Of Copywriters, Copywriting and Disillusionment
I’ve been a paid copywriter for eight years.
Four as an employee and four as an independent creative contractor (or freelancer, if you prefer).
I read a lot. And I pay attention a lot.
I notice patterns.
I’m also a student of history. So any time I can get my grubby mitts on a book that gives me insight to something — whether it was the creation of Disneyland or the beginning of direct response marketing — I’m all over it.
What I’m about to share is said with the deepest care and concern for all of my fellow copywriters and those who hope to actually make a living as a “creative.”
Stop chasing the gurus and measuring your worth by whether they confer status upon you or not.
I understand that validation and confirmation is important. Everyone struggles with knowing if the direction they’re going is right or not.
Once we decide on a particular direction, then we look for people who will validate our decision.
In research, this is called confirmation bias.
It happens when you judge responses that confirm your choice as relevant and reliable, while dismissing evidence that doesn’t support your decision.
Confirmation bias is rooted in the natural tendency you have to understand and filter information, which often leads to focusing on one logical statement at a time.
To minimize confirmation bias, you must continually reevaluate your first set of impressions and challenge preexisting assumptions and hypotheses.
I’ll give you a personal example.
My First Date with Copywriting Confirmation Bias
When I first began my freelance writing career in 2012, I attended a copywriting conference that included a job fair.
I had already committed myself to pursuing copywriting as a livelihood. And because I ‘ve been a writer most of my life, I assumed I would do well with the job fair. After all, the conference brochure told me how many marketers would be there, eager to find new talent.
The marketing materials for the conference did a great job building up anticipation. I was very excited about the prospect of meeting these marketers and discovering how I could help them.
I remember how I carefully dressed for that job fair. I also had printed out copies of my resume and one sample of my writing — a nicely formatted case study.
The conference attendees received special instructions if this was their first time at the job fair. I couldn’t wait to get inside the room and start making connections.
The doors opened… and suddenly hundreds of copywriters descended upon the marketing booths. The volume in that room turned into the dull roar of a crowd at some sporting event.
The energy level was high. You could almost taste the expectations of those who had traveled hundreds of miles to be there, myself included.
Although I left the job fair without any closed deals, I still was optimistic.
I dutifully followed up by submitting spec assignments to various companies.
And then I waited to hear back from them.
And waited. Until I finally accepted the fact that no project work would be coming my way.
Not only did that happen in 2012. It happened again in 2013 and 2014.
Sometimes confirmation bias dies hard.
My Wild Affair With Copywriting Confirmation Bias
Here are a few of the assumptions I made with the job fair:
1. Getting clients for copywriting projects would be easy.
2. My background as a writer would ensure quick assignments.
3. Because I was told there was such a demand for copywriters, I thought I couldn’t fail.
It is important to note that the organization putting on the conference succeeded with their marketing. They definitely made the prospect of becoming a well-paid copywriter not only achievable, but essentially inevitable if you put in the effort to attend the event and network with the marketers.
Except it didn’t happen.
And it didn’t just “not happen” for me, but for many other aspiring copywriters. I discovered this because I research and analyze almost everything in my life (much to the chagrin of my husband). So in 2014, I started to ask questions.
I asked other copywriters about their success with the job fair and found that the large majority of them never had received any work from it.
I met a wonderful guy at the conference who asked if we could be “accountability partners” and have phone calls after the event. He also had met a couple other women and we formed our own “Circle of Support.”
And I discovered something amazing. In our small group of four people, two had their spec assignments chosen by marketers and were given a project.
But these projects were “one and done.” There was no repeat work. And for one copywriter, the company’s internal leadership fell apart before he was able to write anything for them.
Another semi-famous person also shared with me that although she had won the spec assignment for Boardroom (think “Coca-Cola” level in the direct marketing world), it never led to more work.
This despite her diligent follow-up after the project was finished.
My interest in continuing the affair with ‘confirmation bias’ quickly waned.
The Mad Pursuit for Confirmation Bias
Over the years, I’ve bought my share of programs, books, and audio lessons — all to help me grow as a copywriter.
Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not knocking professional development. If you want to advance your career in any field, you need to constantly learn and develop new skills.
However, I briefly got caught up with chasing the gurus. And in copywriting, there’s a term for those taken under the wing of an accomplished copywriter.
It’s called being a “copy cub.” This is when a copywriter is mentored by one of the “A-list copywriters.” They also critique your copy so you can improve.
As you can imagine, the competition is fierce to get on the radar of one of those A-list copywriters. And most of them have packaged this opportunity as a coaching service with a hefty price tag. I can’t blame them. It’s a great way to capitalize on one’s skill set.
However, it seemed as though the majority of my time was taken by chasing the latest copywriting product or group coaching program. There is a constant FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) element attached to the marketing of these products.
And many well-intentioned copywriters fall for it.
Because when you’re “working on your craft,” it distracts you from why you got into this whole self-employed thing in the first place.
