Categories
SEO

Visual Content Marketing Starts With SEO

When it comes to creating content about plastic surgery, writing blog posts (i.e., articles) is the easiest way. But visual content is just as important, if not more so. In addition to written content marketing, visual content marketing is a critical component to a medical aesthetic professional's online success.

Any content is important. As a plastic surgeon, you're an expert in your field, and prospective patients want to make an informed decision. When it comes to SEO, as it should be with the content itself, the fundamental goal of written content is to help the people you're targeting.

However, most plastic surgeons or their staff create visual content, such as videos, photos, and graphics. And they should. Most of them post these on visual channels (like Instagram, YouTube, TikTok, etc.) instead of their own blogs.

So how do can you do SEO when your content is not text-based and it's published outside your blog or website?

1. Metadata is Your Friend

Every piece of non-textual content you create (or better said, capture) has metadata attached to it, such as time, date, location, equipment used, etc. Most digital recording devices nowadays automatically add metadata to your captures, whether it's a $3,000 camera or a $500 smartphone.

But many recordings today can have additional metadata added. Most of the time, it's done when the recordings are added to another medium — such as when it's uploaded to Google Photos or YouTube, for example.

Incidentally, if you turned off metadata (such as location) for privacy purposes, you should turn it back on. Some people hate being tracked, and I understand that. But this information is ideal for SEO.

For example, when uploading it to Google My Business or Facebook (Business), it adds more pseudo-content for local SEO purposes. When people type “plastic surgeon near me” into Google, your photos may appear (or your listing with a lot of geotagged photos may appear) more often as a result.

Nevertheless, you can add more metadata. On a blog, those things include alternate text (called “alt-tags”), titles (or “title tags”), captions, and even the filename itself. For instance, when adding content to a website, rather than uploading it directly, save it, rename it, and upload it with its new filename.

It's not about stuffing keywords in either the metatags or filenames. It's about including descriptive information for accessibility so that search engines know what the file is all about. So include keywords in the graphic, photo, or video, both in their filenames and tag data.

But don't force them. Just be descriptive. Be helpful, not robotic.

Like all forms of SEO, metadata comes down to helping your audience and giving them what they're looking for. You want to describe your visuals in order to help — not outsmart the search engines.

Remember, metadata is about the user and aims to make the visuals better understood by users. Yes, they're for search engines, too. But search engines aim to help users (your users) by giving them better information — and therefore, a better experience. Stuffed text will only work against you.

2. Channel-Based SEO

The second-largest search engine in the world is YouTube. Just like Google, YouTube has its own search queries, topics, keywords, rankings, velocity (i.e, based on how much traffic, engagements, and likes a video gets), and of course, audiences. So it needs its own SEO, too.

In fact, almost every content sharing platform is a search engine itself. So whether you're uploading photos, videos, clips, graphics, or stories (like Reels, LinkedIn Stories, Twitter Fleets, TikTok, or any visual asset you upload to the web), you will also need to optimize those, too.

Optimize their descriptions, tags, labels, comments, and more. So be descriptive, add keywords, insert links, use hashtags, and so on.

Every channel needs its own form of SEO, from Twitter to Google My Business. Pay attention to the content you add, from the bio of your channel's profile to each asset you upload. Include keywords and links (especially links back to the website) to double your amplification (I'll come back to this).

Create new content with SEO in mind, whether it's the title, the description, the filename, or the surrounding content (including headers, copy, links, additional keywords, etc). In fact, there are three things to keep in mind:

  1. Keywords don't have to be broad or popular with high search volumes. They can be long-tail, indirectly related, or ultra-specific keywords.
  2. Focus on the user, not the search engines. Don't stuff your content with keywords. Focus on topics and what users want, and describe it to them.
  3. Include your name and brand names (such as proprietary names of your services, products, or processes, which is my number-one SEO tip).

Incidentally, content in proximity is just as important as metadata or descriptive data. For example, when uploading content to a visual platform, remember that you have the ability to add descriptions, comments, even tags and related content — such as linking suggested videos or other related posts.

This information also helps to expand your visibility, too.

On YouTube, your videos will show up as related videos on other people's videos. On Instagram, it will be recommended as part of the “Explore” page. On Google, your Web Stories will be suggested in “Discover” (i.e., the personalized content feed on Android devices, Google pages, and Google apps).

For videos, one tool I recommend is TubeBuddy, which allows you to do keyword and tag research, on the fly, as you upload your videos. On Instagram, make sure your photos are properly described, tagged, and captioned with keywords — and don't forget the advanced settings (hidden alt text), too.

3. Bring it Back Home

Finally, remember that your goal is to get people back to your website (or at least to come forward and book an appointment with you). But for SEO purposes, it's to attract qualified patients to your practice or clinic.

While your goal is to use other platforms as a way to share and amplify content from your website in order to increase signals back to your website (and hopefully earn authoritative backlinks), you can also do the converse — i.e., amplify your third-party platform content through your website.

In other words, you can bring content back to your website. You don't need to duplicate everything. Many of these websites allow you to embed their content, which allows you to add a piece of code and incorporate content from their platform back on your website.

However, some may offer you the ability to embed carousels or galleries. That's not what I mean. Embed either one or a few select pieces on a blog post, but add surrounding, descriptive content. Offer deeper, richer content — perhaps a story behind the visuals. Above all, include links to other pages.

For example, one plastic surgeon often posts on Instagram. He uploads videos that are either before-and-after clips, patient testimonials, or videos of actual surgical procedures. He then takes a video from IG, embeds it on his website, and describes the procedure in depth with additional content around it.

He turns it into a case study to describe that specific patient's situation (e.g., what was their issue, what makes them a candidate, what results to expect, etc). He also links anchor texts back to his main service page — the one that describes the procedure (like “breast augmentation,” for example).

This process creates strategic internal links, signals to his key procedure pages, and topical clusters, which all help SEO — including the social media signals.

If you do this with videos, transcribe your videos (using a tool like Descript, Otter, or Screechpad), which will then fill your blog post (and therefore, your website) with keyword-rich and/or topic-focused content that will add SEO as well as bring more context to the visuals (and vice versa).

Ultimately, these are some ideas that will help use non-text-based content and third-party content for SEO purposes that will enhance your visibility, drive traffic, and increase traction with ideal patients.

So with visuals and third-party platforms, don't forget metadata, keywords, and links to each other for bilateral amplification and stronger SEO signals.

Categories
SEO

My Favorite SEO Experts (2021)

There are some people I follow religiously in the SEO space. These SEO experts are quite active on Twitter, LinkedIn, and YouTube. There are too many to mention, so I'll list some now and I might add more later.

Keep in mind that some of them have email newsletters and podcasts, too. I tend to be subscribed to all of them. I recommend you visit their websites, and subscribe to their blogs, podcasts, or email newsletters, too.

First off, if you want to see who I follow in one fell swoop, here's my Twitter list of SEO experts and SEO organizations. There's about 300 in total. So let me just point out some of my favorites to follow in 2021.


Updated December 22, 2020.

