Copywriter Marian Schembari joins Rob and Kira on The Copywriter Club Podcast to share her thoughts on a long list of topics, including:
• How she landed a job using social media (and why she doesn’t like SM now)
• How she convinces clients to focus on the “one” reader
• Her process for creating awesome About Pages
• Why all copywriters should work with an editor
• Dealing with depression when you work alone
• How she raised her rates, an
• Why storytelling is so important in copywriting
This is a good one! To hear it all, click the play button below, or scroll down for a full transcript.
The people and stuff we mentioned on the show:The Unmistakable Creative
Guerilla Marketing for Job Hunters
Where Stellar Messages Come From
The Great Value Proposition Test
The Copywriter Club Facebook Group
Intro: Content (for now)
Kira: What if you could hang out with seriously talented copywriters and other experts, ask them about their success and failures, their work process, and their habits, then steal an idea or two to inspire your own work? That’s what Rob and I do every week at The Copywriter Club Podcast.
Rob: You’re invited to join the club for episode 28 as we chat with freelance copywriter Marian Schembari about landing her first job using social media, and why she doesn’t like it very much, the secret writers need to know to create compelling about pages, running a business when you have depression, and how stories are the only reason customers buy anything.
Kira: Hey, Rob. Hey, Marian. How are you?
Rob: Hey, Kira. Welcome, Marian.
Marian: It’s super weird to hear you talking about me like that. Your voices have been in my ears like every morning as I walk my dogs, so it’s really weird to hear you responding to me as I talk.
Rob: Imagine how weird it’s going to be when you’re listening to yourself as you walk your dog.
Marian: Here’s the thing, though. I love listening to myself. Is that weird? I’ve been on podcasts, and I definitely listen to them, and my husband will come home and be like, “Why are you listening to an interview with yourself?” Like, “Because I sound really smart, okay?”
Rob: I love it.
Kira: And you’re probably learning from yourself, as well.
Kira: I feel like even with this podcast, I told Rob for awhile, I was not listening, because I did not want to hear my voice. I do like listening to Rob, but I don’t like listening to myself. Recently, I did listen to episode 20, and I was like, “You know what? I’m actually learning something.” In the interview, I miss a lot of details that I catch listening the second time around, I think just because I’m trying to get ahead. It does help.
That’s a great segue into the conversation with you, because I originally heard you on a different podcast. It was an interview on The Unmistakable Creative. It was around the time when your name kept popping into my world, into my feed over and over again, until I think I finally reached out to you, and was just like, “Hey, we should be friends, right?”
Marian: “We should be friends. Let’s hang out.” I was like, “Yes, please.”
Kira: Yes. Now you’re here, I think a great place to start would be how you got into copywriting, especially if you could speak to just landing those first few gigs or getting that first bout of confidence. I know that’s what new copywriters are really interested in.
Marian: It’s a weird roundabout story, but many years ago, I guess a decade ago, when I had just graduated from college, it was really, really hard for me to find a job. I was convinced I wanted to work in publishing, and I applied to every job under the sun, and nobody was getting back to me. I think I went to the local library, because that’s what you did back then, and I got a book called Guerrilla Marketing For Job Hunters. It was actually an awesome book, and I highly, highly recommend it, even now. It was basically like how to get a job not through applying to traditional jobs, job boards.
They suggested Facebook advertisements as part of that. This was in the very early days of Facebook ads, and so I took out an ad, and I targeted the big publishing houses in New York. Harper Collins, Penguin, Random House, et cetera. It was like a photo of my face, and it was like, “I want to work for Penguin.” It linked to this awful website. It was like a purple background, and like papyrus font. It got a ton of press.
Eventually, I got a job in like two weeks at this PR agency for authors, but it also landed me freelance projects, because people were like, “Oh, you can use social media? We should hire you.” I had no idea what I was doing, but then Harper Collins ended up hiring me to write their Facebook ads. That was like my first taste of freelancing. Eventually, after like three months at this job that I worked so hard to get, I quit, because it was awful.
I wanted to work for myself, so I ended up sort of falling into the world of social media. This was like 2009-ish, I guess. It sort of let me travel the world. I lived in London, I lived in New Zealand, and sort of decided I didn’t like social media. This is the thing. This is what happens a lot of the time, is I sort of fell into this role, because this was the thing that people wanted to hire me to do, but I didn’t actually particularly like it.
Eventually, I went back into the traditional workforce, probably two years later. I just worked in marketing departments at big tech companies, and eventually moved to San Francisco, and got a job at Couchsurfing, and sort of ditched social media. Part of that was writing, and that’s the piece that I loved the most. I would spend hours, and hours, and hours on a single blog post, and then I’d have to come up with an editorial calendar for Twitter, and I’d spend like five minutes on it. I think I probably did that for a few years, and then eventually was like, “Screw this. I don’t want to be at a traditional company. I loved freelancing, I hate social media, I love writing. Let’s try to do freelance writing.”
I think because I had already built up this network, transitioning into the writing piece was not that difficult. I had to say no a lot, which was really hard. People would come to me, and be like, “Oh, you’re freelancing now. I really need help with my social media strategy.” I’d have to say no, because I didn’t want to get caught in that trap again, but it was easy enough to sort of convince people, “Hey, but I can write your blog posts.” I spent a year just doing content marketing mostly, and then it was easy enough to slowly move into copywriting full time.