To make money.
And you don’t make money staring at your computer screen, listening to webinars all day.
You don’t make money trying to capture the attention of the “Guru of the Week.”
You don’t make money when you’re focused on whether the “cool Internet marketers” know your name because you’re constantly posting in an online community message board.
You make money when you simply do one thing.
You find potential buyers for your products and services and you get hired.
Why Am I Doing This?
One day I woke up and realized that my main objective to building my own copywriting business was to help smaller businesses get better results with their marketing.
They don’t care who I know.
They don’t care what kind of classic copywriting books I’ve read.
They don’t care if an “A-list copywriter” mentored me — or not.
All they care about is if I can solve their problem. And there are a LOT of problems out there.
I visit hundreds of websites in a month, both as a professional copywriter (doing research) and for personal interest (I can’t help but notice if a website is getting it right or not).
I constantly see areas for improvement.
It’s taken me years to realize that handcuffing around 50% — 60% of my time and energy to reading posts on copywriting forums, watching webinars and following the latest insight from an expert copywriter really wasn’t the best use of my time if I was serious about helping businesses grow.
The other aspect of copywriting is this: yes, there are a lot of programs out there that will help you understand the principles of copywriting. But few teach you how to sell your services and get clients.
I have seen other copywriters fall into this trap — the constant pursuit of knowledge at the expense of getting real-life experience.
Because after doing this for four years, I will tell you that I’ve learned things I never learned from the programs and books, simply by working with clients.
I’ve gained insights that have helped me market my business more effectively. I’ve learned processes that streamlined content creation. And I’ve learned how to avoid those who don’t value my services or time.
The key is asking specific questions — and then listening.
Intentionally listen to people, whether they’re clients, prospects, or even your professional associates. They will give you key information — information you can turn into strategies for your success.
How Did the Copywriting Legends Become a Big Deal?
Whenever I see a bunch of new copywriters chase the latest “hot” product by an expert, I think about the copywriting legends.
Claude C. Hopkins. John Caples. David Ogilvy. Clyde Bedell. Eugene Schwartz. And newer legends like Clayton Makepeace, Gary Bencivenga, David Deutsch, Jim Punkre, Bill Jayme, Mel Martin, Jim Rutz, Arthur Johnson, Parris Lampropoulos, Lorrie Morgan, Carline Anglade-Cole, and many more.
If you’re a copywriter reading this — and ESPECIALLY if you’re a new copywriter — I’d like you to listen carefully to what I’m about to say.
The older copywriter legends made their mark BEFORE the Internet came along. They invested their efforts into developing direct response copywriting strategies that got results. Measurable results.
If you send out 100,000 pieces of mail per month and receive a 5% response, that’s significant. But not all those copywriting promotions received that kind of a response. It was (and still is) an experiment.
The point is — these men took risks. They studied their target market, got inside the head of their buyer, and then developed a marketing strategy that was aimed toward generating sales.
They all learned by trial and error.
NOT by burying their head in a book or an online program.
Again, I’m a lifelong student. I love to learn new things, new ideas and new strategies for getting things done. But I understand that acquiring knowledge is just the beginning.
The real truth of whether this knowledge works or not is when you actually do something with it. When you put the principles into action and watch what happens.
I’ve already had my failures. I’m sure I’ll have more. But I welcome them.
I welcome failure because it is the rare teacher who will tell me what I don’t want to hear. Failure will always tell me what I need to hear. Sort of like my beloved late mother.
You think it’s easy to spend precious time developing an idea you’re sure will be received enthusiastically… only to watch it die a quick death as few even notice its birth?
So let me bring this very long rant to an end.
Choose carefully your teachers. Evaluate them. Look for a series of wins under their belt, not just one or two. Stay away from people who are selling programs or books that is all about making money and the only way they are making money is selling their program to YOU.
If you have a Chamber of Commerce in town or a professional networking group filled with small business owners, visit one of their meetings. Talk to these people. Ask questions about how they got started and some of their more important discoveries.
The Internet is a wonderful channel for marketing and making money, but it is only ONE channel. Newspapers still exist and yes, can still successfully advertise a business. So can radio ads, TV ads, civic groups, trade magazines, trade shows, etc. etc.
These are the “un-shiny objects” many entrepreneurs miss. It’s easy to get caught up with all the Internet glitter that claims to help you make six figures a month. But it’s like trying to grow a strong body just by drinking milk.
Your “business body” needs a lot of different kinds of fuel to grow. Don’t get caught up with a narrow menu. Expand your choices.
And then don’t get stuck in the product “shopping cart.”
Once you purchase a book or program, make a promise to yourself to thoroughly consume what you have before buying something else. Set aside at least 30 minutes a day to digest the information. Take notes. Then map out action steps from those notes.
Finally, apply what you’ve learned by testing the information. Some things will work for you. Others won’t.
But you’ll never figure that out unless you take the ideas from that book or program, and run with it.