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.”
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.
Preamble: I wrote this article back in 2003 and I rewrote it in early 2005. Back then, it was meant primarily for a copywriting audience. Now that I specialize in SEO, and seeing how the concept of “funnels” is gaining popularity, I took the liberty to slightly update it.
One problem in SEO, copywriting, content, or any kind of communications, is that the audience is not targeted for the message or the message doesn't march the intended audience.
When it comes to SEO, if the content doesn't match the search intent and fails to align with what the user's searching for, the user will bounce back and search engines will conclude that your website doesn't meet the user's needs, which will impact and lower your rankings.
When it comes to copywriting, an untargeted, unqualified prospect won't buy, no matter how good the copy is. If the content is targeted, it can still miss the mark because it doesn't speak to the customer at the stage of awareness at which they happen to be.
It is absolutely essential to ensure that the your content or marketing message appeals to, qualifies, educates, and converts the user. It's about connecting with them at their level of awareness.
What are these “stages of awareness?”
There are four.
I've used these before I ever learned about their existence. Mostly unconsciously through researching a target market. For example, Eugene Schwartz talks about this and at great length in his book, “Breakthrough Advertising.”
Schwartz discusses the various stages of market sophistication, but I prefer to use an acronym so it is easier to remember and follow.
I call it “OATH.” As in, “Is your prospect ready and willing to take an oath?” It's a cool mnemonic to help you remember how aware is your market about the problem, their need for a solution, and of course, your solution specifically.
Here's what I mean.
Depending on what stage of awareness your reader is at (determined by their knowledge of the problem, the solution, and their desire to solve it), the amount of education, credentialization, and persuasion you need to provide will vary.
Maybe they're hurting right now and need a solution fast. Or maybe they're not there yet, which means they may not be aware they have a problem in the first place. Maybe they are aware, but they don't appreciate how big the problem is or might become, and the reasons why they should solve it.
With SEO, this is answered to some degree by the search intent. The way they search Google will say a lot about their awareness level. Your content or sales message should flow from, and follow with, that stage of awareness in order to bring them to the next stage.
I like to look at it this way: how prepared they are to take an OATH? Meaning how confident, ready, willing, and able they are to buy?
The answer is based on any one of those four stages.
“O” is for Oblivious.
At this stage, they're unaware of the problem let alone a need for a solution. They don't know. Or they don't know that they don't know. In the world of marketing funnels, this is often referred to as problem-unaware.
So in this case, your content needs to educate them about the problem. It's to bring it to the top of their minds. If you hit them too early with your solution, without being aware of the problem in the first place, you're only going to confuse them, push them away, or create unwanted hostility toward you.
Often, this is what happens when your copy is too short or presumptive. Or when your content discusses your solution as if they're already fully aware of it. If they simply have an unmet desire, an unmet desire is also a problem to be solved. But they're still unaware of it.
“A” is for Apathetic.
They know they have a problem but they're indifferent. They don't care, don't care enough, or aren't aware of how important it is (or that it can be solved). In marketing funnels, this is often referred to as problem-aware.
So your content needs to make the problem more real and concrete. Your content must educate them on the seriousness of the problem. It could be about the risks or drawbacks of not solving the problem, since inaction is a potential problem, too.
When you understand and cater to your user's stage of awareness, copywriting won't seem pushy but merely an attempt at preventing procrastination. The more aware they are, the more their inaction is about the need for reassurance than it is about the lack of desire.
“T” is for Thinking.
They know they have a problem and they're thinking about solving it. They're shopping around, considering solutions, and investigating options. In marketing funnels, this is often referred to as solution-aware.
So at this stage, when it comes to SEO, your content should take them from thinking about the problem to wanting to solve it. With copywriting, they're considering solutions, so you need to sell them on your solution and why it's better than others.
This is where you have to build value and differentiate yourself. Why is your solution the best solution? What makes it so unique, different, or valuable? What makes it better than all other alternatives? An alternative may also be a totally different solution that soothes the same pain.
“H” is for Hurting.
At this stage, they want to solve it. They're convinced they must fix the problem. They're acquainted with all possible solutions and considering your solution specifically. In marketing funnels, this is often referred to as product-aware.
So your job is to convince them, reassure them, and provide information that they can use to make a decision and take action. Perhaps it's understanding the risks and guarantees; your expertise and credentials as a medical professional; or social proof with before-and-after case studies.
Perhaps they don't know how or what payment options you offer. Perhaps they have fears you need to assuage first. Maybe they're overwhelmed, skeptical, or suspicious, or they've used other solutions unsuccessfully and are afraid.
At this stage, procrastination is the culprit.
If they're hurting, what do they need to get over the remaining hurdle? What objections or unanswered questions do they have? Your content may need to increase proof, reduce risk, and remove fear.
Often, it's based on the fear of making a bad decision. Your content or copy needs to allay that fear. To do so, you need to truly understand your patient at a deeper, more intimate level. You need to learn what information they need to go ahead, and then you need to give it to them.
In SEO, their search intent is often dictated by their level of awareness. Here are some searches as an example:
Oblivious: “hairloss” or “what causes stretch marks”
Apathetic: “how to stop hairloss” or “how to get rid of stretch marks”
Thinking: “micrograft before and after” or “tummy tucks Chicago”
Hurting: “hair transplant pricing” or “book consultation Dr. Smith”
That's the OATH formula in a nutshell.
Bottom line, your audience may be oblivious, apathetic, thinking, or hurting. In other words, they're unaware of the problem, aware but don't care, aware of the various solutions, and finally aware of your solution and ready to solve it.
Knowing this will tell you a lot about not only how much information you need to give your reader, but what kind of information and what kind of offer that will transition them into buying your solution.
It's not about serving content that meets their awareness level. If that was the cause, your patients would only need Wikipedia. It's about meeting them at their stage of awareness and taking them to the next.
These days, I do a lot of SEO consulting and content strategy work. But a big part of my career was in copywriting. And when I write copy, some tools help me tremendously. Whether it's doing research, writing the copy itself, or working with my clients, there are certain resources that help.
I previously shared tools I use for SEO work. I use some of them for copywriting, too. Below are some extras that I specifically use. You don't need to be a copywriter. But these resources may help you either write your own copy or, when you outsource it, know what to look for or how to fix it.
Before I dive in, a caveat. These are my tools. They don't have to be your tools. By all means, use whatever you're comfortable with.
I use Google for pretty much everything. I used to do most of my copy work with Microsoft Word, but when Google came out with their online version (MS wasn't there, yet), I switched. It's not just for writing. It's great for sharing and collaborating, especially with clients, editors, associates, etc.
Same thing with Google Sheets. With Excel, emailing files back and forth was a nightmare. Which version is correct? Where did I save it? Did I email a copy? Instead, I prefer to use one document in one central location. Plus, the beauty is that it can also import and export in a variety of popular formats.