I don’t know if this is a bad thing to say, but it really wasn’t that difficult to transition over. It wasn’t that difficult to find clients. I think part of it is because I had spend the past decade building up this online presence so I could tap into that, but then the other piece of it was I had spent, also that decade, working in marketing departments, so I had contacts at big tech companies is San Francisco, and could sort of tap into that network, to sort of build my portfolio, my client base, with this new offering.
Rob: Marian, let’s talk about social media for a minute. I find it really interesting that you used targeted ads on Facebook and social media to get your job, you worked in social media, but now you talk about how you really don’t like it. In fact, I think you’ve mentioned or written somewhere that you try to stay off Facebook, which hurts our hearts, because our Facebook group is the one place we want to see you all the time. Tell us a little bit about that progression, or regression. What is it about that social media that has changed, or what is it about you that has changed, that you don’t like to do it anymore?
Marian: I have two answers for that question. One is, I never really liked doing it for brands, because the thing that made me personally quote unquote successful on social media is that I could just be myself. I could just use the words that I wanted to use, I could talk about the things that I wanted to talk about, I could connect with people on a again quote unquote authentic level. I really, really enjoyed that piece of it. I loved being able to tweet to the president, or to some internet idol, or whatever. That connection piece was really addictive, and I really liked that. I loved being able to share things that were personal to my life or to my work and have people respond and have that conversation.
When I did it as a brand, so when I was Couchsurfing on Twitter, I wasn’t allowed to use certain languages, which is fair enough, or certain words. I had to change my tone of voice, and changing your tone of voice on your website to match customer messaging is one thing. To do it on social media, which is a platform of connection is another, and it didn’t feel right to me, or people would ask questions, and I wasn’t allowed to answer them honestly. “When are we going to get blah, blah, blah feature?” I’d have to pull from some customer support macro. Social media for brands is mostly customer support, unless that brand is really open to creative suggestion and weird marketing tactics. Honestly, you may or may not be surprised, but tech companies are like the least creative people out there. They’re just like terrified of making any sort of making any sort of mistakes, because they don’t know what the [inaudible 00:08:03] they’re doing either. I felt very disenchanted once I got into social media for a brand, so that’s part one.
Part two is, on a personal level, social media has changed so much, and moving away from that connection piece and more about sponsored posts, and promoting news articles, and I swear to God, if I see one more Upworthy headline in my Facebook feed, I’m going to throw up. I just can’t be inundated with that stuff. I think it makes you less creative. I would just be sitting on my couch, my husband would get up for five seconds to go to the bathroom, and I’d immediately pull up my phone and start going through my Facebook. That’s not how I want to live my life.
It really came to a head during the election. It was so draining to sort of be part of that on social media that I needed to take a step back. It was really overwhelming. The next shooting would happen, and I’d just be sobbing, because I actively try not to read the news, which is awful, and Facebook would bring it to light. All I want are photos of babies and cat gifs. That’s why I use social media, right? I deleted Facebook for probably six months. I got off Twitter, and the only thing I use, really, is Instagram. Basically, I update Twitter every few months or so, and it’s mostly because I have something to bitch about and no one in person to listen to me, and go on Facebook.
I reactivated my account, mainly because I actually really like participating in your Facebook group. I did 10x emails. I did that course. I really wanted to see how other people were going through that course. I do like it for work related groups, if the group is good. Also, it’s a pain in the ass to log in to Spotify when you don’t have Facebook, which is the main reason I reactivated it. I went in, and I individually unfollowed every single friend that I have, so that when I log in, it’s totally blank. Instagram is really the one I use now, and mostly because it’s that [inaudible 00:09:50] of my friends’ babies and dogs.
Rob: That’s interesting, because I did the same thing. I’m connected to people, but I never go into my personal feed. I just sort of bounce around in two or three groups. That’s how I use Facebook. I feel the same way, although I’ve got to say, I am a Twitter addict. I’m trying to set down my phone right now, as we talk.
Marian: This is the thing, though, is I do feel like, if you love it, then it’s great. I was finding that I was doing it because I thought I should. “Oh, well, Facebook helped me get a job once. I have to be on it for clients.” That’s BS. I get clients all the time not through social media at all. No one has ever found me through social media. If you love it, like if you love Twitter, and that’s how you connect with people, and I don’t know, you’re on it on all the time and you’re talking to all sorts of cool people, then you probably will get clients on Twitter, or whatever the reason is that you’re using it. I have found that if you don’t like it, it usually shows and it makes you miserable, so just get off it and use something else. There’s so many options.
Kira: Yeah, I actually recently just took a break from Instagram as well, because when I was logging into Instagram, I found that I felt worse about myself. Even business-wise, where I am in my business, because I’m not able right now to create the type of images for my business that I would like, and I saw a bunch of other images from even copywriters are doing great things. It’s not helping me. It’s not helping me, like you said, really get creative. I’d like to hear how you do really activate your creativity, especially as you go dark in the social media space, to keep your edge, and really kind of stay grounded in your creativity.
Marian: That’s such a good question. I think about this all the time. I’m a huge fan of in person. I know a lot of people harp on about networking events, and that type of stuff, but I get so much energy from being around other creative people, and online doesn’t do it that much for me. There’s a handful of blogs, like industry blogs, that I read. I say a handful, probably two, and that’s basically it in terms of my general learning. If I want to know something, I’ll Google it, or I’ll go to Copy Hackers and figure it out, right? Primarily, in terms of getting creative and getting new ideas, I love in person. As soon as I moved to this area, I joined a female only women’s coworking space maybe 20 minutes from my house. It’s this gorgeous, light filled, plant filled, coworking space in this charming little town surrounded by redwoods.
