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Copywriting

Why I Switched From Copywriting to SEO Consulting?

Ever since I stopped accepting copywriting clients over a decade ago, it’s a question that seems to come up again and again. It's understandable as I was quite prominent in that world throughout the 90s and in the early 2000s.

I really didn’t stop writing copy, but I left the business of copywriting and now focus on SEO, particularly after years of being a “top copywriter” — a label my peers often give me, although I never really considered myself to be one.

But the question about my departure has once again resurfaced, particularly after I appeared on a YouTube show talking about the shady side of the world of copywriting. I realize I should probably write something to explain it. So I'm going to answer that question once and for all in here.

To do this, I need to give you some background to put things in context.

If you don’t know my story, here’s a quick summary.

My Copywriting Life in a Nutshell

I got married at 19. My wife had a two-year-old daughter whom I’ve virtually adopted. (She's now in her late thirties and still calls me Dad.)

Being a father was redemptive somewhat, as my alcoholic father abused me when I was young. After my mother left, the state institutionalized him; he had Korsakov’s Syndrome (also known as Korsakoff’s Psychosis), a mentally degenerative disease caused by years of alcohol abuse.

But because of my childhood (or so I thought), I had a tremendous fear of rejection. When I learned that I have ADHD at 52, I discovered that a common symptom among people with ADHD is “rejection sensitive dysphoria” (RSD).

It explains the tremendous fear of rejection and my many childhood struggles. So my father wasn’t to blame. Not entirely, anyway. In fact, ADHD is genetic. My father likely had it, and he turned to alcohol to deal with it.

(People with ADHD are highly susceptible to addiction. Luckily, mine is coffee.)

Around the time I got married, I wanted to fight my fears of rejection and dove into sales to fight them. After all, as Emerson said, “Do what you fear and the death of that fear is certain,” right? You get rejected a ton in sales!

But of course, I failed. And failed miserably.

Working on straight commission, I accumulated a mountain of debt, bought groceries on eight different credit cards to survive, and declared bankruptcy at the tender age of 21. It was a big mistake; I know. But I was young, foolish, trying to be a good father (unlike mine), and desperate to “succeed.”

Back in the 80s, the common practice in the insurance business was selling door to door. I moved to the countryside in a tiny little town where my wife grew up in. So I inherited a sales territory in which I knew absolutely no one.

Naturally, referrals were non-existent. I had to find a better way to get leads.

How I Discovered Copywriting

I tried something different. Fueled by anxiety, desperation, or both, I wrote and mailed salesletters offering a free policy audit. Only a few people called to book an appointment with me. But I was ecstatic. I also had an open door to follow-up to see if they received my letter. So no more cold-calling!

The best part was, I also no longer had to face rejection.

That year, I became the top salesperson in my district and then in all of Canada. It was short-lived as many salespeople in my company crushed my results later on. But for a fleeting moment in my life, it felt as if a door opened up and success was possible. Plus, copywriting piqued my interest.

But insurance was tough. In the late 80s, there was an increasing outcry against whole life insurance policies as more people switched to term insurance.

So a year later, I took a job as a consultant for a hair replacement company that also offered surgeries through a partnership with a hair transplant surgeon. I also worked on commission there, too. But it was a growing industry, and I knew about it as my first wife was a hairdresser.

By applying the same tactics from my insurance job, I wrote direct mail letters, created full-page display ads in newspapers, and even produced 30-minute late-night infomercials on TV. Bookings and sales were skyrocketing. My employer was a happy camper, as was I.

At 22, I made more money than I ever made in my life!

How I Became a Copywriter

I eventually became a “marketing consultant” for other cosmetic surgeons, which became my preferred niche. (The reason I say “marketing consultant” is that copywriting wasn’t the only thing I did, and medical doctors would never hire a “copywriter” much less a “sales consultant” back then.)

In the early 90s, I convinced clients to create a “web page” on this newfangled thing called the “world wide web.” I told them it was like an electronic version of the yellow pages, and it was becoming increasingly popular. Since most of them had invested in yellow pages before, this was an easy sell.

So I wrote copy for the web. This was circa ‘92 to ’94.

A few years later, I designed my first website in ‘95 and incorporated myself as “The Success Doctor” in ‘97. The name came about because I helped doctors become successful. (I also had aspirations of becoming a motivational speaker. But marketing and copywriting was more fun, I later found.)

