There are lots of great copywriters in the world and the beauty of the industry is that each has their own voice, unique style and way of doing things.
Learning from other copywriters is a fun exercise for me and it was awesome to interview Justin Blackman, who is pretty fly for a write guy.
Blackman has made a name for himself with voice guides and his scientific approach to copywriting. In this interview, we chat about the crossovers between science and creativity in copywriting, distinguishing yourself as more than a freelancer and the many flavours of voice.
For those who aren’t familiar with your work, what is your general approach to copywriting and how has it evolved over time?
I’d say that I used to love the creativity of copywriting. When I discovered the science I found an interesting way to blend the two without losing too much of either side. I love that you can still be artistic and follow the conversion rules and best practices of what true copywriting is.
I like to find a way that still focuses on conversion and making the sale and persuasion and all of those elements without losing the ability to sound different from all the best stock advice.
What crossovers have you seen between science and creativity in copywriting?
If you were to make a Venn diagram of best conversion copywriting practices and best comedy writing you would have a circle. The rules are identical and you change the vocabulary.
So as opposed to saying you’re using the rule of three it’s like thing one, thing two and then confirm the pattern with thing three. In comedy, it’s thing one, thing two and then you add an unexpected switch, which makes it funny because your brain is expecting a pattern, but you break it. In copywriting, you confirm the pattern.
It’s the same elements and you’re using the same techniques and the same brain patterns and functions that are there. But you can find a way to be interesting with it.
I like that you can find rules to justify any decision in copywriting if you look hard enough. Some things are going to convert better than others but there’s always a way to justify a decision.
Following on from the comedy theme, you use it well in your own communications and how you weave it into your voice. How has that impacted your perception of voice?
Many of the best practices say use the voice of the customer and we’ve got to a point where we’re serving the same customers. If we all follow that rule we’re all going to be regurgitating the same thing. I like being able to put the voice of the customer through a filter. You’re still getting the same message and you’re tweaking little bits of it to sound different.
I think so much of branding today has to do with your unique style. If you’re using the voice of the customer, sometimes your unique style gets lost by running it through a different filter, almost like an Instagram filter where you can change the look and feel of a picture.
By doing that with words, you can create something unique that still reflects the main message and the core principles of language.
You were one of the first participants in Kira Hug and Rob Marsh’s Copywriter Club Accelerator Programme and it’d be good to hear what kind of takeaways you took away.
I took the Copywriter Club Accelerator in its beta form and when I was still working in-house. I had tried going freelance once and I failed miserably. Over the course of six months, I made a total of $500.
But it also gave me a chance to discover copywriting and figure out what this business is. I was fortunate enough to be able to take the Accelerator at a time when I didn’t need it.
I knew I was building for the future and if I ever wanted to try to run my own business again I would need to know all the things that I didn’t know the first time. I needed to know why I failed and how to fix it.
The Copywriter Club Accelerator gave me the foundation to build the business before I had to build a business. I developed skills that went beyond writing and how to become a business owner.
And what do you see as the distinction between being a business owner and ‘just’ a freelance copywriter?
When I was in-house, I was good at writing but I had no idea how to run a business in order to be successful on my own. You need to learn how to market yourself, which was something I didn’t do at all.
I thought that if I said I was a copywriter and posted an announcement on Facebook clients would come to me and I got a lot of support from friends that cheered me on. But they weren’t my customers and they didn’t buy. I had this illusion that I would be okay based on the positive feedback I got.
By figuring out how to build a business it made me become a successful copywriter. I knew how to write but didn’t know how to be an entrepreneur and those were the things that led me to fail.
Given how much you do with voice, what brands have you enjoyed working with and what personal and corporate businesses do you see doing interesting things with voice?
I mostly work with personal brands and there are a few that stand out to me. Ash Ambirge is one of the most unique writers out there. She has such an unpredictable style that I’ve got pretty good at identifying. Her voice is recognisable but it’s unpredictable.
Bobby Klinck, who has a business in online marketing, has an interesting voice. He’s got a great way of being snarky and anti-authoritarian without being disagreeable. Not many people can pull that off.
