Agora Financial Copy Chief (and copywriter) Joe Schriefer is our guest for the 70th episode of The Copywriter Club Podcast. Kira and Rob ask him all about what it’s like to work for Agora, how he landed his job there, how Agora’s writers are paid and a lot more. Specifically we cover:
• how he “lucked” into a job he didn’t want with Agora
• the best advice anyone ever gave him at Agora (and why he became a copywriter)
• his process for finding ideas for promotions
• how he knows when an idea is “big enough” to go with
• how much time he spends researching versus writing
• why he doesn’t ask his customers for ideas for his copy
• his 7 step-by-step system for creating a brilliant sales letter
• the most important question a copywriter should ask (but they never do)
• how Agora Financial compensates their copywriters (they can make millions)
• the three things he looks for when he hires a writer to work for Agora
• how often Agora’s best copywriters write a successful package—it’s less than 50%
• what his team does when a promotion underperforms
• how quickly Agora is growing and why Joe needs more copywriters
There’s a lot of solid advice in this one. Do. Not. Miss. It. Click the play button below, or scroll down for a full transcript.
The people and stuff we mentioned on the show:
Sponsor: The Copywriter Club IRL
Win Bigly by Scott Adams
Joe’s email: email@example.com
The Copywriter Club Facebook Group
Intro: Content (for now)
Rob: Hey everybody. Before we get into today’s podcast, we just want to tell you about our event that’s being held in New York City on February 15th and 16th, and we want to make sure that you have the opportunity to join us for this awesome, fun party. Kira, let’s talk a little bit about what’s going on at TCC In Real Life.
Kira: So, we’re basically taking the podcast, and a lot of people that we interviewed on the podcast, and then we’re putting them all in a room—seventy-five people—and an amazing of line-up of top copywriters like Kim Krause Schwalm, Joanna Wiebe, Ry Schwartz, Laura Belgray, Brian Kurtz, Kevin Rogers, I can go on and on and on. You can find their names and the list of speakers on the event page, which Rob will give you. But I’ve never been in a room with all of these copywriters, online marketers before. And, beyond that, we’re covering these three pillars of copywriters: what it really takes from going from a copywriter who takes orders from clients, to going to a really great consultant who knows how to run a business. So the topics are diverse, but they’re covering basically the three pillars: the offer, the list, and the marketing strategy.
Rob: Yeah, this is a copywriting conference, but it’s not the typical stuff that you read about copywriting, you know: “ten new ideas for headlines that pull”, those kinds of things. The people who are speaking have incredible information to share so, Kim Krause Schwalm, for instance is going to be talking about the way that she’s beat the controls that she’s run for companies like Agora and Boardroom; real-life lessons that going to be immediately applicable to the type of writing that we all do everyday. And Jason Henderson, who’s an expert at marketing acquisition and email, the topic of his speech is, three email copywriting secrets I discovered helping porn stars get tan in 1994. Like, you’re not going to find that kind of stuff anywhere else at any marketing conference, but the takeaways are real, it’s the stuff that we can use in our businesses everyday. And really, for me, it’s a huge part of why I’m excited to be there.
Kira: And beyond the content, right—like new content our presenters are bringing in, new presentations they’ve never shared before—beyond that piece, there is a whole networking aspect. We’ve built this community; we’ve all helped build this community. And now we get to actually get to hang out in real life. And so, we’re really focused on the social aspect just as we’re focused on the content, and that’s why we’re really excited about a two-hour cocktail party on Friday night…
Kira: …it’s so funny—it’s the final day, and the Agora companies are sponsoring this rooftop party. Again, open bar, for two hours. So, it’s a great way to really just meet new people in New York city with a fantastic view of Manhattan. So really the emphasis here is meeting your fellow copywriters and building some real friendships and hopefully creating some opportunities too for your business.
Rob: And it’s not just the rooftop party; the first night, we’re putting together dinners where people can go to dinner together in, sort of, small groups, and chat and get to know each other. We have a killer “schwag bag” full of books and other things that our presenters have offered to share. The value or the schwag bag alone is over $200 when you start to think about, you know, all the things that you’re going to learn from the event, from the speakers, the things that you get free, you’re definitely going to want to be at this event.
Kira: And beyond that, you can meet the hiring managers at the Agora companies. So they’re there, and they’re excited to meet all of you, and there’s a great opportunity if you’re interested in direct response copy, you can meet with them and figure out you know what opportunities they have and how it overlaps with your business and you goals.
Rob: So we can talk about this all day but you’re probably better off just going to the page to learn more, where you can buy your ticket. Go to: bit.ly/TCCIRL19. You get all the details there, you can buy your ticket; you can even sign up for the extra event that we’re having Saturday morning. It’s just going to be a fun hangout in New York City with your fellow copywriters; it’s all there. Find out more about it, and we look forward to seeing you in New York City February 15th and 16th with the rest of The Copywriter Club.
Kira: What if you could hang out with seriously talented copywriters, ask them about their successes and failures, their work processes 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 70 as we chat with copy chief Joe Schriefer about working for Agora; what he looks for when he hires copywriters; how he and his team come up with big ideas that connect with potential customers; and his tips for writing better sales copy.
Rob: Hey Joe!
Joe: Hey guys; well thank you very much for having me on. I could talk about this stuff for hours, so you’re probably going to have to limit because this is what I’m most passionate about other than my family in life.
Joe: You tell me where you want this thing to go.
Rob: Yeah, let’s give it our best shot, right?
Kira: Alright Joe, a great place to start is just, you know, how did you end up at Agora; what was your squiggly path like?
