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Copywriting

How I Broke Into Copywriting

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

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

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

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

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

Michel Fortin (1991)
Michel Fortin (1991)

Anyway, here is my story.

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

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

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

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

I remember that time like it was yesterday.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But then, things “clicked.”

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

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

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

So I moved on.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It reminded me of my experience at the insurance company.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And yes, that included copywriting, too.

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

Here's the problem.

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

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

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

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

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

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

(I was grinning with anticipation.)

“… An extra $3,000.”

I said, “Oh, $3,000 a month! Great!”

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

I was so disappointed. And angry.

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

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

So I quit the very next month.

It was the best decision I ever made.

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

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

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

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

My curiosity was piqued.

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

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

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

So I created my client's website in 1992.

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

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

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

The result? Nothing. Not a single request.

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

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

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

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

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

That's when things started moving very quickly.

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

And the rest, as they say, is history.

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

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

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

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

There you have it!

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

Categories
Copywriting

How to Hook (More) Copywriting Prospects

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The other day, an aspiring copywriter asked me a question that I hear all too often: “How do I distinguish myself from other copywriters?”

The answer is not an easy one. It takes some thought, some time, and perhaps some inspiration.

But time after time, I have found that most people tend to overlook one of the most effective and frequently used copywriting and marketing tools. And that's your “Unique Selling Proposition,” or USP.

(I prefer to call it a “Unique Selling Position.” If you've read my book, “Power Positioning,” or if you know my personal story, then you'd know that I'm a big fan of positioning rather than prospecting.)

Your USP is also your “hook.”

A USP is what distinguishes you from the pack. It increases perceived value, expertise, and credibility — without needing to state it outright.

But since I hear this question often, particularly from copywriters just entering the field, it's because it's never an easy process. You either have to dig deep to find your USP, or create one from scratch. And that's why people need a little help in defining it.

I understand. So to help you, here's a tip.

In marketing, every product or service has three levels. They include:

  • The core product.
  • The product itself.
  • The augmented product.

What does this have to do with developing a USP? Before I share it to you, let me explain what these three product levels mean.

  • The core product is the actual end-result, the benefits, that the product offers. It's what the product does for people. As Theodore Levitt once said, people don't buy quarter-inch drills. They buy quarter-inch holes.
  • The actual product is what the product is and consists of. This includes the things that make the product a product. Those are the features, the components, the ingredients, even the packaging.
  • The augmented product is what is added to the product or offer to augment it. Things like free shipping, guarantees, customer support, premiums, etc.

Now, in the context of copywriting (the business or the service of copywriting, that is), you can look at it this way (please note this is an example and not the example):

1) Core Product: Generate and/or increase response.

That's the ultimate result, or at least the reason why most clients hire copywriters.

2) Actual Product: The copy itself.

Writing the copy includes research, writing the first draft, and delivering the final draft. It includes all the elements that help to achieve the core product: headline, storyline, bullets, product details, offer, response device, etc.

The actual product is also directly tied to the market. Therefore, it also includes the market you're selling to, such as focusing on a specific industry or audience, or a particular kind of copy such as sales letters, direct mail, websites, etc.

3) Augmented Product: Whatever you add beyond the actual product.

Things you add to the service to “beef it up,” such as extras, value-adds, add-ons, bonuses, premiums, gifts, additional promises, and so on, which can vary tremendously from copywriter to copywriter, and industry to industry.

For example, it can include formatting, graphic design, layout suggestions, project management, market research, rewrites, guarantees, split-testing the actual copy before the final draft, exclusivity, rush service for quicker turnarounds, etc.

How do you use these three layers to define a USP?

Think of these three layers in the form of a bulls-eye, where you have three concentric circles. The center of the bulls-eye being the core product, the middle layer being the actual product, and the outer layer the augmented product.

Now, here's the fun part. To develop a unique selling proposition, you can add, remove, change, or give a unique twist to any of these three levels.

The easiest way, of course, it to go from the outside in. (It's easier to aim for the outer circle than the bulls-eye itself.) That is, find ways to augment your product that few do or that no one does. It may not be one single thing. It may be a combination of them.

Bulls-eye analogy aside, why is this the simplest way?

Because coming up with different angles or variations of the center of the bulls-eye requires a bit more creative thinking. It's easier to add to the existing product or its market than it is to repurpose it, rebrand it, or redefine the market for it.

(Mind you, developing a USP from within usually produces the best “hooks,” the most prospects, and the greatest perceived value.)

Nevertheless, here's an example of working with the outside layer.

You can offer design suggestions, layouts and mockups, additional tips on how to best use the copy, offer free revisions, writing copy for other parts of the sales funnel (opt-in page, order page, thank-you page, autoresponders, etc), and so on.

Here's an extra tip.

Don't offer these willy-nilly. Always place a value on these augmented elements or add-ons. Why? Because if you don't, people will assume that it's part of your original offering. It may even decrease your perceived value.

