Notes from the Show
In this episode we join Anna Goldsmith, Partner & Copywriter at The Hired Pens, to talk about standing out in a crowded market.
Anna shares how business model decisions have made her company a stronger partner for their clients and able to hire more skilled talent.
Plus how to use copywriting to differentiate from competitors.
Intro: You’re listening to Dare to Differentiate, a podcast for business owners in crowded industries who want to learn how to rise above the noise. In this show, we focus not on doing everything for everybody, but on doing a few things for the right people with excellence. So, if you’re ready to leave the herd, then you’ve come to the right place. Let’s get into the show.
Susan: All right. I’m here talking with Anna Goldsmith Stern, who hasn’t decided what she wants her last name to be yet, but she’s going to figure that out. Anna is a partner and a copywriter with The Hired Pens and, Anna, why don’t you take a minute, if people aren’t familiar with you yet, let them know who you are.
Anna: Sure. So, we run a copywriting agency and it’s myself and my business partner and about 15 senior-level writers with subject matter expertise ranging from education to healthcare to retail. Some work great with shorter format, some work great with longer format. We’ve been around for about 18 years, we’re based in the Boston area, but we have clients all over the world.
Susan: Oh, excellent. So, you’re operating in an industry or a market area that I know is highly competitive. I mean there’s just so many people offering what could appear to be similar services to people that are not in the know about them. I guess lately, to state the obvious, for the last few years, you’ve got all these freelancers and the gig economy or whatever you want to call it that’s piling on top of it, and yet, all I have to do is look at your LinkedIn profile and look at your website and I can tell that you are different. It’s not the usual run-of-the-mill copywriting service.
I think it would be interesting to talk about how you did that and then how copywriting can be used by our listeners to help differentiate themselves from their competitors. I know it’s more than just copywriting that differentiates you, but since that’s your area of expertise, and I’d be interested in hearing, too, how the words and the copy that you’re using can make you different and help you connect with your target audience better.
Anna: Sure. That’s a great question. So, I’ll start with the first question. I think when my business partner and I were first starting out, we had to decide whether we wanted to be a small agency and bring on either a third or even a fourth partner who were the design and maybe the marketing arm of the company or just stay focused on the writing. I think one of the best decisions we ever made was just stick to the writing because what that’s meant is that, rather than being seen as competition, we’re seen often as an arm or an extension of an existing agency that either has a writer on staff but that doesn’t have the particular expertise that a project needs, or they don’t have writers and they’re used to outsourcing their copywriting projects.
And maybe about, I don’t know, 10 years into our company – maybe less than that – maybe five or so, we started getting so busy when we realized we really need more writers. We need to be able to serve more clients and have writers with different subject matter expertise, and so then there was another decision to make. Do we hire full-time writers and train them and they become a part of our staff and therefore our overhead, or do we operate with contracts? I think another good decision we made was to work with contractors.
So what I’m always looking for is, I love it when I can find writers who are better than me, where I read something that they write and think, “Ugh! That’s so good!” I don’t really have to do much other than read it, maybe have a little bit of feedback, and then share it with the client, and I think that’s great. And so, that was another good decision, to decide only to work with senior-level writers who have that deep expertise.
Then, for our agency partners, they were able to go after a wider range of clients because they knew that they could turn to our agency and we would have a writer that understood, you know, some obscure medical device, like, completely about it without a lot of ramp-up time that they would need to give an internal staff member who they expected to do all of their writing. I mean I think that’s really challenging, to find one writer who can write about healthcare and then turn around and write about sneakers. You know, it’s a completely different person.
Susan: Oh, yeah. I would think that would be very difficult to find.
So, you said you consciously made the decision not to be a full service too much, but not to be an agency, not to have the design skills in-house, to focus on copywriting completely. Was there any discussion around it? I mean, with your partners. Did you have people that were for it, for having all of these different services or were you immediately just focused from the get-go?
Anna: Right. That’s a good question. I think more than anything it was luck. My parents both had their own businesses, everyone in my family’s always had their own business, so for me, starting a business just felt like a natural thing. It didn’t feel scary. It felt like what you do. So, originally, I had a business that only lasted a couple of months with a designer. I really learned quickly that if you’re a small design agency, you have a lot of competition. And this is back in 2001. There really weren’t any agencies that just did the writing.