Every day I go in and there’s women doing all sorts of amazing things. There’s unlimited coffee, and conference room, and every day they have a new event. It’s Meditation Monday, or yesterday, I went to an hour long workshop about profit. I would never have done something like that, but it was there and so I did it. I also take a long of in person writing classes. There’s this amazing bookstore near my house, actually, called Book Passage. If anyone lives in Northern California, I highly recommend going to this bookstore. They have classes all the time, and they’re mostly literary type classes, but I have never been more inspired than spending six hours in a room with a bunch of fiction authors learning how to construct a sentence. That, to me, I left buzzing.
I’ve done a few of them. I took a memoir writing class, not because I wanted to write a memoir, but I don’t know, I just like being around people learning a thing, as opposed to staring at a screen for more hours during the day. Staring at a screen, definitely, I’ve got maybe five hours max in me before I have to shut it down. I have found that a really good way to counteract that is to do in person stuff, or stuff with my hands. My husband and I just moved into a new house, and there’s a ton of yard work that has to be done. Every week, I’ve been cleaning up the yard in the sunshine. I spent all day yesterday like potting plants, and I came back to my computer and felt so much more energized than had I been doing business development all day on the computer. I have to be doing stuff, in person, live, with my hands or with other people.
Rob: Let’s talk about your writing for a minute. One of the things that you do particularly well is about pages. What is it about about pages that everybody is doing wrong, and what do we need to do to do them better?
Marian: Well, there’s an easy answer and then there’s the longer answer. The easy one is that a lot of people think about, and they think, “Oh, about me.” They’ll be like, “I started my business in 2017 and I love cats,” or whatever it is, and no one cares about that. The number one thing, and this is such an easy answer for copywriters, all of you guys already know that, is this whole concept of, it’s not really about you, it’s about them, and how can we sort of change that narrative to be more about them? That’s the really simple answer, but the thing that I always get hung up on, is that there is an element that is about you, but it’s not about your education, or how long you’ve been in business, or your awards, or your experience. It really is about the sticky story that makes you likable.
At the end of the day, businesses, when you say … I hate the term B2B, because businesses are human beings. There is a human being reading your copy, and they don’t understand what you say when you talk about like, “Achieving business growth long term.” What the hell does that mean? The thing that I always do with my clients when we do about pages is really just finding their sticky story. In PR, this would be your hook, but basically it is the story that will A, make new readers obsessed with you, because when a new reader lands on your about page, essentially what they’re saying is, whatever the first page that they landed on is, your most popular blog post, your home page, or whatever, when they click on about, it’s usually the second or third thing that they’ve clicked on.
They have essentially said, “I really like what I’ve read so far. Tell me more about you.” They’re essentially asking you to make them excited, to be obsessed, to seal the deal. It’s such an amazing opportunity, except everyone ignores it. They slap up this third person paragraph without ever really thinking about at what stage in the journey on my website is this customer? How can I really just put that final stamp of approval on myself? The thing that I do is ask them like a bajillion trillion, I have a 12 page questionnaire. We sit on the phone for 90 minutes, and I try to identify the story that will make them immediately likable to these new visitors.
Personally, on my about page, one of the stories that I found myself telling over, and over, and over again, was when I was at this big startup, the last job that I had. I spent six months working on a series of educational videos for our customers, and the videos were really short, four to five minutes. They had little skits in them, we had this beautiful set. I probably spent like 60 grand on these videos, and they turned out amazing. It was the most fulfilling project of my whole career. It was creative. They sort of gave me free reign to do whatever I wanted, because the problem that we were trying to solve was to get customers onboarded more effectively, because they weren’t reading these stale help articles. We made these really funny videos to sort of help them understand how our technology worked. I made them, and during that six months, we got a new VP of marketing, and when he saw the final videos, he said, “Yeah, we can’t use these. Personality isn’t a brand value.”
Rob: Oh, geez.
Marian: What the hell does that mean, first of all? Secondly, we had already shown them to a bunch of customers, and they all said, “Thank you so much. This makes so much sense now. I wasn’t really sure how this technology fits into my business,” or they’d say, “Thank you for actually explaining that I’m not going to be successful at this a hundred percent of the time,” or, “Oh, that makes so much sense now.” People were thanking for us because we were being honest with them, except our head of marketing did not agree. I’m obviously a little bitter about this, but the moral of the story is that story has sort of followed me for the past three years, and it sort of informs everything I do.
It has all the elements of a good story, right? There’s a whole journey, and it’s sort of funny and weird, and it makes you think, “Huh, that’s like a weird thing to say. What does that mean?” That’s the story that I tell on my about page, and then I sort of tie it together to the types of services that I offer. I give them proof of brands that do have quote unquote personality in their copy, and how successful they’ve been, and then there’s a little blurb at the bottom about me, and my history, and where I live, and a cute photo of my dog.
The lesson here, to wrap up that really long story, is mostly that your about page is this amazing opportunity to sort of reel them in. You’ve got them on the line, they’ve been spending some time on your website, and now you have to reel them in with something that’s going to make you stand out, a story that they’re going to relate to, or find funny, or frustrating, or inspired, or whatever, and make them like you, and then a big call to action. That’s the thing that everyone forgets. The about page needs to have something at the end.