Marie Haynes

I've known about Marie for a few years, and I've also known that she lives and works just minutes from me (in Ottawa, Canada). But I recently subscribed to her paid newsletter and podcast (there's a free one, too), which offers truly the most usable “search news you can use.” Aptly titled.

Lily Ray

A drummer like yours truly and a DJ, too, Lily Ray is a big proponent of EAT (expertise, authoritativeness, and trustworthiness), which I appreciate. I've been shouting for ages that EAT is a fundamental component of SEO for medical professionals. Lily not only an expert but an SEO nerd when it comes to data.

Glenn Gabe

Glenn is another SEO nerd who knows Google updates like the back of his hand — or knows how to decipher them. His blog is always chock full of deep insights and analysis, and I learn so much from them. It's like having someone on the inside at Google within being on the inside.

Aleyda Solis

Creator of the SEOFOMO newsletter, Aleyda Solis is the creator of one of my favorite YouTube shows called “Crawling Mondays.” It's a weekly show where Aleyda and her SEO guests discuss the latest and greatest tools, strategies, and trends in the world of search marketing.

Kevin Indig

A seasoned SEO specialist who has worked with some of the biggest SaaS companies in the world (and is now the new SEO director over at Shopify), Kevin Indig has an informative newsletter that offers some great insights combining technical SEO and content-driven SEO.

Brodie Clark

An award-winning SEO expert, Brodie Clark is someone who understands aspects of SEO that many people overlook, such as user experience (UX), web stories, featured snippets, Google Discover, and more. Like many of the experts here, Brodie is a frequent contributor to several industry newsletters.

Cyrus Shepard

Cyrus Shepard doesn't publish often, but when he does the SEO world rumbles. His Google ranking factors post is probably his best work and one I often turn to when I need to stay on top of things. He's also a popular and prolific contributor and guest on SEO podcasts, newsletters, and websites.

Traffic Think Tank

One of my recent mastermind groups, Traffic Think Tank, put together by SEO heavyweights Ian Howells, Nick Eubanks, and Matthew Howells-Barby (who's also the VP of Marketing at HubSpot), is a mind-blowing repertoire of SEO articles, tutorials, videos, and networking opportunities.


Updated November 20, 2020.

Ryan Stewart

I've been a fan and follower of Ryan for years. Check out his blog, too. His content never ceases to impress, and his SEO Blueprint Training is probably the de facto training in the world of SEO. With his successful agency, Webris, his specialty is in more advanced SEO, like using BigQuery.

Barry Schwartz

Back when I mostly did copywriting, I have always stayed on top of SEO. Barry was someone I followed since then. He's a major staple in the SEO community, and his YouTube channel is a must-subscribe when it comes to SEO news — from Google updates, news, and interviews with other SEO experts.

Ruan Marinho

If there's anyone I listen to who can say it like it is, with no fluff or sugarcoating, even if it's controversial, it's Ruan. I consider him to be one of the best experts on local SEO, and his videos always seem to teach me something new — and I've been at this for a couple of decades, now, so it's saying something.

Brian Dean

Brian is my favorite YouTuber. The reason is simple: he knows how to capture my attention, make his point, and move me to action. Owner of Backlinko, which is an SEO newsletter I highly recommend, Brian provides some of the best, step-by-step SEO tutorials I've ever seen. A must-subscribe.

Nathan Gotch

Nathan is another SEO channel I enjoy. Although he doesn't post as frequently, his videos are still filled with front-to-back advice. His approach, much like what I try to do, is to tackle something as complex as SEO and distill it into clear, simple language. His SEO checklists are also amazing, too.

Kristina Azarenko

I need to shout out to my fellow Canadian experts, too. Kristina is someone I've followed for a while — both on her site, MarketingSyrup.com, and on LinkedIn. If her new YouTube channel, SEO Follow, is anything like the content she puts out on her blog or LinkedIn, then it's going to be a must-watch.

John Lincoln

John owns an agency called Ignite Visibility. Every week he does a video roundup of all the latest digital marketing news, including SEO. John is the guy I listen to when I want to keep my finger on the pulse of what's going on. I know a lot, but if there's something I may have missed, John will let me know.

Sam Oh

The YouTube face of Ahrefs, one of my favorite SEO tools that has a blog too, Sam's videos are always full of great SEO tips and tutorials. Some of them are essentially meant to help you use their tool, but even so, his videos are filled with usable information and insights about SEO.

Chase Reiner

Another Local SEO expert YouTuber, Chase has a ton of how-to videos, including several paid courses. What I like the most with Chase is that sometimes he does SEO work, live on camera, and explains what and why he does it, as he does it. His blog is also filled with great content.

Craig Campbell

This Scotsman is always full of surprises. He does provide a lot of tips for SEO, and some of them are envelope-pushing. I don't ascribe to some of what he says, but I love his no-BS style, which is refreshing and insightful. He also does a lot of presentations with SEMrush, one of my favorite SEO Tools.

Andy Crestodina

The owner and founder of another successful digital marketing agency, Orbit Media, offers a newsletter, blog, and YouTube channel with tons of ideas on all things digital marketing. His SEO videos offer best practices and insights in a way that's easy to understand and implement.

Bruce Clay

Here's another expert whom I've been a follower of for many years. Bruce Clay, often known as the grandfather of SEO, publishes some of the best, easy-to-understand content in the world of SEO. More importantly, his articles often address “what to do when” questions, which I love.

Chris Dreyer

If there's anyone who's a perfect example of power positioning by dominating a niche, it's Chris. He's an SEO expert that specializes in personal injury lawyers. His YouTube channel offers great information that any professional can apply. His Rankings Podcast (one the same channel) is one I listen to as well.

Google Search Central

Of course, there's Google Search (formerly Webmaster) Central. John Mueller, the spokesperson for SEO over at Google, offers a ton of videos on SEO. But the interesting part is that many of his videos are Q&A sessions with a lot of SEO experts, some of who I've mentioned here.

Search Engine Land

This newsletter is a must-subscribe if you're an SEO expert or someone who wants to be on top of all things SEO. If there's any news, changes, or predictions in the world of SEO, this daily newsletter will let me know. It's one of the many newsletters I never skip on.

Search Engine Journal

If there are any must-have newsletters in the SEO world, Search Engine Journal is the biggest one. And by “biggest,” I mean by the amount of content they put out. They publish a lot of how-to tutorials, tips, and strategies that I often bookmark because they're so good.

SEMrush Live

I already mentioned the Ahrefs blog and YouTube channel. Similarly, SEMrush is another that has a blog as well as a YouTube channel. But their channel is often for livestreams, such as their recent “5 Hours of Technical SEO,” that feature many of the experts I already mentioned here.

The Moz Blog

Originally created by Rand Fishkin, one of the earliest experts in the world of SEO, Moz is an SEO tool much like its competitors SEMrush and Ahrefs. But Rand used to do his “Whiteboard Fridays,” which are now done by SEO guest experts since Rand left to focus on his new startup SparkToro.

Categories
SEO

How to Do an SEO Competitive Analysis

Yesterday, I completed several SEO audits. I really love doing them because they fire both sides of my brain: the analytical and artistic sides.