As far as corporate brands there’s Liquid Death Water. They seem super aggressive until you figure out that what they’re trying to do is bring death to plastic, not to people and they’re taking a lot of alcohol marketing practices and applying them to bottled water in a different way.
Tushy Bidet is another fun brand I like. They use bathroom humour in a kid-friendly way and it would be easy for them to go blue and be crass, but they don’t.
The last one is DeadHappy, a life insurance company that helps people achieve the dreams they had in life even when they’re dead.
That’s an eclectic list I’ll have to check out. Another project of yours that’s stood out to me is the 100 Headlines project. What kind of lessons did that teach you?
It taught me how to embrace constraints and that project came out of The Copywriter Club Accelerator. Kira Hug challenged me to do 100 headlines a day for 100 days.
If I had sat back and thought of all the reasons why I couldn’t do this I’d have had more than 100 reasons. Instead, I said yes and found a way to do it.
Sometimes, it’s best to leap before you look. I could have complained and not done it but it taught me that I’m capable of more than I thought I could do. It let me know that some of the creative limitations that other people have doesn’t have to apply to me and that I can go deeper on any topic if I want to.
Momentum certainly strikes me as key from a creative standpoint and that leads me on to your Codex Persona workshop with Abbey Woodcock.
You’ve been doing great stuff on that programme and you’ve recently launched a new offer off the back of it called Write Like Anyone. How does that programme differ from the Codex Persona?
Codex Persona focuses on how to dissect, analyse and mirror voice and then create a voice guide deliverable and you turn the feedback into a document and you can create a process so content can scale with any writer. You can get everything sounding like it was written by one person or brand even if it’s been written by multiple people.
Voice guides are what grew my career. They landed me clients like Amy Porterfield, Stu McLaren and a lot of people wanted that information but didn’t necessarily want to offer voice guides.
Write Like Anyone is the essential parts of the voice analysis and mirroring processes, but it doesn’t include the voice guide creation aspects of it. It teaches you how to write but not to create a new offer.
You’ve mentioned a few great copywriters already and wanted to know who are some people in the industry you admire past or present.
There’s a lot. Joanna Wiebe taught me my foundation. Kira Hug is one of my favourites as far as creativity goes. Daniel Throssell does some interesting things with creating an online character that’s different to his actual self.
Linda Perry does some amazing things with copywriting mindset and she’s had a major influence on my career.
Over in the UK, I like John Holt too. Those are the people whose emails I’m reading right now.
On the subject of emails, what do you think is the anatomy of a strong email sequence or newsletter that provides value to subscribers?
Not holding back. There are some people that feel you need to hold your best emails for sales, but the headline project taught me that there is never going to be a shortage of emails.
I tell a lot of stories and most of the stories that I tell aren’t even mine. I provide something engaging and entertaining and it’s got to the point where it doesn’t matter what I’m talking about.
No matter what my subject lines are, I’ve got a pretty consistent open rate across the board because people expect to be entertained in some way. I would say provide value in any way that you can and the stories don’t have to be yours.
Some of my best-received emails are lists of favourite things that have nothing to do with writing or where I give away my secrets. People appreciate that and want to learn more from me because I’m giving away the farm.
What good and bad copywriting trends do you see developing right now and over the next 5 – 10 years?
On the bad side, I see too many people treating their email lists like a therapy session. People who are looking for justifications for their actions and using authenticity and vulnerability as a marketing tool, rather than a genuine piece of who they are.
Mike Kim said something about the difference between confusing transparency with vulnerability and going too far with it. There are certain things that you shouldn’t talk about. It’s okay to be authentic, it’s okay to be human. It’s okay to share some of the details, but I prefer some private things should remain private.
On the good side, I see personality being a big differentiator to brands. Because so many people are saying the same thing and because everyone has a voice, those who do it differently stand out.
I don’t necessarily agree that different is always better or different is better than good. I think you need to be good. But adding a bit of differentiation with personality is a great way to stand out and I love that more brands are starting to embrace that and let a little bit of their personality out of the corporate box.
Be sure to check out this interview with Copy Chief Kevin Rogers for more copywriting insight!