Rob: I love that. I kind of want to ask for another example. If I had, say an app, or a piece of technology, or a product, or a course, or something that I wanted to sell, what’s the process that you would engage me in, or maybe it’s one of the clients you’ve worked with recently. Walk us through that process.
Marian: I have this client, I can’t actually say their name, because I signed an NDA.
Rob: Totally cool.
Marian: They are a big finance company, and they offer essentially title loans to people, which is a really scammy, terrifying industry. They wanted to do it differently. They want to offer short term loans to people with no credit or bad credit, and allow them to pay it off quickly, and be really, really transparent about the whole process. When they first came to me, they’re like, “We just want to stand out from all of these gross loan companies out there and really resonate with the right person.” We got on the phone, did my 90 minute shtick, which is basically all the questions … Honestly, the questions that I asked were not particularly unique or creative. Like, “How do you describe your business? Describe your ideal customer. What keeps them up at night? What makes them frustrated about your industry?” That type of stuff.
I sit on the phone, I record them, and then I get it transcribed, because it’s really important to me that I’m able to read through our conversation, not just hear it that one time. It allows me to fully listen without frantically taking notes while they’re talking. I go through, print it out, sit down with my highlighter, go through, and after years of doing this, I can just pretty quickly identify what the stories are that are going to resonate with a wider audience. The story that they told me was their ideal customer was a single mom, who lived in one bedroom apartment, that had a bunch of kids, and one of her kids had outgrown his crib, and she needed a bed. She needed a bed and a mattress and did not have the money to do that. She had bad credit. She can’t get a loan anywhere, and her kid’s sleeping on the couch, and she feels really guilty. All these emotions that come up. Those emotions were so, so important in telling this story.
When they came to me, their value prop was, “We provide you with $3,000.” That was it, that was their headline. It actually did the job okay. It was a very clear takeaway, and their big call to action was, “Apply now to see if you qualify.” After our session, we sort of sat down and realized that this story’s really, really impactful, and we need to be able to tell that story on their about page, but also on their whole website. That whole message of a mom feeling guilty and wanting to provide the best for her kids, but sort of being out of options. The solution, the value prop that we ended up going with was actually pretty simple. It was just, “We provide you with $3,000 so you can provide for your family.” At the end of the day, it’s not some magical headline, right, but with just a few extra words, it tells the whole story.
I remember, when I first sent it to them, they were terrified. They were like, “But what about the person that just wants a loan to buy a TV?” Or, “What about the person that blah, blah, blah?” I had to walk them through how important it is to speak to that one question, because at the end of the day it was like 75% of their business was this single mom trying to provide to her family, so we were really able to speak directly to her.
What a lot of businesses get really terrified about it this. They just freak out about going granular. It’s my biggest frustration. I have like a copy paste response when they argue back about it that I just send them. I’m like, “Here’s why we need to get specific.” They always do whatever I tell them to do, but it takes a lot of convincing to get them to that place where they feel confident speaking to one specific person and quote unquote alienating the rest of their audience, right?
Kira: If you’re comfortable sharing that, I know you might not have it verbatim, but can you just share what you say to them? That’s a conversation we’re all having, and some of us are probably not winning that conversation.
Marian: There is that book that Joanna Wiebe, the messaging one, she has some really good language in there. I can’t remember exactly what she says, but I literally will copy and paste from that book. I can’t remember exactly what it is, but the other thing that I say, and this is actually something my friend told me a week ago and I started using it a lot, is this idea of a bullseye. Imagine that you’re shooting an arrow at a target, and you aim for the center, right? You don’t aim for the edge. If you want to hit the bullseye at all, if you want to hit the target at all, you aim for the center. Yes, a few might fly further afield and hit the edges or hit the little third row. I don’t know archery language at all, obviously. That if you aim for the center, you will hit the target, if you’re halfway decent. If you’re aiming for 50 different directions, so many of those arrows are going to miss.
Sometimes I try to explain it like that, but at the end of the day, I told them, I was like, “Look, test it. Here you go. Here are four different headlines, test which one you think is going to work best, or test all of them. My guess is that this specific one is going to work best.” It did. It converted like 40% than the general one that they were using.
Kira: Okay, that’s really helpful. Thank you. We’ll link to Joanna’s book as well. It sounds like the about page is a sales page. It is a sales page, there is a call to action. I don’t think everyone looks at it that way, but that’s what it is. That’s what you’re describing. When you price it, how are you packaging it? If it is more like a sales page, there’s a lot more that goes into it, like all the research that you do. How are you packaging it? As an individual product? I kind of want to lead into the way that you’re structuring your business and what type of other products or services you’re offering now.
Marian: I spent a lot of time thinking about the pricing for this page. I charge 1,500 for an about page. It is a sales page, but the work that goes into it is not as much. It takes me about three days to do an about page, whereas a good sales page, when I do the interviews, and the research, and the review mining, and all of that stuff, will usually take me about two weeks start to finish, and there’s more at stake with a sales page. They are similar in the way that they’re structured, and in their goals almost, but they are different. I don’t want to pretend that I’m charging the same, because I’m not. Basically, for 1,500, people get the 90 minute strategy session, which honestly, no one ever sees the value in this. They’re like, “Okay, so I talk on the phone with you for 90 minutes? Cool.”