Joe: Yes, so I tell this story a lot, and I’m going to try to make it as brief as possible. Agora has really been the only job—the only real job—that I’ve ever had, and I got really lucky to find myself here so I’ll tell you the quick story. I worked full-time to put myself through college at a local, kind of sports retail place called Sports Authority. Many people may know it; I think it subsequently went out of business. I like to say it’s because I left…
Joe: …even though I know it’s not true. But I, you know, I got outta college and I had a shiny new marketing degree, and I was young and terribly stupid and I thought I’d earn all this money by going to work in the corporate world. So I get out of college and I say “Okay, no more retail for me”—at least I hoped no more retail for me. I wanted to stay local in Baltimore, that’s where I’d been born and raised. For some masochistic reason I wanted to stay here locally where my family and my friends were, but I interviewed at three different places in the same day here in Baltimore. One was Agora, one was a headhunter that of course would place my resume out there for many companies looking for somebody, and then the third was a doctor’s office basically to be a marketing assistant for a physician. And, for whatever reason, that was the job I wanted. That was the job that—again, I was young and dumb and I thought titles matter, and now I’m like so anti-title now in my life, but at that point I was like, “Oh that sounds like a fun title! You know I’d be a marketing assistant for a physician. That sounds prestigious and fun to tell my friends.” And that was the job I wanted. I didn’t know what the hell the headhunter was talking to me about because obviously there was no specific job I was looking for there. And then there was Agora, which was just weird. You know I went there; it was a weird office location, it’s in a cool little area of Baltimore I had never really been in in my life with this amazing building, but I really didn’t want that job because I didn’t know what the hell they were doing. Like I got there and I went through an hour-long interview, and I’m like I don’t know what this job is…
Joe: I don’t….again, they didn’t have any fancy title for me to have at that point in my life, so that was the job I didn’t want out of the three of them. As fate would have it, that was the only place that offered me a job.
Rob: Yeah, of course.
Joe: And they offered me a job paying $25,000 a year, and I was so disappointed.
Joe: Because again—young, dumb—you know I’m like, “Oh I thought I’d be making like $60,000 a year out of college” or something. But, $25,000 a year was better than my retail Sports Authority job, you know, which was probably $13,000 a year and I couldn’t go out with my friends on nights and weekends and drink beer because I was working on nights and weekends. So Agora was like, “Hey, we’ll pay you twenty-five grand, and you only you know have to come in Monday through Friday”, and I’m like “Okay, I’ll do it”, even though I don’t want to do it.
Joe: So, as fate would have it, I found myself at Agora and after a couple of months, I still had no damn clue what I was doing. I had moved back home with my parents after college and I would come home, and I remember having discussions with my parents at the time, and they’d say, you know, “What’d you do today?” And I’m like, “I really don’t know what I did today.”
Joe: Within Agora, I was specifically working in the list-rental department. So, I you know worked in the database and there’d be these people that would come in that would say, “hey, we want 5,000 names of newsletter A to mail a direct-mail package to,” or “5,000 names of newsletter B”. And I would insert a little query line of code into the database and it would spit out 5,000 names, and they’d go to this customer, and I’d really have no clue what the hell we were doing other than I knew we did junk mail. That was basically it. And then after a couple of months at Agora, you know, I started—someone showed me a marketing report. Because I wanted to know like what the hell happens when we’re mailing all of these customers, and all of these lists that I’m managing and these lists that I’m renting. What is actually happening with this stuff; does anyone respond to this junk mail? And I would remember looking at the promotions and I’d be like “Wow, these things are crazy!” You know—do you guys mind if I talk about some of the headlines that are a little bit more racy?
Rob: Yeah, go for it. Go for it.
Joe: You know, we were mailing some health supplements at the time that, the headline was like “An erection so hard you could hang a paint can on it”.
Kira: I’m glad you took care of that.
Joe: And I’d be like, “Whoa, this is crazy!” You know, or we’d be predicting the next financial market collapse, and I’d be like, “This stuff is bananas!”
Joe: So I’d look at these banana newsletters that we’d be producing, and then I would never know what is actually happening when we send these things out. So as luck would have it, someone showed me how to run a marketing report, and I’m like, “oh my goodness, like people actually respond to this stuff; and people respond in droves to this stuff!” So then I starting becoming interested for the first time really in what Agora was doing, and then I became interested on why certain times we’d mail hundreds of thousands of promotions out to the customers, and other promotions, we’d mail once and never mail again. So what was making the difference? So that’s when I first kind of discovered, you know, the actual ideas behind these sales letters, and how powerful these ideas could be. So I tried to leave Agora…after I got the job, I tried to leave Agora twice and again no one would hire me again…
Joe: Laughs. So you know really, as luck would have it, I found myself here because Agora was the only place that would hire me, and then I tried to leave twice and no one else would hire me. And then, eventually I said “Screw it. I like the company, I understand more of what we’re doing, and now, you know, apart from my family”, it’s become my life really. And I’m amazingly thankful, and you know with such gratitude that I found myself luckily here and I moved on, you know, quickly from that database position to working with inside a specific affiliate of Agora named Agora Financial specifically. And then when I was 27 or so, the gentleman who had founded Agora Financial who’s name is Addison Wiggin, basically said “Hey, I see that you’re working really hard, and I think you’re smart”…generally smarter than what I was when I was young and dumb, and he said, “Do you want to run our business in Agora Financial? Do you want to run the day-to-day?” And I was like, “I don’t know what I’m doing!” And he’s like, “Well just go make mistakes, and tell me what you’ve learned and tell me when you’ve failed fast.” So, I was granted opportunity at you know 27 or 28 years old that I don’t believe I should’ve ever been granted, and I made a gazillion mistakes, and luckily I’ve had some successes along the way to end up talking to, you know, you guys and the rest of this podcast and trying to help people learn from some mistakes I’ve made, and you know, hopefully have a journey like mine’s become in talking with you guys and your crew here today.
Rob: I love your story and your path. I’m a little curious, how did you make the jump from list manager—which you know, is a great skill and I think something that a lot of copywriters ought to understand, but—jumping from that to actually writing the copy within Agora, how did that happen?
Joe: So, when I was at the list management company—and it’s another company owned within Agora called NameBank, so they’re kind of the list-management arm of Agora. So there I am, I’m working for NameBank, it’s probably 2003, 2004 at the time, and they saw that direct mail wasn’t as profitable as what it had been in the past 15, 20 years, and they were trying to make the transition to renting out some of Agora’s email lists.