I eventually became quite busy as word got around. Other doctors hired me, too, including chiropractors, weightloss doctors, nutritionists, acupuncturists, etc. I expanded to include lawyers, accountants, real estate agents, and other service providers. But cosmetic surgeons remained my largest clientele.

Over time, more and more clients hired me to write copy for the web, including landing pages, websites, and email marketing campaigns. I guess you can say that this was when I was becoming more well-known as an online copywriter and Internet marketer than a mere copywriter.

But there was a problem.

Clients Would Screw Up My Copy

I love copywriting. But I remember clients messing things up.

Once I gave them my copy, they would put it up on their websites. And it would look awful! The formatting was completely wrong, the layout was atrocious, and the selection of graphics and images didn't fit what I had in mind.

So naturally, conversions sucked. Particularly with projects that paid me with royalties. I was usually the one to blame, even though I believed my copy was good. But my ADHD and fear of failure compelled me to do something.

That's when I included formatting, web design, even landing page development along with copywriting so that my salesletters would look the way I wanted.

So I repositioned myself as a copy “designer.”

I always hated the word “writing,” anyway, because most people think of writing as putting words down on paper. But they have a tendency to neglect the sales and creative aspects of writing. They ignore that it’s about strategy. I spent just as much time on the look-and-feel of the copy as I did on writing it.

I became obsessed with the copy’s performance. For me, getting the right audience to read the copy — one with the right level of awareness and intent — was important. Also, the cosmetics that drive the eyes into the copy, or the copy cosmetics, were just as important as the words themselves.

That's where my work evolved to include other aspects of online marketing.

Enter The World of SEO

I consulted clients on their traffic and demand generation tactics because I wanted some level of control over the quality of the traffic that hit the copy. The market is just as important as the message. So I did a lot of traffic generation, affiliate marketing, email campaign management, and so forth.

Clients increasingly hired me to do SEO (search engine optimization), including SEO copywriting, to help increase their conversions. I also did CRO (conversion rate optimization), which people often refer to as “conversion copywriting.”

So, what does SEO have to do with conversions?

Attracting audiences with the right search intent at the right awareness stage can skyrocket conversion rates. It's about matching the right message with the right market, or “message-to-market match,” as Dan Kennedy would say.

This thinking, along with the way the Internet was evolving, became the impetus behind my writing “The Death of The Salesletter.” Back in 2005, I knew that this is where Internet marketing and copywriting were heading. It was also the beginning of my disillusionment with the industry. (I'll come back to this.)

In my manifesto, I talked about personalization, dynamic content, behavioral targeting, sales funnels (before funnels were a thing), micro-conversions, etc — things that are commonplace today in the world of digital marketing — replacing the long-form, direct sales-driven copy.

I wrote code since I was 11 and designed websites since I was 22, so technology and how marketing was evolving online always fascinated me. Besides writing copy, I also loved developing websites, designing them, doing SEO, and making sure the user experience (UX) was as optimal as it could be.

Then, My World Turned Upside Down

Let me backup a little.

In 2003, as my copywriting career was exploding, I met my second wife who was in the customer support industry. I initially hired her to provide support for my copywriting business. When we realized we shared many of the same clients, we slowly merged our businesses. And eventually, our lives.

But from the news of her cancer diagnosis right before our wedding in 2006 until her passing in early 2015, my wife’s disease grew to become, over the course of our marriage, the center of attention instead of our client work.

I was kind of lucky in that, in 2008, my mother had the same disease as my wife (i.e., breast cancer). It gave me a glimpse into what was to come. In other words, the experience showed me what I was getting into with my wife and helped me to prepare and to grieve before I knew I had to.

In 2011, my mother's cancer became terminal, and we set up a hospice in our home. She passed away later that year on the morning after my birthday.

And sure enough, my wife's health took a turn for the worse a year later. Her cancer came back with a vengeance, spreading to every major organ.

However, shortly before she passed in early 2015 (in fact, it was just a month prior), my father, while still in the institution, passed away, too. His heart stopped during his sleep. The weakening of the heart muscles is one of the many comorbid issues caused by Korsakov’s disease.

So you can say that 2015 was probably the worst year of my life.

But it didn't stop there.

My sister who was my only sibling struggled all her life with multiple ailments, including diabetes. My parents' passing, let alone years of my father’s abuse, affected her deeply and I cannot imagine what she went through. In 2017, she, too, passed away in her sleep. Just like my dad.