So, this design partner that I had ended up going to graduate school at Pratt and he decided he didn’t want to start a business after all and I was actually glad because it really wasn’t a good fit. I don’t know, this is maybe a different conversation, but I didn’t think we got each other’s senses of humor and he was really funny. Maybe he wasn’t, but he didn’t think I was funny. And I met my business partner at a party and before we started a business together, we were just cracking each other up and we just got along so well. I’d been a contractor for an online sports agency, I was doing some writing for them, and he was working for a company called [Sapient? 06:19] that’s still around but went through some layoffs.
So, we were both kind of looking for work and we said, “You know, why don’t we just start a website? We’re both writers. We’ll just see what happens.” Pretty quickly, we lucked into some big name clients. I had a connection with Stride Rite through a previous work relationship and we started doing all Stride Rite’s copy, and then we had another connection with American Express and as soon as you walk into, you know, a networking event and say you work for Stride Rite and American Express, people are willing to give you a chance. So, a series of lucky things happened. I can’t remember the second part of your question.
Susan: I was trying to remember, somebody said something about luck and there’s a great quote about making your own luck or you’ve got to have some kind of – it takes the right person to realize that luck is there and take advantage of it, so don’t downplay the luck part of it too much there.
Anna: No. Well, you know, it’s a gut thing, too, because, you know, now that we’ve grown to such a size, sometimes I do my own writing projects. If a project seems really fun, sometimes I’ll selfishly keep it for myself and I love that. But more often than not, what I’m doing is I’m looking for writers and I’m reviewing portfolios and I’m trying to decide, “Is this person a good match for our team?” One thing I’ve learned is I had to trust my gut. It’s like if I meet with a writer and I think, “I don’t know if this is a good personality match,” every time I haven’t listened to that, I’ve gotten into trouble.
I think with my business partner, right away, I just had this gut feeling that this was going to be a good match, and we were just a really good balance and I feel like I could do a whole radio show on how do you find a good business partner, you know?
Susan: Oh, we should come back and do that.
Anna: Yeah. I have a lot to say about that.
Susan: You brought up a very interesting point or another, I think, benefit of being focused and it’s that you know what you’re looking for, so when you do have to find those other writers, you know exactly what you’re looking for because you’re so focused on that. Even though they’re across different topic areas, it’s a skill set and the art and the ability and the talent that you can find.
Anna: And for me, it’s talent and then there’s two other things. It’s availability. I’m not really interested in working with writers who want full-time jobs. I really want to work with somebody who’s committed to a freelance lifestyle, either because they have other commitments in their life, they want freedom. One of my favorite writers, she and her partner ran an organic farm, and writing is just perfect for her. She has a few of our accounts, she does a great job. She’s one of our fitness writers and in the rest of her life, she runs her farm. She wouldn’t be able to take a full-time job, so I know that I can invest time in working with her and she’s happy to not have to go out and find her own work and she’s not looking for a full-time job.
Then the third thing I look for is just a good personality fit. Somebody who can meet deadlines, who I can trust, who’s reliable. And I like writers who are a little funny, who have good personality, who I’ll enjoy working with, who can get on the phone with a client and not say something embarrassing.
Susan: You know, you brought up yet another point with that, and that is when you’re focused, you’re going to be able to get the work that you want. You were talking about writers, but the same is true of client. You can pick and choose. You’re not in a situation where, “I’ve got to have work. I’ve got to work with this person even though they’re an asshole,” and it’s just so nice.
Anna: We have worked with a lot of assholes, but we kind of do what we want.
Susan: The fewer, the better, I suppose. The other question that I had asked about was what sort of advice would you give our listeners, who are primarily B-to-B business owners or they’re subject matter experts who want to get away from being just part of the noise and not being “me too” and differentiate themselves? How can they use copywriting to help do that?
Anna: Yeah, that’s a great question, and I was thinking about your question. I went skiing yesterday. I think you knew that. I went skiing with my dad, which was great.
Susan: Oh, that’s awesome.
Anna: It was so nice. He’s in his 70’s and decided to try a ski jump for the first time.
Susan: Oh, my God!
Anna: He was very good, but he’s going down and all of a sudden, he goes over this jump and he gets all of this air and then he kind of freaks out in the air and falls. He was fine, but it’s like not a lot of 74-year-old men would try ski jumping for the first time.
Anna: But anyway, I’m standing at this gate that you have. You know, it reads your ski card that’s in your pocket, the gate opens, and you go through the gate. And on the gate, it said – if I would’ve had my phone, I would’ve taken a picture for my business partner because it said – I wrote it down, that’s why I’m looking to the side. “We customize solutions.” And stuff like that just makes me crazy because what does that mean? That could mean anything. “We’re a global solution provider that customizes solutions.”