Research is a critical part of copywriting — or of any marketing endeavour for that matter. I often come across a ton of passages, sources, citations, images, etc I want to use or reference in my copy. With my browser plugin, I can select and save as I go, and add comments and notes to them.
I used to use multiple tools for online storage. The problem was that things got scattered. I prefer sticking everything in one place. And since I use Google for everything (I use Google Workspace for my practice), Google Drive makes it easy to save, share, collaborate on, and associate files with.
I admit that, for the longest time (particularly when I ran my own agency), I used Basecamp to manage my projects. But as an advisor, I don't need it as much. Slack is simpler. Communication is the key benefit, with the ability to share, connect with Google assets, other apps like Zoom, etc.
Loom records my desktop and allows me to do copy critiques, project walkthroughs, demos, etc. It's a great tool to communicate questions to clients, staff, suppliers, etc. But it's also a great way to keep personal notes and record ideas. The fact that it integrates with Slack makes it a no-brainer.
Quite simply, CleanSot takes screenshots. But it's quite effective at that job. It allows me to annotate, edit, and store clippings to the cloud. It also makes it easy to add copy elements such as social proof, create GIFs, and even has a timer if I need to use my mouse during recordings (such as mouseovers).
I visit question-and-answer websites for my research all the time. They're rich sources of information for market research and ideas, too. To write compelling copy that connects with your audience, you need to know the questions people ask and how people talk about the problem you solve. My favorites include:
This is my favorite writing tool. I prefer it over Google Docs' built-in grammar and spellchecking tools. I occasionally use Hemingway App when I want to check my writing, or when I need to express something with more clarity and conviction. If I do use it, it's usually with the finished writing.
Offered by CoSchedule, a marketing and editorial calendar, this tool provides a number of scores on your headlines, including readability, sentiment, skimmability, and engagement level. It also counts characters, which is good for headlines in ads and subject lines. I use it all the time.
I've been using RhymeZone for ages. It's helpful to find rhymes, related words, poems, quotations, literary references, and word variations. With Google Doc, I use several add-ons like PowerThesaurus.org to find synonyms. But when I need to find a related word, a variation, or a descriptive word, I use RhymeZone.
This is the newest tool in my arsenal. Often, I need to transcribe recordings to use as content for my copy. I often use Otter.ai for my transcriptions, but Descript takes it to whole new level. Its machine-learning capabilities are truly revolutionary, like cutting out all the “ums” and “ahs” in one click.
(I wish I used Descript more. But since upgrading to Mac's Big Sur, it's not working anymore. They have said they're working on an update, so I'm patiently waiting. In the meantime, visit Descript and watch the video. It's impressive.)
There you have some of my most commonly used tools. I have more, but hopefully this will get things started. What are yours? Let me know.
Preamble: This post was originally written in late 2006. It's my answer to a common question I get quite often. It needed an update, so here it is.
Someone recently asked me this question: “I was wondering, ‘What keeps Michel Fortin writing?' I mean, Michel, what is your 3, 5, or 7-point formula to get an article on paper? What are some of the specific steps you follow?”
1. I Subscribe to Stuffs
I try to stay on top of my industry.
I'm subscribed to many newsletters and blogs, and I read every day. The wonderful byproduct of being immersed in my industry is that something I've read will stir a few ideas in my mind about something worth writing.
Pocket is my best friend. So is my RSS feedreader, Feedly. They have a folder and tag system that I love, which is great for saving and organizing articles.
Not only that, but Feedly's premium version has a built-in machine learning tool called “Leo,” which, based on my reading history and saved articles, will prioritize my feeds so I first read articles I want or prefer. If I don't have much time, at least I get to read as many of the most important ones.
I have feeds filed in several categories, including SEO, PPC, Copywriting, Marketing, WordPress (my preferred CMS), Google (all things Google), and Psychology (including ADHD).
I can also do an external keyword-based blog search so that Feedly finds feeds I might like to follow. Of course, I also have a search based on my name, my clients' names, and any brands I follow.
As for email, I file newsletter issues that I may use in the future and delete the rest as soon as I read them. But nine times out of 10, I will view the online version of the email and save it in Pocket.
In terms of software, I have used Ulysses, Grammarly, and Google Docs. But these days, I write directly into WordPress (Gutenberg). I might also use my text editor, which is UltraEdit for Mac.
Aside from Pocket and Feedly, I also use Google Keep. I used other note-keeping tools like Evernote and OneNote, but I still come back to Keep. It's simple. I also use a few Chrome extensions that add some needed features, like color-coded categories, adding indents, “save to keep,” etc.
The latter is important. If come across an article that has a passage I want to cite or need, rather than saving the whole thing (and forgetting what passage I wanted or why it was important), I select it with my mouse and right-click to save the selection to Google Keep.
2. I Start With The Skeleton
Articles ideas don't have to be new. What's new is my take on it. Something on which I want to opine or express my point of view. So a new article may be as simple as my own way of looking and expressing an existing topic.
I start with an outline, a skeleton article, with a series of bullets to prompt be about things I want to talk about. Sometimes, there are quite a few of them. Other times, there are none at all. I just start with a story or goal.
But if I do start with a skeleton article, I write down bullet points that represent what I want to cover in that section. Basically, they're idea blocks. But they're not written in stone. I prefer to remain flexible since, after I start writing, the flow might take me in a different direction.
The skeleton allows me to see, at a glance, the overall flow. I reorganize them if I feel there's a better structure and organization of ideas. Some points are best mentioned in strategic locations (whether it's storytelling, pacing, or clarity), and the outline allows me to do exactly that, even before I start writing.
I write in two ways:
I start writing and let it go. (Cue Frozen soundtrack.)
I start with the outline and expand each idea block.
The first often occurs when I have a pretty good idea of what I want to write about. Sometimes, I'll start with a personal story — something that happened or came across — that I feel will be a fitting idea to discuss.
Confession: I never put “ideas” aside for future content topics. I know some experts do this, like Jonathan Stark and David C. Baker (but I think David uses a dual approach, like this one).
I only use the articles I save (see previous section) to prompt me. When I get an idea to write something, and it's really good, I try to write it then and there. Largely because of my ADHD, my short-term memory is atrocious. So when I have an idea, if I don't write it the moment I think of it, I'll forget it.
If I'm really pressed for time, I'll save it and make notes. I'll create a new post in WordPress, add the skeleton points I want to cover, and save it as a draft.
But I try to avoid this because, when the idea hits me, I tend to think of a hundred things I want to go over in that article. So even with the notes, I'll forget the bulk or depth of ideas that I wanted to address. I then get frustrated, which impedes my writing.
3. I Put Meat on Them Bones
Writing keywords in bullet form to expand on into full paragraphs is a way to give me a high-level view of the article structure at a glance — much like I do when I create content architectures for SEO purposes.
