Inbound Now #36 - SEO Copywriting Best Practices with Brian Clark

Brian Clark join us to share some great copywriting tips for creating content for both humans AND Search engines!


David: Hey everybody, welcome to another episode of HubSpot’s Inbound Now. I’m your host David Wells, and with me today is a very special guest, Mr. Brian Clark. Welcome to the show, Brian.

Brian: David, thanks a lot for having me.

David: No problem. As a lot of you know out there, watching and listening, Brian is @copyblogger on Twitter. He runs Copyblogger Media and It is an awesome copy blogging and SEO headline writing tip and trick blog. One of my favorites out there. It is frequently on the AdAge Top 150. It is number one. It has been there for a couple of weeks, or probably longer than that. He is frequently referenced in big books, like Chris Brogan’s “Trust Agents” and Seth Godin’s “Linchpin.” I am really excited to get you on here Brian.

Brian: Thanks man. I am really glad to be here and finally glad to meet you. We have been corresponding for a while trying to set this up.

David: Yes, this interview has been cursed, and it almost was cursed today, but we figured it out.

Brian: It almost didn’t happen due to technical difficulties and other various things.

David: Exactly, but I wanted to get you on here today to talk all things online copywriting, dive into copywriting for humans versus search engines and how to tie those together, and also some headline writing tips and tricks that you use on a daily basis on your site over there. Sound good?

Brian: Yeah, absolutely.

David: Cool. Before we get into it, you started doing all of this inbound marketing stuff for your own business. Can you tell us a little bit about that background?

Brian: Yeah, I started out publishing online in the late ’90s, about ‘98. I did not really have any clue what I was doing, did not realize that what I was doing was a form of direct marketing. I knew how to write. I had ideas, and that is how I got started, like a lot of people I think.

Then I read the book “Permission Marketing” by Seth Godin. It was probably the first marketing book I ever read, and it is weird that 12 years later people are learning marketing from me. I think I took to it so quickly because I had nothing to unlearn. I was a blank slate, and Godin really nailed how marketing online is different than offline, with direct mail and stuff like that.

David: Right.

Brian: So, as far as inbound marketing, we talk about content marketing, all of these terms didn’t exist then. We were just making it up as we went along. I figured out that if I was going to be marketing, there was no way that I’m cold calling anyone. I’m not knocking on doors. I’m not doing any of that traditional lead generation stuff. People had to contact me. That is what direct response copy transmitted online is all about, getting people to respond to you in the way that you like. So here we are.

David: Right, and it is pulling them in with all of the content that you are creating. What are some of the biggest mistakes that you see companies out there today making with their copywriting, both on their website pages, landing pages, and their blog?

Brian: There are still a lot of mistakes going on out there. Number one, you mentioned landing pages. Number one is people who have no concept of what a landing page is. They are sending pay-per-click traffic to their brochure homepage, and it leaves, and they are wondering why they can’t make any money. I think we are finally starting to turn the corner. We have been preaching for five or six years, you guys are preaching that you have got to have content. People want content. Hopefully, the age of the brochure website is dead.

Even if you make that leap into content, one of the principles that I founded Copyblogger on was that what we are doing here isn’t technically advertising in the old-school sense, and yet it is a form of advertising. It draws people in, except you are giving them something that they want instead of something that they don’t want. My concept with Copyblogger, at the very beginning, was applying some copywriting techniques just to content, because things like headlines, that’s how people decide whether or not to pay attention to you.

David: Right.

Brian: Calls to action at the end of the post, the way you format your post, all of these are principles of copywriting that were applied to advertising and are now applied to just making content more engaging and attractive to people because if they don’t read it or watch it or listen to it in the first place, you are wasting your time.

David: So how did you take the concept of copywriting and mesh it together with SEO? It has changed over the years. Now you are writing for both search engines and humans. How did you mesh that together?

Brian: Well, back when I started Copyblogger, coming out of 2005, you had people like SEOmoz and the early bloggers talking about link bait, and they didn’t mean it in any nasty, controversial way. They meant it as valuable content that attracts links, right?

David: Right.

Brian: SEO, other than making sure you are using the right language as far as what people are searching for, you need links. Google was founded on the principle that content that gets links is more valuable, and therefore, more highly rankable than similar content without links.

David: Right.

Brian: So, that was, again, why I started Copyblogger, because if you write a better headline, you get more attention. If you add more value that is easily digestible, for example, that’s why list posts will never go away, bullet points and things like that, because people scan, they don’t read. If you want someone to link to your post, and these days Google is taking into account social signals, especially now that they have Google+, sharing activity, all of this stuff is a response that you want to happen, just like in a sales environment, the response you want is someone to pull out their wallet and order, right?