Distaste For The Copywriting Industry

I didn't have the headspace or motivation to return to freelancing. So I took a job in a digital marketing agency as an SEO manager and director of marketing communications. We were a Google Premier Partner agency, and I supervised an amazing team of content writers and web developers.

While grief played a role, another reason I didn't want to go back was that I became increasingly disenchanted with the copywriting business. Specifically, I'm referring to the business of writing copy for the Internet marketing and business opportunity (or “bizopp”) industries.

It started many years before then. But it culminated around the time my wife was undergoing her final chemotherapy treatments for her cancer.

I wrote about the scummy side of the business and the reason I left. But long story short, my late wife and I had to deal with a growing number of clients whose business practices were becoming questionable, unethical, and borderline illegal. Even the FTC sued some of them for deceptive practices.

The reason is, they were selling “business-in-a-box” programs.

It's no different from a chain-letter, envelope-stuffing scheme.

They would sell a course teaching people how to make money by creating a business. Sounds legit at first. But they would use the very course people bought to create a business and make money with. When I learned they included my salesletters with their “businesses,” that's when I decided I had enough.

SEO Consulting for Plastic Surgeons

After a few years and being in a much better place, I got remarried, left the agency world, and started freelancing again. But this time, I was doing more SEO work. Sure, copywriting is still a part of what I do to an extent. But now it's about how it can help attract and convert targeted traffic.

I also returned to my roots by working with plastic and cosmetic surgeons. I did it for several reasons. It's an industry I love and have a lot of experience with.

Creating phenomenal user experiences that lead to sales starts with how qualified the user is. SEO is key for that reason. A user's search intent hugely determines their level of awareness and attention prior to hitting your website.

The quality of your conversions is directly proportional to the quality of your traffic, the quality of your content, and the quality of the user experience.

That's where SEO comes in.

Also, being a geek who loves coding and web design, SEO satisfies my dual nature, i.e., both “sides' of my brain — the creative and analytical aspects of marketing. Today, I do 360-degree SEO audits, with technical SEO (coding and hosting), on-page SEO (HTML and content), and off-page SEO (external signals).

All these components work hand-in-hand.

Yes, my work still includes writing copy. But it mostly includes helping my clients generate the right kinds of traffic. In other words, it's about having the right message for the right market — or in this case, the market with the right intent.

Categories
Copywriting

How I Broke Into Copywriting

My last post, where a disgruntled copywriter demanded “the truth” about creating wealth in copywriting, inspired copywriter Andrew Cavanagh to share the story of his beginnings on my forum:

“Here's how I made my first ‘money' in copywriting.”

Then one by one, other copywriters started adding their own. The responses were nothing short of amazing! Many of the stories show that there's indeed hope. They also show that we were all struggling copywriters once, too.

And we didn't all become overnight millionaires with million-dollar clients, as “Chuck,” the disillusioned copywriter, postulated.

I loved it so much that I posted my own story. I've decided to share it with you here. (By the way, the picture below is of me, circa 1991. A lot thinner, with glasses, and a lot more hair!)

Michel Fortin (1991)
Michel Fortin (1991)

Anyway, here is my story.

When I first started out, I was a salesperson. And the worst part was, I loathed cold-calling. Especially since I had this excruciating fear of rejection. I still have it. (If you know me, then you know about the story of my alcoholic father and how my fear was the result.)

Update: I first wrote this article in 2007. Since then, I discovered that I have ADHD and suffer from RSD, or Rejection Sensitive Dysphoria, which explains why I fear rejection so much.

I accidentally stumbled onto copywriting not by chance or by education, but by desperation. You see, I dove into sales in order to fight my fears head-on. I was working on strict commissions at the time as a licensed insurance salesman. I also had a young family to support.

So I thought that the pressure would help kick me into gear. But I was doing so poorly that my family and I had to eat 25-cent ramen noodle packages for months! Eventually, I was forced to declare bankruptcy at 21 years old.

I remember that time like it was yesterday.

The humiliation and the hurt I felt was indescribable. In a matter of days, the car company repossessed my car, the landlord evicted us from our home, and my wife took our daughter and left me. (We eventually divorced.)

I was desperate to make money. So I had to find a way to get people to listen to my presentation. One day, the insurance company (Prudential Canada) requested feedback from sales reps for ideas to improve sales.

I may have feared rejection immensely, but I was always teeming with ideas. I didn't realize it back then, but I was a natural at marketing.