Some have said that it's the ADHD brain. Others, the marketer's brain. Either way, one client was specifically looking to get a leg up on its competitors who seem to be doing well organically. So I conducted an SEO competitive analysis.

I want to share it with you as it might be useful to you.

An SEO audit analyzes a number of factors to see if a website is properly optimized. It looks at a number of ranking signals, both internal and external, to help determine if the content is visible, relevant, and desirable.

There are three levels to my SEO audits:

  1. Behind the site (technical SEO)
  2. On the site itself (on-page SEO)
  3. Outside the site (off-page SEO)

I call them the “three Cs” of SEO audits: code, content, and conversation.

But to be more specific, here's a summary of each:

  1. Technical SEO looks at what's behind the site and includes any technical process meant to improve visibility. It reviews the site’s hosting, coding, speed, security, navigation, and user experience. In other words, it makes sure that Google can easily find, crawl, index, and use the content.
  2. On-page SEO looks at what's on the page and includes any internal signals meant to improve relevancy. It reviews the site's content and various page elements that support it (i.e., metadata, images, HTML, etc). It provides Google with enough information about the content to help it decide if it matches their users' queries.
  3. Off-page SEO looks at what's outside the site and includes any external signals meant to improve desirability. It reviews outside activities related to the website, such as conversations, brand mentions, and of course, backlinks. It helps Google to determine if the content is authoritative, valuable, and beneficial to searchers.

I'll save the audit process for another time, but one part of the audit looks at the content's performance, its competitors (and their performance), and any gaps that exist and can be capitalized on.

A gap analysis tries to reverse engineer a website’s competitive environment by scanning the topmost competitors in various SERPs (i.e., search engine result pages), and it identifies any opportunities for improvement, underexploited content ideas, and potential backlinks.

A scan looks at several things.

First, I look at what Google suggests are competitors. Also called “people also search for,” they are usually found after the first three results, at the bottom of the page, or under the site's Google My Business listing on the right.

While Google's machine-learning is getting more intelligent, it may still be wrong or misleading. For example, it provides a list of competitors based on other people's searches, and within my specific geographical area.

They may be alternatives to what Google thinks the searcher is looking for, and may not be true competitors. By “true competitors,” I don't mean competitors in the offline world. I mean those vying for the same traffic you want.

So to find true competitors, I identify companies by looking at:

  • Existing topics from my client's current website content;
  • Keywords Google suggests the site should aim for; and,
  • Actual queries people have used to find my client.

To accomplish this, I do a few things.

First, I use a few tools to help extract the information I need. I look at Google's keyword planning tool (from Google Ads), which suggests keywords for the site based on its existing content. I also use a few other keyword suggestion tools, such as UberSuggest and KeywordTool.

With Google Search Console, I identify what keywords people have used to find my client's website. I look at both the volume and the performance (i.e., how many impressions and how many clicks did a certain search query get).

Then, I put it all into a spreadsheet and review the list to see if it makes sense. Sometimes, some keywords are either too generic, have the wrong search intent, or are just wrong altogether. So I delete them.

Once I have a good list of keywords, I take the top 10 in terms of search volume (depending the size of the project, I try to stay around the top 10-20 keywords). Then, I use them to find competitors.

Please note that this is not keyword research. It's only meant to find true competitors. These keywords may not be worth ranking for, anyway.

Finally, using the queries I list, I look for the top 3-5 competitors that are:

  • Ranking the highest organically for the same queries;
  • Appearing in the local three-pack (Google Maps); and,
  • Buying Google Ads that appear under the same queries.

Once done, I list the URLs of my competitors and check them out. I want to know if they are viable competitors. Do they make sense? To do that, I check the site manually, and punch them into a site audit tool like SEM Rush.

In my spreadsheet and with each competitor, I add their estimated monthly traffic from SEM Rush (only organic traffic, not paid), number of keywords they are ranking for, number of backlinks, and domain authority score.

Competitors with little traffic and keywords, I dump. Those with comparable amounts of traffic or keywords to my client, I keep. And those that are higher, I highlight. I then sort the list from highest to lowest traffic numbers.

Next, I look at the top 10 competitors.

These are my true SEO competitors.

From that point, I do a number of analyses, such as a content gap analysis, a backlinks gap analysis, and a crawl of each individual competitor to look at their site architecture and anything the “pops out” at me.

What's a gap analysis? For backlinks, a tool like Ahrefs can tell me all the backlinks that point to my client's competitors that are not linking to my client.

Now, I'm a big believer in earning backlinks naturally, not doing outreach trying to convince others to link to me (or my clients). I know some SEO agencies do this and it's a major part of their practices. Some even do it in very tasteful ways.

But to me, it's still icky. I don't like it. It may also be influenced by my fear of rejection, but I always preferred earning backlinks than spamming people to get them to link to me. But I digress.

The point of doing a backlink gap analysis is to see if there are any industry or common links that can be easily acquired. For example, most of my client's competitors had backlinks from the BBB, industry associations, and vertical-specific business directories.

As for content gaps, I look at what keywords each of the competitors' are ranking for. This will offer many clues as to what content ideas and topics my client should tackle. But more importantly, a gap analysis looks at topics that competitors are ranking for that my client isn't.

Finally, I use Google itself to see what it thinks.

Backlinks are actual links, but brand mentions are implied links. So I'll type in the competitor's name into Google and see what comes up. I want to see what kinds of conversations people are having about my client's competitors.

I also peek at “related searches” at the bottom of the page, which are Google's predictive list of searches based on what people have also searched for. They may offer a few ideas and additional insights.

This is list is not exhaustive.

Conducting a competitive scan varies and may have some additional steps that I'm not listing here. It depends on the nature of the project.

For example, what if a client doesn't have a website yet? Or what if the client has topics they want to rank for but that their current website doesn't cover well? A keyword extraction tool or Google Search Console won't help in these cases.

Sometimes, I may start by conducting some keyword research before doing a competitive scan. Other times, I may get suggestions from my client or my client's clients, to push me in the right direction.

Hopefully, this has been helpful.

Categories
SEO

6 Important, Useful, and Free SEO Tools

When it comes to managing your SEO, there are hundreds if not thousands of free SEO tools out there. Many of them are free, many are not. Some of them are easy to use, others require a PhD-level education.

But it doesn't have to be that complicated.

If you want to know what you need for your website and to improve your SEO, it's not much. Here's a list of six must-haves and should-haves that I recommend.

1 – Google Analytics – Necessary

Of course, you need some kind of analytics. I prefer Google simply because Google is the largest search engine and it makes sense to use the same tools they use to track and measure certain SEO signals.

Plus, GA version 4.0 just launched, and I'm amazed by how many new features and functionalities are available. The additional insights were only previously available after considerable customizations and third-party tools. Now, it's much easier to measure user interactions.

If you currently use GA, you might want to upgrade now.

2 – Google Search Console – Necessary

To understand how your website is performing in Google (such as how many times your site came up in searches, was clicked on, under which keyword, and for which page), you need GSC. It's also a vital tool to learn about any issues Google finds on your website so you can address them.