At the end of that conversation, they’re like, “Oh my God. I never thought about my business that way,” or, “Whoa, I’ve been doing things super wrong.” Even that simple conversation, because they get the transcript, too, and they get my highlighted notes that they can use again and again. That in and of itself has been crazy valuable. They get one round of revisions, they get the about page, and then I work with a team of editors, and so they’ll get like a professional edit at the end, and my editors are freaking amazing, I love them more than anything. That, to me, is super valuable, to have an unbiased, unconnected set of eyes to sort of go through and make sure it’s really tight and really well written.
What ends up happening with the about page, more than a sales page, is that the biggest frustration I get from my clients is, “I don’t know how to talk about my business. How do I explain this? What I do is too complicated. I can’t do an elevator pitch.” It’s aways really simple. It’s not complicated. Oh, so you’re a dog trainer. Oh, so you help people negotiate raises, right? It’s really simple, but they get so in their heads about it that when they get this final about page, what they’re really getting is a one to two sentence description about what they do and stories to pull from when they’re interviewed by the press, when they’re talking to a perspective client, when they’re at a networking event. It’s super valuable for their business as a whole. It’s more than just an about page. It’s essentially a way to talk about their business on a wider scale. I price it based on that even though it actually only takes me three days to do it.
Rob: The deliverable then isn’t just an about page. I’m really curious about the strategy session that you’re having with your clients, because obviously you’re doing more than just saying, “Tell me about your business,” if it’s taking 90 minutes, and they’re finding a lot of value. It seems like you’re probably going into the sales strategy, and where customers are coming from, and the entire funnel, and actually advising them on their business in addition to what you’re doing on the about page. Is that right?
Marian: Yes. Every person who has hired me for an about page comes back and was like, “Can you do my whole funnel? Can you do my whole website?” The reason I priced it in the way that I did, and the reason it is one of my only two productized services that I have is specifically because it’s a really good entry for new clients. It’s a lower price point than saying, “Hey give me ten grand to write your website.” It’s a really small thing that they can do, and then once they do it, my first time clients get ten percent off their next product. It’s a win win for everyone.
Kira: I want to talk more about your team of editors. What was the catalyst for finding these editors? How do you work with them? What has been the impact, and I mean there are a bunch of follow up questions, but I personally started doing this when I heard you first talk about this on that other podcast.
Marian: It’s the best thing I’ve ever done for my business, and it is so underrated. The reason I did it is because I was writing an essay. I sometimes moonlight as a personal essayist, and I was writing an essay for a website, and I was really struggling with it. I had been looking at it for too long, and it was my personal story, and I just felt like it needed some tightening. I think I posted on Facebook, when I was on Facebook, “Can anyone read this? Do I have any friends that are willing to just read over this and give me some thoughts?” One of my very best friends, Dara, who I’ve known since I was, God, ten, she works at a literary agent in DC and has a masters in something fancy and literary. She was like, “Yeah, I’ll read it.”
She read it, and did her whole editing magic on it, just for free, as a favor, and I read through it, and it was perfect. It was the most perfect thing I’d ever written, but I also felt sort of bad about myself. I was like, “How did I not think to put that word there?” Or like, “Oh, that was a stupid grammar mistake.” Or, “Oh, that ending makes so much more sense now that she moved that sentence to the top,” or whatever. I just remember looking at it and being like, “I am so proud of this.” It was just sort of like this light bulb moment for me where I felt like, “This is going to get accepted,” and it did within two days, it was accepted on xoJane, and I felt like, “I need to have her read everything that I write.”
Not only did I learn a ton about my own writing, but also, there’s so much that we miss. As copywriters, we become too close to the project. If we’re doing it right, if we’re really talking to our clients, and really understanding their customers, eventually we get too mired in the crap, too, and one of the things that Dara said to me was, “Trying to edit your own work is like trying to lick your own elbow. You’re just too close to it.” I was working on a project, I can’t remember when it was, but I was working on a project, and I just said, “Hey, can I just pay you a flat rate to read over my stuff before I send it to my clients?” She was like, “Yep, definitely.” The same thing happened.
It was an about page for someone, and I remember reading over it, and like, “Oh, yes. This is perfect now.” I don’t know how you guys are, but before I send a final, final draft, I’m like, “Oh, they’re going to see that that sentence is a little weak,” or like, “I haven’t fully nailed that message yet, but there’s nothing I can do. I’ve tried my very best.” They never do. They never call me out on anything. It’s always better than whatever they can write, but there is a feeling of fear, I guess, when I send something to a client, and there’s not. When I work Dara, I am a hundred percent confident that this is the best thing that has like ever been written in the whole world.
I worked with her, I have been working with her for about a year, and then eventually, I was just giving her too much, and so now, I have a second editor. She’s an actor at UCB in New York, and so she does a lot of sketch comedy, and coming up with skits, and she’s super, super funny. She’s really good at doing like the comedy stuff, where Dara’s more like the literary person. Then I have another girl who does YouTube scripts. Now, I have editors who specialize in different things. If I’m doing this finance website, they want it to be a little bit funny, a little bit more approachable, so I hired Desi for that, because she’s got that sort of comedic approach.
Yeah, it’s been an interesting process, and now I just pay them a flat rate, which ends up working to about ten percent of what I make on the project, and they usually turn around in a few days. I do first draft, I send it to the client, and then we sort of go through basic, “Is this accurate? Is this on brand? Is this what you were expecting?” Et cetera, et cetera. Then I finalize the draft until I’m as happy with it as humanly possible, and then I send it off to one of the editors who then makes it super, shiny, polished forever.
