Escape from Retail Jail: A Copywriter’s Tale

expert Copywriter

People sometimes ask me how I became an expert at copywriting. My answer is always the same; I smirk a little and say “I decided to become one.” Naturally, the story is more involved than that, but that decision — followed by commitment — is the crux of the it.

I had the opportunity to explore this decision and how it impacted my life on Episode 7 of Jason Leister’s Incomparable Expert Podcast. This was a special treat for me because of the massive respect and admiration I have for Jason. (If there’s was an incomparable individual on the call, Jason was him.)

The conversation was very raw. Jason didn’t tell me what he was going to ask, and I’m not sure he stuck to any kind of prearranged series of questions or topics, either.

So we were all over the map, talking about

  • the fact that your ideal customers probably have characteristics similar to the average serial killer – and what it’s going to take to attract and keep them
  • what “providing value” really means
  • Jason’s patent-pending “village model of evolution” and why doing business in the vast expanse of the internet is reverting, in some ways, to the old neighborhood structure
  • when content creation is just plain stupid
  • just how elastic price is — and how to start banishing the notion that you have to work harder to be worthy of making more money from your mind

One of the big takeaways is the magical power of “showing up.” I realize that one of the main reasons I reached any level of success is because I decided to keep going. Even if you’re not very talented, there’s a good chance you’ll find your status elevated simply because you consistently came to work.

Jason said it well: “Anybody with a heartbeat COULD be consistent. But it’s rare, it’s as rare as gold.”

I’ll testify to that.

Steve Lahey said it was my best interview yet…

Steve Lahey tweets Copywriter

…and I’d love you to have check it out on the Incomparable Expert site.



Why Money Matters Less Than You Think

What if I told you that marketing is not about money?

You may be tempted to call me a heretic. You might think there was a hole in my bag of marbles. Or you might call me a hypocrite, because the service I provide my clients (and hopefully the information I freely share with people like you) helps people make money through marketing.

But I’m neither crazy nor hypocritical. Maybe I’m a heretic, since I believe some things about business that a lot of people disagree with. If you can stand a few moments of marketing heresy, please read on. I think you’ll learn a few significant lessons.

Money Is Not the Issue

Last summer, I learned something profound from a brilliant business coach who was my client. Well, I was already familiar with the principle she was teaching, but the way she explained it had a big impact on me. She told me that when prospects don’t buy from you, or clients won’t pay the kind of fees you deserve, it’s not because of a lack of money. Money is not the issue. Rather, the issue is one of priority. The client has money, but you don’t get it because he sees more value in spending it on something else.

When it’s decision making time, priorities run the show. People will always find ways to pay for what’s most important to them. If customers aren’t buying or clients are hiring, your product or service is not a major priority for them.

Eugene Schwartz taught us that you don’t create desire in your audience. What you want to do is channel their pre-existing desire toward your product. The same is true for priorities. In general, you cannot establish the priorities of your market. They are self-generated. Marketing can’t change the priorities they’ve already set. At best, you can communicate how your product will help them take care of what matters most deeply to them.

That means that your message will, by default, not appeal to everyone, as not everyone has the same priorities.

For example, Olay products and Proactiv are both designed to help people feel better about the skin on their faces. But they appeal to different groups. Olay is big on anti-aging, something most teenagers aren’t worried about yet. Proactiv helps with acne, a problem that usually becomes less common with age.

Different audiences. Different priorities. Different marketing messages. Also note that people would hate pimples and wrinkles with or without million dollar advertising campaigns.

Price Matters Less Than You Think

When there’s been a bad car accident, no one is thinking about how much the ambulance company will charge. They’re first thoughts aren’t about insurance deductibles. When life is hanging in the balance, they call 911 as fast as they can.

This is an extreme example, but it makes the point very clear. The importance of price is inversely proportional to the strength of the desire or need. The only thing that matters about the ambulance is the speed with which it can bring medical attention to the people in the car accident. This one benefit outweighs every other factor.

When your product or service fills a need that strong, price doesn’t matter much.