So, Agora had a big e-commerce event held at one of Bill Bonner’s chateaus. Bill Bonner is the one who owns all of Agora, and who founded all of Agora back in 1979, so Bill had a big e-commerce summit at a chateau that he owns in France. I was lucky enough to get invited to that e-commerce summit to try to figure out how this database company was going to transition into this e-commerce world. When I was there, I had met this gentleman named Addison Wiggin who I just mentioned, who at the time was founding Agora Financial. So again, this is 2002, 2003, 2004, somewhere around there, and Agora was breaking up from one big company, into many smaller independently run LLCs of which Agora Financial was one of those LLCs. So I met Addison; he was founding Agora Financial at the time, and he said, “Why don’t you come work for Agora Financial versus the database company?” So I made the transition to the database company to Agora Financial at that point because I liked Addison, I liked the mission he was carrying out for Agora Financial, and I didn’t want to work in the database anymore.
So that’s kind of my first jump, was within Agora Financial. And then, again, in probably 2007, 2008, when Addison asked me to take over the day-to-day of the business, he told me at that point that he said “Hey, you know you can be a ‘publisher’ in a direct response business, and you can be a manager, which is a valuable skill set, but you know a manager is a commodity skill set. You can go be a manager of a McDonalds’, or a manager of a database company, or a manager of a publishing company. Or, you can learn the most valuable skill set in all of publishing, which is copywriting. He suggested that I become the type of publisher who learns copy more than the type of publisher who learns management. And that was probably the best advice that anybody had given me in my Agora career, was basically learning to write copy, knowing that that is really the thing that drives all of our businesses, within Agora at least, is what separates one from another is kind of the gurus that you deal with, and the copy that you write.
So, it was on Addison’s urging that I really went into copywriting. I’m not a writer, you know, by trade any way. I still don’t think, you know, 11, 12 years later after really getting heavy into copy, that I’m a very good writer. I do think I’m a decent idea person, but as far as writing goes, you know, there’s people that could me write me underneath the table. I’m not Ernest Hemingway in any way, but I do think I come up with some ideas that are strange, unique enough to get attention and to convince people to take action. So that was kind of my journey from the database company into Agora Financial, and then Addison at the time offering me the invaluable office to learn copy to push my career further within Agora.
Kira: Okay, there’s a lot there; I definitely want to talk more about the ideas and the power in that, but before that….so, what did you do? Where did you start when Addison mentioned to you, “Hey, why don’t you just learn how to write really well rather than manage people”? Where do you start when someone tells you that? You can go in so many different directions.
Joe: Yeah, absolutely. So really where I started at that moment was with a blank piece of paper, right? And I knew I had to put something on that paper that, at some point, would have to interrupt someone’s day, convince them to pay attention to what it is I was trying to do, and then lead them persuasively to a sale at the end. So I think in that way, I really started with how so many people start, which is with a blank sheet of paper saying, “What am I doing?” From there, I said, “Let me go experiment with, you know, I know I have to find an idea first. So where do I find an idea?” And I went to Addison. I said the same thing; asked him the same question: “Okay, I’m going to write. I got a blank piece of paper. I understand what my mission is. What do I do?” And he said, “Well you really have to do your research first to find an idea.
So with us, the research that I began doing to write my first promotion was that I started talking to some of our gurus that we employed here at Agora Financial, and I asked them what ideas that they were excited about, and I’ll give you a specific here, just because I, hopefully it makes it a little more concrete. At the time, we had a guru who was a Harvard-trained geologist. So, he has a very—he had a very interesting background; his name is Byron King, he’s still with us here at Agora Financial, but he was a Harvard-trained geologist that got his start in the 1970’s as a oil recovery engineer. So he would be brought into all of the oil wells that they thought were tapped out, and he would be the one responsible for trying to figure out how to get more of the oil that was left down there in those wells out after they thought they were tapped out. From there he went on to be a pilot in the Air Force, and he served our country, and from there he became a bankruptcy attorney, and then he made his way to us as our lead geologist for a commodity-based newsletter. So I called up Byron, and I said “Byron, I need to write a promotion. I’m excited to write a promotion. I don’t know where to start, so what ideas do you have that are exciting write now. And what Byron told me at the time—and again, this is 2007, 2008, so you know, you rewind the clock ten or eleven years for anybody that financially savvy and they’ll kind of understand the story that’s about to unfold, but what Byron told me that he was most excited about at the time was the idea of geothermal energy.
So for those who aren’t geologists in the crowd, geothermal energy is pretty simple. You know, the Earth’s core is very hot, and if you can tap into that heat source by drilling a really long hole in the ground, you can put a pipe and steam comes out of that pipe; it can turn a turbine, and you can power things through geothermal energy—thermal energy that’s heated by the Earth. So again you find the hottest areas of the Earth, you drill a big tunnel, you put a pole down in there, steam comes out of the pole, you put a turbine at the time, and it can power things. It’s a very green energy source, it’s a clean energy source, and at the time, oil prices were going bananas. So oil prices were going up up up, and people were looking for alternative energy sources. So Byron really turns me on to this idea, and he says, “Look, I’m really excited about geothermal energy.” So I said, “Okay, that’s my seed of my idea”, and because we deal in the financial markets at the end of day, we’re going to ask people to pay us money to give them recommendations in the financial markets. So Byron had a couple of stock recommendations that he wanted to give to people, so I knew it was going to be geothermal, and I knew I had a couple of stock recommendations.
So then, I started doing a ton of research about geothermal energy, because I knew nothing about geothermal energy. All I knew is I wanted to write a promotion. So through my research in geothermal energy, I came across what I thought was the big idea: geothermal energy was my core idea, but I didn’t think it was a big idea. So I started doing a lot of research on geothermal, and I found out there was a naval base in California called China Lake Naval Base that was heating and powering its entire naval base on geothermal energy, and at the time they were producing so much geothermal energy they were selling back into the California electrical grid at a profit. So then I started researching this China Lake Naval Base and found out how heavily guarded it was, like every other naval base, you know; they had these sixteen foot barbed wire fences, and these guards that stood outside.