Through GSC, you can submit sitemaps, track errors, fix penalties, and disavow toxic links among others. There's also Bing Webmaster Tools, but now they can easily pull in domain information from GSC.

3 – PageSpeed Insights – Necessary

One of the most important ranking factors is page speed. It also affects your conversions. Due to the preponderance of mobile device usage (and Google is now 100% mobile), load times are critical to SEO. PSI scores your page speed, and gives you a list of issues you need to fix or improve.

You also need to test every page, too. In fact, this week Google made it clear that one page can actually affect your entire site. In other words, your website's weakest link can hurt your overall rankings and not just that page. So if only one page is slow, Google might derank your fast pages, too.

4 – Google My Business – Important

You want to manage how your business appears in Google Search and Maps, and how people find you, call you, and discover your services. So claiming and optimizing your GMB profile is important for regular SEO and local SEO.

Also, remember that claiming your profile also creates a conduit between you and Google. So if any issues come up, such as responding to reviews and reporting fake reviews, your GMB account will help.

5 – Google Add-Ons – Optional

Although not entirely necessary, Google offers a variety of useful tools to help you in your efforts to increase your rankings and your traffic.

  • Google Tag Manager – GTM simply centralizes your external scripts from third-party tools, concatenates them, and makes them easier to load and manage. I manage all my analytics, conversion tracking, paid advertising tools, and more from one simple location.
  • Google Rich Results – Google often uses metadata either to understand what your page is about or for different types of search results — and not just links. This tool tests to see if your site is eligible for rich snippets and tells you what kinds it finds. Schema markup code is one of them.
  • Google Site Kit – I use WordPress. GSK adds all the necessary Google scripts and tools I need (including Google Analytics, Google Tag Manager, AdSense, Google PageSpeed Insights, etc) with a few clicks. Plus, you get a search funnel snapshot of each page, which will give you an overview of that page's performance — including traffic sources, search impressions, bounce rates, and top queries.

6 – Third-Party Technical Tools – Helpful

There are several tools that I use and highly recommend. One of them is Screaming Frog‘s SEO spider tool. With it, you can find crawl errors, broken links, 404 errors, bad redirects, duplicate content, missing tags, even spelling and grammar errors, and so much more.

This single tool can do a variety of things in one fell swoop, which saves me time and money. Also, by connecting it with your Google assets (GA, GSC, and PSI), it can do a deeper dive and offer better insights.

Of course, the above tools are not for SEO research. (If you want to know more, I've written about them here, here, here, and here.) But they are important if not essential to properly track, measure, and improve your SEO.

Do you have a preferred free SEO tool? Let me know what it is and why.

Categories
Copywriting

How I Broke Into Copywriting

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

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

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

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

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

Michel Fortin (1991)
Michel Fortin (1991)

Anyway, here is my story.

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

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

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

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

I remember that time like it was yesterday.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But then, things “clicked.”

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

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

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

So I moved on.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It reminded me of my experience at the insurance company.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And yes, that included copywriting, too.

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

Here's the problem.

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

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

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

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

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

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

(I was grinning with anticipation.)

“… An extra $3,000.”

I said, “Oh, $3,000 a month! Great!”

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

I was so disappointed. And angry.

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

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

So I quit the very next month.

It was the best decision I ever made.

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

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

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

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

My curiosity was piqued.

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

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

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

So I created my client's website in 1992.

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

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

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

The result? Nothing. Not a single request.

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

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

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

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

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

That's when things started moving very quickly.

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

And the rest, as they say, is history.

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

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

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

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

There you have it!

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

Categories
SEO

What Google Wants With Your Money or Your Life (YMYL)

As a professional, your content is your beacon. It’s your magnet. It’s what gets people to notice you; it gets them to learn more about you; and it gets them interested in you, in what you have to say, and in what you do.

But your content alone is not enough.

Google, in an attempt to curb spammers and dubious content, updated its database in August of 2018 with an algorithm that both awarded good content providers and penalized poor ones.

Called “EAT,” which is an acronym for Expertise, Authoritativeness, and Trustworthiness, the update focused on the three pillars upon which Google evaluates a piece of content, and the content's validity and veracity.

Also dubbed the “Medic Update,” because medical and health-related sites were the ones most affected, it also applied to anything related to your money or your life, also called “YMYL pages.”

Lots of acronyms, I know.

Basically, any page with content that could potentially negatively impact the quality of a person’s health, happiness, finances, or safety is targeted in the update. This includes content related to law, health, nutrition, finances, news, safety, jobs, shopping, fitness, and so on.

Obviously, professionals fall into that category.

Everything a professional does is related to YMYL in some way. Even when professionals are in B2B, it still applies, as people are still the ones making purchasing decisions and not businesses.

Professionals most affected are doctors and healthcare practitioners, but the update also affected dentists, chiropractors, accountants, financial advisors, lawyers, nutritionists, personal trainers, engineers, consultants, and so on.

In short, if you offer any advice that's meant to help people but also runs the risk of hurting them, too, your content is affected in some way.

With the rise of fake news and the manipulation of search results, it’s no wonder Google wants to deliver the best and most relevant content to its users. But it also wants to give them the most reliable results, too.

Results that users can trust.

Because, when you think about it, after someone gets bad advice or has a bad experience with a website they found on Google, the user will blame Google to some degree. Even if it's indirectly or unconsciously.

So what can you do to improve your content’s EAT?

Ultimately, Google wants websites filled with content. But it wants content written or reviewed by experts.

But how does Google evaluate expertness?

If you have published books and articles that are reviewed, particularly peer-reviewed, and if you have profiles and credentials on your website as well as other reliable websites, all these “signals” and more leave a digital footprint that Google uses to validate your expertise.

In fact, Google has published its guidelines, which are freely available.

It’s a long read, but there are some quick things you can do to optimize for YMYL. Here’s a partial list, which should give you some idea:

  • Make sure your content is clearly marked as written or reviewed by an expert, which is done through a variety of on-page signals:
    • “About the author” section at the bottom.
    • Author schema markup in the code.
    • Proper citations or links to references.
    • Supporting resources if necessary.
  • Have online profiles and bios of the content creator or site owner with demonstrable expertise:
    • Credentials (e.g., education, experience, certifications, awards, etc).
    • Other relevant published content on other trusted websites.
    • Expertise related exposure or work, such as speaking at conferences, guest lecturing, giving expert interviews, having media mentions, etc.
  • Make sure your content is factually accurate, and run it by Google, too.
  • Add plenty of data that support and backup your claims, and make sure that the data comes from reputable and trusted sources, too.
  • Add case studies, testimonials, and valid social proof, such as seals of approval, third-party validators (e.g., security seals), and certifications.
  • Obtain and collect reviews, ratings, and recommendations from reputable sites that validate your content and/or your website.
  • Make sure your NAP (i.e., name, address, and phone) are indicated on the website, in the schema markup, and on directory and business listings to demonstrate that you are a real business with a real location.
  • Finally, avoid offering any advice in which you have no expertise, or citing or linking to advice from poor sources; doing so will harm the EAT of the website as a whole, even if other content is valid.

