Why GREAT Copywriters Go Broke

Copywriting is THE #1 skill a marketer can develop, but many (if not most) of the best copywriters I’ve met are consistently and painfully broke.  It’s true… I repeatedly run into people who can utterly humiliate me with their copywriting abilities, to whom I’d DEFINITELY trust my most important letters in a heartbeat, but who nevertheless struggle to pay their rent!

WHY!!?  If copywriters are holding the keys to the kingdom (and they ARE in my not-so-humble-big-fat-hairy opinion), why are so many talented writers always scrounging under the couch for change? It’s a question worth your consideration no matter what your entrepreneurial business model because within the answer lies a key element of success in business.  

And there IS a good answer.  Interested?  Great!

First, it’s important to realize everything you’ve heard about the value of copy IS 100% true. As Ken McCarthy astutely pointed out, “copywriting” is really a misnomer.   It should be called “business invention”, because NOTHING of significance really happens in a business until the copy gets written.   Some go so far as to suggest it’s impossible to turn a profit if you can’t at least recognize great copy so you can outsource it effectively.  (Which is impossible if Madison Avenue looks the same as compelling direct response to you!)  

But even though I 100% agree with Ken and thoroughly endorse copywriting as a skill EVERY marketer should develop, you have to place it in context to truly profit…

COPYWRITING IS A NECESSARY–BUT NOT SUFFICIENT–SKILL TO GROW A BUSINESS!  (Even a copywriting business!)


(Copywriting by itself as a business model
often leads to exhaustion and burn out if not
strategically thought through)

Before we get to the problem let me promise you there actually IS a solution.  It IS possible to leverage your copywriting skills to create a powerful, profitable, and scale-able business.  But you’re not going to do it if you’re taken with the delusion that just knowing how to write is going to get you there.

I guess what I’m saying is the following paragraphs are going to be filled with some painful insights, and unlike Shark Tank’s Kevin O’Leary I actually HATE being the “Merchant of Truth.”  But I think it’s the right thing to put forward this message so you can go into battle fully prepared–OR–decide on a different course of action.   No use charging forward in paper armor, right?

REMEMBER: As steep a mountain as this might be to climb, there really IS a top… and it’s amazing! OK, now to the painful problem copywriters face…

First, it takes a ridiculously long time to learn how to write GREAT copy…

  • There’s a steep learning curve and it’s NOT at all intuitive, despite the fact that most beginners THINK it will be easy.  (I’m only modestly good after 8 years of study, and that’s largely because of how well I research my market).  
  • There’s a SHAME FACTOR most writers have to overcome.  Particularly when writing about their own product or business.  You’ve gotta be 100% explicit about the benefits you provide.  Being “humble” and/or “polite” doesn’t work, because people just don’t have time to read between the lines.   You don’t want to leave it to your prospects to connect the dots, you’ve gotta tell’m straight out.  DON’T MAKE THEM THINK!  This feels counter-culture and just plain weird at first…  
  • Then there’s the HYPE FACTOR: Once people understand they can’t be humble they usually go way overboard in the other direction.  They think being explicit about benefits means shouting outrageous claims (with no support) at the top of your lungs.  But this is a great way to un-sell all but the most desperate buyers in your market.  (Like Terry Dean says, “Hype is a promise without proof”… so if you can’t prove your strongest claims, don’t make them!)
  • There’s also the “one leak in the pipeline = zero sales” obstacle:  Because the sale is very, very, very, very, very, very VERY fragile in almost all circumstances, if you have even one leak in the pipeline you don’t get any oil coming out the other side.  This means the linear “read a book, take a test, and get a grade” feedback mechanism you learned in our educational system is almost non-existent.  The experience of a beginning copywriter from test to test is often one of ZERO ZERO ZERO ZERO ZERO ZERO ZERO ZERO ZERO ZERO… and then finally a few bucks.  Most people don’t have the frustration tolerance and fortitude to get through this initial run of zeros.  And who could blame them…after all, it’s a masochistic person’s game!  (“Make this arduous journey, suffer tremendously with little immediate reward, and some day you’ll reach the promised land”… hmmmmm, seems like I’ve heard that before.)   Now the truth is you CAN fix this by breaking your funnel into pieces, tracking earlier, easier to get, and more voluminous actions on the way to the sale (e.g. email open rates or order button clicks), using heat-mapping and tracking software, etc.  But how many people ACTUALLY DO this?  It’s not hard, but it takes time and energy to investigate and set up these more advanced testing mechanisms.  In my experience, less than 5% of marketers take this route.
  • Finally, there’s the need to UN-school yourself from your secondary education, particularly if you’re an erudite son-of-a-b____ (like me!) who spent an extended adolescence learning how to out-speak people at the dinner table!  That stuff just doesn’t fly when you’re trying to sell.  (Yeah, great idea professor, make them feel stupid, see how that works out for you!)
  • And it’s damn hard to know when you’re DONE with a letter!  A great piece of copy can ALWAYS be made better.  The more you know about copywriting, the stronger the desire to continue obsessing about better headlines, stories, or “just the right picture to make the point on page 16”, etc.   And you can always “tighten up” every last bit of copy and eliminate redundancies (BTW, I am not redundant, redundant, redundant, or redundant) to make each sentence just that much more powerful.  Plus, there’s something inherently gratifying about finding the right words.  Verbalization is a fundamental human need.  Language is a big part of what makes society possible, and we’re evolving to become more facile with it.  I haven’t looked up the studies, but I’m sure there are reward centers in the brain which give you a hit of dopamine when you find the just right words to express yourself. (Maybe that’s why there are so many junkies on the street walking around with a Thesaurus?  OK, not really, but you get the point.)  The result is, the process of writing a good letter sucks you in, in much the same way a good chocolate bar makes you forget your diet… and before you know it hours or even days have passed!  (Or, to continue the analogy, you wake up and wonder how all those empty wrappers wound up on the floor.)  Copywriting sucks up your time, and the better you get at it, the more time it sucks!