So I thought of an idea, which would be a energy site so secret that not only did you need a top-secret clearance to see it, but it was being guarded 24/7 because it had discovered this new form of energy inside this naval base. So that was kind of my hook of my idea, and I wrote a full-length sales package on my idea after doing tons of research. That was my hook, and then I went into how geothermal energy was going to change the world, and I had all these statistical studies, and then I teased the stock recommendations that Byron had, and I made an offer for the newsletter. So that was really how I got started from nothing more from a blank piece of paper, knowing what I wanted to do, talking to people who were smarter than I was about a certain area, then giving me the seed of an idea, then me doing research to find a hook, then writing the rest of the sales letter.
Rob: So when you’re in that process, what does it take you to do the research? And how do you know when you’ve got what you call a “big idea”? You know, because a lot of us would be like, “Okay, let’s start writing about, you know, the geothermal well or, the basics” and don’t take it to that next level, so yeah—two questions. How long do you research, and how do you know when you get the big idea?
Joe: Our anatomy of a promotion that we would produce at Agora Financial right now probably takes about eight weeks start to finish. Of those eight weeks, I probably spend four to five weeks just researching.
Joe: Purely researching. Before I ever put pen to paper. So research of ours takes a substantial amount of time because I’m always looking for that story that’s so deep that’s not being told that can really stop someone in their tracks. So one of the big mistakes that I see copywriters make—and I deal with so many copywriters, we have a team internally here of Agora Financial that’s about thirty different copywriters and then I’ve probably dealt with forty to fifty freelancers over the past couple of years on top of that—one of the biggest mistakes that I see is people begin writing before they’ve ever done a lot of research and before they know what their hook or their big idea is. So there’s an Abraham Lincoln quote that I always use that I think describes copywriting perfectly as it relates to Agora and specifically Agora Financial, and the Abe Lincoln quote says, something like, “If you give me five hours to chop down a tree, I’ll spend the first four sharpening the axe”.
Joe: So I spend four to five weeks probably just research, research, research, research, going down every rabbit hole I can possibly go down before I put pen to paper. How do I know it’s a big idea, so that’s the second part of that question. You know luckily, internally here at Agora Financial, a big benefit that we give to all of our writers is that you’re surrounded by effectively thirty other copywriters, just pure copywriters, who are trying to do the same thing you’re trying to do, and the easiest way to know how your idea kind of sits—if it’s a big idea, if it’s not a big idea—is simply to talk to those other writers. So, I encourage our guys, when you think you’ve found an idea, just talk openly and out loud to all these writers, you know? Pitch them your idea. Give them the thirty-second, sixty-second sales hook on your idea. Go talk to them, you know, and get their comment, and get their criticism, and get them to help you sharpen that axe. And you know, the biggest way I think to know if you do have a big idea or a good idea is that your going to be able to see it on someone’s face immediately.
Joe: You know they’ll get the proverbial “ah-ha!” moment, you know, that you’ll watch it on their face. So a lot of people don’t like to give comment or critique or criticism because they feel mean doing it. So what happens is that, you know, you’ll pitch an idea to someone and they just stare blankly back at you.
Joe: They don’t say “Hey, that’s the world’s worst idea. Laughs. They just stare at you. And I tell everybody that, if you get somebody just staring back at you, it’s not a good idea.
Rob: If you don’t get the “wow”, it’s not big enough
Joe: Exactly. If you don’t get them saying “wow, tell me more”…
Joe: Or begin to inquisitively ask a lot of deep questions about that idea, you know it’s not a big idea. So for us, what I would say is that if you hit a road like that, or if you hit a road block like that, you know, go back, do more research, and pitch another angle. Or pitch another writer, until you get people to say “Wow, tell me more!” or, or “What do you mean by that?” or “How do I invest in that?” You know? And you’re going to know that after thirty or sixty seconds. So again, bringing it back to the problem that I see most copywriters make, is most copywriters begin writing when that axe is not sharp.
Joe: And then they turn something into me and my biggest or critique or comment to them is that the idea’s wrong. You know the writing might be brilliant, but the idea isn’t brilliant. So what I always say too internally, is that I can make an extraordinary idea work with ordinary words, but I can’t make an ordinary idea work with extraordinary words. So a lot of people think that the writing matters so much, and for us, the writing doesn’t matter as much—it’s the expression of an idea, a good, big, captivating, emotionally compelling idea that matters more than our writing. So four to five weeks, probably spent on research, and then a lot of verbally pitching ideas to make sure that we get that wow moment before we ever really begin writing.
Kira: Wow. Okay, I love all of this because it’s such a good reminder to spend more time on research, and build it into our projects and our proposals rather than just rushing into it. So, to get into the weeds a little bit here, you know I know at Agora you have your gurus, and it sounds like that’s where you go first to get some ideas, but a lot of the copywriters listening are not within Agora and they don’t necessarily have the gurus, so would you recommend we go to the customers for the ideas? We go to the client, we go elsewhere, I mean there are many different places we can go to start the research but have you found anything that works well if we don’t have that guru?
Joe: Yeah. I would say for us—and I’m not saying that this is a right or wrong process, I’m just telling you how we would do it—we rarely go to our customers to try to get the ideas. We really don’t do that for two reasons. I’m a big fan of Steve Jobs, and I think if you’ve ever seen any Steve Jobs quotes, he often times says the customer doesn’t know what they want until you show it to them.
Joe: And then the other quote that I’m a fan of is Wayne Gretzky, the famous hockey player, and when he was asked how he scores so many goals, he said something like, I skate to where the puck is going to be, not to where the puck has been.
Joe: I think the customers have a hard time understanding where that puck is going to be. So, coming back to your question, what we do is we go to all the news sources that the customers are reading, and we try to draw out the next story based on the news cycle that the customer’s seeing. So said a different way, we try to find what we believe is hot in the prospect’s mind, and what the story that isn’t being told about that hot market is. So, for instance, in the financial world, and I’m not sure when this will go live, but in the financial world right now, I’ll ask you guys—you may know…
Rob: Crypto. Crypto’s huge.