The bullet points are based on topics I want to cover, but the flow is important to make sure the reader gets the point I'm making. I'm not fabulously skilled at this, but it does help. I also write copy the same way. And essentially, the bullet points often become headers, too.
But bullets point are prompts. Guideposts, not goals. I might change them or go in another direction entirely if I feel there's a better idea or storyline.
I start with a key idea or point, perhaps a lede or hook, but might change this once I expand on the bullets and realize there's a better way to start the article.
I finish with a simple recap, as you may already be aware. But sometimes, it's a key point, an actionable step, a question to ponder, or a cliffhanger (maybe leading to another article).
I temporarily put my “critical editor” hat aside and I just keep writing. It's not easy, but I try to simply let it flow and don't even stop to read what I've written. Once done, I stop, read again and edit for style and grammar — of course, with the kind help of Grammarly or Google's spellchecker.
Sometimes I'll take whole sentences out I feel were just fluff. Other times, I'll add new ones in for more depth. I'll also rewrite passages I feel aren't clear. And I'll cut and paste some paragraphs where I feel they belong best.
In terms of proofreading, I re-read. But when I have a chance, I read the article out loud. I do this because I often miss things that are blatantly obvious. I read like I write. So I will miss things that are easier to spot when I “hear it” instead.
Plus, if I pause, fumble, re-read (because it doesn't sound right) at any point, then I know that I need to rewrite it for clarity.
There you have it.
It's not as magical as some people make it out to be.
Remember to be a sponge in whichever field you're in, and to squeeze the sponge when you need to. Thought leadership comes from having insights, but you can't pull any insights out of thin air.
If you ever feel you have writer's block, it's usually an excuse. It's your inner critic trying to force what you want to say to be perfect. As Dori Clark once said, “It doesn't need to be perfect, it just needs to be good and to be done.”
Once you start, even if you don't know what to say, ideas will start flowing.
But if you feel you truly have nothing to say, then that's a clue that you need to read more, get more information, learn more, subscribe to more stuff, and do more research. Because the sponge, after a while, will become so full that your ideas will be more than flowing, they will be overflowing.
David Garfinkel is not only one of the best professional copywriters I've ever had the pleasure and honor of working with, but also he is known as the world's top copywriting coach. And for good reason.
Not many people, including copywriters, can distill the craft of writing persuasively into easy-to-understand, easy-to-implement concepts.
But David can.
I've known David for close to 20 years. We've shared the stage together, delivered seminars together, and even created products together.
And in the last few years, David has been hosting a podcast called the Copywriters Podcast. It's a must-listen if you're into copywriting or just want to learn how to be more compelling in your communications.
On his Copywriter's Podcast Episode 187, David had me on as his guest. We talked about SEO copywriting, how it's changed, and how it's just as important for conversion as it is for driving traffic.
Thanks, David, for the opportunity.
David Garfinkel 0:10 Okay, so today I'm pleased to have an old friend on the show, friend who has branched out beyond direct response copywriting. In the early 2000s, Michel Fortin, also known as Michel Fortin was a living legend. And I mean that.
He wrote the first online sales letter that brought in over $1 million in one day for Traffic Secrets, I think it was. And I am forever grateful on a different note to Michael for being my presentation partner in my famous 2005 las vegas breakthrough copywriting seminar.
And both of us also took the stage a few years later at Harvey Becker's marketing event, which I think was called the greatest marketing seminar in the world, which I feel every seminar should be called just by virtue of the fact. You know, it's marketing.
And we sold somewhere in the nature of $100,000 worth of products from the stage during our presentation. After that, a number of things happened, and not all of them good for Michael, but he took his career in a different direction. today.
He's an expert and a certified expert in SEO copywriting, which means optimizing your copy for the search engines.
And you have to understand that regardless of what you think of SEO, copywriting, everything Michael is going to tell you today about SEO copywriting can make you a lot of money, if you act on and listen to what he says.
Now, I want to tell you something now, that's not gonna make you any money, but it could save you a lot of money, and time and even your personal freedom. And that is this copy is powerful, you're responsible for how you use what you hear on this podcast.
Most of the time, common sense is all you need. But if you make extreme claims, and or if you're writing copy for offers, in highly regulated industries, like health and finance and business opportunity, you may want to get a legal review after you write.
And before you start using your copy my larger clients do this all the time. Okay, let's get started with the good stuff. Michael, welcome. And thanks for doing this really good.
Michel Fortin 2:33 Thanks, David. It's It's an honor and and not only because we are we known each other for a long time, but I also listened to your podcast quite religiously. So it's a it's always a staple in the copywriting community, right?
David Garfinkel 2:46 Yeah. Well, thank you. I appreciate that. So let's, let's talk about your I don't know your trials of job, whatever you want to 15 or 20 years ago, you were a renowned direct response copywriters, I said, highly revered partner of mine, to presentations, which I mentioned in the intro, and you still are in my mind.
But let's fast forward to 2020. Today, over the past decade, fate took your career in a different direction. Could you tell us about that?
Michel Fortin 3:22 Sure. I trying to squeeze a long story into a very small amount of time as I possibly can. So I had a very turbulent turn of the last decade where I lost my mother, my father, my sister, my only sister, and of course my wife, who I owned up, and it will thank you.
And the thing is, we were together in business, we were speaking at seminars, we were selling courses, and I was doing copy. But after all of that happen, I just didn't feel I had the headspace or the motivation to stay in business.
So what I did is I took a job as a well, first of all, there's no such thing as a right, you know, Director of copywriting at a marketing agency digital mortgage, they were actually a Google premier partner agency. They primarily did SEO. And they hired me as their Director of Communications.
So I did everything from marketing, marketing communications to display ads to SEO and fast forward to now so basically what happened was, while I was there, I just discovered that I am chronically unemployable.
I've been a freelancer all my life so and when your side hustle where see the thing is I always kept clients clients kept hiring me for copy. And when that income kind of surpasses your full time income, I decided, you know what, I'm just gonna go back into business and I was always better by then.
And it was this is furious later. got remarried. And and this is where I'm at. And just to put everything in perspective, the fact that I knew about marketing and copywriting, whether it's for SEO, whether it's for ads, whether it's for brochures or direct mail, it's a, it's a very portable skill no matter where you go.
And so I was able to pivot my career easily because of that one skill. So there you have it.
David Garfinkel 5:25 Wow, that that's, that's quite a story. I mean, I don't know if I know anyone else personally, who's lost that many people in a period of time, but you seem like you're on your feet, and my heart goes out to you. I'm glad you're doing well now or better anyway.
So let's talk about SEO copywriting. What is it? What is it these days? And how does it work?
Michel Fortin 5:53 It's not like it used to be keep in mind that Google has gone through an amazing transformation in the last just the last five years. Since 2016 2017, new algorithms came about that change the way they look at websites, they look at copy or content, and they rank them.
