Ken McCarthy, also known as the “World’s Most Secretive Copywriter” and “Mr. Internet,” is the guest for this episode of The Copywriter Club Podcast, jammed full of great advice for any copywriter who wants to grow beyond simply writing for clients. Ken may be the only guy who can talk about speed reading, the origins of the internet, Johnny Rotten, making soup, Tested Advertising Methods, and of course, copywriting—and have it all make sense in the end. Listen and learn:
• how Ken become the “world’s most secretive copywriter”
• what you have to do to “get good” at copywriting
• Ken’s recommendation about how to grow your business beyond copy
• the “stone soup” method for creating a product
• how to avoid the “me too” trap—perhaps the biggest mistake people make online today
• the marketing secret Ken learned from a punk rock drummer
• the books he recommends to give you an unfair advantage over the other copywriters
Told you it was jam packed with good stuff. It’s all here in episode 36. Click the play button below, or scroll down for a full transcript.
The people and stuff we mentioned on the show:
The link to Ken’s interviews (updated)
Nine Inch Nails
Tested Advertising Methods
The Robert Collier Letter Book
Ken’s Copy Clinic
My Life in Advertising
The Copywriter Club Facebook Group
Intro: Content (for now)
The Copywriter Club Podcast is sponsored by Airstory, the writing platform for professional writers who want to get more done in half the time. Learn more at Airstory.co/club.
Kira: What if you can hang out with seriously talented copywriters and other experts, 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 36 as we chat with Ken McCarthy, who’s been called the world’s most secretive seven-figure copywriter, about how he has built his business from internet pioneer to where he is today, the most common mistakes writers and other business owners are making online, the books and courses he says will give our listeners a competitive advantage over other writers, and whatever else comes up as we talk.
Kira: Hey, Rob. Hey, Ken, how’s it going?
Ken: Hey, good.
Rob: Ken, welcome to the podcast.
Ken: Thank you very much, glad to be here.
Rob: We’re excited to talk with you. You’ve got a wide range of experience, and I think we could probably go on for hours and hours, but since our time’s a little bit limited, let’s start with your story, where you came from and how you became the most secretive copywriter in the world.
Ken: That’s a really interesting headline or tagline. That was written actually by Ben Settle. He wrote it for me, and he’s a great copywriter, and it was written to actually promote a copywriting info marketing course that I have. He wrote it based on having taken the course. Rather than me write the letter, one of my students wrote the sales letter based on what he learned from me. Now that being said, Ben was already a really good copywriter when I met him. I didn’t teach him everything he knows. He was already really good, but the letter that he wrote was based on the learnings that he got from the course. Anyway, that’s how I became the most secretive seven-figure copywriter.
It’s fairly accurate. In fact, it’s exactly accurate. Very few people think of me as a copywriter, which shows how good my copy is. They just think I’m this guy who does things, but it’s all driven by copy. I wouldn’t have been able to accomplish anything without my ability to write copy, I mean, nothing. That’s the secret part of me, and then the seven-figures thing is the businesses that I’ve operated, my own businesses, they have generated way into the seven-figures. I guess it’s probably, gross is certainly eight, low eight, but eight nonetheless, and it’s all come from copy. I don’t know if I’m the world’s most secretive. There might be someone even more secretive than me, but yeah, that’s me.
I always like to write. That’s sort of on one side of the equation. I just read a lot. I always wrote a lot starting at a really young age, and that cannot hurt. If you want to be a copywriter, it behooves you to notice that part of copywriting is writing. It’s right there in the world. The more you write the better. I was talking with somebody the other day about finding one’s voice in writing, and he made a really interesting point. You find your voice when you stop saying all this tilted, unnatural stuff that you think people want to hear and you start writing what you actually feel and think. The more you write the closer you’re going to get to being able to find your voice, and then after you find your voice, then you can start playing with writing in other voices, which is sort of client work.
I’ve always read and I’ve always written a lot and I recommend everybody who is a copywriter, this is our fuel. I mean, this is how we get good, read, read, read, read, read, read everything, not just ad copy books and marketing and business books, but widely in psychology and history, biography, all these things are helpful. Probably everybody on this call knows of the late great Eugene Schwartz. When he was writing ad copy for a book that he was selling, and he sold lots and lots of books, he not only go through the book with a fine tooth comb and find every interesting thing about the book to create bullets to put in the sales letter, he’d read like 10, 20, 30, 40 books around the topic of the book that he was promoting to try to get some interesting tidbits and insight and flashy things to say about the topic. The more you read and the more knowledgeable you are about whatever it is you’re trying to write ad copy about, the better off you’re going to be. I always wrote a lot.