Joe: Crypto, crypto, crypto, right? Crypto is the hottest bull market I have ever seen in my career at Agora. So again, I’m looking at sixteen years at Agora, and I’ve never seen a market like this. So everybody and their brother is trying to say what is the next idea about cryptos, right? So if we were to ask our customers, I think they’d just say cryptos, that’s what they want. But that doesn’t give us a big idea, right? So what we always try to say is what’s the story that’s not being told about the hot market? So, in this case, what’s the crypto story that’s not being told? And we would go try to research independent of our gurus if we didn’t have those gurus, we would try to do our own independent research of the crypto story that’s not being told.
So it’s really a two-part equation: you know, we go and we try to find what’s hot in the prospect’s mind based on the news cycle, and then what is not being told about that news cycle story. So how do we take it to the next level? You know, how do we skate to where that puck’s going to be? How do we shift that paradigm in a new interesting way to where the news cycle might be in three or four months? So specifically, for crypto right now, what we believe where that puck is going to be in a couple of months is not so much on crypto, because that’s pretty much peak crypto right now, but we think it’s going to turn to, in the financial markets, in the block chains.
A lot of people don’t know block-chain technology, but it’s the underlying technology that all of the crypto currencies run on, and it has many more applications outside of crypto currencies. So we’re turning our attention right now towards block-chain. Our customers don’t want it yet because they don’t know about it, but we think it’s what they’re going to start hearing about very soon in the news cycle, so we think two to three months later, everyone’s going to hear about block-chain in a way that they’re hearing about Bitcoin right now. So we might be completely wrong about that, but that’s what we’re going to try right now. So it’s always trying to find the blank story about the hot market, and research a whole ton of what those same customers are researching and reading.
Kira: Alright, Joe, I wanted to say, you know, what I liked about you when I met you, is your competitive spirit; and I met you at Copy Chief Live and I just remember when we were sitting down, you were very upfront about how you just wanted to kind of beat everyone, and that’s what really drew me to you. So I want to hear a bit more about the writing process; so we’ve talked about the big idea, and let’s say now you have the big idea, you feel pretty good about it, so what does it look like when you’re actually sitting down to write it at this stage? Where do you start?
Joe: Sure. So, here’s what I always tell all of our writers: for me, I’m not the smartest person in the world. So I need some type of system to take me from a blank piece of paper to a finished sales letter. I’m not smart enough to have a blank piece of paper and not know where I’m going, and produce a brilliant sale letter, like I need a system for me. So, I have designed our system around a couple different parts of this process that I think take people from big idea conception to a finished sales letter much faster than literally staring at a blank piece of paper. So if you look at our writing process, like you just said, we spend such a considerable amount of time on the big idea itself. We do do those verbal pitches.
So step number one is do the research; step number two in the system is to do verbal pitches, and to now begin writing—the actual writing part—until you get that “wow” moment; step number three in the actual writing process is that we focus on headlines and leads of course. So, you know we look at the headline complex and we say, “Go ahead and write a headline” and “Go ahead and write a lead”. Typically that we would define a lead as the first page or two as copy, so let’s just the first 250 to 400 words; so that’s step number three.
Once you have an idea, once you’ve talked to people out loud and gotten that wow moment, go ahead and write a headline and lead. And what we’re looking for in the headline and lead is, does the headline have stopping power? So does the headline stop someone in their tracks, get them to pay attention, and get them to read the lead? And then, does the lead begin to offer some type of proof, begin to offer some type of urgency, and continue to deepen the curiosity about the big idea? That’s what we’re looking for in step three; that’s what we’re looking for in the headline and lead. If that kind of passes approval—and by passes approval, what I mean is what we’ll do is pass that around to a couple copywriters, so just like we would verbally pitch an idea, we would pass around our headlines and leads and just try to get a pretty binary comment: would you read on? Does this headline stop you, yes or no? And if not, can you offer me any critiques or ways to make it better? And if so, could I make it better in any type of way? So that’s kind of step number three, is going to be the headline and lead.
Step number four is going to be what we call “copyboarding”. It’s kind of like a storyboarding process that film-makers use, where they organize what scene in a movie has to be before a different scene. What we do in copyboarding is we take the storyboarding process and apply it to copywriting. So once you have your big idea, once you’ve pitched it, once you have your headline and lead, what we do is we sit around and we have about a two-hour meeting on a copyboard, and we say, “What are all the objections that that reader is potentially going to have after hearing that big idea?” And we list all the objections. Then we say, “In what order, in which scenes of the movies, do we have to organize those objections first before we organize other objections? So, if you guys listen to Scott Adams at all, who is the creator of Dilbert, who has done an amazing job trying to study Trump’s persuasion secrets that he used to win the White House—he just wrote a book called Win Bigly—you know, Scott Adams says that people who are able to say stuff before the other party is thinking it are viewed as very likeable people.
So if you can anticipate what someone is about to say and say it before they say it, you know you typically find that you’ll like that person, or that person will like you. So that’s what we’re trying to do in copyboarding, is to say, what are the objections, and let’s find a way to address those objections before the reader has them, because once the reader has them, we may have lost them. So we sit around, we list all the objections, and then we organize the objections in an order that we think we have to overcome them, and then we turn those objections into benefit-driven subheads that essentially are the outline of our promotion. So that is step number four, is from the headline and lead, we enter a two-hour copyboarding meeting; we walk out of that meeting with an outline for the full promotion, all the way down to the offer. The next step is that once the promotion is written—so we go ahead and the copywriter goes away, you know, a week or two, or whatever. Might be, for us, we typically find the writing process to be fast at that point because the big idea is there, all the research is there; all we’re doing is filling in between the subheads. You know; we’re putting more flesh to those bones of those subheads to overcome those objections within those sections.