Remember, this is just a partial list. There are plenty of other things you can do.

What’s important is to ensure EAT is applied across the entire website, and not just on content pieces or YMYL pages. Because search engines will evaluate your content not only by itself but also according to the website as a whole.

Categories
Copywriting

Risk-Reversal’s Role Reversal

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The greater portion of my career has been in copywriting, selling, and direct marketing. And one of the common denominators I've found in any successful piece of copy is the power of risk reversal.

That is, taking more of a risk from the sale than the purchaser of your product.

Risk reversal is a powerful method to increase sales by easing the buying decision and allaying fears consumers might have.

When people are considering an offer, and if the offer is “too good to be true,” they will invariably seek out more secure means to benefit from it. Otherwise, they will have a tendency to think, “What's the catch?”

The greater the guarantee, the greater the sales. This has been consistent in almost every industry in which I've worked, and with every split-test I've conducted.

For example, a 30-day guarantee will outsell no guarantee. A 90-day guarantee will outsell a 30-day one. And so on and so forth.

However, there are some exceptions to this rule.

Sometimes, shorter or more creative guarantees can outperform longer ones.

Why? Perhaps this is because, in a promise-filled industry oversaturated with, and burned by, over-the-top hype, long, unrealistic guarantees make the offer suspect.

People might be left scratching their heads wondering if the guarantee is an attempt to pull the wool over their eyes.

Guarantees that are too strong (like one or even multiple years, lifetime, etc) can unconsciously convey that the product is so poor that either the purchaser will forget about the promise during the guarantee's extended lifespan, or the seller is trying to build perceived value in areas other than the product itself to make up for the lack.

But length doesn't always mean strength.

In other words, the strength of a guarantee is not limited to its timeframe.

Creative guarantees work extremely well, especially in an industry where people encounter typical money-back guarantees. These include guarantees that don't necessarily have anything to do with refunds or money. By being different, a unique guarantee can provide a powerful twist to an offer.

Notwithstanding the legal requirements to offer a money-back guarantee, think of guarantees that include gifts, discounts, credits, vouchers, etc.

For example, just recently a friend of mine launched an intensive and pricey classroom-style training program, but with a very interesting angle. Whether you succeed or not, or whether you like the program or not, you get your money back.

It sold out in just a few hours.

Ultimately, guarantees exist because we fear making bad decisions.

And a purchase is a buying decision.

But remember that a guarantee's job is not to remove fear. Not in a direct sense. It's to increase the customer's confidence that the product will do as promised.

In fact, in an article titled “The Great Customer Service Hoax,” the author, Belinda (who is also a copywriter), said it perfectly. “The simple truth about customer satisfaction,” the author writes, is this:

You might think that to maintain awesome levels of customer satisfaction you need to have outstanding products and services, diligent processes and reports and excellently trained staff who know when to make a decision that’s right for the customers. Well, you do need those things but the truth about consistently good customer satisfaction is much simpler.

Customers are satisfied when you met their expectations.

Guarantees help to communicate this important promise. A guarantee communicates not only that the product has value (e.g., “it's so good, I guarantee it!”), but also that the product will meet their expectations.

A guarantee encourages sales and profits. (Sales is self-explanatory. But profits? Yes! Guarantees can also decrease refunds. I'll come back to this in a moment.)

So objectively, add a guarantee that's easy, strong, and reasonable (that is, it's not far-fetched). If it has the appearance of being too long or unbelievable, either reduce it or add copy to justify your attempt.

Just like the power of “reasons-why” advertising, don't forget to back it up. Provide a logical, commonsensical explanation behind your guarantee to justify why it's so strong. The more you do, the more believable your guarantee will be. Otherwise, an overzealous guarantee will make it questionable.

(For example, with a “lifetime guarantee,” people will often ask, “Whose lifetime?”)

But in the majority of cases, if you failt to offer a guarantee let alone a strong one, you're losing a great percentage of potential sales.

In addition to communicating value of and confidence in a product, a guarantee can also become a powerful positioning tool.

Take for instance the story of the Monaghan brothers. The two ran a small business in order to pay their way through college. While one worked the day shift in order to attend school at night, the other did the converse.

After about a year in the money-losing venture, one of the brothers sold his share of the business for a beat-up old car. The other, however, with a good dose of stick-to-it-iveness, decided to make something of his fledgling pizzeria.

According to some interviews he recently gave, Tom Monaghan said that, at the time, he wasn't quite sure that his decision to put a guarantee on his pizza delivery would change much. But obviously, history tells us that his decision was a good one.

By simply marketing the strength of a guarantee (i.e., “Pizza delivered fresh in 30 minutes or it's free”), Domino's Pizza became the multimillion-dollar franchise operation we know today.

Online, strong guarantees are more than just sales tools.

The Internet has opened many doors, including those to many unscrupulous entrepreneurs. Scams and snake oils are rampant online. Millions (if not billions) of dollars are lost to these scamsters each month.

The Internet is rife with fraudulent offers, phishing attempts, and shoddy products. Even laws and anti-scam tools won't stop crafty entrepreneurs who are determined to bypass the systems to scam the unsuspecting.

So people are understandably leery, skeptical, distrusting, and cautious.

Obviously, the use of testimonials, demos and tours, statistics, laboratory tests, clinical trials, case studies, free trials and samples, real pictures of the product in question, and so on are all incredibly important.

But in addition to these methods and elements of proof you can and should add to your copy, strong and creative guarantees are equally powerful proof elements and probably some of the most underutilized.

Why? Mostly because business owners are leery themselves of adding, extending, or creating guarantees because they fear the onslaught of losses from returns.

If the product is mediocre, then this fear is sadly justified. But most products are good. (Granted, there are just as many fraudulent consumers out there as there are scams. Businesses fear them equally as consumers fear buying from fraudsters.)

But generally, guarantees will increase sales.

Chris Ayers, former publisher of Unlimited Traffic!, gives an astonishing real-life example. Writes Ayers:

“One of my first direct mail products years ago was a self-study program. When I first offered the program in a magazine, my sales weren't even enough to cover the cost of the ad. I changed my ad and sales letter to include a guarantee. The number of responses to the same ad increased by a factor of 20 and my conversion rate from my sales letter rose from 10% to almost 40%.”

Remember that adding a guarantee might increase returns and refunds. But try it and do the math. In some cases, a small increase in refunds might be greatly overshadowed by a disproportionately larger increase in sales.

For example, in one test I've conducted with a consulting client, we raised the guarantee from a 30-day guarantee to a 6-month, double guarantee.

(The “double” included a 100%-money-back guarantee within six months, and a double-your-money-back within the first 30 days.)

The result? During the test, there were no refunds within the initial 30 days. But refunds within the first six months increased from about 4% to 6.5%.

Of course, that's significant.

But look at the increase in sales…

Sales conversion went from a little less than 3% to 7%. Mathematically, it means refunds increased by 62.5%, while sales increased by over 133% (i.e., twice as many more sales as the increase in refunds).

The lesson is this: while a guarantee might increase refunds, the increase will be negligible when contrasted by the more significant increase in sales.