Now, then I found myself stranded and broke in New York City, which is not a good thing, and unemployed, and this was when I was in my early 20s. I was 24, and I had this tech writing job in Fort Lee, New Jersey. Oh my God, what a nightmare, but anyway, it paid pretty well and that was my vision of what was possible for me at the time. I was writing technical manuals for computer software, and then the company lost the contract and they kicked us all to the curb, and here I was in Manhattan with an apartment and rent to pay and no idea of what to do. I had been pretty expert in speed reading and study skills. I had actually taught that subject for a couple of years when I got out of college. I had read, again, going back to the reading theme, I didn’t read a few books about it. I read mountains of books about it. I mean, every book ever written about speed reading and study skills, and there are a lot of them actually, I read them.
I said, “Well, I’m broke, I’ve got to pay my rent, I’ve got to eat,” and all these things were extreme, like this was a really extreme situation. What I did was I made up a flyer, speed reading, and I posted it all over Broadway on the Upper West Side, which is where I was living in those days. It was a really great learning experience. I kind of knew that the more exposures the ad had the more chance I’d have for people to call, so I put the flyer everywhere. I knew that I had to have some way for people to get in touch with me, right? This was pre-internet days so I had my phone number, and I just made sure that poster was everywhere. People indeed did call and I started out by giving private lessons in my apartment, and then as time went on I got a big enough following that I could actually give classes, and that’s how I supported myself.
Along the way, not ever having heard the word copywriting, not ever having heard the word direct response or direct marketing, I discovered a lot of direct response principles and a lot of copywriting principles. I learned about headlines. I learned about bullet points. I learned about clear call to action. I learned about the importance of relentless follow-up. It was very simple business. I posted posters. People would call. I would talk with them, which I guess is inbound telemarketing. Then I’d get their name and address, and then I would mail them a more detailed description of the course, which was really ad copy. I didn’t know it at the time. Then every time I would put on a new class, I would just go back to my list and mail to the entire list of people that had made inquiries again.
I just washed, rinsed, and repeated over and over again. Every month I’d have a class or two, and I didn’t get rich, but I was able to live in Manhattan. I was able to pay my rent. I was able to buy books. I was able to have fun. I didn’t have to work too hard. I only taught an hour a week. I probably spent five hours a week putting up posters and an hour a week teaching. I probably could have been more ambitious and done more, but in those days I was kind of a archetypal slacker. I was very happy to only have to really work six hours a week. I guess I was the original four-hour a week guy, but I didn’t [crosstalk 00:07:23].
Rob: Yeah, Tim Ferriss could learn a lot from you.
Ken: Yeah. Yeah. Well, he got that idea for that title from using AdWords testing, running different AdWords and seeing which one people clicked on. That method of using AdWords as a testing device was developed by me and my faculty at the System Seminar back in 2002. There is a connection there. Anyway, I learned a lot about functional copy, and that’s probably the most important thing any writer can get, any ad writer, any copywriter, is we’re writing functionally. In other words, we’re trying to make specific things happen.
Everybody knows the old AIDA formula, I hope, Attention, Interest, Desire, Action, and you always start at the end when you’re conceiving what you’re going to write. You think, okay, what is the action that I want people to take? Even though it’s not in the formula, what is it that I want people to believe about the action? What is it going to get them? Why is it a benefit to them? Why would they want to take it? Then you work backwards from there. I always was thinking, I want my phone to ring. I want people to call who are interested in the whole issue of speed reading who want to talk with somebody about. I knew if I could talk with them about it, a good percentage of them would like what I had to say and would probably take the class.
That’s how I got introduced to copywriting, not knowing what copywriting was. I think it helped me a lot because I was thinking pure function. I was thinking I need to write things that will get the phone to ring. I need to write things that will reinforce people’s interest and desire and confidence that I can actually deliver. That was what was on my mind the whole time when I was writing.
Rob: How did you go from that to becoming the internet guy?
Ken: I got back into tech writing briefly, got paid phenomenally well, because then I graduated from writing software manuals to writing documentation of computer trading systems for Wall Street, so I was being paid really, really well, and I got badly injured. I was really racked up and things were very physically hard for me. I decided to move to California just to get away from the cold weather. It was just hard for me to even deal with cold weather. I mean, I was a wreck.
I was in San Francisco, which I discovered isn’t a whole lot warmer than New York at times, but it was a little bit warmer. I saw an article about a guy who was putting on these workshops around the country, events really, on what they called multimedia. This was before the CD-ROM became a consumer item. This was when if you wanted some kind of interactive media, it had to be custom-made for you. Companies like IBM and Boeing, big corporations that want to do really elaborate presentations would hire these mostly San Francisco-based interactive multimedia designers to create these interactive things, and so there was this growing movement of people who are becoming expert in doing interactive design.
One of the last things that I did when I was in New York City was I went to a conference at the Jacob Javits Center on consumer video. I mean, this is how long … When was this? This was the ‘90s, early ‘90s, late ‘80s, yeah, late ‘80s, the whole concept of people making videos about how-to subjects like fly fishing or crocheting or cooking. That didn’t exist, believe it or not, at a certain point in history. That was a cutting edge thing. They had this big conference at the Jacob Javits Center. I went and I listened to all these talks. They were fascinating, but there was one talk on interactive TV being given by this professor from MIT, and I just thought that was fascinating.