And then when that is done, we do an out-loud read. So we gather the same four or five copywriters back and we read the promotion aloud. And we ask that everybody in the room stay silent but make notes on the paper. Make notes of anything you find confusing, anything you find intriguing, anything you find boring; and then at the end of that live read, which our promos typically run anywhere to about 5,000 words to about 20,000, so the average live read is probably any hour, hour and fifteen minutes. Out of that meeting, the writer gets four or five printed promotions back from the people in the room all with comments on them, and they can look at them and say you know, if everybody found the section on page two confusing, then I’m going to rewrite that section. If everybody found the idea on page eighteen intriguing, and they’re asking me to move it up, I’m going to move it up.
From there, we do have a large compliance team because, at that point, it’ll have a final draft and we deal in the financial markets so we send that to a compliance team, and the compliance team says you can say this, you can’t say that in the financial markets, and then we put it in production and then we test it. So that whole week, or that whole process is probably about an eight-week long process. But just to summarize again from a writing standpoint: step number one is the research, which should form the big idea; step number two is verbal pitches; step number three is going to be headlines and leads; step number four is going to be an outline/copyboarding process; step number five is going to be to fill that outline in with copy to get first draft; step number six is going to be a live read; step number seven is going to be a final draft based on that live read, and then everything after that is going to be some type of production.
Rob: Nice. How many promotions do you guys have going on at one time, and what are all the moving parts? I imagine that once you got the sales page in place, there are, you know, dozens, maybe even hundreds of emails or other promotional things that you’re doing to promote the sales page itself. What does that all look like?
Joe: So we at Agora Financial write a ton of copy. And again, this is slightly different from other Agora divisions. We produce somewhere north of about two times as much copy as any other Agora division. So last year in 2017, we probably put out 150 different sales letters…
Joe: Like, start-to-finish different sales letters which again, are anyway from 5,000 words to 20,000 words. At any given moment, probably 20% of those are working. So, you know, we probably wrote thirty promotions that worked last year. And by working for us, we either mean that if it’s a front end promotion whose goal is to bring new customers into our business, working means at some point it’s probably bringing in more than 10,000 new customers total, and if it’s a back-end, priced north of like a thousand bucks for us in the financial markets, simply meant to monetize our internal customers, anything above let’s say a million and a half, a two million dollar package, would be considered a working package for us. So when you combine these two, we probably have thirty different promotions at any given moment that are working.
What we do after we write the sales letters, we have a very, very, very large traffic-driving team who test that particular sales letter as many places as they can possibly find. So, we’ll take traffic in any way as long as it’s qualified traffic. So like, you’re saying we have hundred and hundreds of email drops that we rent every single month, so the copywriter is asked to provide short email copy that our teaser copy basically to get people to click into the full-length sales letter, we test those via email; we look through click through rates, obviously, as the guider of if that particular email is working or not, to lead into the sales letter.
We have a couple Facebook and Google experts of course that are running all the traffic on Facebook and Google, and going back to the copywriter and asking for the particular ad specifications and Google or Facebook may allow. We have a whole affiliate program; we probably have 250 to 300 affiliates that are promoting our stuff at any given moment.
So, one thing I would say for any copywriters that are listening, you know, if you’re in the freelance market, or if you think a full-time job with a company like Agora Financial or Agora or one of our competitors externally would be helpful: one of the questions that I don’t get asked ever by a copywriter that everybody should be asking—everybody, every copywriter should ask this question if they’re looking at doing client work, and no one asked me this, is: “What do you do to drive traffic?” Every copywriter should ask that. Because for us, you know, we find that in Agora, I’ve seen a certain sales letter convert at a certain rate…let’s say, we get a sales letter converting at 5% to cold traffic. Where that promotion scales or where that copywriter earns a significant amount of royalties is dependent on the traffic-driving team. I’ve seen other promos in Agora by other Agora divisions that I don’t believe have as robust traffic-driving teams as we do at Agora Financial; I’ve seen other promotions convert the same as ours to cold traffic, but the copywriter won’t earn much of any royalties because the traffic-driving team isn’t driving a lot of traffic.
So the way I always try to explain that: it’s like that saying, that if a tree falls in the woods, and there’s no one around to hear it, does it make a sound? And if you convert that copy—if you have the world’s best converting sales copy, but you don’t have people to drive traffic to it, do you ever earn royalties? And the answer, of course, is no! You need traffic to create the total equation of direct response because it’s going to be converting copy plus traffic. So one of the things we’ve done at Agora Financial is, I knew that in order to have the best copywriting team, I needed the best traffic driving team. So we probably have thirty to forty people that are driving traffic right now to all of our sales letters, because I understood how important it would be to pay our copywriters the largest royalty checks which is my goal.
I want all of our copywriters to earn the largest royalty checks in the industry, because I know our business will grow, and I know to do that, I needed the best traffic-driving team. So, to make a long story short, we have a ton of Facebook experts on staff now; we have a ton of Google display expert on staff; a ton of affiliate people; managers; and a ton of email drop buyers of which they’re all going back to the copywriter constantly and saying, “Hey, this ad got rejected by Facebook; this ad’s clicking through like crazy on Facebook, maybe you should create a new headline and lead for your promotion.” So there’s a ton of inner activity between our media buyers, or traffic drivers, and our copywriters.
Kira: And Joe because you mentioned royalty checks, I would love to hear, just, what do copywriters at Agora Financial make? And I know it varies, but can you share just any ballpark numbers so we know what to expect?
Joe: Yep, absolutely. To be totally honest and transparent, the philosophy that we have at Agora Financial is that we are not going to get rich on base salaries. So all of our base salaries here at Agora Financial are not huge base salaries. So all of our base salaries are, you know, enough to live on, not richly live on, but enough to live on, so our typical new copywriter to us will probably make somewhere around $35,000 to $55,000 of a base salary, our copywriter that’s been with us for a few years and have had a couple of hits probably make between $50 and a $100,000 base salary, our copywriters that are more of a mentoring, chiefing role will probably make $100 to $150,000 at base salary. Where they can get rich is on the royalties. So the base salaries, again, 35-150 thousand- base salaries. Our royalty rates can run anywhere from a percent up to north of 5 or 6 percent. When you add that all together, you know, we have certain copywriters—who are on staff with us—who only make $35,000 a year, their base salary, because none of their copy is working. We have another copywriter who will probably be paid north of one and a half to two million this year. And then everybody else is going to be somewhere in between. So it’s so variable. The only consistent is that we try to keep our base salaries low and our royalties can make us rich. The copywriter who’s going to make north of a million and a half this year has a base salary right around $100,000.