So, what I always say to companies is – you know, I always start like, “Well, what do you do? Tell me what you do,” and then if they give me an answer like, “We customize solutions,” I say, “Now how would you explain that to a smart nine-year-old?” And then you hear, “We make ski gates,” or, “Oh, we’re a printing press company for large-format printers. You know those big posters you see in store windows?” It’s like, “Oh, that’s what you do.” You know, or, “Explain it to your non-tech-savvy mother,” or somehow getting them out of their world. It’s kind of amazing the aha moments companies have when they do that very simple exercise. Explain it to a smart nine-year-old.
Susan: I think you were taking it from something that’s a little bit high-level. So that, “We customize solutions,” that’s not something you would say to an individual. You know, so whether it’s a nine-year-old or your mother – both of which I think are really good approaches – it’s also that, “What are you going to say to an individual person?”
Anna: Right. You stole my second tip.
Susan: Oh, I’m sorry.
Anna: It’s okay. But it’s great. So, my second tip is picture the person that you’re writing to. Like, literally get a picture in your head of that person and just have a conversation with that person. Who’s buying what you’re selling? Picture them. Talk to them. That’s a great place to start when you’re thinking about writing your copy and coming across as authentic and helpful and real.
Susan: Those are three really good words, authentic and helpful and real, and I think we see too little of that these days.
Anna: Right. I think that you can do a little bit of secret sell selecting, too, with your website. So, for example, I think our website’s pretty funny and –
Susan: I love your article you wrote to L’Oreal, by the way. Or not L’Oreal, Yoplait.
Anna: Yeah, Yoplait. Yup. So, often, usually my favorite clients will tell me in the beginning, like, “I read your website. It made me laugh.” When I hear that from a client, I know that’s going to be a good relationship. There’s some simpatico right away. And that’s another tip: Don’t be afraid to use humor. I mean, even in a B-to-B situation, you’re still writing to a person.
Susan: Yeah. And they’re making their decisions emotionally, their decision about whether they like you or not or they trust you or whatever.
Anna: People want to work with people they like.
Susan: Yeah, and buy from people they trust. And they’re not going to trust this marketing corporate speak stuff that I don’t know why comes rolling off the tongue so easily.
The first time we talked, you said something that really stuck with me, and that is, “Your audience is never ever everybody.” I think that’s a really good point as well to narrow and really focus on who it is that you want to do business with and who it is you can help. It’s not the world.
Anna: Yeah, and I think that that’s true. I mean, think about something as simple as toothpaste. You know, are you a Crest For Kids or are you a Toms with Maine? We hope everyone brushes their teeth, right? But they’re not all using the same toothpaste. So, I think the mistake a lot of businesses make is they get greedy, and in getting greedy, they actually lose a lot of money because they think, “Well, everyone brushes their teeth, therefore, my customer is everyone.” And it’s not.
I think the same thing is true when I think about my writers. So, when I have a writer who says to me, “Oh, I can write everything,” it’s kind of like, “Yeah, maybe. But what do you really love to write? Like, if I were to give you your dream project, what would that look like?” And then as soon as I phrase it that way, they say, “Well, my favorite project was writing a series of social posts for this colon cancer awareness campaign.” I’m like, “Okay, that’s really helpful. So, I know you’ve got a personality and I know you like working in healthcare, I know you’re good with short format,” and then suddenly, I can have that in my head when I’m talking to different clients and think, “Oh, here’s a good match for a writer,” versus the writers that kind of get lost because they can do everything, and I think that’s the same with a company. The more you can target, the more business you’ll get because you’ll find your people and you know how to talk to them.
Susan: Exactly. Exactly. You mentioned they’re greedy, they want to be able to get all they can get. Sometimes I think that comes off as fear. “What if this person comes along and wants me to do business with them and I might lose this group of people?” But to your point, the tighter you focus, the better you can talk to them and connect with them and the more business you’re going to get.
Anna: Right. Right.
Susan: And the more profitable it’s going to be.
Anna: Yeah, I mean, unless you have an incredibly obscure product, you kind of have to specialize. Like, if you are going to make toothpaste or shampoo or coffee or anything like that, you have to – yeah, I think you’re right. I think it’s greed but I think you’re right, it’s probably more fear. They’re afraid of turning people off and they end up just watering everything down so far that it doesn’t make much of an impact.