Rob: Such a good idea.
Marian: It’s the best. I don’t know what I would do without them.
Kira: Just to clarify, and because I’ve started doing this as well, you’re working on a draft and your editors aren’t jumping in until the end, or do you have some of the editors jumping in earlier, and then you take it over, and then you have another editor polish at the end?
Marian: Good question. I have been playing with this for awhile. The way that it works now is they don’t come in until the very end, until I’m as happy as possible with it. However, two times it’s happened where I have done full website copy, and the value prop, we can’t start working on the copy until everyone is happy with the new value prop. I, both times, have hired an editor to work on the value prop first. I’ll draft 20 different versions, I’ll come up with a really ten that I really love, and then I’ll have the editor come in, and be like, “What do you think?”
They don’t spend a ton of time on it. It’s just like, for the finance company that I was working with, one of the value props that we came up with, I think I said something like … God, I’m going to butcher this. This is probably not accurate, but it was something like, “We give you up to $3,000 to help you in a setback,” or something like that. Desi, who’s the comedy writer, knows about my consistency, so she just added, “To help you with your comeback.” It’s really good to have that second pair of eyes before I send them to the client, because then what they do with the ten value props that I give them is using, actually another book of Joanna’s, using her book on value props, we then have everyone in the company score them, and then we test the winning four. That process happens first, and then the editor will come back in at the very end, once the whole website has been written.
Rob: Interesting. I want to change topics just a little bit here, well actually, a lot bit here. Marian, you’ve written about depression and running a business, and I’ve lived with somebody who’s had depression in the past. As somebody who doesn’t, it’s really hard, I think, for me to understand what that person is going through from time to time. You know, I’m a guy, and I’m just like, “Hey, take a vitamin and smile more. Let’s fix this thing.” I don’t even had the words to communicate properly when this is going on. You’ve written about this, and I think it’s a really serious thing that maybe a lot of writers working alone, without getting outside very often, or without human contact deal with. Tell us about that experience, and how you have struggled to overcome that.
Marian: Yeah, I have so many feelings about this. It tends to come and go, it depends on the season, it depends on what’s going on in my life. I’ve sort of always had it on and off, but when I was working at a traditional company, if I was having an off day, I’d just sit at my desk and dick around on the internet. No one was waiting for me to deliver something. My effectiveness on any given day wasn’t dependent on my mood. When I went freelance again a few years ago, it really jolted me awake and made me realize, this needs to be something that’s more under control, because there were some days that I just couldn’t work.
Often times depression is triggered by specific life events, and at the time, my husband and I had moved to Germany. Almost two years ago we moved, and it was awful. It was not what we were expecting. I had lived abroad a ton and was sort of expecting Germany to be this sort of magical fairyland, and the place that we were living in was really depressing, and gray, and the people weren’t particularly friendly, and so I just stayed in the apartment all the time. I was like, “Well, I’ll just focus … This isn’t what I thought it would be. I’ll just focus on my business full time, and by the time we leave, it’ll be up and running, and perfect.”
What ended up happening was staying in your house and not talking to anyone is a bad idea when you have depression. After a few months of this, I’m pretty proactive, and [inaudible 00:35:06] was like, “Well, this isn’t working. Well, something needs to happen. Do I get a real job? What do I do?” Just sort of did a lot of experimentation. Again, because I didn’t have any friends or anywhere to go, I just played around with different things, and sort of mentally took stock of which ones helped me be more productive. At the end of the day, it wasn’t about, “Oh, I need to cure my depression.” It’s something I’ve had since I was 15. It wasn’t about, “Oh, I’m going to feel better forever.” It was like, “I just need to feel better for one day so I can finish this website copy and send it to my client.”
That mindset shift of just feeling better for a little bit of time actually sort of changed everything. I would do things like 30 minutes of yoga in the morning, or putting on Justin Timberlake and dancing around my living room for five minutes. I’m the kind of person that gets embarrassed dancing alone, but it definitely worked. You know, things like, “I’m not going to eat sugar until I’m done with this project.” Like really, really tiny goals. Tried a lot of supplements. There’s a bunch of things that worked, and honestly, I did a lot of research, and people would be like, “Oh, journal your feelings.” I’d be like, “Screw you. I don’t want to think about my feelings right now. I just want to get this work done.”
What worked for me is not necessarily going to work for everyone else, but I sort of took it on as like a project to see, “Where can I sort of feel better just to get this work done?” It actually worked like crazy. I haven’t had like, I don’t want to call it an episode, but I haven’t sort of felt super depressed since we left Germany. That’s the other piece of it. Sometimes, I tend to get more depressed when I’m really unhappy with my job, or if I’m really unhappy where I live. Now, I’m super happy where I live, and super happy with my job, so I don’t feel that way anymore. I’m sure it will come back, and now I sort of have an arsenal of tools that I can turn to.
I think it’s something that people don’t talk about a lot. It’s this whole concept of when you work for yourself, if you’re prone to any sort of mood swings, it’s often worse if you’re not really leaving your house. Another thing that really helped was joining a coworking space, putting on pants in the morning, and commuting, and walking the five minutes outside to get to the office, and saying hello to the woman at reception, and being in a place with lots of sunshine. These things all really helped it get better, and now I sort of see it as a lucky thing. If I had stayed in tech, I couldn’t just curl up on the floor for five minutes and meditate. I had to be at my desk. If I’m not feeling like doing my work today, there’s not a lot I can do about it when I’m sitting in an office. Now I feel like being my own boss has allowed me the flexibility to sort of tailor my business to my moods, which sort of sounds depressing, but it’s actually not.