Because of the above, to get even moderately good at copywriting takes significant time and effort… and this needs to be subsidized if you’re gonna keep eating.  Someone’s gotta pay the bills while you’re taking courses, listening to MP3s, and copying Gary Halbert’s letters by hand to magically absorb his experience.  (BTW, that last bit really works, but in addition to absorbing his amazing copywriting abilities you also absorb some of his dysfunctional personality, so be warned!)

So the first BIG problem copywriters face is simply how long it takes to get good.

It even takes a reasonably long time to be able to recognize good copy.  And when you DO get good, well, you’re already “infected.”  You’ve got the obsession and you feel compelled to keep going despite your better judgment.  (This is only a feeling though… you CAN change course, but most copywriters never do.)

Now, when you get good, you also realize it’s a lot of damn work to write even ONE great piece.  You’ve gotta unearth every last benefit, dig for the emotional purchase motivation behind it, uncover the right mood and tone, and spend as much as a few hundred hours identifying the right hook, prioritizing the claims, organizing the dual-pathway (one for readers and another for scanners), selecting the images, and editing, editing, editing.  (Any good copywriter will tell you the gold is in the edits, not the initial draft!)  

And those “million dollar letters” which keeps every copywriter going are actually few and far between.  But the PROMISE of being “only one letter away from being a millionaire” is very, very compelling.

Take my new coaching business letter for example.  I spent months researching the market, and then at least 300 hours OF MY OWN TIME writing the letter.

And if you count the research time on top of this, you can bump that to 750 hours on just this ONE letter.  Some of my trusted mastermind buddies think I’m crazy to have written this myself…but IF you’ve got semi-decent copywriting skills I recommend you write your own PRIMARY business letter so you can become utterly with well-thought-through language to convert prospects on every point.  Successful entrepreneurs can “speak” their market, and the process of thinking through the copy is what burns this into your brain.

But here’s where we can drive home the necessary but not sufficient point…

While this is a very successful initial letter which sufficed to get me successfully buying traffic in the market, those 750 hours were a NECESSARY, BUT NOT SUFFICIENT requirement to create the business.  

To turn this into an actual business I essentially had to set up a whole fricking university! Here’s what I had to do:

  • Build the full curriculum.  (Seems so easy when you describe it in just four words, yet I’d estimate another 300 to 400 hours spent on this)…
  • Build and program a test as a front end funnel…
  • Test a multitude of traffic sources…
  • Teach the initial classes and problem solve everything necessary to keep the clients happy…
  • Set up a customer service routine and delegate it effectively…
  • Investigate and implement the right software systems…
  • Build and test a spreadsheet model to estimate cash flow, determine the appropriate payment plans, break-even months I was willing to tolerate, identify every last expense and possible margin, look at what will happen when I scale up with additional coaches, products, and services, etc…
  • Take some serious financial risks.  (I could have raised capital–which would have been another full time endeavor for a few months–but thankfully was in a position where this wasn’t necessary)…
  • Identify and contract with coaches and teaching assistants who could help…
  • Find, interview, edit, transcribe, and write copy for at least a dozen successful coach interviews as part of the free follow up system (got some help on this, which meant I had to find it first!)
  • Screen and hire writers to create free books I could give away (by the way, here’s one you should read if you’re considering the coaching field 101 Coaching Niches)
  • Determine the best structure for the program itself (which, by the way, is now requiring a TOTAL revamp to allow for one-on-one delivery with live supervision)
  • Develop policies and procedures for absenteeism, homework, final exam, granting of the final certificate, printing and delivery of same, etc…
  • Develop specifications for the “Find a Coach Directory” and then source and manage the right developer to create this web application.  (Thanks to Steve Wickham for this by the way, who has required virtually no management on this project, but who definitely took some time to find!)…
  • Find the best software to manage the self-paced and one-on-one versions of the program (in process)…
  • Figure out who I could get to help my new coaches develop and post their own websites, interviews, and other content…
  • Recruit a prestigious Board of Directors and develop policies which satisfied their requirements…
  • Research and overcome legal and liability issues…
  • Find and hire experts on Facebook and Business Plan Development whom I trusted to supplement this part of the curriculum (Hint: Terry Dean combined my experience with coach marketing with his recent Facebook experiment results to create an outrageously powerful Facebook marketing system for coaches, while John Chancellor took his decades of experience as a business coach and developed an ultra-simple and easy to implement business plan for my graduates)…
  • Coordinate systems for delivering recordings and other content…
  • Get a new merchant account willing to process high end payments for the Academy so as not to put my current solution at risk…
  • Convince my wife to teach with me (OK, that one wasn’t so hard, she loves this, but it IS another element in our relationship to manage)
  • Get up to speed on regulatory, certification, and accreditation issues in the coaching industry…
  • Create lower end trainings to stair step people into the program who aren’t quite ready for the full certification…
  • Recruit and train my own copywriters to help with all the products and services we have planned…
  • Create a Google Compliant website…
  • Begin optimizing four sources of traffic…
  • Contract with a PPC management firm and begin working with them…
  • And much, much more!