This is true in the majority of cases. But in other cases, net profits can increase quite substantially. Even more than the norm.

Why? Because, unbeknownst to many marketers, one of the most important benefits of using a guarantee is the fact that it can actually reduce returns.

If you have a professionally-looking website, an ethical sales approach, and a proven product or service, the lack of a strong guarantee will still, particularly on the Internet, cause most prospects to perceive your offer as questionable in the very least.

But adding a guarantee — particularly a strong one — not only increases sales because it removes the risk from the buyer's mind, but it also increases perceived value and therefore overall confidence in the product and the seller as well.

Guarantees also grant you an almost instant credibility with potential customers.

And finally, strong guarantees also help to raise tolerance levels.

Customers are more apt to ignore or even accept a few flaws, thereby reducing the need to return the product at the slightest imperfection.

This is because they feel they are in good hands, whether they know this experientially or not. The confidence level that the guarantee created acts as some sort of psychic security net.

In other words, a guarantee not only reduces the skepticism around a purchase, but also contributes to what psychologists refer to as “The Halo Effect.”

Ultimately, add a strong guarantee to your offer. But don't stop with just at increasing its timeframe. Be creative with your guarantee.

Think about multiple-money-back guarantees, add-on guarantees, gift certificates, credit or discount vouchers, the ability to keep bonuses if they return the main product, keeping the product even if they ask for their money back, etc.

Bottom line, guarantees will increase sales. The stronger the guarantee is, the larger the increase will be.

Categories
Copywriting

New To Copywriting? Start Here…

As part of my coaching program, students can ask me unlimited questions via email. One common question I seem to get is, “I'm new to copywriting, where do I start?”

Since my coaching students also get access to any of my digital programs, they also get access to my private website, where I share over 50 hours of salesletter and copy critiques, recorded on video. It's a great start.

But one student said something that struck me:

“I learn better by doing than by watching. Is there anything you can recommend?”

Great question. Some people are more visual (they learn better by watching), some are more aural or auditory (by hearing), others are more kinesthetic (by doing or feeling). And I also thought it would be a great question to cover on my blog. So, here goes…

#1: Courses

If you want some basic guidance to get you started, there's a course I recommend, which is really popular and pretty well-rounded. It's theSix-Figure Copywriting course by the American Writers And Artists Institute (AWAI). I own a copy myself, and it's pretty good.

It's a great primer if you're just starting out and want to learn the fundamentals of writing good copy. There are some advanced topics, but I like it more for its basic training.

The reason I also recommend it is, for those kinesthetic students who prefer to do the work, which I applaud, the AWAI course offers assignments with the curriculum. And you get graded on those, too, and they give you feedback along the way.

(I've never handed in any work myself, so I'm not exactly sure how the process is done. But even with just buying the course, I've pulled a few gems and used them.)

One course I've co-authored and recommend is The Copywriting Success System with Ken Calhoun. This course offers training from basic to advanced, including understanding the writing process, formulas, and using tools to boost your chops.

In it, I also offer my formulas I recommend and personally use, such as my OATH formula (for determining the stage of awareness of your market), QUEST formula (the proper structure of a salesletter), FAB formula, the storytelling process, and more.

Finally, here's a product I intimately know and highly recommend.

Daniel Levis is not only an amazing copywriter himself, but he also created a product that packages brilliant interviews with some of the best copywriters on the planet. He grills top names in the business — some of whom have never given interviews before.

Those interviews are worth the price of admission.

#2: Websites

Next, check out this blog and look on the right for “most popular posts.” It contains links to some of the most viewed articles, which I recommend for someone learning the ropes — including some of the formulas I talk about in my copywriting course above.

Another fantastic resource is Brian Clark, a lawyer-turned-copywriter who has some of the best copywriting articles online. His blog, CopyBlogger, offers an entire section called Copywriting 101, which contains articles I recommend to anyone just starting out.

I'm sure you also know about Gary Halbert's repository of articles. There are tons of great stuff in there. Don't forget my interviews with the late Gary Halbert on this blog.

There are many other sources, too. There are tons of copywriting blogs out there. Or ask other copywriters in popular forums. There are also copywriting forums, too.

But the very best learning process I've found, particularly for kinesthetics (and visuals alike), is to take a successful salesletter and write it out, word for word, by hand. This is by far the best way to learn because it enables you to internalize the information.

There are tons of copywriting newsletters out there, too. One I particularly love is John Forde's Copywriters Rountable, of which I've been a subscriber for years. Some of these blogs and newsletters offer swipe files or examples you can easily copy by hand.

Another great way to get your hands on some of the best salesletters out there is to visit Clickbank's Marketplace. Just click on the “Marketplace” link at the top of the page.

Look at some of the most popular items being sold. But don't stop there. Check out the listings in your preferred category (I tend to check the “Marketing and Ads” section).

With each product they list, which are listed in order of rank (by sales and popularity), you get the actually sales copy link, with a number of useful stats to gauge how good the salesletter is — such as payouts, percentages, gravity score, and more.

Reason is, you want to do this exercise with only salesletters that are proven to sell.

#3: Books

Finally, let's not forgot some of the most popular books on copywriting. Many of these are timeless classics, which all copywriters should have in their library. I certainly do.

There are quite a few of them. So rather than list them all here, let me share with you my top favorite ones. (I own a copy of all of these. And my copies are note-filled, dog-eared and heavily used. For good reason. So I highly recommend them.)

Hopefully, these resources will get you started and point you in the right direction.

Categories
Copywriting

Write Magnetic Headlines With These 7 Tips

I covered headlines many times already. You can find posts about headlines here. But here are some additional tips.

There are two huge mistakes people make when they write headlines. Either they are too bland and don't say enough (such as when they attempt to simply summarize), or they say too much to cover all the bases.

In both cases, you will lose readers.

1. The True Purpose of The Headline

The headline is more than a mere summary of the sales copy. Unlike the title of a book, for instance, it's not meant to summarize, encapsulate, or introduce the story. And most headlines I've seen seem to list all the of the greatest benefits from the copy.

No. A headline is meant to generate readership and pull people into the copy.

It's the first thing that people see. Just like front-page headlines of a newspaper are meant to sell the paper, the copy's headline is meant to sell people on the copy.

If a headline does not instantly give an indication — i.e., an idea or hint, not the entire story — of not only what the page is all about but also the reasons why people should read further the moment they read it, it will actually deter prospects.

In fact, headlines that do not communicate any benefit in reading the next paragraph, diving into the content, or navigating further into the website will dissuade readers from reading more and, of course, taking action on whatever the copy is asking them to do.

So the true purpose of a headline is not to summarize or advertise the website, the salesletter, or the business behind it. It's simply to get people to read further. That's it.

In advertising parlance, a headline is the “ad for the ad.” For instance, a resume is not meant to land a job but to land an interview. A headline is, in the same way, meant to land the reader's attention and arouse their curiosity — not the sale.

If a headline does not achieve this quickly, efficiently, and effectively, people will simply click away, throw away the salesletter, or skim over it without giving it much thought.