As you know, Google has an artificial intelligence you know, I hate to call it AI because it's it's no we're talking Skynet.
David Garfinkel 6:28 You might be might come in and change.
Michel Fortin 6:32 But but they're, but their AI is actually called rankbrain. And what happens is, they look no longer at keywords, keywords is no longer the thing like it used to be. We, you know, we used to stuff, our content, and even some sometimes in the code or in the back end, with all these keywords.
It's no longer about that anymore. Now, it's about good quality content. And of course, you can write copy content that helps to get people to change their minds to buy into an idea or, of course, to buy a product or service. And as long as you serve your customer, which is really what Google is all about.
Now, it's we know you as a client, you as a website owner, or business owner, and Google share the same client, it's the user.
So they want to provide a great search experience to their user, you want to create a great search environment and learning environment for your client, your user, your client, and of course, a search a buying experience.
So SEO kind of sort of blends into two other aspects called CRM, conversion rate optimization, and UX, which is user experience optimization. Now, Google is kind of giving you brownie points, not just for having good content.
But by having a great experience. Having a website that's responsive, that's mobile, that is also what we call Voice Search enabled.
So when you know people nowadays, we use our phones to to ask Google or Siri or Alexa to do searches for us.
And, and to, to also create a great engagement with the user, the more engaged the user is on your website, which is why copy is so important, the more Google will actually rank you higher, because it says, Wow, people we sent it, we're sending people to the search result, this website.
And apparently it's a great result for the people, they're actually looking for that result, they're staying there, they're not bouncing back. And so you're going to get better rankings that way. So that's what really SEO copywriting kind of evolved to.
David Garfinkel 8:37 Okay, that's, that's really interesting. And this is the first time I've heard that, and it's great, great information.
So I'm a little curious about this, because I, I can understand how rankbrain can measure the amount of time someone spends on the site, they might even be able to tell how much they scroll, how many pages they go to all of those things.
How does a computer program evaluate good quality content? Or does it only evaluated by the results by the amount of time people are spending on the site? Are there other things?
Michel Fortin 9:16 There's there's a number of factors, there's actually over 300 ranking factors now. Before it was just keywords. And then it would be maybe the authority of a website? I mean, how long has it been in business? How long has it been on the internet?
And then there's links like people are linking to the website, meaning is it actually valuable content, but a lot of those things, people can hack and circumvent. You can buy links, you can do all this blackhat stuff.
So now Google is has evolved to look at other signals that would, that would increase that sites, like ability or relevancy. Actually in the search engines, and it does it through a myriad of different things.
For example, in the recent time, there is a new algorithm called at eat, expertise, authoritativeness and trustworthiness. You know, it's kind of funny, because there's a lot of jokes going around like, do you want to eat your rankings?
And, and the reason that is, is that Google will now pay more attention to your site, if it shows that you have expertise, you know, the subject matter. Your it's properly credentialed. There's actually proof. Do you fact check your stuff.
And in fact, when that came about, it was called the medic update, because the most websites that got affected by it was medical websites. But now we were realizing that it affected any website that deals with what we call your money or your life.
So anything about health, wealth, money, finances, and all that stuff. And then second thing that came around, which is actually just recently called BERT, now Burt's, Bert and Ernie and Bert, but it's actually an acronym that stands I was thinking of Frank Zappa song, my name is Bertrand.
Yeah. Only people like us will know that.
David Garfinkel 11:15 Maven, Maven is stone faced, not his generation, man.
Michel Fortin 11:20 But BERT stands for bidirectional encoding, representations and transformations. If I think I have that, right. And what that really means is that before you had a keyword, and then Google say, Oh, that's it, that's a signal. But now it's bi directional. So it says, okay, maybe you have a key word.
What's the context? It's not just about content, it's words around it, maybe images, maybe the code in the background, it's basically trying to understand the context behind the content. And so it uses something called No, we you know, we call it we call it NLP. But we know NLP stands for other things.
But it's called natural language processing, which is part of this rankbrain process. So basically, it looks at adjacent keywords before and after around it, images, what the images are saying. And all those things will help to determine what that content really is.
For example, if I look at keywords, soap, and I type in soap, well, does it mean soap opera? Does it mean dish soap, does it mean carwash soap, does it mean SAP the programming language?
So the whole point, and I'll finish with this, Google has looking at more and more at one to one topics, not keywords anymore. So we actually I don't even do keyword research, I do topical research.
And that's what really is, is is important these days. And as long as your topic is, in line with this other thing, search intent. What's the search intent of the user? Are they looking for just information? Are they looking for education?
Or are they actually looking at possibilities of our different solutions for a problem that they're undergoing? Are they actually looking for to buy the problem, they don't buy solution to the problem, they're fit, they want to fix the problem.
We call that you know, navigational search, informational search, investigative search, and commercial or transactional search. So all those things is the only way you can determine that.
Now, first of all, when you're using Google, by you, by you searching the kinds of questions you ask, you know, nowadays, just a single keyword isn't enough. Sometimes we ask a full question. Hey, Google, what is the How do you make a gluten free vegan pizza?
Now I just said Google, though, my phone just went off my Android. But that's the point is that now it knows that I'm when I'm looking for pizza. I'm not just looking for a pizza place. I'm actually looking for a recipe for a gluten free pizza. But now that's great. Google knows what you want.
But what about the sites that it wants to send you to? So what it does, it looks at the copy on their websites, the content and all those things that I just mentioned, to determine the context.
And then it will send you and because what it really wants is to give people the best search results possible, so that their experience is great, because what they hate is people what they call Pogo sticking, which is they click on the link, they go to the website.
That's not me. And they go back, they just backspace or back, you know, to the to the search engine. That's when Google says, oh, that cert that search result is not really what you're looking for. So that no, it's it's another one of those signals, but it's one of many signals.
Hopefully that answers your question. I'm not sure it does. It
David Garfinkel 14:32 does give me an idea. It's certainly a lot more than you know, what I used to think of is keyword stuffing where you would find the keywords and you try and jam as many of them into what becomes unreadable copy that looks like it was written written by a bot or something.
Okay, but I'm sure this question comes up to you a lot from clients. So I'm just going to put it right at you. How does all of this affect traffic and conversion, especially if you're using paid advertising?
Michel Fortin 15:15 Right? So, the bottom line is this, the one number one rule that I've always used in copywriting. In fact, I taught it at the seminar at your seminar, which is also a great way to beat writer's block, which is to know more about your market, research your market as much as you can.
It's not about restricting keywords anymore. It's about researching your market. What do they want? In fact, you David said something that I love. You said, What is the market? What's their problem? And how are they talking about it? Right?
Like I remember, you said that at a seminar one time, and I think you also said on your podcast, who is your market? What is their problem? And how are they talking about it? That's that's exactly what you need to know, not only for copy, but for SEO for CRM conversion rate, and all those things.
