Thumb-Stopping Ad Creative 101: Class Is Now in Session

Josh Zhang
April 20, 2022

Everyone's making ads these days.

When you open Instagram or TikTok, you'll see brands, media companies, and even local businesses running ads. These businesses range from a local pizza shop to someone who just set up their newest Shopify store. Ads are playing everywhere (especially on mobile devices). Since there is more "noise," it's essential to make sure you're cutting through.

You've probably seen me mention the concept of "thumb-stopping content" before. It focuses on the idea of the visual attributes you need to include in your ad runs to ensure that your audience stops scrolling when they see your ad in their mobile news feed.

Let's dive into this ad guide on how to make "thumb-stopping content" and what you need to do once you've earned that attention.

Creating thumb-stopping content

You only have the first three seconds of your ad to get someone to stop scrolling.

How does one do that? It can be flashing text, a product that flies into the screen, posing a question you're curious to know the answer to, or something cute that makes your thumb freeze. You need to use bright colors, contrasting backgrounds, crystal clear shots, and motion to earn that consumer’s view. By incorporating these creative elements into your video and image ads, you'll improve your overall ad performance and attract more eyeballs.

I learned from Sam Parr at TheHustle that as you write, you need to make sure every sentence entices someone to keep reading the following sentence. Similarly, every second and frame of these ads need to earn someone’s trust and attention to keep watching the next second or frame of that video. In today's digital environment, there is no room for waste.

While a majority of these ads will be 30 seconds max, you'll lose about 80% of your viewership by 15 seconds, anyways. To make the most of your ad creative, follow these steps.

1. Answer the "why" in the first 7 seconds.

Now you've got someone's attention on this creative. It's your video, a consumer’s eyes, and now they're waiting for the punch line. Think about your favorite comedian — they'll never leave you without a good punch line. You need to do the same with your ads.

If you're selling JuneShine, you're focused on the fact that JuneShine has 3g of sugar vs. 29g from that cocktail compared to a cocktail. If you're selling Poo~Pourri, you're pushing the fact that you can sleep over at a date's apartment and not stink up the bathroom.

The punchline needs to answer why someone should buy this product over a competitor's product. If you're having trouble thinking about how you would phrase this, consider telling five of your friends why they should buy it. Record it. Understand what you're selling. It's likely different than the "value props" on the packaging.

Buyers will respond to this type of messaging in your various creative types. Let your creative team have full control in bringing your "why" to life early in the ad.

2. Focus on the outcomes, not the value props.

Too often, ads focus on benefits and value props. Instead, they need to focus on outcomes or how the product will help someone live a better life at the end of the day.

Above, I mentioned the JuneShine example. Some other easy examples of this include:

  • When selling Hint water, we'd focus on a line like "Hint got rid of my addiction to Diet Coke" instead of saying, "Hint is an all-naturally flavored water."
  • Another example is "Hint is the perfect substitute for a dessert in the evening," instead of "Hint is a lightly sweet-flavored water."

Always be selling, but you should sell in ways that make sense to the ad viewer.

Here's another easy way to find out how to phrase the outcomes: go to your reviews and make a tally of all the things people talk about. If you're Caraway cookware, you probably see something like:

  • Non-toxic cooking
  • Teflon-free cookware
  • I need less oil when cooking because it's non-stick
  • It's so easy to clean; you can just use water
  • The colored set sits beautifully on the counter
  • I love the storage components it comes with

Those are now outcomes to put into your ad creative.

Imagine this as a production line:

Value Props (what brands think is cool) → The Customer (the judge) → Outcomes (what consumers think are cool)

Focus on the outcomes. Everyone has value props. The outcomes are what will drive purchase intent and move prospective buyers and shoppers to your website to convert.

3. Showcase a good problem and solution.

Like any good movie, tv-show, or World Star Hip Hop video, your ad needs to clearly show a problem and a solution (which would happen to be your product).

Set up the problem with your thumb-stopping 3 seconds and use the next 4 seconds to introduce the solution. Once you've established that solution, you can then focus on going deeper into why your product is the right option.

Answer the problem quickly, so if someone keeps scrolling, at least they're leaving with the knowledge of the punch-line and brand's message in their head.

4. Don't go broad. Focus on the niches.

When thinking about the "solution" positioning to sell the product in the ad, think of 25 different answers to "Why?"

Just because someone is buying Barcode doesn't mean people are buying it for the same reason. For example, people buy Barcode because:

  • They are a professional athlete (NBA, NFL, etc.)
  • They are going to a SoulCycle or Rumble workout.
  • They are dehydrated from drinking the night before and want a healthier replenishment than Gatorade.
  • They just want something flavorful to mix into their tequila on a Saturday night.
  • They work a labor-intensive job and want to have the right vitamins and ingredients to stay active.
  • They realize the packaging looks trendy and chic.

Knowing that, figure out how to make ad creative that maps back to each reason, and keep testing new ones. Each of these "why's" gives you plenty of new narratives to explore.

"The Riches are in the niches." - Someone smart

5. Editing goes a long way.

Shooting the content is the easy part. The hard part is editing it together. You can find incredible editors who churn out some of the best direct-response ads because they understand the psychology of consumers, how they scroll, what makes them click, and how to nail the punchline. However, not everyone can afford an experienced editor who might charge $250/hour.

If you want to get super basic, open TikTok, learn how to use the editor that precedes uploading a video, and save everything to your camera roll. TikTok's editor is second to none and is extremely easy to use once you get the hang of it. (I'll admit, I had to watch some YouTube videos to figure it out.)

Think you're too good to twiddle your thumbs, or that you're "too old" for TikTok? Open up iMovie, or pay for Adobe Premiere/Final Cut Pro, and get to YouTube.

I promise you won't spend more than 6-8 hours learning the ropes of these applications, and the knowledge is all compounding. You'll be glad in three months that you spent eight hours on a Sunday learning these skills which will help you reach your upper-funnel goals.

6. Understand your competitors.

It's always a good practice to understand what your competitors are doing, what platforms they're on, and who are their most engaged followers.

Facebook's Ads Library is an excellent tool for this, but there's a new tool I recently started playing with and can't recommend enough:

Charm gives you a ton of insider information, including:

  • Estimated revenues
  • Growth score (aka how fast is the brand growing)
  • Success score (aka how successful it is to date)
  • Sophistication score (aka how smart they are with marketing/ads/overall practices/etc.)
  • Growth by platform (across TikTok, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, site traffic, etc.)
  • Keywords most associated with them (like a word cloud)
  • Recommended influencers likely interested in the business

There's a ton more you can get out of it. Charm has a free plan you can use, but I was able to get a special sign-up link for my community (this is not an affiliate link or sponsored): 50 Free Credits at Charm.

Mastering thumb-stopping content

Advertisers are challenged with creating engaging, thumb-stopping content to engage passive users who are scrolling past carousel ads and slideshow ads in their feed.

It isn't enough for ads to just have compelling visuals or catchy hashtags attached to them. Instead, every ad in your creative library should be compelling enough to force someone to pause and think about your product.

By following the steps listed above, you'll create thumb-stopping creative for your ads, causing your brand to shine brighter than your competitors.