So I sent a suggestion to the company, which was to have a rider that people could add to their life insurance policies, which would allot a portion of their coverage to a charitable organization of their choice.

Prudential loved my idea and launched a new product called (if memory serves) Charity Plus. They sent me a letter to thank me for my “contribution.” I even remember the sales manager reading it out loud to everyone at the next sales meeting. I was blushing with pride. We were both proud.

Excited, I decided to write letters to people within my territory offering them a free presentation to go over this new product with them. It was an open door, if you will. A perfect opportunity to reassess people's policies.

That's when I had a lightbulb moment and realized that this — writing salesletters — was my “way out” of doing cold-call prospecting.

I could mail to anyone asking if they would be willing to set an appointment with me. That way, I no longer had to be rejected. (It didn't work at first. I tried several times and I was about to give up a number of times, too.)

But then, things “clicked.”

I started booking appointments and selling policies. I later became one of the top salespeople for this insurance company for about eight months in a row.

Problem is, I hated my job. I hated it because I had a poor territory (salespeople were assigned territories), and this was back in the old days when insurance agents also had to visit every single client each month to collect premiums.

(My territory was so poor, some paid their premiums with empty beer bottles!)

So I moved on.

Eventually, I found a job as a consultant for a hair restoration company. Some of their services included hair transplants and surgery, with a doctor on staff.

My main job was as a patient advocate, where I consulted clients on the appropriate hair restoration method for them. I was paid a very small base salary but with commissions on any sales I made.

Part of my job, among others (and similar to what I did in the insurance biz), was to help increase appointments of consultations with prospects.

That included writing copy for direct mail pieces, display ads in newspapers (with dense copy), information packages, and even infomercial scripts. Which is why I liked the job. I didn't have to do any prospecting.

You see, the way it works is that people first read the ad or see the infomercial on TV, and then they request a free information kit to be mailed to them. If the client was interested, they would call to book a consultation with me.

During my first year, I noticed something peculiar. Before every consultation, the clinic asked prospects to fill out a form (e.g., asking about their medical history and other forms of hair replacement tried, etc).

If a prospect went ahead and bought, a client file was created. But if they didn't, I would do some phone follow-up. And if that didn't work either, their consult form was simply filed away in a storage box.

One day, I stumbled onto a bunch of these boxes in storage (I think there were 30-40 of them), which contained several years' worth of filled-out consultation forms of clients who never bought.

That's when a lightbulb lit up in my head.

It reminded me of my experience at the insurance company.

I asked my employer to buy a computer. (At the time, the only person with a computer was the accountant!) We hired a data entry clerk from a temp-help agency, and created a database of all these people who didn't take action.

Next, I wrote a direct mail piece, which made a limited-time offer.

The direct mail touted some new hair replacement procedure that looked a lot more natural than its predecessor, as well as new advancements in the field of cosmetic surgery that were introduced since their last consultation.

That's when things started to explode! I don't remember the exact number, but this little direct mail campaign resulted in over a million dollars in sales.

(Keep in mind, the price range for hair restoration solutions ranged anywhere between $2,000 to $20,000, particularly in the case of hair transplants.)

I even remember on the last week of the promotion, there was a lineup outside the waiting room of people wanting to get a consultation before the promotion ended. I was obviously ecstatic. In fact, it was also my highest grossing week in terms of commissions. (It was around $7,000 Canadian.)

Since then, we repeated this feat several times. Many of my dense-copy display ads would get a ton of new clients and patients, and I was doing quite well.

My base salary at the time was $22,000. But I made a lot more than that in commissions. I think it was around $80,000 back in the early 90s.

Now, over the period of a few years, this company grew by leaps and bounds. I would say mostly because of my help. (Admittedly, my employer at the time, who was also my mentor, was a brilliant salesperson. I learned a lot from him.)

As the company grew, opening several franchises across North America, I was tasked with the job of hiring and training salespeople in them, and consulting their owners (including doctors on staff) on how to market themselves.

And yes, that included copywriting, too.

My employer flew me to almost every major city to conduct these trainings.

Here's the problem.

While I'm on the road training other people about marketing and consulting, I wasn't selling. So my income went back down to $22,000. I was getting worried.

He had hired another consultant to take my place, so I couldn't go back to selling. But I was working really hard while the company made a ton of money. “There's got to be something better than this,” I kept saying to myself.