The other thing that I really realized is that I can price myself however I want. Before, I sort of assumed, “Okay, I’m going to be working eight hours a day, so I’m going to be charging this amount. Blah, blah, blah.” Now, I track my hours super, super closely, so what I learned is I have about four hours max of creative time in me to actually write, so that means I have to double, triple my rates in order to work the most effectively. I know the limits of what I can take on. I’ve had to very deliberately structure the way I price my services and how many projects I take on at any given time, because overwhelm triggers depression big time. Yeah, that’s like a hodgepodge of tips.
Rob: No, but I think it’s really helpful. Like I said, I would bet that a significant portion of freelance writers actually struggle with this, whether they recognize it or not. They can get melancholy, or those periods happen, and when you’ve got to deliver for the client, you’ve got to have strategies to deal with it. What you’ve done may be helpful to a lot of people.
Kira: Yeah, and I mean, for me personally, I’ve dealt with postpartum depression, and so you were speaking to me directly. It’s been challenging. What you said about overwhelm can trigger it, that is so true, and that is something that I need to be more aware of, and I am now, because overwhelm has definitely triggered it for me as of recently. Plus, the month of February usually triggers it as well before spring hits, but I want to hear more about how you have increased your rates, with whatever you’re comfortable sharing. I think that’s something that you’ve thought about it, you’ve tracked your time, you’ve been really strategic about it, so would you mind sharing almost what your business looks like now, where you’re spending your time, and even what you’re charging in those different areas so we have a better idea of what your business looks like?
Marian: I think I’ve done what a lot of freelancers tend to do at my specific stage of business, which is I started off hourly. I think I started at like 50 an hour, because when I quit my job at that tech company, they kept me on as a contractor, and they just divided my annual salary, which I think at the time was 110. They just divided it by however many hours you work in a year, so it was like 52.85, or something like that. I was like, “Okay, cool. Then I’ll work eight hours a day, and then I’ll make my old salary.” I think that lasted two months before I was like, “Nope. This isn’t working.” I just doubled it. I was like, “Okay. We’ll do 115 [an hour], and see how that feels.” Actually, it was great.
I did 115 an hour for a long time, and transitioning, I had to quit a bunch of the $50 an hour clients, because when I said, “Hey, my rates are doubling,” they were like, “K, peace out. Bye.” It’s interesting. I don’t mind charging hourly. I know a lot of copywriters hate this, but hourly has been really great for me, specifically because I had to start tracking my hours in a way that I never did before. I wrote a website for a [inaudible] company, it was like five pages, four pages. I charged five grand. I was like, “Oh God. This is so much money. They’re going to say no.” They said yes and I was like, “Oh my God. I could just do one of these a month, and I’ll be set.” I did it, and it took 50 hours of work. I was like, “Nope. I can’t do that,” so now I’m doubling it again, so it’s ten grand for a full website.
It’s a lot of experimentation. I get people to pay whatever I can get away with them paying, honestly. I have found that every time I increase my rates, or every time I try a new pricing structure, tons of people say no, and if I feel bad about them saying no, if I’m like, “I actually really want them as a client,” then I think about it again. Most of the time, like when I upped my rate from 50 to 115, the client that I had been working with for about a year, I was doing mostly content writing for him, I didn’t feel bad about losing him. I wanted him to say no. I wanted to be too expensive and to work with somebody else. Not because he was a bad client, but because I really wanted to get away from the content stuff.
I have started being better at packaging my services. I have two productized services. I essentially specialize in two different things, web copy and email copy, and that’s it. I used to do videos, I used to do blogs, I used to do monthly newsletters. Primarily, the stuff that I really love is customer messaging and then turning that into sales copy, really, at the end of the day. I have a productized about page service and a productized sales page service, where people can literally just buy, fill out the questionnaire, and schedule, all on my website. Those just come in, and automatically get put into my calendar, which I love.
What I love the most about that, though, is about pages used to take me a week. I would stress about them. I’d be like, “Oh God. What’s their story? Blah, blah, blah.” Now, I’ve done so many of them that they’re done in three days. I tracked one recently. I just did one and it took me five hours for $1,500. I was like, “Okay, I’m okay with that.” I’m getting faster at them. I really am loving productizing my offerings very specifically, like having a sales page, having a buy now button, just like it’s a pair of shoes, right, so that people know exactly what they’re getting, there’s a system for getting them in the door and getting them filling out the questionnaire, and for me seeing if they’re a good fit. If they’re not going to fill out the answers, then I don’t really want them, right? Then getting faster at it, so I’m making more money per hour than I was before.
What usually ends up happening is I do a small project for someone, and then they say, “Well I need my whole website rewritten.” Or, “Can you write this video script?” I just wrote a brochure, like a print brochure. I’ve never done that before, but they were like, “You know everything about out business.” All of those clients tend to turn into retainer clients. They essentially get my hourly rate at a discount. They’ll get ten hours or a month, or they’ll get four emails a month, and they’re just in my calendar at all times. It’s sort of a hodgepodge. I don’t do a lot of different things, but I tend to get people in the door who I really like, and then stay with them. It’s almost I have like ten full time jobs.
Rob: It seems like maybe the thing that brings all of those projects together is story, and you’ve mentioned on your website that you’re story-centric in your approach, we’ve talked a little bit about stories that you pull out in the about pages. Tell us why stories are so important to what you do for your clients.