Because here's the thing, if you can deliver, and meet and connect with them and deliver the content in the copy that matches that search intent that where they're at, to meet them where they're at, you know, Collier said to continue the conversation going on in their mind, well, that's the same thing with SEO.
Because when they are looking for something on Google and they land on your site, or even if they click on an ad, is there a connection is there congruency.
In fact, the more congruent your copy is, with the intent behind the person landing on your site, or opening your direct mail piece, or whatever the case is, the greater your conversions, the greater your response rate. And it's the same thing with SEO.
So back to my point is, learn more about your market do more market research, and and what we call topical research, not keyword research.
The best seo tip that I've ever heard is from a guy who actually doesn't even do SEO, he says, and he's getting millions and millions of visitors, he actually has a podcast with millions of subscribers, and he says, I just look for the kinds of questions my particular audience is asking. And I just answered them.
David Garfinkel 17:13 That's it. Okay, so it's, it's not really that different than marketing fundamentals to just basic stuff, right? Is what you're saying?
Michel Fortin 17:24 Absolutely. Just no more about your market, find out what they're looking for, and just give it to them. content that will get you better SEO, it answers what they're looking for. And it's also going to increase your sales and your your conversion rates when they land on your site.
And the read your sales offer whatever the case is, whatever you're offering, wherever you're selling, it'll sell better because it's in line with what you're looking for. And it's also and then I'll bet I'll just add another point.
Remember, I told you about search intent, there's navigational, there's, there's informational, educational, so if people are not really ready to buy, you know, we both you and I, we know we love Eugene Schwartz, he talks about the stages of sophistication of the market.
I use a an acronym called oath, the oath formula, how aware is your market? And it's kind of saying how prepared are they take an oath?
Are they oblivious about the problem? Are they apathetic, meaning they know about it, but they don't care? Are they thinking about doing something about their problem? Or actually, are they hurting and they want to buy it now they will need to solve the problem now.
Well, guess what, in in SEO, they talk about the funnel, they talk about problem aware, solution aware and are no problem, we are product, who here solution aware and so on and so forth. It's the same thing.
And my point in saying that is before we used to write these long sales letters that would sell make an offer and educate the client to put the prospect throughout the entire process.
But nowadays, you can just do education, bring people at the front end, the top end of the funnel, we call the top of funnel, educate them, get them into the funnel, get them interested, get them to raise their hand.
And slowly but surely taking them by the hand, whether it's through a long page, or through a drip campaign, or multiple videos, that you eventually get them to take action, you get them to finally buy whatever you're selling.
And that's why that's why it's so important to when you write copy or SEO copy is that you write it at the level of where it is they're at that we're there, you know, what kind of conversation having so back to my my initial point, know your market, do your market research.
And you know, you'll get great SEO as much as great copy.
David Garfinkel 19:34 That's, that's awesome. Let's, let's look at the surprises for a second. What's counterintuitive about SEO, and if you want to see our Oh, and UX, so that is what works that you wouldn't expect good work and vice versa.
Michel Fortin 19:50 Well, the thing is, because of the changes with the search engines, the changes with Google specifically and the fact that it's becoming better and better at Knowing what kind of content is on your website, what kind of information you're giving out, and also what kind of searches people are making.
Before, when we used to think about SEO, we used to think of stuffing cute, like you just said, stuffing keywords.
And nowadays, it really comes down to a couple things, very simple things, giving great content, good quality content that actually helps people that actually serves their their their interests, that that solves their problem that that answers their questions.
And what you do is you optimize the event that the way that people can use or consume that content, I'll come down to this. SEO really boils down to two things, a good quality content and good quality, good user experience.
That's it, those are the two things you need to do, as long as you offer good content that matches their their intent. And then once they land on your site, or sales copy, or whatever the case is, they have a great user experience.
They they have a great experience of consuming that content, then, you know, that's it's kind of topic, you know, it's it's, it's counterintuitive to the degree because a lot of people thought, Oh, I need to do keyword research, I need to do all this Hocus Pocus in the backend I used to I need to do all this coding stuff.
And you know what? Yes, those things are important from a, let's say, a usability standpoint. But really, what's important is, is your site crawlable can Google actually see your website? And and all the things that help get create a good user experience? Is it secure?
Meaning, you know, nowadays, if you land on a website that has HTTP rather than HTTPS, you'll get a warning, you know, Google will say, hey, this site is not secure. Do you still want to do you want to proceed? Well, you need now you need now to secure site.
It's all back to this user experience optimization, I was telling you about. Fast loading time, if you don't guess now, most, you know, 99%, that's not true. It's about 60% 7060 65% of the population now use their mobile devices to access the internet. So you need to have a fast loading website.
And if it's taking too long, people will do what we call that pogosticking, they'll just land on the site is that gets taken too long, they'll just backspace and go back to Google to look at the next search result, well, then Google will then penalize you.
You're going to lose traction, because you're not giving them a good experience. So so it's kind of counterintuitive to the greed that it's not as mathematical as it used to be. Just write good content, just serve your client, well solve problems.
Good, you know, and give them a good experience and consuming that content. And you've you've got a you're going to be very successful that way.
David Garfinkel 22:38 That's really good. You know, they don't call me the Nostradamus of podcasting for nothing. I predicted Nathan would have a question anyway. And I think he does.
Nathan 22:49 Yeah. So here's kind of a controversy that's going on between copywriters and search engines right now, is a lot of the search engines are moving away from sending people to websites.
So they don't, when you look up something on Google, Google wants to give you the answer without having to send you to someone Oh, yes. And so a lot of times, especially you mentioned, most searches are being done on mobile.
They don't want you to have to go so they'll just take a snippet of your website, and you won't actually get that traffic. So I kind of want to know what your thoughts are, as far as going forward. How is that going to impact?
And I know a lot of copywriters that are concerned that Google is taking their content, serving it as their own content and not giving the traffic that the whole reason we're writing the content is for traffic. And Google's saying, hey, we'll take what you're giving us.
But we're not going to give back Why you're giving it to us.
Michel Fortin 23:50 I am so glad you asked that question. You know why? Because it really boils down to this one skill called copywriting. And I say this because we I had this argument just the other day, and it's exactly the same issue. People are thinking, I'm getting zero because zero clicks search results.
So that's when your answer appears at the top, and people can see your answer or see your website content on their website without sending traffic to your site. And that's the reason why Google kind of is doing that is because they want to remove the number of clicks that people will get to a final result.
And if they're if they're in the informational stage, they're just looking for information. That's kind of understandable. It's frustrating. I understand that. However, this is where if you can use great content, great copy. There's a you know, when you're a content appears in the top search results.
This is called schema markup, or what we call featured snippets or Rich Snippets rich, rich data. I think some other people will call it structured data. You know, sometimes when you type in a recipe, and you'll actually have the recipe at the top of the Google search result right? then going to the actual site.