You may have heard of the famous “AIDA Formula,” which stands for, in order: Attention, Interest, Desire, and Action. Ads must follow this formula in order to be successful.

They must first capture the reader's attention, then arouse their interest, then increase their desire, and finally lead them to take some kind of action. In that order.

Other than “grabbers” like photos, pictures, graphics, pop-ups, liftnotes, and multimedia, the first part of the formula often refers to the headline.

(Look at direct mail marketing, where liftnotes, envelope copy, and “lumpy mail,” where advertisers and mailers add trinkets to grab people's attention and get them curious.)

But online or off, grabbers provide eye gravity. They are meant to draw the eyes to that most important element: the headline. If the headline does not command enough attention both effectively and, above all, rapidly, then the rest of the formula will fail…

… No matter how great your copy is.

Ultimately, the headline is not meant to do anything other than to create readership. To “grab people by the eyeballs” and pull them into the copy. Period. Enough said.

2. The Gapper

Usually, there is a gap between the prospect's problem and its solution — or a gap between where a person happens to be at the moment and the future enjoyment of a product's benefits. In sales, you've probably heard it being called “gap analysis.”

It works because many prospects either do not know there is in fact a gap or, because it is one, try to ignore it as a result. Therefore, a headline that either communicates the presence of such a gap or implies it can cause people to want to close the gap.

And the obvious way to do this is to read further.

Using a headline that immediately conveys either a problem or a potential benefit not only makes the reader aware that there is a gap but also reinforces it in the mind.

(And this doesn't mean writing all the benefits in the headline to cover all the bases, as in the case of long, needlessly wordy headlines. Those long headlines often backfire.)

Some headlines are newsy, others are sensational. Some make claims, others make statements. Some arouse curiosity, others provoke controversy. Some are intriguing, others are inspiring. Either way, it doesn't matter.

All that matters is that the headline gets the reader to start reading. And if you created, communicated, or, better yet, widened the gap mentioned earlier, then after reading the headline readers will want to know, by browsing further, how they can close that gap.

Widening the gap will not only appeal to those who can immediately relate to it but also cause those people to want to close the gap even more.

Famous sales trainer Zig Ziglar said that people buy on emotional logic. They buy on emotion first but justify their decision with logic. So emotionally-charged headlines help to widen gaps. The wider the gap is, the greater the desire to close it will be.

For instance, rather than saying “Lose 40 Pounds In Just 6 Weeks,” you can say, “Shed 40 Pounds Of Stubborn, Ugly Fat In Just 6 Weeks.” Or, if you prefer a health-conscious angle, say “killer fat,” “unhealthy fat,” “disease-causing fat,” or “life-shortening fat.”

3. The Pain-Pleasure Principle

While your copy should focus on the solution rather than the problem, adding a negative (or a potentially negative) situation to the headline is often more effective because it appeals to stronger, deeper, more dominant emotions and motives.

Granted, this might seem somewhat unusual or contrary to what you have learned in the past. So in order to understand this, let's take a look at how human emotions work.

In the late 1960s, psychologist Abraham Maslow developed the hierarchical theory of human needs. In essence, Maslow stated that the foundation of all human needs is our need to survive. The next one in that hierarchy is our need for safety and security.

After that, it's the need for affection, to be loved, to feel a sense of belonging. Then, the need for attention, or to feel valuable or respected, is next. And finally is our need to outdo ourselves, to get to the next level, to achieve, to be all that we can be, etc.

The important thing is to look at this hierarchy from the bottom up and pay closer attention to the more fundamental human needs, which are survival and safety needs.

Now, another principle is called the “pain-pleasure principle.” It states that people want to either avoid pain or gain pleasure. In anything we do, we want to either move away from pain (i.e., solve a problem) or strive towards pleasure (i.e., gain an advantage).

But when given the choice between the two, which one is stronger? Naturally, the avoidance of pain is the stronger motive, because our need to survive and be safe takes over. The emotions attached to pain are far superior than those attached to pleasure.

So a headline that communicates a problem (i.e., a painful situation they feel right now, or a potentially painful one that could arise without the benefits you offer or without at least reading the copy) will have more emotional impact than a pleasurable one.

It also instantly communicates to those who associate to its message and qualifies them on the spot. Thus, it isolates the serious prospect from the curious visitor.

For example, when I work with plastic surgeons, rather than saying “Do you have wrinkles?” I tell them to use as a headline, “Suffering from wrinkles?” Prospective patients who can instantly relate to the headline will more than likely read the ad further.

They do so for two reasons.

First, the headline appeals to those who have wrinkles. But not all people are bothered by them. That's why the headline also appeals to those who hate wrinkles (i.e., people who have them and also want to do something about them).

Therefore, think of a negative situation that is now present, or one that will occur without your product or service. Even better, one that will happen if they don't read your copy.

Now, sometimes this pain can be implied. The implication can often be a lot stronger than the one specified, because readers can draw up their own negative scenarios in their heads. As a mentor once told me, “Implication is more powerful than specification.”

For example, in a recent headline split-test for a salesletter I wrote that promoted a marriage counseling information product, the headline “Save My Marriage!” won over “Stop My Divorce!” In fact, it won by a huge margin. The conclusion?

My guess is, “Stop My Divorce” is a negative, but it's specific. And the implication is that the product may only stop the divorce but may not necessarily get the relationship back on track and stop the marriage from disintegrating — which is the true problem.

“Save My Marriage!” implies so many things. And the positive benefit is also implied — the marriage (i.e., the love, passion, relationship, happiness, etc) can also be saved. Because not saving those, too, can be labor-intense, painful, and too difficult to bear.

(Another reason may be that in “Stop My Divorce!” the message might indicate that the divorce is imminent. If this was the case, people would probably be more interested in how to win in a divorce rather than stopping it. But I digress.)

4. The Director

Incidentally, the last headline uses another readership-enhancing technique: it starts with a verb. Verbs direct visitors and take them by the hand. Some examples include “claim,” “discover,” “find,” “get,” “read,” “see,” “earn,” “visit,” “surf,” “join,” “sign up,” etc.

But go a step beyond that. Instead of plain verbs, use action words that paint vivid pictures in the mind. The more vivid the picture is, the more compelling the headline will be. (For example, “zoom past the confusion” is better than “get more clarity.”)

Ultimately, don't let visitors guess what they must do or what they will get from reading further. You can also tell them in the headline. Also, you don't need to be direct. You can, in this case as well, imply what they must do.

Say you're selling an accounting software. Rather than “Poor fiscal management leads to financial woes,” say, “Don't let poor fiscal management suck money right from your bottom-line.” People can picture the action of “sucking” more than they do “leading.”

Headlines that communicate something worth reading will cause people to read further. But the important thing to remember is, you only have a few seconds — if not a fraction of one — to connect with you reader. That's why being pithy is vitally important.

Think of an “elevator speech.”

Like with a potential client you've just met in an elevator, you only have a few seconds during that short elevator ride to get their attention, introduce yourself, and make a memorable impact until you or the other person leaves the elevator.