When I went out to San Francisco and I saw this guy dong this multimedia interactive stuff, I said, “This is great. I got to learn more about it.” I called him up. We had lunch. I read his ad copy, and it sucked. It was so bad. I said, “Look, I will write the ad copy for your conferences. I’ll just do it for you.” At that point, I guess I knew what ad copy was, and this is many years later. I wrote the copy so well that he was never able to change a word for the next three years. He just ran the same copy over and over again.
What he did was basically … He had a sponsor. His sponsors, Apple, IBM, Microsoft, gave him money to go on the road and basically inform the country that this multimedia thing was coming, that it was big, that CD-ROMs were going to be a big deal and they should all learn how to do interactive media. They would pay him sponsorship fees, and then he would go to Atlanta, and Chicago, and Boston, and put on these shows. IBM, and Apple, and Microsoft, and some other companies would get to raise the flag and say, “Hey, we’re progressive.”
That got me, as you could … He was the guy. He was the multimedia guy of San Francisco, and multimedia was a huge thing in San Francisco in the early ‘90s. It was huge. Everybody thought that was going to be the future. CD-ROM publishing was going to be the ultimate Buck Rogers, Space Age, Star Wars, portal to the future, you know?
Ken: There’s a lot of energy around it. By virtue of my relationship with him, and as you can image, he liked me a lot because he got great ad copy for free. That ad copy generated a lot more sales than he had been getting previously, so we became friendly. Then I stumbled on a online media a couple years later, and it just blew me away, because I had a business at the time, and it was entirely direct mail-driven. I was putting on seminars on, basically, real estate finance.
That’s a long story how I got into that, but I found a little niche. I realized that there were some things that people in the real estate finance industry wanted to know that they weren’t able to learn anywhere. I gathered all the experts together, put on events. I wrote the ad copy, of course. This time, I knew what ad copy was. I think it took me 10 years from the time I started writing copy to the day that I realized that copywriting was a thing.
Anyway, so I have been doing a lot of direct mails. When you do direct mail, you have to write big checks. It’s very frightening, mailing out 10,000 pieces of mail. We’ll just pull a number out of the air and say they’re a dollar each by the time you print the letter and stuff the envelope, have somebody stuff it, and then pay the postage and all that, give or take, a dollar. You’re writing a $10,000 check and it may not work, you know?
Ken: Maybe your copy is not really good. By the way, that’s great discipline. You really start to think about your ad copy when you’re writing a $10,000 check. The failure-
Ken: Really, really, and the failure of the letter means you’re dead, you know?
Ken: This is hard to imagine, but $10,000 was a fortune in the early ‘90s. It was a lot of money. I saw this online thing and I’m like, “This is amazing,” and then I went to a conference in Colorado where all the computer bulletin board operators got together, and I just was saturated in the whole concept of online media for about four days. I had notebooks with me, and I filled them up with idea.
Amazingly, when I got home, I realized that the most interesting people at the conference not only lived in San Francisco, but some of them were neighbors. One of them, in fact, was guy named Mark Graham, who in this days, this is hard to believe, but in San Francisco, he was called Mr. Internet, because nobody really was that interested in the internet in the early ‘90s in San Francisco, anywhere in the world. That was how he distinguished himself by being this internet expert, but it didn’t mean anything. It was like this blue sky, someday, we don’t know how it’s going to work, but it might be important someday. That was the feel that he … Anyway, he was a neighbor, so I got to know him. That was a really good thing.
Marc Andreessen who was a co-founder in Netscape and created the first web browser was still in college, and so he and I were corresponding, because I was just really interested in the Mosaic browser and what they were doing. Then he came to San Francisco. He had a sort of a not a very impressive job and was kind of lost, and then Jim Clark who had founded Silicon Graphics reached out to him and said, “Let’s start a company together.” I had been corresponding back and forth with Marc about, what is this web thing all about? What’s it going to do? How is it going to make money? How is it going to grow?
Somehow, and I forget how it happened, but I got the idea to put on my own one-day conference. I asked Marc if he’d speak and he said, “Yes.” I found some really pioneering commercial internet people. These people were very rare. One of my speakers was the first independent web designer on earth. Everybody else was working for Sun Microsystems. They had a job, and then as part of their job, they would make the website for the company, but this was the first guy ever to put out a shingle and say, “I am a web designer,” and his name was Marc Fleischmann.
I had Marc Fleischmann. I had Mark Graham, Mr. Internet. I had Marc Andreessen, who at that time really wasn’t well-known at all, and then I had a bunch of entrepreneurs that were doing interesting things. One guy had a job board way back in 1994, one of the first ones. I put on this event, and that involved, of course, writing ad copy. A lot of people … Multimedia world was really split in those days. Half the people thought what I was doing was a great idea, and then the other half, including some people that I would’ve thought would’ve given me at least the benefit of the doubt thought it was a really stupid idea, that there was not future in the internet, that-
Ken: I’m serious.