Marian: It comes back to that obsession thing that I was talking about with the about pages. You want someone to land on your website and be like, “Oh my God. Where have these people been all my life?” That happens. We’ve all had that where we discover someone new, and we’re like, I remember this happened with Copy Hackers, actually, the first time I landed on it. I was like, “Oh my God. This is everything I ever wanted.” Your copy should, in my opinion, reflect that, should have that sense of obsession in every piece of copy that you have. When I say I do story-centric copy, it’s probably a really douchey way to say that, but a lot of copywriters talk about story, but they don’t incorporate it.
Very rarely do I see a good story on a website. I think that comes down to two things. There’s that fear of specifics, like I talked about earlier. People don’t want to get too specific, because they think that they’re going to alienate someone, and they don’t know how to tell a good story. This comes back to sort of my publishing background, I guess, and all of these weird literature writing classes that I take, is you have to actually tell a story. You can’t talk about telling a story, you have to actually tell it. This can be everything from your sales page copy to the way that you talk to your customers.
When I was at Couchsurfing, we would get a lot of customers emailing in and being like, “I really want a calendar feature. We’ve been asking for this for years, and no one’s built it.” They’d get really up in arms about not having a calendar feature on the website. My canned response was like, “Thank you for submitting this feedback. I will pass this on to our product team, and we’ll build it someday.” That’s your canned, garbage, robotalk, corporate, blah, blah, blah. But Couchsurfing is a community of like 18 year old travelers who sleep on people’s couches around the world, and it’s this super honest, authentic, hip community, and we were talking to them like they were tech investors, and it was really boring.
The thing that I have found is that if you’re really honest, it tends to lead to a good story. For instance, I started responding to people, I probably shouldn’t have done this, but I started responding to people and be like, “You know, you’re totally right. The calendar system has been … People have been requesting this for years. The reason we haven’t built it is because we spec-ed it out, and it turns out it’s going to take nine engineers nine months which will essentially cost us a million dollars to build it, and there are more important things on our priority list right now. So, yes, we know how important it is to you, but right now our goal is to get the website not crashing all the time. I promise someday it will be built.”
The response was like freaking night and day. Like, “Oh, okay. That makes sense.” I was like, “If you know any engineers looking for a job in San Francisco, send them to me, and I’d put them through the recruiting pipeline.” That story of, “Here’s why we’re not doing the thing that you want us to do,” people are so much more receptive. Again, you get a lot of fear with these companies of being honest, of telling the truth. Ultimately, storytelling just comes down to telling the truth.
If you’re going to write a headline that’s like, “Are you tired of feeling lonely on Saturday nights, and not having any friends?” Okay, fine, like that’s a generalization, but what is the story? What are they actually doing that’s making them lonely on Saturday nights? If you’re offering, I don’t know, let’s say we’re talking Meetup. Okay, are you tired of eating cold lo mein and watching X Files reruns on Saturday nights? It’s the same message, but it’s telling it from a storytelling perspective. That’s the stuff that I really love to do, and the stuff that comes really naturally to me.
My ultimate goal with my clients is to find those really sticky stories in their own life experience, and also just digging deep and telling the truth about things. That tends to bring these stories to life, whether it’s a short and simple headline, whether it’s a response to a customer service request, or whether it’s like a long form sales page. You’ve got tons of opportunity to tell these stories in a way that’s going to resonate with people, because they’ll read these generic, jargon filled copy and they’re not going to know what the hell you’re talking about.
Kira: Okay, this has been wonderful, as I expected. I actually like left the interview, and connected dots to my business, just thinking through things I want to change. I think, for me, there’s the obvious connection to story, and just really reinforcing that in my processes, but beyond that, just talking about the office space, and how that could help with depression, and just really adding creativity to everything that you do. That’s huge, and I know that’s something that’s on my list, to find an office space.
The way that you’ve packaged the 90 minute what I call the kickoff call, but the way you’ve packaged almost like not only is it a kickoff call where I get what I need to do my job, but you also get a package as well and all these insights into your business to turn it into a strategy session. I also feel like that’s genius, and a great way to package it. Then, also just tracking your hours and increasing your rates through doing the actual math. Parts of this are obvious, but these are great reminders that this is really important, and there’s been so much more in this conversation, so thank you for sharing everything with us.
Marian: Thank you. Always.
Kira: And being so open and willing to share. Thank you for your time, and where can we find you?
Marian: Well, I have two websites. One is my personal blog, which is MarianLibrarian.com, which literally has not been updated since my depression post, which might make people freak out, but it’s mostly because I’m too happy to write, and there’s my company, which is ohhaicopy.com, which is O-H-H-A-I-C-O-P-Y .com.
Rob: And we can’t look for you on Facebook.
Marian: You can not.
Kira: But we can see you in the club.
Marian: I do participate in the club Facebook group, because it is the one thing about Facebook that is good.
Kira: Well, thank you, Marian.
Marian: Thank you so much.
Rob: You’ve been listening to The Copywriter Club Podcast with Kira Hug and Rob Marsh. Music for the show is a clip from Gravity by Whitest Boy Alive, available in iTunes. If you like what you’ve heard, you can help us spread the word by subscribing in iTunes and by leaving a review. For show notes, and full transcript, and links to our free Facebook community, visit thecopywriterclub.com. We’ll see you next episode.
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