Susan: Well, you’ve done something interesting it seems like, though, because it sounds like you do writing for a lot of different kinds of companies and a lot of different types of writing. You could have said, “All right, we’re going to focus on healthcare or B-to-B or B-to-C or whatever,” and instead, it looks like what you’ve done is picked specialists in each of those areas that you have clients in, that you want to service clients in, so there’s some other thing you’re looking at. Maybe it’s that you like them and they’re fun to work with for your clients, and then you find the right person to deliver your service for them. I think that’s an interesting way to specialize, too.
Anna: Yeah, I mean, I think for us, it is a service specialization in that, for the most part, clients have two options. They can either hire a writer in-house or even build their own in-house writing team and then they’re limited by the capabilities and talents of that particular team, but for good or bad, they have a full-time team. Or they can work with a freelancer. I think what we’ve found is that building a team is sometimes, particularly for seasonal businesses – we work with a lot of retail clients and they’re really busy during particular times of the year and then slower during other times of the year, so it doesn’t really make sense to have more than, say, one full-time writer.
Susan: Oh, yeah.
Anna: I can build up a team for them when they need it. But the other thing that’s tricky is people like that we’re an agency. They like that they know they’re talking to either myself or my business partner, we’re also professional writers, so we know good quality writing. They’re not working with a temp agency that may or may not understand the skills of the writer they’re putting forth, whereas we do. And they can trust us. They know that, okay, well, if my writer flakes and doesn’t turn something in to meet a deadline, my client isn’t going to experience that problem because somebody else on our team – and maybe even me – will take care of it.
So, that is kind of a seamless experience versus a client – I’ve heard so many times from clients, “I hired a freelancer, they started the project, and I never heard from them again.” I mean, I can’t imagine doing that. So, I think they like that they’re working with an agency that’s been around for a long time, an agency that they can trust and that they can get to know, that it’s not more of a – there’s a lot of kind of content farms out there right now. It’s kind of faceless. You submit your project, you know, they’ll sort of like spit back some writers you can choose from and some prices. But I think what people like with us is they get to know us, they get to know our writers. You know, we have clients I’ve worked with for 10 years.
Susan: Oh, that’s awesome.
Anna: We’ve just always done their writing. And it’s nice. They know us so well.
Susan: Oh, that’s cool. So, is there anything that I haven’t asked you that you just want to talk about?
Anna: Let me look at my little list that I made when you asked for the interview. Oh, you know what? This is funny. Just going back to getting to know your audience.
So, I’m doing some volunteer work right now for the school that my boys go to and I’m writing descriptions for these auction items and I’m having the best time writing these descriptions. The writing is going really fast and I think part of it is I just know who I’m writing to because they’re my friends and they’re people I see every day. I know what they like, I know what their sense of humor is, I know their sort of basic, like, socioeconomic background. And so, I think that’s a great example of, if you know your audience, the writing can go so much faster. So, I guess just giving clients that, really take the time to get to know your customers.
Susan: You’re talking about people that you know personally, but I think that you could also – “generalize” might not be the right word, but if you’ve got a good persona and a good understanding of typically what the pain points are or the desires or whatever, then you can write to that as a whole.
Anna: Yeah. It’s harder for new companies. But if you’re an established company that wants to do a better job with your marking, talk to your customers, like, “What’s happening? What do you like? What can I do better? Why did you choose me instead of somebody else?” Just take the time to do that. I think sometimes people forget they can ask their customers. They can reach out.
Susan: The most obvious thing, right.
Anna: Right. The most obvious thing.
Susan: With the work that we do on LinkedIn, I also put it more in a sales outreach bucket than a marketing bucket because we do work with the personas. So, we’ve got what we know their job responsibilities are and the problems that they’re having, but I find that – we actually take the time to go and look at their profiles, their LinkedIn profiles, individually before we reach out to them, and there’s so many little tweaks that you can make to messaging just based on the personality that comes through in their profiles or what they’ve done in the past that can really make a difference in the results that you get as well. So, it just goes back to that know your audience thing.
Anna: Yeah. I think that’s great advice. I always like reading the testimonials at the bottom, like, whether it be endorsements. What do other people say about that person? That’s always kind of helpful. I heard a good tip once that said if you want to get more endorsements, don’t ask for them; just write other people endorsements. I thought that was good advice.
Susan: And then they’ll feel obligated. That’s one of those – it’s not obligation, but one of those psychological things that you do something for somebody and then they feel like they have to do it back for you.
Susan: Funny. All right, was there anything else?
Anna: No, this was great. Thanks for the fun conversation.
Susan: How do people find you?
Susan: All right. Thank you so much, Anna. It’s been fun, and let’s do it again.
Anna: Thanks, Susan. Take care. Bye.
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