Rob: I remember those days.
Ken: I’m serious. I could tell you [crosstalk 00:17:02].
Rob: I can remember people dissing email. What would that ever be used for?
Ken: Yeah, exactly. 50% of the cutting-edge multimedia people thought that the internet was bullshit, and I would say about 85% of people on the software industry thought the internet was bullshit back in ‘94. I didn’t care. I thought it was interesting and I put this event on. Of course, that turned to be a really good that I did that, because suddenly I became Mr. Web Commerce in San Francisco in ‘94 and ‘95. That was a really good position to be in. That’s how I got started.
Part of what I want to talk about today is, yes, I am a copywriter or I write copy, and I could never have accomplished any of the things that I’ve accomplished without having been a copywriter, but I accomplished things that I accomplished because I had my eyes opened for opportunities beyond just writing copy for clients. I took a risk. I mean, putting on that event in San Francisco with all those guys, that cost me … Well, it cost me about $10,000 when all the smoke cleared. Now, I videotaped it and I sold the tapes. This was when there were no DVDs, and I made all my money back pretty quickly. Still, it was all a risk, but it turned out to be a really good risk.
While I am a copywriter, and I still read copywriting classics and I talk about copy and I hang out with copywriters, some of my best friends are copywriters, I just see it as means to an end as opposed to the end itself. I think that’s where there’s a lot of opportunity, because copywriters, if they really learn their business well, if they learn their trade well, learn how to think in very effective ways that are really helpful for starting and building and growing and expanding businesses. You have business people that are able, somehow, to make money without even a clue about really how to position themselves or how to promote themselves.
If somebody with copywriting savvy were to enter those same businesses, they’d have an enormous advantage, which in fact, I did when I started doing big internet seminars. Well, I started, obviously, in ‘94, and I did lots of events during the ‘90s. Then I took a little break for a couple years, and then I came back in 2002 and started doing the Systems Seminar. I wrote my own copy, and I was a good copywriter by then. I had the whole market for many years. It took a long time for people to catch up.
A lot of them had to do it by forming coalitions and sharing email list with each other to try and compete with me. I was just a solo guy with one assistant just running circles around everybody. I was able to do that, because my copy was so good. The lesson for me is learning the right ad copy is great, but learning the right ad copy, and then connecting it with the business that you control is, I think, even greater.
Rob: Yeah, for sure.
Kira: Ken, what are some missed opportunities for copywriters today? Is it that we should start a business beyond our copywriting service, or to focus more on strategy and consulting and events and seminars? What could we do more of and take advantage of?
Ken: Well, that’s a really good question, and a lot of it has to do with you. What are your proclivities? What are your interests? What’s your temperament? I’ve always liked events. Before I got involved in business things or internet things, I used to produce concerts when I was in college. I was an event-oriented guy. I’m strong advocate of events for many, many reasons. Number one, if you’re a copywriter, and an event is a great thing to sell for copywriters. It’s something where a copywriter can really create something out of nothing.
I mean, the first is going back to ‘94, that conference that I put on originally. I was really creating something out of nothing. They were all these loose strands. It was Marc Andreessen starting Mosaic now, then, Netscape. There was Mr. Internet trying to do what he was doing. There was Marc Fleischmann trying to be the first independent web … They were like separate little islands, and they didn’t know each other, and so they didn’t communicate with each other. Then the broader public or the boarder market, which in this case were tech people, media tech people, they didn’t know anything. They were completely lost.
The magic of bringing these particular people together and having this theme of web as a commercial platform, and then promoting that heavily and attracting the interested people to come and check it out. That was really a magical thing, and that was all copy-driven, in the sense that I had to write copy to make it happen, but I also had to think like a copywriter. I had to think of what’s the drama here, what’s the excitement here, or why should people get out of bed on a Saturday morning and truck to downtown San Francisco to hear these unknown people speak.
What do we do as copywriters? We add glamor. We add excitement. We add an aura to things. You can do that with events. If you do that with events, you get bigger audiences. Bigger audiences mean more money and so on, so I’m very high in events for that reason. You can put them together. I’ve always done them very economically. I’ve never paid a speaker. My cost to product was zero. Usually, you have to pay for the venue, but it’s a way to create a lot of value without a big investment.
Your investment is your mind, your ingenuity, your creativity, your copywriting ability, and you hustle, and next thing you know, you’ve got 100, 200, 300, 500, I mean, the sky is the limit, showing up and paying money at the door, and then now you’re suddenly the center of all this business activity. You’re the one person that everybody in that room knows, which has all kinds of business applications.