You know why? Because a lot of people, the reason why Google does that, too is because a lot of people when they visit a search site or a recipe site, you know how many recipes or like, you have to go through a lot of content and all the bads and a lot of crap before you actually get to the actual recipe.
So Google is trying to give a better user experience to their user. Remember, we shared the same client, Google's clients, and our clients are the same.
So the thing is, if they are actually looking for just information, then you want to be focused on your brand, your value proposition, what makes you unique, what makes you good, what makes you better, and then put that in the rich snippet.
Because now you can actually do what we call a rich rich data markup on your website, so that that will actually appear. And you can control what they show to their users. Not all the time. No, Google is Google.
But you can, and we want to make sure that you get them their attention, because you want if you are good at copy, you'll be able to also get their attention enough that they will click on that link. Even if you give them the answer to their question, they'll say, Well, I want to know more.
And they click on the link and they visit your website. However, there's also the issue that if you if you if you're good at quotes, a branding, and mentioning your brand, or especially your unique sales proposition, you're going to create one called Top-of-mind awareness.
So that when you appear the search engines later on in other search results, or even when they just need you when they're actually in because right now they're probably just at the educational and informational gathering stage.
But if when you're ready to buy or when you're ready to look for a solution, you'll remember your brand, because that's what that is really good for is to increase the branding element. Now, finally, the final answer to this is, Google is now testing different things.
In fact, there's a recent Google what they call search 2020, which is kind of their annual State of the Union address to the search community, right?
They're saying that they're moving away from that a little bit more and then moving towards where you probably noticed this, when you go to Google and you type in on a search result, it'll actually go to the section of the same on that page that gives them that particular answer for their question.
And, and so they're saying, great, okay, fine, we're going to give people the chance to visit your site, we're going to do less and less of that, you know, showing up and doing zero click results, we're going to give people a chance to visit your site.
But we want to get them to the actual section on your page that answers your question. So they don't have to go through a whole bunch of crap before and give them a really bad user experience.
So it boils down to good copy just big, you know, learn good copywriting, you will be able to capture not, you know, maybe some traffic from that. And if they're if you're selling a product or service, oftentimes your your search result won't appear there.
I mean, sorry, your your content will won't appear there. Because you're not answering your question, you're actually getting people to buy product, if they're in that, that that stage.
In fact, Google wants probably wants you to buy shopping ads, right, they probably want you to buy ads to drive traffic rather than giving them information.
But if they're just looking for information, then focus on having good copy that gets them interested clicking on the link, probably visiting your site, or at least getting the your unique sales proposition, your unique offer, or your brand, your brand name, your product, name, whatever the case is.
So that you create that Top of Mind awareness, it also creates authority. Remember, I told you earlier, eat expertise, authoritativeness and trustworthiness.
The fact that you appear at the top of search results is implied authority, oh, he must be an authority or she must be an authority or this site must be an authority. So that either they'll visit from that result or later on when they do more searches. And your result will pop up in a normal search results.
Direct. they'll recognize you they say oh, yeah, that's I was like on that on that other search. They'll click on you.
And this has actually been proven they've done ample test to show that when you do appear, and you don't get enough traffic, you'll you actually increase what we called secondary ancillary traffic, because you're becoming known as an authority you create that implied authoritativeness.
Nathan 29:15 So it's the goal seems to be give people what they're looking for. And also subtly try and sell the click as well. But um,
Michel Fortin 29:27 Yes.
David Garfinkel 29:29 That was pretty good. How do people keep up with your content?
Michel Fortin 29:34 Sure. Well, my own website, my own blog is at Michel fortin.com. But if you want to send them directly to the page that I probably would want to send them to, so that we avoid Google stealing my click. David Garfinkel, stealing my click No, I'm kidding. Go to daily marketing memo.com that's my newsletter.
And it actually goes it's it's just redirects to my own website, but To the page where people can learn about my newsletter, it's called the daily marketing memo. So dailymarketingmemo.com.
David Garfinkel 30:06 Excellent. Wow. You completely changed my mind about SEO copywriting. And, you know, in a way, I've always felt like the the goal of the good hearted journalist and the goal of search engine was the same, you know, just to provide people the information they want need. And of course, life interferes.
Well. Anyway, Michael, thank you so much. So good to catch up with you after all these years.
Michel Fortin 30:36 Thank you. Thank you.
David Garfinkel 30:38 I'm glad you've made it through all these trials and you seem to be better man for it. So hope things get even better for you in the future. Oh, they are. Yeah. All right. Thank you.
Michel Fortin 30:47 Appreciate that.
Nathan 30:49 Awesome. Thank you, Michael, for coming on. David. Thank you for putting this together. listeners out there. If you want to check out more episodes head on over to the copywriters podcast website and that's copywriterspodcast.com and until next time, we will catch you later. Bye.
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!)
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.)
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.”
After my article on “Lesson Learned, Lesson Earned,” in which I discussed my history with the Internet marketing industry, some people asked me several questions about my background outside of my career as a marketing consultant. Not the background stuff you'll find on my “About” or “Now” pages. But the stuff people may not know.
I believe I'm an open book. Or I think I am. But I also realized that, even though I've been doing this for 30 years, I get new followers and subscribers all the time who don't know a thing about me.
Coincidentally, too, this morning I received the latest newsletter issue from marketer Louis Grenier that inspired me. It listed 10 facts about him.
Louis is the host of Everyone Hates Marketers podcast, a show which I've listened to for a while. His style is refreshing and authentic, which some might find a tad abrasive. His show teaches real-world, no-nonsense marketing that's not sleazy, loud, or aggressive, or that resorts to using hacks or “secrets.”
That's my kind of marketing.
So I followed his example. Here are 10 facts about the person behind The More Traffic Memo, listed in no particular order.
1. I'm a husband to Barbara, a Canadian-Portuguese immigrant who works as a nurse in the labor and delivery unit at The Ottawa Hospital. Right now, COVID is making her job exceptionally tough and stressful. She inspires me so much.
2. I was born and raised in the small Canadian town of Aylmer, Québec. It's now a suburb of Gatineau, which is a city adjacent to our nation's capital of Ottawa. Until the 90s, Aylmer was mostly bilingual (French and English), which is why I speak both fluently.
Recently, I learned Portuguese after meeting my wife so I could recite my vows in her language. (Yes, sounds almost like a scene from Love, Actually.)
3. As a young child in the late 70s, I surfed bulletin boards using an agonizingly slow 300-baud dialup modem. I learned to code and played Scepter of Goth, the first-ever multiplayer online role-playing game (or MMORPG). This is where I fell in love with technology and what would later become the Internet.
4. My first job was working at McDonald's as a teen in the early 80s. My wage was a paltry $2.54/hour (less than two US dollars). But my first “adult” job was selling insurance — the job in which I failed miserably, declared bankruptcy, and then succeeded after I discovered the power of copywriting.