The thing is, many copywriters enter the business with the idea that knowing how to sell is going to be sufficient to create a big business.  They more or less ignore ALL the above elements.

Unfortunately, this is a big hairy delusion.  

Being a good copywriter may be enough to create a modest income within a year or two.  Perhaps $75K to $125K if you’re willing to work for clients (from what I can tell)

But it’s a game of constant hustling.  Because once you’re done chasing clients for business you’ve actually gotta DO the work, which then removes your time to sell more clients, which creates a void once you’re done with the work, which makes it necessary to go chasing clients for business again, etc!

Because most copywriters get caught up in this cycle, they never really take the time to build their own funnel.  And even if they do, training and managing others to do the work is an entirely different skill set which they need to master.

Now, you may have heard top copywriters can command $25,000 to $50,000 or more per letter PLUS residuals.  Well, that IS true, but it’s true in the same way the very best major league baseball players get multi-million dollar salaries.  Precious few people with that dream ever get to that level, and there are far, FAR more broken-hearted-ball-players out there who spend their years trying to get out of the minor leagues 🙁

Now, I’m not pointing this to depress you, but to make sure you understand the copywriter’s dilemma in the event you’ve got the disease.  I don’t want you getting caught up in a half-truth which will leave you to crash and burn later on.

SO… what’s the SOLUTION?

  1. Recognize the distinction between necessary and sufficient is a critical one to learn if you’re going to build ANY empire, no matter what skills you build it on.  Most entrepreneurs miss this and go off half-cocked in one crazy direction or another.
  2. Accept that “work once and then step back and get paid forever” must be revised to “work extraordinarily, mind-blowingly hard for a few years and then step back and get paid forever!”  Listen, I’ve supervised, worked with, coached, been coached by, and masterminded with hundreds of people playing this game.  By far the one thing the most successful people seem to know is that while you absolutely CAN build an empire which eventually runs without you, it requires a period of psychotic obsession and extremely hard work, usually for at least a year or two (sometimes more).  YES you can systematize, outsource, and delegate.  But you can’t do that until the system works… profitably!  And getting there is always a mountain to climb.  But that’s OK… it’s a lot of fun along the way, and if you pick a mountain you’re passionate about you CAN build the business of your dreams (and help a lot of people along the way too)
  3. What this means for most copywriters is to STOP DREAMING AND START EXECUTING.   Go back and look at everything which was involved in setting up my coaching business.  You are NOT one letter away from a million dollar profit… you are one letter AND all those other activities executed and optimized over a period of at least a year or two away from it.   The longer you look around for a way to escape this, the older you get and the less energy you have to get it done.  Just get on with it.  You might be exhausted and start cursing me… but the anxiety you now feel about your career path should quickly dissipate as you begin to see actual progress on what you’re building.  Life is full of trade offs and I’d trade my crazy fantasies for hard work and confidence I’m actually building my dream any day of the week.

Alternatively if you really enjoy working with clients and don’t mind making a modest income that grows by 10% to 15% per year… then at minimum SET UP YOUR OWN AUTOMATED FUNNEL so you don’t have to keep chasing clients.  You’ll gradually be able to raise your prices due to confidence in the demand for your services.  You’re a copywriter for crying out loud… if you’re not capable of researching and figuring out what to say to a particular audience, who is?

OK, you can let the darts fly now!

Dr. G 🙂

www.AllGlennsStuff.com

PS – It’s NOT really a great business decision for me to write these kinds of posts.  I don’t have anything 100% relevant to sell to copywriters at present, so I just sprinkled my other links throughout, which is NOT a strategy you should copy.  Plus, because the message within it is powerful but hard to swallow, I’ll get a higher than average unsubscribe and complaint rate.  (Fun!)

But I’m finding the longer I’m in this game, the more I want to scream the truth to everyone regardless, and the sadder I get when I realize most people just don’t want to know.  So, for those of you who get it, this one’s for you!  (And honestly, I do it for MYSELF too… sometimes I just write these things to solidify my own philosophy.  When you’re inundated by people who really don’t want to see the truth, it becomes very tempting to share their fantasy… and it’s a fantasy which, unfortunately, can cause you to waste years)

 

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