David: Right.

Brian: Getting someone to link or encouraging people to share your content is basically putting out something valuable that gets noticed in the first place. That is exactly how copywriting techniques are applicable.

David: Right. So, if the headline or the title that you are tweeting out is not eye-catching, people aren’t going to click through. Once they are there, if the content is not comprehensive or just good, they’re probably not going to link to it, right?

Brian: Yeah. The substance has to be good, but there is what you say and how you say it. Copywriting is about how you say it. It is the presentation of information. People take it for granted that when you go give an in-person presentation that you have to have amazing slides and great information. It’s a presentation. It is the same thing with the written word, or even video, how it is presented, the title of the video, the bullet points that explain what you’re going to get out of it. It is all classic copywriting technique, and it works. It increases attention, engagement, and sharing.

David: Gotcha. One of the interesting things that I noticed on your site, you break down Copyblogger into different areas, like copy blogging, landing pages, and those are resource hubs, where you link up all these other posts that are applicable to that. I think that is a great way. It becomes a resource page that attracts links because it is so comprehensive, right?

Brian: Yeah. Basically, that was the theory or the strategy that I had when I launched the blog. I wrote Copywriting 101, which is a 10-part tutorial. Beyond just posting 10 times, I collected all those posts onto a page, what we call a content landing page. It is called Copywriting 101. People link to it using that anchor text, and it ranks really high for copywriting. We did that over time. We did the same thing with content marking, which is what we talk about probably most these days. Email marketing, landing pages we were ranked number one for, SECO copywriting we rank number one for, and it was all that very high value, great usability, really great for people and yet Google loves it.

David: Gotcha.

Brian: So I think a lot of people have the wrong idea about SEO. You have to take Google into account, but what Google wants to see is that people love it. So you have to make it easy for them to find it, easy for them to share it, link to it, whatever, and it has got to, of course,  have the right keywords that your audience is searching for in order to rank for it.

David: Right. It is really the usability of the site. You go to all the different sections, and it is really very, very easy to navigate. With the series of posts, you have done magnetic headlines, and the one that you just mentioned, so is that something that you tend to do a lot and it works out relatively well doing a series of posts on the same subject?

Brian: Yeah. We haven’t done it during the early years. We are approaching six years with Copyblogger. It’s amazing. It just kind of blew by. But yeah, that was what I did. It is like writing a book. People are like, “Brian, you’re the only one out there who hasn’t written a book.” I’m like, “I’ve written three or four books. They are either just posted for free, or they are part of our training programs or whatever.” Eventually I think I will actually write a proper book, but it is not like I’ve been sitting around doing nothing.

So that was my idea, just to write in series, because it allowed me to develop an editorial strategy and what I wanted to get out there that also led to our business strategy. We started off as a blog, no investment, money, or anything like that, and now we are a multi-million dollar software company. So the power of content and providing that value to people, I just like to call it you’re educating people enough to do business with you. If they know enough to feel comfortable to find value in your solution, then you have just created a win-win.

David: Right. So you started out with the content strategy, without the business strategy mind, or did you always know you were going to dive into the software side of things? Or did that evolve naturally as time went on?

Brian: I didn’t know what ultimately I was going to sell. I knew the audience would tell me. That is exactly how it worked out, and not by surveying or polling or anything, but by listening, watching what people say in the comments, their frustrations, their problems. In social media in general, it is so much better to watch people unscripted, without prompting them to say things. Basically, what you want to avoid is people telling you what you want to hear, and that happens all the time with focus groups, surveys, and polls if you are not careful how you phrase your questions. I tend to pay attention a lot, which seems like I am just goofing off online, but honestly, Mom, there is a real business purpose here.

David: Gotcha.

Brian: When you pay attention and you are having this interaction with an audience and growing that audience, you start to get a feel for what they need. Back five or six years ago, I was really a big fan of 37signals, and I watched everything they did. I was like, “Well it’s too bad that I could never do that.” Then here I am later, and some people call us the 37signals of online marketing, because we have a similar model and we evolved the same way, out of a blog.

David: Right.

Brian: When you have that audience that you build up, people who can do things that you can’t will seek you out and want to partner with you, and that is how Copyblogger Media was built.

David: Nice. Awesome. I like the reverse, you didn’t start with the business. You did, but you didn’t. It kind of evolved naturally, which is awesome.