5. I left the insurance business, moved to Ottawa, and became a marketing consultant at a nearby hair restoration clinic. I worked on commission selling hair replacement systems. Not satisfied with the number of leads coming in, I took over the clinic's marketing — including writing their ads, direct mail pieces, and TV commercials, and eventually, their first-ever website, too.
The clinic grew and expanded to include hair transplant surgery. They later opened multiple clinics across Canada and the USA, where I handled the clinic's marketing, copywriting, advertising, and training of their new staff.
6. This is where my marketing career took off. By taking care of my employer's other clinics and their marketing, my sales suffered and, as a result, my income plummeted. So I left and hung my shingle as an independent marketing consultant who specialized in cosmetic surgery.
I launched my first website in 1995. Since I worked mostly with doctors, clinics, and surgeons, I later incorporated as The Success Doctor, Inc., since my goal was to help doctors become successful.
7. How I entered the Internet marketing industry was a bit of a fluke. I wrote a booklet in the early 90s called The 10 Commandments of Power Positioning. By the mid-90s, I split the book into standalone articles, which I offered to a variety of online magazines that wanted to publish them.
The goal was to capture the attention of other doctors, particularly those who were looking to get on this thing called the Internet. But it also captured the attention of a software company that was also publishing its own magazine called The Internet Marketing Chronicles. They hired me as their editor.
8. After writing near-daily editorials for a few years, The Internet Marketing Center owned by the late Corey Rudl acquired the magazine. Luckily, Corey kept me on board as their editor. We had over 120,000 subscribers.
Eventually, Corey flew me to Vancouver to his office where I wrote copy for him, including his sales presentations and “pitch slides” he used when he spoke at Internet marketing seminars. I also ghostwrote his autobiography, “How to Create a Fortune on The Internet in Just Four Simple Steps.”
9. This led to a stream of work with other Internet marketers, and speaking gigs at marketing and business seminars around the globe. I spoke on stages in front of a few hundred people in New Zealand to about 10,000 at Wembley's Convention Centre in the UK — and everything in between.
During this time, I shared the stage with other well-known marketers and copywriters, including Dan Kennedy, Jay Abraham, Yanik Silver, Gary Halbert, Mark Joyner, Russell Brunson, Ryan Deiss, Mark Victor Hansen, Jay Conrad Levinson, Brendon Burchard, and countless others.
10. Recently, David Garfinkel interviewed me on his Copywriters Podcast, and he asked me this question: “What topic makes your heart beat a tad faster these days?” My answer was SEO. The reason is, as I told him, SEO has grown to a point where it's no different from knowing how to write excellent copy.
Simply know your market and what they want, and just give it to them. That includes content and copy. What kinds of questions are they asking that you can answer? What types of problems do they have that you can solve? Knowing this will improve both your SEO and your conversation rates.
Now it's your turn. What do you do? Comment below.
On September 10, 2020, I appeared as a guest on Ed Rush's EdTalks Live Videocast. Ed Rush is a consulting client, a good friend, and a former F-18 top gun fighter pilot and business advisor.
EdTalks Live! is a live, interactive, dialogue-style show. We talked about marketing, copywriting, selling, psychology, business, SEO, and more. It was only an hour but we had a live Q&A before the end.
The most important part of your copy is not your headline, not your offer, and certainly not your benefits. The most important part is your customer.
Sounds obvious, right? But I've critiqued some pretty good copy. Very well-written and compelling, too. But if the conversion rate is low (hence, the reason why I was hired to do a critique consultation), it's because these websites do not target the right audience for the offer, or the copy fails to connect with their readers.
Researching your customer in depth is vital to the success of your copy. It's not only an important component of targeting and qualifying the best prospect for your offer, but also an effective way to discover new ideas, different angles, captivating storylines, unsought benefits, and appropriate length and language of your copy that will convert more.
The question is, how do you target and connect with your readers?
First off, if your product has never been launched before, hopefully, you have done enough research to know your product is viable. But if you have, then you should have a good idea of who your market for your product is.
Knowing who your market is, and how and where to target them, are two different things. Your goal is to discover the qualities, characteristics, and behavioral patterns of your specific (or greatest) market. Then market to that audience with the right message, and do so more than any other and as often as possible.
Create a buyer persona of your perfect client. Then write your copy as if you're talking to that one single individual, as if it's a letter written one-on-one, and they're the only reader that matters in the world right now.
Here's how to develop a “buyer persona.”
Typically, there are four main categories.
The highest converting websites and most productive marketing pieces are usually those who have spent a great many hours interviewing clients, spending time learning about them (maybe even to be with them), asking a lot of questions, and spending a lot of time learning about:
Empathy Starts With Discovery
It was Ken Blanchard, in the One-Minute Sales Manager, who said: “Before I walk a mile in your shoes, I must first take off my own.” Brian Keith Voiles, in an interview I gave him regarding the power of empathy in copy, said it best:
“The first thing I do is try to live a ‘day in the life' of my prospect. What keeps him up at night? What are his biggest concerns or his biggest joys? What's the first thing he does in the morning as he wakes up? Does he read the paper? What kind of paper? What sections? Does he hurt? Is he frustrated? About what? In all, I try to put myself in my prospect's shoes as much as possible and really try to see what he sees, thinks what he thinks, feels what he feels. The more I do, the more empathetic I am in my copy — and the more I sell.”
Demographics are the basic qualities and characteristics of your market. They include age, gender, culture, employment, industry, income level, marital status, and so on. Does your product cater uniquely to women? Is it more appealing to a specific industry? Does your product complement another type of product?
Geographics are the countries, locations, and establishments in which your target market resides or works, or those it frequents or to which it travels. Is your market made up of French Canadians? Are they urbanites or rural folk? Do they commute to work in large, busy offices or are they working from home?
On the other hand, psychographics are made up of the emotional, psychological, and behavioral qualities of your market. They include the emotions, buying patterns, purchase histories, and even thought processes behind people's decision to buy your product.
What is their religious or political persuasion? What interests and hobbies are they're engaged in? What previous purchases have they made, and other related products they have consumed?
Finally, there are technographics, which are people's level of sophistication with technology and their specific use of it. Are they early adopters or laggards? Do they use mobile devices to make purchases or are they primarily desktop users? Are they technically savvy or do they need hand-holding?
Bottom line, who buys from you specifically?
Try to be as specific as possible. Creating a buyer persona may seem like you're ignoring other markets, and if your market is indeed made up of wildly disparate personas, you might want to create more than one. But for now, focus on who buys from you the most or the most often.
In fact, the more specific your defined audience is, the more focused your targeting will be, the greater the connection with your market will be, and the higher your conversions will be. (Sounds contradictory, but I'll come back this and explain later.)