If one ambulance can arrive on the scene even a few minutes sooner than the next “competitor,” would you complain that their price is two times higher? Would you ask the 911 operator to send the cheapest ambulance?

If you’re having difficulty selling your product or service, it’s probably because
1) you’re not selling something people want
2) you’re not giving them a good enough reason to buy from you (showing them how your product can fulfill one or more of their priorities), or
3) you haven’t built up trust. People won’t buy from anyone they don’t trust.

Price may not be to blame. And if you are selling what people want, helping them envision their top priorities satisfied by your product, and demonstrated your trustworthiness, price may matter very little.

Marketing Is NOT About Money

Marketing and selling are not essentially about money; they are points of connection.

You have something to give to the world in terms of talents, expertise, products and/or service. Everyone has multiple needs and desires. Marketing and selling are ways you connect people in need with solutions. Everybody comes out a winner.

If you do it right, marketing has profitable results. But money should not be the cause. The difference may seem insignificant, but I assure you that it’s not.

When money is the end goal, you may be tempted to resort to deception, hype, high-pressure techniques. You could fall into desperation. You may even consider selling products that suck in order to drive revenue up.

When your goal is connecting, you focus on showing your audience that you can help them get the things they want and need in life. You can show them how your strengths can be applied to areas where they need assistance. When your customers are what really matters to you, magic happens.

Make no mistake: marketing should make money. If it doesn’t, you’re doing something wrong, and you need to fix it. But when money becomes the driving force behind it, fear and greed have a tendency to creep in.

Remember what Peter Drucker said: “The purpose of a business is to create a customer.” He didn’t say the purpose is to make money. The truth is that if you make happy customers, you’ll be in the best possible position to earn profits.


Death of the Web?

In August 2010, Wired Magazine published an article entitled The Web is Dead. Long Live the Internet. The authors describe the dramatic change in the way people use the internet compared to how it’s been used in the past 15 years.

Sure, we’ll always have Web pages,” Chris Anderson says. “We still have postcards and telegrams, don’t we?

But as technology evolves and our use of it adapts, the traditional ways businesses have used the internet to build their brands and expand their influence will no longer be effective to the same degree. What worked yesterday simply will not work tomorrow. You may have noticed that downward trend is already taking impacting your online efforts.

Take a quick mental inventory of the time you’ve spent online lately. What are some of the traits you notice? Avalanches of information, often conflicting other sources. Mediocre content quality. Spam and scams. Wild pitch fests.

And everyone is an “expert,” even if they’re not.

Do you remember high school economics class? One of the first concepts you learn is supply and demand. As the supply of anything increases, its value decreases. On the internet, we’ve pretty much reached the maximum capacity for information demand, but the supply continues to grow exponentially.

So, you see the two causes for the general decline of perceived value of online information: 1) the low quality of the majority of content and 2) the super-abundance and ease of access.

On some level, everyone over the age of 16 senses this deterioration.

Seth Godin, one of the most popular marketing minds in the world recently wrote in his blog:

…Prepare for a continuous erosion of what you pay for digital content, at the same time we’ll see a sticky and upward trend for what you might be charged for the… the scarce or custom.

The world wide web is increasingly becoming a content flea market, so much so that internet giants like Yahoo and AOL are struggling with their current business models.

Don’t misunderstand. Although it seems contradictory, the internet is more important than ever. The rules are changing, and you will have to modify your online initiatives to take full advantage.

Counteract This Trend

To overcome the quality erosion of online information, you absolutely must offer something unique and indisputably valuable. You also have to be able to successfully deliver it to your core audience, the people who can most benefit from what you have to offer. Exclusivity can also protect the perception of high worth around your content.

Unique – It’s cliché, but you have to be yourself. Do the hard work of getting to know yourself and defining your Unique Value Proposition (UVP). Then you have to get the message out.

A large percentage of your peers heavily model themselves and their business after someone they admire. Modeling makes sense – up to a point. But imitation is a problem.

