Swipe files

Back in the Mad Men days, copywriters would have swipe files in their desks for when they needed inspiration. These were literally files filled with newspaper clippings of ads they liked. Ads they wanted to learn from and remember.

A good swipe file would be a copywriter’s secret weapon in getting instant inspiration for a new ad they had to write. It often didn’t matter what type of ads were in the file. A promotion for a Ford Mustang could trigger an idea for a headline about an upcoming launch of a new type of washing machine.

These swipe files were indispensable – and personal – to the copywriter. They played an integral part in forming that writer’s unique style. The file was woven into the fabric of that person’s professional identity.

Today, swipe files are everywhere and very public. You can find them on Swiped.co and inside free lead magnet opt-ins across the internet marketing universe. This isn’t a problem, in itself, but it does cause marketers to miss the important step in the lifecycle of a swipe file: its creation.

In the same way you’d attach a higher value to a table you assembled from IKEA, you’d value a swipe file you created on your own more than one you bought or downloaded for free. This is a documented psychological phenomenon called the IKEA Effect. When we play a part in the creation of something, we assign a higher value to it than others would if they just bought it outright.

If you’ve ever had a hobby where you built something, whether it was a model train or a car engine, you know what I’m talking about. There’s just a deeper and more emotional connection with something when you played a part in creating it.

So when I see swipe files being given out online, I’ll look at them, sure, but I’ll take the parts I like and add it to my own swipe file. The act of moving the favorites to my own file leaves an impression on my mind and creates a memory of those ads that wouldn’t have been there if I had just downloaded a big file of old ads. It’s kind of like taking your own notes in a class versus someone giving you the notes after you missed the session. You just don’t have the same connection and recall of the content. Having a swipe file of your own making is more valuable.

Templates, on the other hand, are not so valuable.

Copywriting templates are pre-created fill-in-the-blank structures for ads, emails, and other written assets. For all intents and purposes, they’ve had their soul ripped out and replaced with name placeholders. I’m not a fan.

When I start writing with an email or ad template, I do what anyone else does. I read it to understand the intent of the person who originally wrote it, invariably miss one or two subtle details, and then fill in the blanks with my skewed understanding of the author’s original intention.

This is the opposite of what good copywriters do, and it’s the opposite of a swipe file’s intention. I can open a swipe file, look at a few completed ads from all kinds of industries, and feel inspired by that content to write an entirely new ad with its own soul and its own intention.

Using a template is the opposite. It’s using someone else’s intention or purpose as the starting point of a headline, web page, or advertisement that has nothing to do with the template’s original purpose. Starting with a blank piece of paper and a good idea is always a better way to instill authenticity and purity into any written content. Don’t just fill in the blanks. It will never work.

If you feel like you need a template, try building your own swipe file instead. The words will come more easily than they would if you were trying to fill out a mad lib.

Have you built a swipe file before? If not, do you want to build one? Text me at +1 (970) 438-5593 and I’ll share a few of my favorites with you. Or check out my Instagram profile for some old TIME magazine ads that I’ve clipped.