People are probably where you can sell things from events. I was never really big on that. I really always felt that if you’re selling a ticket to an event, the event should be the thing, but there’s nothing that prevents you from having events and making revenue at the door. Also, then using the event as a way to sell more things to people. Whatever niche you’re in, there’s always a possibility or potential for an event. It could be an event in a space, or it could be a virtual event.
The advantage for us, and by us, I mean the undercapitalized people of the world, is we don’t have to buy. We don’t have to manufacture a warehouse full of stuff. We don’t have to print 1,000 books or 1,000 home study courses. This is really thin air. We’re just dealing with relationships and ideas and time and space. It’s a great way to bootstrap your way into interesting opportunities.
Rob: Ken, you’ve talked a lot about events. I’m thinking about how would I extend my copywriting business, that sort of thing. I come up against this idea that just about everybody has a course or some other kind of a thing. Are you saying specifically that we should be looking at the niche and creating content and events or other products within a niche? You’re not necessarily saying do it about copywriting, or … Could you be more specific about that?
Ken: Yeah, I know, I’m glad you brought that up. No, no, I would … See, I think copywriters have a better chance to flourish if they are specialists, rather than just being sort of, I write copy. It’s better to be a financial copywriter, or a health copywriter. By the way, I brought those two topics up because those are the topics where the preponderance of money is spent on copywriting. It’s better to have a niche.
Now, let’s take health as an example. Let’s say you decide, hey, I’m a copywriter and I want to focus on health offers. I have a colleague that does this. I’m not suggesting you copy his idea, but here’s what he did. He sponsors every year this health marketing summit. He invites about 30 or 40 players in the health marketing arena, big people from the big firms and the big mail order companies. It started out as a free event. It originally started by just sponsoring this get-together. Everybody would come. They’d sit around a horseshoe table. Everybody would make a little presentation. He’d make a presentation. He’d have some guest speakers make presentations. Now, I believe, it’s a paying thing. You have to pay to come, but for the first several years, it was free.
That was ingenious, because, number one, he has now has positioned himself as a player. I mean, he always was a player, but I mean, this just solidified his position as a player in the health niche. If somebody wanted to get consulting about a new product or a strategy for expanding an existing business or improving a sagging product line, he would be one of the very first people that you’d think of. He didn’t advertise. He didn’t say, “Hey, I’m great. Here’s 20 reasons why you should hire me.” He just put himself at the head of the room, running this meeting with all the potential clients that he would ever like to have.
The way he got the clients together was they … Everybody in business needs time to get away and meet with their peers and talk about the business, just the industry, and share ideas and hunt up potential joint ventures. I mean, this is a very valuable thing in the business world, and so he created this occasion. I don’t know if you know the old fable, Stone Soup. Have you ever heard of that fable?
Rob: I haven’t.
Ken: Oh, this is really important. This is how you make things happen out of nothing. I’ll have to tell you the story. It’s not that long, but it’s really, really, really valuable. It was after the war and this soldier arrived in town and everything was devastated, and people were really suspicious of each other and everybody was hording and hiding their food, and he was really hungry. He started to talk to people about this wonderful dish called stone soup. He talked about it in such an intriguing way, okay, here’s where the copywriter skill comes in, that people listened. They became curious about this stone soup. They started to desire the stone soup.
They said, “Well, how do you make it?” He goes, “Well, I’ve got the stone, but I need some onions,” so one of these people who had been afraid to come forward with their food went to their stash, found some onions and brought the onions out. He said, “Great, now the next ingredient for stone soup is carrots,” and then somebody had carrots and they went to the same process. Then we also need some, oh, I don’t know, garlic. Starting with nothing, literally a stone, he was able to convince all these otherwise highly reluctant people to pitch in something of value in order to participate in this vision that he created of stone soup.
That’s how interesting events are created on a shoestring with no money. They’re created vision, and then you got to talk it up and convince people to participate. Then there’s a lot of labor involved in that, but it’s not so bad. That’s how you get people together all in one place who you otherwise might not even get a chance to talk to individually. Does that make sense?
Rob: Oh yeah.
Kira: Yeah. No, I love that idea, and I hadn’t really thought of it, but there are a couple club members that I can think of, copywriters who specialize in pets. I’m just thinking of this one specific copywriter. For example, she could host or throw an event for different pet stores, and she could be the only copywriter in the room and really position herself as the expert in that space.
I’m thinking, even for myself, I really want to get into virtual reality, and so you could throw an event in New York City and get some of the key players in there, even if it’s a small event, like you said, and then that’s how you can start to get that business, even if you’ve never written about it before.
Ken: Absolutely, and then everybody knows you. We often will say, “Well, I’m just a beginner and I don’t know anybody, and I got to work my way up the ladder.” There is no ladder. If you get yourself out of the equation and you just think in terms of what all the various parties want and need and would be interested and excited about, you can make the most amazing things happen.