Rob: Wow. So I imagine that there are people listening who have that same reaction. Like, I need to work for Agora! So what do you guys look for when you’re hiring a writer?
Joe: Through the years we’ve hired so many writers and we’ve dealt with so many different people and you know, we’ve retained a lot of people and we’ve lost a lot of people to the point where I think we’ve kind of refined our hiring process, at least more than what it used to be. And the first thing I tell everybody is I don’t look at a resume. So anybody that wants to work alongside of us, don’t ever send me your resume, please, because I just won’t look at it. I don’t care about resumes, I don’t care about titles, I’ve never found any correlation of something on a resume that will predict the future success of a copywriter. So I’ve just ignored all resumes at this point. I don’t care where someone went to school, I don’t care if they have a graduate degree from an Ivy League school, or if they never went to, you know, if they ended up graduating eleventh grade. I don’t care about education.
What I do care about and what I think that we’ve boiled down three criteria that we’ve found that do make everybody succeed who have succeeded, and number one is: insane curiosity. So all of our copywriters who have succeeded are curious about the world. Meaning that they’re good at research. They don’t take the mainstream viewpoint as gospel, that they look at things in the mainstream and they say, I’m curious about that. Why is Bitcoin going up? So Bitcoin is going up, we all know it’s going up, crypto’s going up, but why is that the case? You know? And do I think that’s going to continue? I’m going to go do a lot of research on that. So curiosity is the number one thing that we always look for. Curiosity.
Number two thing that we always look for is work ethic. I’ve not met a lazy copywriter that succeeded with us so far. Because for me, maybe if you’re the world’s most brilliant person you can be lazy, but again, for me, I’m not. I find myself, I think, I’m very average as far as intelligence. I always tell everybody that my wife beats me in Jeopardy at least 50% of the time. But the only thing I’ve got that I think I have above my competition is that I’ll outwork anybody. I’ll work harder than anybody because I want it more. So work ethic for us. If you have the work ethic, and you have the curiosity, you’ve got two of the three things that it takes to succeed. Our most successful people in the office get in here very early and leave very late. I don’t think copywriting is a 9-5 job. Because your ideas can’t be limited to an 8 hour work day! Your ideas have to almost consume you. Right? You’re going to come up with all those interesting things—breakthrough ideas—either in your sleep, or driving to work, or while you’re running at the gym. Not that you have to be a workaholic, but you have to be thinking about your craft all the time. So work ethic is number two.
And the third thing that we always look for is the ability to fail without feeling like a failure. So for us, our best copywriters only succeed about 40% of the time. And again, I told you earlier that copywriting for us is about an eight week process, so if you do the math there, our copywriters only write about 6 full length sales letters a year. And our best copywriters only succeed in 40% of that. So, you know, maybe our best copywriters might get two to three packages a year that are successful. Our new copywriters may go a year or two without seeing a successful package. So what happens is that people spend 8 weeks of their life on an idea and they’re convinced it’s a great idea and they’ve got all this research done and they’ve poured their heart into it and it goes out and it fails, statistically, it’s going to say that it’s going to fail. And then people feel like a failure. You know, they can’t get back up on that horse and they can’t say let’s go at it again! And they get gun-shy. So the way I always explain this is, have you guys seen the movie Top Gun?
Rob: Oh yeah.
Rob: Too many times.
Joe: Too many times, right? I don’t know how old you guys are—I’m 38 and that was like my youth growing up, Top Gun.
Joe: So if you guys remember, there’s a scene in Top Gun where there’s Maverick, who’s Tom Cruise, and Goose, and I don’t know his name, but Goose is the co-pilot and they hit the eject button and the top of the F14 wing shield pops up and they both eject out of it and Goose hits the top of the windshield and goes and dies in the ocean. Right? And Maverick can’t reengage. Maverick tries to go up there and fly the plane again and Viper, he’s like the sergeant or something like that, I don’t know the military term. He’s down there on the ground watching Maverick up there trying to fly the plane and Maverick won’t engage the enemy because he’s so damn scared of what happened with Goose. That’s the same thing that happens with a lot of people that we onboard. They fail, you know, they die on the copywriting vine, and they have trouble getting back up at it. And they have trouble reengaging.
So the people who succeed with us are people who fail but don’t feel like a failure. People who fail and say, what did I learn from this, how do I do it better next time? I’m going to be depressed for a day, but I’m going to get over it and get back up on that thing and try it again. The people who don’t succeed are people who say Oh my god, I’m scared, I don’t want to pitch ideas anymore, I’m looked at as a failure, people are going to hate me, you know, everybody had such high hopes for this package… So that’s the third thing. The ability to fail without feeling like a failure. So those are the three things that we look for: insane curiosity, work ethic, and the ability to fail without feeling like a failure. If people have those things, no matter their education, no matter their past copywriting experience or ability, I’m convinced their lives are changed by joining something like Agora Financial or one of our competitors that may have a similar type of copywriting training program—whatever it might be—because those are the things I think it takes to succeed as a copywriter in our style business.
Rob: Joe, when you’re talking about failure, do you guys take a failing sales page and tweak it to try to, you know, make it perform better? Or do you just look at it and say this is a wash, let’s get rid of it, let’s start over?
