isn’t usually a problem.

The issues come when you look more closely at the offers themselves. The list of what can go wrong is almost endless…

  • Poor product design or quality
  • Products or services that don’t match what the audience wants
  • Pricing perception gaps (either too low or too high)
  • Lack of supplementary inclusions or bonuses compared to competitors
  • Inability to persuasively convey the value of the solution

And that’s just the tip of the icy iceberg.

Putting together an offer your audience can’t wait to scoop up is a skill. It’s also why marketers spend a lot of time pondering how to build the best offer, which incorporates these five aspects:

  1. Product
  2. Price
  3. Prompt
  4. Premiums
  5. Risk Reduction

I’ve explored these elements (and how to use them in your offers) in a post you can read right here.

One small thing that can help you quickly improve your offer is to study others you spot around the place. Whether they’re competitors or even in your industry isn’t important; it’s seeing how good (and bad) offers get put together, so you can get a better understanding for your own.

(Note: when you do this, you’ll quickly notice how many crappy offers are floating around. Many don’t think beyond product and price, so you’ll see plenty of examples of how NOT to build an offer.)

This is a great example from an online copywriting course. The screenshot is the order page, which shows a good offer in action.


Once you know WHO your audience is and WHAT you can give them, you can start looking at HOW you’ll talk to them. That’s where creative comes into the picture: the copy, content and visuals that make up the deliverables of any marketing campaign.

Now, this isn’t the moment where you get to slack off, even if you’ve got your audience pinned down and have an irresistible offer. In fact, copy and creative is often where the mega-success comes from, because it’s by persuading your prospects to give you a closer look that the magic happens.

Nor is it easy as…

Yet, writing copy without the strategy is one of the easiest and most common blunders when creating a campaign or promo.

So… don’t do this. 

Instead, start with a copy strategy that lays the groundwork for your audience and maximises the power of your offer, so your creative grabs prospects and doesn’t let go until they’re ready to act.

5 questions to nail down your copy strategy

There’s a lot of questions you can answer to build a winning copy strategy, but start with these and you’ll have the fundamentals in place.

  1. What does your customer journey look like? (How do prospects go from finding you to buying from you?)
  2. What are big ideas and themes your audience is more likely to respond to? (What angles or concepts will make them take a closer look?)
  3. What channels are you going to use to reach them? (Are you using ads, social media, or SEO?)
  4. What types of content are prospects more likely to respond to? (e.g. blogs, videos, infographics, social media, guides, reports)
  5. What next step can you give customers after they buy from you? (How do you get them back for more or make them an advocate for your business?)


Modern marketing may seem different to that gin-and-cigar-soaked age of the 1960s, but the fundamentals of successful campaigns haven’t much changed.

Sure, a few things vary in the 21st century… but they still map back to the same elements:

Analytics and data: Whether you’re measuring success or tracking what’s going on with your campaign, data is a big part of marketing today. However, it’s ultimately just a reflection of tracking your AUDIENCE.

Visuals, content and video: These sometimes get separated into their own category, even though they’re simply different forms of CREATIVE that engage, educate and eventually persuade your prospects.

“Alignment”: Having consistent messaging across all the platforms you use is important (whether social media like Facebook, organic search like Google, or native advertising like Outbrain). However, if you’re not talking to your AUDIENCE with CREATIVE that communicates your OFFER, consistency is irrelevant.

How Will You Use The Rule?

Yep, that was a trick question. The 40-40-20 rule isn’t something you directly use, but a guiding principle as you plan your next campaign. And if you follow the same formula the “boomers” of yester-year did, your chances of building a successful promotion or campaign skyrocket.

Talk To Someone Who Gets 40-40-20

When starting out, I was like most copywriters: all about the creative side.

Luckily, I had teachers and mentors who knew that good copywriters understood more than how to shape the perfect headline or find the right ideas. Funnily enough, I didn’t stumble across the 40-40-20 rule until around a year ago… when I was already kind of following it in my own process.

Anyway, long story short: if you’re working on a promotion or campaign and you’re not sure about your audience, offer or creative, let’s chat to see if we can come up with an answer. There’s no charge and no obligation. (Seriously, I enjoy talking about marketing… and most of my friends just tell me to shut up when I try to with them.)