Legendary adman Bruce Barton notes that everyone possesses a “single spark of divinity that sets you off and makes you different from every other living creature.” Nurture that spark instead of copying someone else’s.

Not only do you have to have a one-of-a-kind persona, you have do conduct business in a way that differs from your competitors.

  • What can you do that others can’t or won’t do?
  • What do your clients experience while working with you that no one else can claim to provide?
  • How can you reach your audience in a way that the competition doesn’t?

Valuable – Everything you do should be impressive. Your personal brand and your reputation depend on showing yourself to be someone who improves the lives of others, not a peddler trying to sell stuff. (People love to buy, but they hate to be sold.)

Value starts with understanding what your target audience wants and needs, then helping them attain those things. A hefty percentage of people online are openly egocentric and their efforts online revolve around trying to suck money out of their customers’ wallets.

Quite a few businesses, entrepreneurs and service providers adhere to an online strategy that emphasizes quantity over quality. The more pages you have on your website, the more visible it becomes to search engines. More articles on more directories put you in front of more potential clients. Blogging every day will keep readers from forgetting about you and help you stay relevant…

That’s a lot of pressure! Placing so much attention to creating large quantities of content makes it difficult to make each piece shine. All of the information you make available to clients and prospects is a reflection of who you are and what you’re about. If your content is highly-visible but poorly crafted or boring, what have you accomplished? Not much more than demonstrating to more people that you’re nothing special. The last thing you want to be is average (or worse).

Search engine optimization (SEO) is another facet of your promotional efforts that can be tricky. Do you write to be attractive to search engines or to have the biggest impact on your readers?

Of course, you want to rank well in search rankings. There are benefits to being on Google’s first page. But, again, if you spend your effort to please the algorithms search engines use (which are constantly changing), you can lose out on opportunities to communicate more powerfully with your audience.

Focus on value. Remember that quality trumps quantity every day of the week

Exclusive – You are unique and valuable. You are not a commodity. Being too available decreases your sense of worth. Exclusivity gives the impression that your content and services are even more valuable. Make potential clients qualify themselves through opt-ins, purchases or other requirements.

Making some of your material available only to qualified individuals heightens the value and significance of that material.

The same is true for making some of your content or products only available in physical copies rather than electronic form. That increases your fulfillment costs, but that is part of what makes going offline work. It feels more expensive. Your prestige factor increases when your readers and listeners know that you’re “putting your money where your mouth is.” (This will also force you to deliver high-level quality because it costs you time and money to produce these items.)


  • books
  • CDs
  • DVDs
  • print newsletter (free, paid or bundled with another service or product)
  • columns in print magazines

This distinguishes you from nearly all of your competitors and everyone else online. Rarity increases actual consumption of your content. Your teachings have little effect if they never enter your clients’ brains and get put to use.

Exclusivity builds a sense of belonging and entitlement. The effect creates a formidable emotional and intellectual bond between your audience and you, even while they’re forgetting everyone else.


You Need Help

I think my fees are very reasonable, but from time to time potential clients have accused me of charging too much for my copywriting services.

Yes, it’s true; you can hire a writer on Elance to write your sales page for $20. But chances are, you’ll get what you pay for.

Price is what you pay; value is what you get.

This morning my buddy John Breese sent me an example of someone who should have put more thought into who they put in charge of writing their copy.

This is a real example taken from a real website:

Can Everyone Take Creatine?

It appears so. I have seen no major problems with creatine reported in the literature, even in long-term studies. Yet, just to be safe, anyone with diabetes or kidney dysfunction should probably avoid creatine until further long-term studies are done. Some people do experience bad breath, flatulence, cramping or an upset stomach with high doses. If cramping occurs, just drink more water; for an upset stomach just ingest less creatine. Bad breath and flatulence are babyboomers’ companions anyway, so big deal. Take some mints and stay out of crowded rooms.

Here’s the real truth: no matter how much this copy cost (even if the site owner wrote it himself for $0), it was too expensive.

If your marketing or website copy looks like this, please get some professional help, before you lose anymore customers.