The idea is to increase the perception of higher value. And to do that, you must not only add value to the core offer but also make it visible.

For example, don't say your copy comes with formatting and layout suggestions (or worse yet, assume clients will know the implication). Instead, say you will throw in formatting and layout suggestions, which are additional services, free of charge.

Plus, add a dollar value on those add-ons as if you were to sell them separately. Don't say your copy comes with one or two revisions. Say your copy comes with an additional revision, free of charge, worth $500.

Aside from the increase in perceived value, this tactic also helps to prevent freeloaders and deal-seekers from asking for concessions. If they want “a good deal,” doing it this way will make them feel like you're already making concessions.

If they start to haggle at any point, then you have tools to work with — by removing the extras and their associated dollar value. This is better than offering discounts.

(Never discount! Never.)

Next in the layers is the actual product.

What can you change, add, or remove from the actual product to make it unique?

For instance, how do you conduct your research? Do you interview the client or the client's clients? Do you have a preparatory questionnaire they must fill out before work commences? How is your copy written and delivered, exactly?

While it is easier to work with the augmented product first, there is also an easy way to work with the middle layer. Which is, of course, defining the market.

Specifically, niche marketing.

Niche marketing is “to find a niche and fill it.” But with an existing product, it's to focus on a particular audience segment, an industry, or a certain style of copy.

You could be a copywriter specializing in, say, health products. You could even hone it down to, say, nutrition and foods. You could even be a copywriter who focuses on diets and weightloss exclusively.

But don't just focus on industries or niches.

Remember, it's the “actual” product. What you choose to work on and deliver can also be specialized. You don't have to add or change anything, either. You can simply remove something to make yourself unique.

They say that less is more. In fact, offering less or focusing strictly on a certain type of copy can create instant demand and credibility, because being a specialist creates the perception of greater expertise and skill.

I know a copywriter who focuses strictly on catalog copy. I know another who does email campaigns only. I know a third who writes for social media. I know some copywriters who specialize in a combination of niches and copy types — such as direct mail for the financial industry. And they're doing extremely well.

But that's not all. Don't restrict yourself to the medium, either.

For example, you might be a copywriter who focuses strictly on headlines. As a result, you become known as the headline expert. When people (or other copywriters) need help with their headlines, they turn to you.

Or you might be one who only focuses on initial drafts in plain text. While that might seem like a lesser offering, you can say that this is a benefit since you're entirely focused on the research and the content — unlike other copywriters who offer too much, overextend themselves, and dilute their value as a result.

A neurologist is still a doctor. But you wouldn't have a general practitioner work on your brain, right? Much less a podiatrist or coroner. You want a doctor who specializes in the specific problem or area that needs attention.

Copywriters are no different.

Finally, the innermost layer, the center of the bulls-eye, is the hardest part.

Copy is copy. And copy has one principal function. And that's to sell. But let's say that your copy's goal is to increase the client's existing response, as it is with most copy. Ask yourself, what other benefits do you offer?

I don't mean additional benefits provided by the augmented product. I'm talking about the copy itself. What else does your copy do for your clients? What else does your copywriting service specifically bring to the table?

Sure, the ultimate goal is to boost sales and profits.

But perhaps it's to make the client look good as to increase referral clients. Maybe it's to increase visibility or generate more word-of-mouth. Or perhaps it's to attract qualified staff or potential investors.

You can and should think of all the benefits your copy delivers.

Don't just stick with the obvious.

Take some time (even write a list, if you have to) of all the advantages your specific copy offers. What kind of results have you achieved in the past? What other benefits (including unsought benefits) did your clients receive?

(Sometimes, asking for or re-reading client testimonials can offer some clues. If not, take some time to interview some of your past clients. Ask them what your copy or copywriting service did for them, beyond just increasing sales.)

Here's a “off-the-top-of-my-head” example. Say your client is also looking for copy that “sounds like them.” In other words, they want a copywriter with a knack for writing in their voice, their language, and their communication style.

In this case, it makes your ghostwriting ability far more effective than other copywriters. That's a USP right there. (As your “hook,” you might call yourself “The Chameleon Copywriter” or your copy service “The Copywriting Cloner.”)

What about you?

Again, you need to sit down and take some time to really think about this. It might not come overnight. For me, as an example, it took over a decade to find the various benefits my copy specifically brings to the table.

It won't take a decade. The difference here is, you have a leg up because you have some tips in this article to give you a headstart.

In the end, there are so many ways to develop a good USP. There are so many variants, too. Each way comes with a plethora of possibilities. The idea is to be a bit creative, a bit of a contrarian, and a bit different.

Sometimes, you have to look at and copy from (and not just think) “outside the box.”

See other industries. Look at other services. Check out non-competing products. You never know. In one of them may lie the seed of something amazing.

And being amazing doesn't have to require a massive change, either. Just by being 10% different, unique, original, or special is enough to make you stand out like a sore thumb in an overcrowded, hypercompetitive marketplace.