So your elevator speech must be good enough and concise enough to capture, in just a few short moments, the attention and interest of that person. Headlines are no different.

Sometimes, headlines need a little push. Just making a bland statement is not going to get you anywhere. For example, forget those hackneyed introductions, like “Hi, my name is Michel Fortin, and I'm a copywriter. Do you need one?” Boring. Bland. Busted.

Don't just tell them who you are and what you do. Tell them what you can do for them.

But even that may not be enough. You need to compel your readers. You need to not only capture their attention but also keep it. You may need to shock, surprise, be intriguing, pique their curiosity, even be sensational, and not just introduce or inform.

For example, think of the types of headlines you see in tabloid-style newspapers or grocery-line magazines, like The National Enquirer, The Globe, Cosmopolitan, Vanity Fair, Men's Health, and more. And the reason is simple.

Just like the short elevator ride, the brief wait in the grocery checkout line is all these magazines have to work with to get your attention and get you to buy their publication.

Some of the highest paid writers in the world are front-page headline copyeditors!

For example, which headline is better: “Ancient Mediterranean Diet Boosts Metabolism”? Or a headline, riding on the buzz created by the recent movie “300,” that says “2,000-Year Old Weightloss Diet Used By Ancient Greek Warriors Finally Unearthed”?

5. The Ziegarnik Effect

In 1927, Bluma Zeigarnik, a Russian psychologist's assistant and one of the early contributors to Gestalt Psychology, discovered something peculiar. Almost by accident. She found that people remember unfinished tasks better than they do finished ones.

After observing waiters who seemed to remember orders and forget them once the food was served, she realized the incomplete task created a certain tension, discomfort, or uneasiness that caused the brain to “hook” onto the unfinished task until it was done.

You see, we have an intrinsic need for closure.

We get a certain feeling of disconcertedness when something is left unfinished. Often called the “Zeigarnik Effect,” we not only remember interrupted tasks best but also the tension tends to create curiosity to an almost excruciating level.

Achieving closure is part relief and part release. When something is left unanswered, unopened, or incomplete, we either passionately attempt to complete or close it, or feel a certain discomfort until it is and often go to great lengths to get it done.

In copywriting particularly, this tension can be created in a headline.

For example, to the headline “How to lose 30 pounds in 6 weeks,” you add “with these 7 tips,” it will push people to read further to find out what the heck those “7 tips” are.

(That's why the headline of one of the world's most lucrative ads, “Do You Makes These Mistakes In English?” worked so well. People wanted to know, “What mistakes?”)

With a headline like “Inside Britney Spears' Divorce Settlement With Kevin Federline,” it doesn't really open up anything. But with “Uncover The Shocking Reason Behind Britney Spears' Divorce,” people want to know, “what secret” or “what's so shocking about it?”

In fact, making some kind of sensational, controversial, or intriguing statement, even though it doesn't open anything up in a direct sense, creates tension because people want to know what it is. (The “gap” mentioned earlier, in this particular case, is implied.)

Take, for instance, some of these other, well-known headlines: “Lies, Lies, Lies.” “The Ugly Truth About Low-Carb Dieting.” Or, “What Doctors Don't Want You To Know.”

(Here's a little test: take a look at these 100 of the most successful headlines, and see how many use the Zeigarnik effect. I think you'll be pleasantly surprised.)

6. The Window Shopper

Erroneously, many people often look at their prospects reading their salesletters for the first time as qualified patrons. And they tend to do so by considering their visitors as being “physically” inside the store once they read the front page…

… Particularly with headlines that begin with that familiar word: “welcome.”

(While they may or may not be targeted, they're still not qualified. They may be pre-qualified if they're targeted. But they're only window shoppers at this point.)

Have you ever walked by a retail store whose sign in the main window said “welcome to [store name]”? Not likely. But you've probably seen such a sign upon entering a store.

And there's the problem: In both cases, you had to walk inside the store first before you were greeted or welcomed, and asked to browse further or if you needed any help.

When people read your headline, they're not “inside the store,” yet. They're still outside, window shopping, thinking about whether to go in or not. So there must be something that gets them interested in walking into the store to browse or inquire further.

It could be a variety of things.

It could be the display in the window, an outdoor sign touting some special, a banner announcing a special event, a sales flyer received in the mail, or a friend heralding the benefits from a product she bought at — or some deal she received from — the store.

Salesletters are no different. A headline is like the store's front window or entrance — people are not inside yet. And this is especially true in the case of online salesletters.

Look at the web as one, colossal shopping mall.

When people surf the Internet, they're browsing the mall, so to speak. When they hit your front page, they are only seeing the “outside” of your store. Your store's window.

Think of the people reading your headline as merely “window shopping.” So your headline must be effective and efficient enough to instantly capture their attention, and compel them to enter your store and browse further.

Understandably, a salesperson's ability to instantly capture the attention of her busy and incredibly preoccupied prospect is easier in the physical realm.

Most of all, her enthusiasm for, and belief in, her product are easy to convey in person. Her ability to instill confidence and create trust, as well as her unique set of sales and people skills, product knowledge, personality and expertise, are equally advantageous.

A salesletter is your salesperson in print.

And like a salesperson, a headline must grab the reader's attention and qualify the reader, and it must do so by communicating those ideas (e.g., credibility, intrigue, proof, etc) and emotions that empower people to at least enter the store.

The responsibility therefore rests almost entirely on the words you choose. And words should appeal directly or indirectly to specific motives — whether it's looking for specific products, deals, benefits, events, relief, help, cures, or solutions.

Just like what you'd put in a store's window to draw traffic inside your store.

7. The Specific

One last tip. Vagueness, unless it is intended to create curiosity and readership by pulling people into the copy, will only confuse people. Avoid it like the plague.

So try to be as specific as possible. Use very specific, quantifiable descriptions. For instance, use odd, non-rounded numbers instead of generalizations. Odd, non-rounded numbers are more credible and have pulled more than even or rounded numbers.

That's why, for example, Ivory soap was marketed as being 99 and 44/100% pure. If Ivory said 100%, it would not have been as believable. “Amazing new system helped me earn $3,956.75 in 29 days!” is much more credible than “$4,000 in 1 month!”

This tip may sound simple, but it is indeed very powerful. In fact, I have found that the best claims, benefits, or headlines, are those that have any one of three components:

  1. They are quantifiable
  2. They are measurable
  3. They are time-bound

Any one of these three is better than none at all. But if you can have two or even all three components in your headline, the stronger and more credible the impact will be.

I've covered “quantifiable.” But being measurable means to add a baseline against which the quantity can be compared or contrasted. And being time-bound means there is a specific timeframe within which the quantity (or benefit, problem, or idea) was achieved.

For instance, if I can show you how to make “$784.22,” it may mean nothing. But if I tell you, “How I generated $784.22 in just 5 minutes,” that would be a lot more interesting.

In conclusion, ask yourself: does the opening statement beg for attention? Does it arouse curiosity? Is the language easy to understand by that market? And does it genuinely reflect and cater to the needs, motives, and dominant emotions of my market?

Remember, your headline is your magnet. It can pull people in or push them away.