So I approached my employer and asked for a raise. After much back-and-forth over several weeks, one day I was called into the meeting room. The office manager then said to me, “You're doing fine work, Michel.”

“Oh, great,” I said to myself. “I can feel something good is going to happen!”

She said, “I know you've been working hard training all these franchises while not making any commissions like you used to. We want to give you a raise for your hard work and dedication.”

“Your new salary will be increased as of today by…

(I was grinning with anticipation.)

“… An extra $3,000.”

I said, “Oh, $3,000 a month! Great!”

“No, no,” she said, “your new annual salary is now $25,000.”

I was so disappointed. And angry.

Don't forget, those were Canadian dollars (less than $17,000 USD) and nowhere near the $80,000 I made previously. As you can imagine, being partly responsible for their explosive growth, I felt rejected. And hurt.

Not willing to give up, I kept asking. But with every protest I made, they gave me a different reason as to why they couldn't “afford” to raise it more.

So I quit the very next month.

It was the best decision I ever made.

I went freelance, and shortly thereafter created a company called “The Success Doctor.” (I specialized in doctors since I gained a lot of experience in that field. So the name implied “I help doctors become successful.”)

I wasn't doing too bad. But I was still eking out a meager living charging anywhere between $100 to $500 per copywriting project. (My clients at the time were primarily local doctors with small offices.)

But some of them did work really well. My first royalty arrangement was while working for a hair transplant doctor in Toronto. I was getting paid a salary plus commissions plus a percentage of the clinic's profits.

One day, while working for one doctor, a sales rep came to the clinic selling advertising space on this thing called “the world wide web.” Their services included a web page and a listing in their directory.

My curiosity was piqued.

You see, part of my job as a marketing consultant was writing copy in different media to get exposure for my clients. I was a big fan of the yellow pages. So this seemed like a natural complement.

Plus, I've been using BBS services (dialup bulletin boards) since I was 11 years old. So I knew this would be a good medium to advertise in.

Plus, since a lot of people saw our TV infomercials but failed to call for our information kit, it made perfect sense to be in as many places as possible when they finally did decide to do something about their hairloss.

So I created my client's website in 1992.

Over time, I worked with other types of cosmetic surgeons. Then other types of doctors (e.g., dentists, chiropractors, acupuncturists, physiotherapists, etc). Then other types of professionals and service providers.

But as a result of that one sales rep's presentation (which sold me on having a presence on the world wide web), I decided that I should have a website for myself, promoting my freelance work.

So I signed up on this new thing called Geocities back in 1994, and created my first website. It was nothing to sneeze at. It was just a simple, brochure-like web page with contact information. (I later registered “SuccessDoctor.com.”)

The result? Nothing. Not a single request.

Years before, however, I wrote a booklet called “The 10 Commandments of Power Positioning.” I used it as a way to get clients to hire me offline — the report was much like a salesletter in disguise. And it worked quite well.

So going online, I decided to digitize my report and offer it for free, especially if people joined my email list. (As far as I can tell, I was one of the first ones to do this way back then. At least in the freelance marketing or copywriting business.)

I started with some article marketing. I would chop my booklet into standalone articles, where the byline promoted the “rest of the articles” (i.e., the booklet).

It worked well. But the day my traffic and business really exploded was when I decided to let other people pass that booklet around. As a result of that little book, my site was bombarded with quote requests.

I was doing some salesletters and web page copy for as little as $300-$2,000 each. Mind you, I also did a lot of free ones at the time only to get my name out there and start building my portfolio. I also bartered a lot.

That's when things started moving very quickly.

It was late 1998, and I made a bartering deal for a well-known marketer. I did his long web copy for just $2,000 in exchange for getting referrals from him and for publishing my articles to his list, which was part of our arrangement.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

Bottom line, it does take work. And there's no such thing as “overnight riches.” Thinking that this happens when you first start out as a new copywriter is an illusion. It took me the better part of 20 years to get to where I am today.

However, with so much training and information available, it shouldn't take that long for anyone with enough gumption, bouncebackability, and the right attitude to get there.

It may have taken me 20 years. But knowing what I now know, I can safely say that, if I were to lose everything once again, even overnight, I can easily make it all back — and then some — and do it in a lot less time.

To echo something my friend the late, great Gary Halbert once said, “If you're a good copywriter, there's no reason why you should be starving.”

There you have it!

Now let me ask you, what's YOUR story?