In other words, don’t worry about whether you’re brand new or nobody has ever heard of you or nobody knows you, you just have to find the first person that’s interested in the idea or at least expresses interest in it. Now you can take that person’s name and use it to get the next person and the next person. Suddenly you have this critical mass, and then everybody wants to be there. Not everybody, but you get that critical mass of people that want to be there.
Yeah, I can’t think of a better way if you were … By the way, I do think that copywriters should really think beyond just the copy and think in terms of, all right, I can write copy, but I can also help with positioning and I can help with marketing systems, everything related … Because, remember, think functional. Think functional. People don’t want copywriters. People don’t want to pay copywriters. What people want are leads and they want to convert leads. That’s what they’re really paying for, so everything related to generating leads and converting leads.
For example, you should start to make yourself aware of people that generate traffic for specific niches. Who are the people that are really good at generating traffic for health or pets or virtual reality or any niche that you want to go in? Don’t just say, “Well, I’m a copywriter and I’m just going to sit here and wait for people to hire me to write copy.” The bigger your network is, the more people you know, the more … It’s like what I’m saying about reading earlier. The more you read, the better a writer you’re going to ultimately be.
The same thing with copywriting, you want to know every player. You want to know every business in the niche. You want to know what their products are. You want to follow their campaigns. You want to get some sense of how well they’re doing. You want to know who is generating traffic for them, who is designing their websites. I mean, there are so many data points that you could be gathering that would just naturally lead you to become a player in the niche that you want to be in.
My bias is to being a player not just a writer. I have very rarely written for clients. I do it on a once in a blue … I mean, now I don’t do it at … Well, I will do it for causes that I believe in. For instance, there was this orphanage that was also a child development study center in Hungary. It was very famous internationally, and they did a lot of important research, and it was amazing. Then after East Europe became commercialized, there were no funds to support it anymore, and they were going to close it.
The wife of one of my students came to me and said, “What can we do?” I said, “Well, do you have a list?” They said, “Yeah, we have this big list of people, because all these people have been involved with it over the years.” I said, “Well, here, send them this letter.” I wrote a letter, because I actually knew a lot about the story from other sources. I wrote a letter for them, and they raised over $100,000, and they kept the place open.
That’s the kind of stuff that I’ll write for, but I can’t write for … Somebody has got a new gizmo and they want … I couldn’t care less. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry to say that, but it’s true. I only write for things that completely set me on fire if I’m writing for a client. Otherwise, I’m just writing for my own projects. The thing is if you have the ability to write good copy, which means you have the ability to lay out a vision, you have the ability to add glamor to something, to add excitement to something, then you have the ability to create successful events.
I can’t think of a more powerful way to get into a marketplace than put on the events, and if you know where the traffic is and who is generating the traffic and how to get it and who’s using what conversion methods and what’s working well. Now you’re infinitely more valuable than “just being a writer.” I think copywriters should know all these things. I think they would benefit tremendously for knowing these things and their copy would be better.
The more you know more about the system, the niche that you’re in and all the things that are working and not working and how they work and how they don’t work, all that is going to make your copy better, because copy is functional. The words are … They’re important, but they’re really not the thing. The thing is the function. Are we getting people to call the number? Are we getting people to click on the link? Are we getting people to ask for the free report? Are our follow-ups getting people to read the report, and then sign up for the course or buy the pet supplies or whatever? It’s functional, functional, functional.
If you know who’s selling what, who’s driving the traffic for them, who’s doing their websites, who’s doing their tech, this is going to be tremendously useful for you in getting gigs as a copywriter if that’s what you want to do, but I would expand your vision of yourself and think of yourself as a marketing advisor in general, and then backing it up with knowledge, of course. Don’t just declare that you’re a marketing advisor. Actually have something to back it up.
Kira: Ken, I want to shift gears a little bit, but actually, just playing off what you said. You said the ladder … I forgot what you said. The ladder doesn’t matter or the ladder doesn’t exist, which I really appreciate because so many of the copywriters in our club are new copywriters, and they get really stuck regarding how to start in copywriting, how to price themselves, and how to package themselves.
While I hear what you’re saying and I appreciate it, I want to become a player as well and I’m sure that copywriters listening want to become the player in the industry, I think it might be hard for new copywriters to see the path to go from newbie copywriter to a player. Could you just speak to the new copywriters and how they can get their edge in copywriting as far as developing the right skills? Should they be taking courses just so they can improve their craft before they could even think bigger and think about events, they just need prove themselves as a copywriter and get the skills?
Ken: Right. Ted Nicholas, who is a great direct marketer, built some really successful businesses, sold them off, and he did really well, his suggestion for being a copywriter was to find a product that you believed in, that you’re excited about. Sell it with great copy. Sell the product, and then use your success in selling your own product as evidence that you could write copy. That was his advice.
We have a call, I didn’t think of it until this moment, we have a call that we did with one of our students, and this is sort of archetypal rags to riches story. He was literally a surfer dude in Florida … I mean, not in Florida, in Hawaii, sort of hanging on. He really wanted to just surf, and he was keeping himself together but not making much money. He met somebody who was making money, I think, selling photography services. He was very good at advertising his services, so he always had a lot of money.