The two most important elements are, of course, demographics and psychographics. You should have a good understanding of who your client is, such as their age, occupation, marital and family status, etc. Hopefully, you also have information about their interests, hobbies, culture, aspirations, etc. If you don't, then you know what you need to do.
Another way to look at it, demographics show who may need your product, while psychographics reveal who may want your product. These are different! To determine who wants your product is to also understand why they want it. Some of the best market research has to do with how your market interacted with you and why.
Ask your current clients. Call them. Probe further. Many will appreciate that you're taking an interest in them. Say it's about gathering feedback in order to improve your level of service, which in reality, it is. For example, here's a list of questions you should ask:
Who are you, exactly?
What's a day in the life of “you” like?
What's your biggest challenge?
What's your biggest success story?
Why did you buy my product?
Why did you choose me over a competitor?
Why did you buy at that specific point in time?
Did you buy right away (on impulse) or take your time?
If you shopped around, what exactly were you looking for?
What other products / services / solutions did you consider?
What do you like the most and the least about my product?
Would you refer me to others, and if so, why? Why not?
What specific benefits do you enjoy the most in my product?
If you considered an alternative before buying, what were their benefits?
And so on.
These are immensely important questions that can help you, guide you, or even cause you to change your approach altogether.
Don't discount the power of doing marketing research, especially within your own backyard so to speak. You want to know not only who buys from you but, more important, why they do. In other words, think psychographics and not just demographics.
To illustrate the difference between demographics and psychographics, here's an example pulled from my own experience as a copywriter in the cosmetic surgery field.
Hair transplant doctors cater mainly to men who have experienced hair loss and are able to afford such an operation — i.e., men and bald men specifically are potential patients because they may need of more hair.
Psychographics, on the other hand, go a little further. In this example, they are comprised of men who not only need but also want more hair — since not all of them do. (It's a matter of priorities, just as the type of clothing one chooses to wear.)
They may seem to need more hair, but they might not want more. So just targeting “bald men” is not enough.
To target your best market as precisely as possible and generate better leads, doctors must take the psychographic element into account, such as their patients' lifestyle, their interests, the type of industry in which they work (since certain industries are image-related), as well as their previous buying habits (such as men who have already invested in other forms of hair replacement solutions).
The more information the better.
For example, you have a headline that said, “Are you losing your hair?” That appeals to your demographics. People who have hairloss will probably read the ad. After all, they “seem” to need more hair.
The problem is, they may not care about it. But if your headline said, “Suffering from hairloss?” now your ad is targeting someone who not only has hairloss but also cares about it enough to want to do something about it.
Aim For The Bull's-Eye
Nevertheless, arm yourself with as much of this type of information beforehand and your chances of achieving greater success with your product will be virtually guaranteed. You will know how to craft marketing communications that will appeal as specifically and directly as possible to that market.
Next, knowing this information will also help you target that market. Developing a buyer persona should give you a pretty good indication of where they hang out, where they will see your ad, or where they will learn about your product or service.
The following represents The AudienceTargeting Model (a format to follow when targeting an audience, or while engaged in any targeting activity). It's in the form of three concentric circles — like a bull's-eye.
Applying the targeting model is simple. Each circle represents a different level in the targeting process — the center being the first, your main priority, and so on. As the marketing adage goes, “fish where the fish swim.” Find places, events, or publications that meet any of the three, from the center out.
The center of the bullseye should be your main aim. These are things, events, or locations that are centered on your buyer persona. The second level consists of places, events, or things that are related to them. The third level, while not related, consists of those that are oriented towards your perfect customer.
Here's a quick description of each circle:
The Center (Bull's-Eye), or Audience Centered: It's what pertains directly to your target market. In other words, it's anything that meets your buyer persona (and does so immediately and as specifically as possible). Things like demographics, psychographics, and geographics are included, here.
The Second Tier (Middle Layer) or Audience Related: It's what pertains indirectly to your target market. Stated differently, it's anything that relates to or logically fits in your buyer's profile. This includes things such as direct competitors, complementary products, related industries, etc.
The Third Tier (Outside Layer) or Audience Oriented: It's what does not pertain at all to your target market but somehow matches or is oriented towards any of its areas. Examples are unrelated industries with which your customer is associated, other businesses patronized by your customer, other unrelated products they consume (products that do not complement, replace, or supersede yours, but are consumed by them), common threads among your audience (even if they have nothing to do with your product), etc.
Here's An Example
Let's say you're in the computer sales business. Your perfect customer is a person aged between 20 and 35, earning around $40,000, living in the eastern part of the United States, and working in the high-tech field.
The center or bull's-eye would include computer-related magazines, shows, websites, tradeshows, email newsletters, forums, social networks (specifically computer-related groups and “cliques” on those social media), etc. Wherever your perfect customer is targeted, based on the qualities and characteristics of your product or customer, should be your first goal. Your main aim. The bull's-eye.
The second tier are areas that are indirectly related to your buyer persona. Your goal would then be to target places, events, or things that are similar or somehow logically fit into your target market as well — in short, other related publications, businesses, or areas that target your perfect customer, too.
Areas include software magazines, trade publications, technology websites, industry associations, non-competing businesses, etc. An example would be other websites selling computer peripherals or software your client would need or enjoy, such as an accounting software package.
The third and final tier consists of totally unrelated areas your buyer frequents, without having anything to do with your industry. You want to be in front of as many of their eyeballs as possible, even if where you appear has anything to do with your product, industry, or niche.
Let's say, through some research, you found out that a large percentage of your target market are coffee drinkers. Then areas you would seek are coffee-related sites, specialty coffee magazines, coffee product stores (e.g., coffee maker companies, mugs, espresso machines, etc), restaurants, books on coffee, and so on.
It means that, as long as the audiences of such websites and publications logically fit into your target market somehow, even if, in this case, they have nothing to do with computers at all, then you've got it made. In essence, you're still aiming within your “dart board,” in other words.
Don't Play Darts in The Dark
The bottom line is, in order to convert at a much higher rate, you need to have the right message in front of the right people as often as possible. You not only need to know who your perfect customer is, but you also need to understand her, connect with her, and empathize with her.
So before targeting your buyer, create a marketing message or campaign that appeals to their persona as specifically as possible. Think of that one person as you create your message. How will they react when they see it? Does it match with what they're thinking? What will they say?
When targeting your market, even if you aim for the bullseye but you still land somewhere on the dartboard (like marketing computer stuff to coffee lovers, using the example I used earlier), you're still hitting your market.
If your message is right but your targeting falls outside of that bullseye's center, people who fit your buyer persona will know it's meant for them, and they will be interested in what you say, feel connected with your message, and buy from you — as opposed to generic, bland marketing with which your audience feels no connection, no matter where on the bullseye they fall into.
In short, the less targeted and the more generic your message is, the less connected your copy you will be with your market. You might as well shoot darts in the dark and hope you're lucky to land on the board. Maybe.
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