Joe: It depends on the response. So if something is an absolute bomb, we pretty much say, let’s ignore it, we’re going to forget about it, let’s go back to the drawing board. And I’ll give you a specific here in just a second. If something is kind of middle of the road for us, we may play around with it. We may try a bunch of different email creative. If one of the email creative pieces of copy gets an enormously high click through rate, we may go re-headline to lead the promotion. So to give you some specifics on that, again, for us, all of our front-end promotions, we test internally to our house traffic first because it’s cheap and it’s easy and we can get to it fast. Right? So if someone has a front-end promotion for us, we test it to our internal traffic and we drop an email and pretty much if it gets less than a percentage and a half conversion rate, we forget about it forever. If it’s like a percentage and a half to a two and a half percent conversion rate, we’ll probably tweak it. If it’s two and a half plus, we’ll probably run with it as it is because it’s a good enough sales letter.
So, the answer is, it depends on really where it falls on that sliding scale. Beneath one and a half percent, we’re just going to ditch it and say, we tried! Let’s go back at it with another idea. Anything middle of the road, we’ll tweak, we’ll tweak, we’ll tweak, and see if we can finally find it. If after five or six times of tweaking and we can’t find it, we’ll drop it and move on with the next one.
Kira: Joe, before we wrap, I’d love to hear about what you’re looking for right now. Are you hiring new copywriters? And what do you need specifically at this time?
Joe: Yeah, so we have found in our business, I believe there’s almost a direct correlation between building a copy team and watching our business grow. So, we’ve been very lucky over the past couple of years just to kind of throw some specifics about our business out—three years ago we did something right around 51 million gross, for our business. Two years ago, we grew that to 80 million, then we did 140 million the year after that, and we just passed kind of the 240 million mark in 2017.
Rob: That’s crazy growth. Nice.
Joe: It’s crazy. I’m always thinking it’s going to end and like, plummet back to earth like the crypto markets, so I’m very—I don’t know—cautious? About our hyper-growth, but if I could correlate it to anything, it’s because 3, 4, 5 years ago, we really started from scratch in building this copy team and now we have thirty copywriters and I’ve got 11 new writers that are coming in and just started, so that team will quickly go up to like 41 copywriters, totally, so I’m not going to slow down the hiring of copywriters because I do think that the correlation of business growth has been perfectly correlated with the growth of our copy team. So I’m always, always, always at any moment, looking for copywriters that potentially would like to have their lives changed to join us. And if they have those three things, I’d love to hear from them. Again, I don’t care about pedigrees, I don’t care about previous samples or other sales letters or anything like that, because I’m confident that if they have those three things, you know, it’ll work with us. Maybe it works faster than it does if they do already have tons of copywriting experience than what it would take if someone doesn’t have any copywriting experience, but I always do want them to have those three things and if they do, then I’d love to talk to them, you know, and see if we can change our lives together. If we can grow rich together. If we can massively help our customers and continue to grow the business and continue to do what I believe to be the best work in the financial publishing industry, on behalf of our subscribers, I’d love to do that with new copywriters.
Rob: Do you guys have opportunities for writers who don’t want to do sales copy, in particular? They want to focus maybe more on content-type work?
Joe: We do. We don’t attach royalties to those type of writers, just because it’s harder for us to measure in our business, directly the sales that come from such writing, but we’re always looking for writers in general. So we have a ton of gurus that we work with that you guys previously mentioned that I was telling the story about. A lot of the gurus are people that have amazing experience in life in a specific asset class of finance, like the gentleman I mentioned earlier who’s named Byron King—he was a geologist. Some of the gurus aren’t the best writers. So we do oftentimes have the need to have a writer come in, listen to what a guru is saying, and try to translate that on paper to persuasively deliver that idea to existing subscribers. So we would call those more internally like, a managing editor of a publication or something like that. The compensation is much different on that because again, we have a hard time giving royalties on that because we can’t directly attribute it to sales but we are always of course, looking for those type of writers as well. So anybody new that could clearly communicate an idea to a potential customer of ours by listening, potentially, to a gurus ideas and putting them into a clear, concise format that’s digestible, we always have room for those writers as well.
Kira: And for anyone who is interested, should they email you? Or go to a specific website?
Joe: Yeah, so the best way right now is just to email me. So if you guys don’t mind, I’ll give my email address out…?
Rob: Do it!
Joe: So, it is my first initial, J, and my last name, Schriefer, which is S as in Sam, c, h, r, i, e, f as in Frank, e, r, at Agora Financial dot com. (firstname.lastname@example.org) Which is A, G, O, R, A financial dot com. So I’ll spell it all once more. email@example.com and the only thing I tell everybody is that I get a gazillion emails a day, so if you’d like to potentially do business with us or see if our lives could change together, is do something weird or strange or unique just to get my attention in the subject line, because as we know, as copywriters, that’s kind of our number one job, right? We have to get attention in a very crowded marketplace. And if they can’t get my attention, then they may not be able to get a prospect’s attention in the future. So just do something weird or strange—get my attention in some way.
Rob: You want a big idea, right?
Joe: I’ve had people do extremely strange stuff to get my attention. Laughs. I’ve had really weird packages arrive at the office which are like, multiple part applications, to which I’ve hired every strange person like that because it tells me that there’s some type of outside the box thing here.
Rob: Nice. I like it.
Kira: All right, well thank you, Joe, for your time and for sharing the details of your research and writing process. I know I took a lot away from it, so thank you.
Joe: Absolutely. Anything I could do to help you guys, you know, your community; the way I look at it, copywriting is a massive passion of mine, my knowledge is an inch wide but a mile deep because it’s only in this financial publishing niche, and tangentially maybe the health and survival niches, but really, it’s this long-form sales copy niche. So any value that I can provide to you, to your community; even if someone doesn’t want to explore a relationship but may want some more information on anything I’ve said, feel free to write me! It’s a very small knit community, but I’m passionate about it and I like friends and you never know what the future holds for any of us, so anybody that wants to ask me any questions, I’m an open book. I’ll be transparent about our business, I’m happy to show anything about how we’ve grown, or what our media buyers do or how it relates to copy—anything that could help your community out, I’m all ears.
Rob: Thanks, that’s an awesome offer; we appreciate it!
Joe: And thank you, guys, very much for having me on today!
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 on 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, a full transcript, and links to our Facebook community, visit thecopywriterclub.com. We’ll see you next episode.