This put the idea into my student’s head, hey, this copywriting thing and marketing thing is really cool. He actually went through the whole ladder in a very methodical way of finding low level clients, which is where you sometimes have to start, getting success, and then taking that success, and then taking it to the next level, the next level, the next level, the next level, and then finally he ended up taking a job with a very copywriting-heavy publishing company, a company that needed a lot of ad copy. He apprenticed there, was paid to learn, was paid to hang out with really good copywriters, and now he’s a freelancer doing his own thing.
This guy wants to just be a copywriter. See, I’m biased. I’m biased in my direction, so I can only really talk about my own bias, but this guy wanted to just be a copywriter. He did follow a very logical path to get to where he’s ended up, which is working freelance, doing very well, but he had a system for getting from being unknown to getting to the point where somebody would actually want to give him a great copywriting job where he could then really learn a lot of great stuff and prove himself with big campaigns, and now be off on his own. Let’s say the thesystemclub.com/tcc.
Rob: There you go.
Hey everybody, after we recorded this episode, Ken had to make a change to the link, and so the new link is thesystemclub.com/invite/tcc. We’ll have this link in the show notes, so you don’t even need to remember that. Just go to the show notes and get the link. Thanks.
Ken: Just go there and you’ll hear the call with this guy. It’s a very, very interesting call. Yeah, it’s a chicken and egg situation. I hope everybody noticed that when I wanted to get into the interactive multimedia world, I initially volunteered my services to this local guy that was sort of the kingpin on the industry. That was the best investment of effort and time I’ve ever made, because, number one, I got feedback that, yeah, I actually could write good copy because he was never able to improve it, but number two, I befriended a guy that was at the center of an industry.
Think about it. You could take a course, which I recommend people do, of course, if something is good and somebody can really help you, why not study with them? You could also invest your time in taking on a project that you find interesting and using it as a chance to demonstrate your ability, because now you have a credit, you could say … First is I could always use that guy in the multimedia conference business as a reference. Everywhere I went in San Francisco, everybody knew who he was. When I mentioned his name, it’s like, “Yeah, oh, you wrote for him? Wow. Okay, great, let’s talk.” I don’t know if that answered your question.
Kira: No, it did. Thank you.
Rob: Yeah, I think that’s great. Ken, I have just a couple more questions before I wrap. We’re getting close to the top of the hour and we want to be respectful of your time, but really quickly, we’ve talked about what copywriter should be doing to grow their businesses or to expand their horizons, to break out of just copywriting, but what are some mistakes that you see copywriters making today or even other business owners on the internet, that if they could just stop doing those things, it’ll be a home run for them?
Ken: Kind of along the same line that I’ve been talking about earlier, and some of this is in a book that I wrote called System Secrets, and one fatal mistake is the me too trap, which is you see something that seems to be working for other people and you say, “Oh, I’ll just do that too and that too, and that will be successful.”
The problem is, what happens is you end up with 10,000 people all looking and acting and sounding alike. A big part of this is to figure out something that’s unique and different. You don’t have to invent a brand new product that never existed or a brand new thing that never existed, but you do have to find a new way to bring it to the public’s attention.
I have a friend, a very interesting guy, maybe I’ll put this one up there too, named Martin Atkins, who used to play drums with Nine Inch Nails and he played with Johnny Rotten. He is a punk rock drummer. Now he teaches musicians how to market themselves. He lived in England, and then he moved to Chicago, and he learned about the Midwest. He saw his first cornfield, and it just blew his mind, because it’s just in all directions, north, south, east, and west, as far as the eye can see, you just see nothing but corn plants.
They all look the same, and they’re all the same height. He said, “The secret of marketing is to figure out what miracle grow you need to add to yourself or your product or your client’s product to make your corn grow a foot higher than the rest of them.” Be very careful of super-conformity and just simply trying to do what everybody else is doing, because it doesn’t work.
The next thing, and this goes to specialization, is it’s a big mistake to try to be all things to all people. It’s really better to figure out a market that’s big enough to support you, and that’s a whole art in and of itself, and a big clue is that health is a huge market, personal finance, financial things is a huge market. There are other markets that are huge and copy intensive.
I guess this is a really important point for copywriters. Not everybody understands that they need copy. A lot of people think they just need to throw something out there and that’s all they need to do. Forget those people. Don’t try to educate them. Don’t try to convert them. Don’t try to inform them. Work to find the people that are already aware that they need good copy. This is a really important principle.
The people that are aware that they need really good copy are people that are doing direct response, direct marketing-related business, because they see the direct relationship between the copy that gets put out there, and the number of times their phone rings, or the number of clicks they get, or the number of sales they make. They get it.
There’s an old thing in the book, Scientific Advertising, it’s in one of Claude Hopkins’ books. This was in the olden days, like the early 1900s when, believe it or not, everybody in Russia had a beard. It was actually a law that you had to have a beard. I mean, this is crazy, but look it up this is true. You would be fined if you didn’t have a beard, because it was considered an affront … This is pre-Soviet. It was considered an affront to God to take off the hair that he put on your … I kid you not.
Anyway, every Russian man had a beard, so Hopkins made the point, don’t try to sell razor blades in Russia, but a lot of people do that in business. For instance, a lot of copywriters will try to explain to a business owner why they need good copy and why they should pay for it. If you got to explain that, you already lost. You really want to battle for the business of the people that already get that. You follow me?
Rob: Oh yeah.
Ken: That’s where the big money is in copywriting. That’s how people make super livings in copywriting. They find those huge niches where … If they want to be a copywriter only, right? If you just want to be a copywriter and nothing else, and a lot of people want that, and a lot of people do that. Just think of the logic. If you want to do that, you have to find industries that are using tons and tons of direct response-oriented copy, and are willing and able to pay for it. That would be pretty much people in the health arena and people in the personal finance and investing arena. You can see that because those are the big newsletters.
Kira: Ken, I want to squeeze in my final question for you. What books or courses would you recommend to give our podcast listeners an unfair advantage over every other writer out there?
Ken: Okay. I’m a big fan of the classics. I love John Caples’ Tested Advertising Methods, Fourth Edition or earlier. Don’t get the Fifth Edition. They watered it down terribly, but Fourth Edition, Third Edition, Second Edition, First Edition if you can find it. Caples was just a super genius. I like The Robert Collier Letter Book. Really ingenious, because he teaches you how to think, because thinking precedes the writing. Coming up with the angle, coming up with the hook, coming up with the story, coming up with the energy, the aura precedes putting the words on paper. He’s very good at talking about how to think through promotions, because a copywriter is a salesman or a saleswoman. A copywriter is a promoter. A copywriter is a hustler, and all those things precede the writing step, and so Collier is really good at that.
Gary Halbert, of course, if you can find some of his stuff. You can find a lot of it on eBay, some of his old courses. Basically, anything that came out of Gary’s mouth was genius. He really knew how to teach copywriting. I have a course called Advanced Copywriting and Advanced Info Marketing, and it would be specifically good for somebody that wants to build themselves up as an expert in a field, and that can be found at kenscopyclinic. You can also read the letter that Ben Settle wrote to sell that course. It’s a pretty good letter.
Of course, Claude Hopkins, good stuff, Scientific Advertising, My Life in Advertising. My Life in Advertising, in particular, is a really, really, really good book. Again, it teaches you how to think about promotion, and then write. The writing is important, but it’s really secondary to coming up with the big idea. The art of coming up with big ideas is tricky. It’s hard to explain it. It’s hard to teach it, but Robert Collier and My Life in Advertising and anything that Gary Halbert has written, don’t guys a really good job of talking about the magic of coming up with the big idea. If you want an unfair advantage, immerse yourself in that material.
Rob: As you were giving that list, Ken, I reached for my copy of Tested Advertising Methods to make sure that it’s not the Fifth Edition, and I’m happy, happy to see that it is the Fourth Edition, but what a great list.
Rob: We appreciate that.
Kira: Yeah, that’s amazing.
Rob: Yeah, fantastic resources that our listeners can turn to. If people want to find out more about you, Ken, join your list, read your books, where online should they go to connect with you?
Ken: Okay, I’m going to put something up at thesystemclub.com/invite/tcc, and there, I’m going to have the interview with my student, now he’s a colleague, about the very meticulous, intelligent way he went from being unknown to being a high level freelance copywriter. I’m also going to put this hilarious talk that Martin Atkins, the punk rock drummer gave on … Oh, you’ll see when you listen to it. It’s all about how do you distinguish yourself from everybody else.
Really, when you’re in music, you really have a huge task. There’s 10 million people that can play the guitar, so how on earth do you make yourself the one that people come and pay money to hear? He talks about that in this talk, and it is not only hilarious but it’s actually very insightful. If people come to thesystemclub.com/tcc, they will get those two things. I hope they’re valuable and helpful for you.
Rob: Thank you so much for that and for your time. We really appreciate you joining us.
Kira: Thank you, Ken. This has been so fascinating and it’s just changed the way that I look at copywriting and online business.
Ken: Oh, really? Good. Good.
Ken: I hope it’s helpful.
Kira: Dramatically. Dramatically.
Ken: Okay. Okay, and I always say, if something is worth listening to once, it’s definitely worth listening to two or three times. If you found value in it, you might find more value in it going through the second time. I know I always miss things the first time I listen to something. I’m always amazed if I listen to something the second time, I’m like, “How did I miss that?” I’m glad you found it helpful.
Rob: It was awesome. Thanks, Ken.
Ken: Okay. Bye.
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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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