Brian: Yeah. I have done it both ways. Before in 2001, 2002, I started a virtual real estate brokerage, so it was all online, but I knew what the business model was. You are selling real estate or helping people buy real estate. In that case, I knew what the business model was. So then I needed to figure out how to market it, which was really the fun part because it worked really well, but I hated running a real estate company.

David: Right.

Brian: So I got out of that in 2005. Then with Copyblogger, I started out the other way. I’m going to be all online, no offline component, and I will figure it out because the audience will tell me.

David: Nice. All right, coll. So, switching gears a little bit here, I want to talk about headlines. You wrote an awesome series called “Magnetic Headlines.” I reference it all the time when I am writing a blog post. So let’s dive into that. You always recommend writing the headline first before you write the post. What is your thought process behind this?

Brian: Yeah, that is interesting because over the years I have had to not reconsider it, but realize how perhaps it came across and how people are different than I am. A traditional copywriter in direct response will always write the headline first, but they know what they are going to write about in general. They have a product to sell, right?

David: Right.

Brian: Okay. So that was where I was coming from with that advice. For content, when I sit down to write the headline, I thought it through a long time, like generally what I’m going to write about, is it feasible? If I’m trying to make an analogy, does it work? So I have mentally gone through this process. So I know what I am trying to accomplish, therefore I start with the headline because the headline is a promise of what the content contains.

If you don’t do all that pre-thinking and you just sit down and try to write a headline, you are in deep trouble. I think that’s where people got lost with that advice. A couple of years later, James Chartrand came in and wrote, “Why you should always write your headline last.”

David: Right, I saw that.

Brian: That is if you did not do all that rigorous pre-thinking. I’m one of those people who writes in my head before I write on paper, and other people are the opposite. They have to sit down and start getting something out, and then it becomes a truly formed idea. So it is really just a different approach to writing. But I will say, again, that your headline is the promise, so whether you have to start with the content and go back and say, okay, what is this so I can promise it, or you do it the other way around, the main point here is there has to be a very strong congruence between what you promise and what you deliver. If you write a sensational headline that doesn’t deliver with the content, not only have you let someone down, they’ll never come back because you broke that promise to them.

David: Right. So it’s like the boy who cried wolf scenario.

Brian: Exactly. People do it all the time. They are desperate for attention. They will write a headline and they can’t back it up. They have just done more damage to themselves than being ignored in the first place.

David: Right.

Brian: Now someone thinks negatively of you instead of just doesn’t know who you are.

David: Exactly. So you write the blog post in your head first. So that transitions into a fan question I have for you, from Amanda Stahl. She asks, “Where do you get your inspiration and ideas for your posts?” Where does it come from?

Brian: That is a great question, and the answer is everywhere. We get so hung up about trying to develop our expertise, being seen as an authority and all that, so that means you have to know what you are talking about day-in and day-out. You have got to be really on your game. Yet, all the ideas usually come from other places where you see, like the intersection between something you saw in a movie and you are able to make an analogy out of it. We do a lot of that on Copyblogger, probably almost too much. But we do it as a demonstration. Copyblogger has always been about we’re doing to you what we’re teaching you to do. We are very transparent about it, and it is kind of amazing that that even works. But you can imagine what it would be like if we tried to pretend we weren’t. Copyblogger was built on the principles that we teach – the social media, content going viral, all that kind of stuff. So to answer the question, I always tell people you can’t just grind out your work, what you technically talk about. You have got to watch movies. You have got to read books, novels, things unrelated completely to what your topic is, and you will start seeing these congruencies.

I always love to tell the story about how the printing press was invented by Gutenberg seeing a wine press and a coin stamp, like that, these have nothing to do with printing but he figured it out from there. Or like Henry Ford went to a meatpacking plant in Chicago and saw how they had conveyor belt assembly lines, and he applied that to the automobile industry, which was completely unheard of before then. So you have got to look for the intersections, but they are usually off in another area, and just be very observant about it. There are ideas everywhere.

David: Right.

Brian: You just have to take it to the next step, which is what you mentioned about in your head, is this a good idea or not? Sometimes you will come up with an analogy and you’re like, “No, that doesn’t work. That’s bad.” You have to determine that before you put it out there. It’s really just observation and judgment.

David: Okay, cool. Awesome. So, speaking about you guys do what you teach people to do on Copyblogger, you wrote a post, “7 Reasons Why List Posts Will Always Work.” Why exactly are list posts so powerful? We use them all the time here at HubSpot, and they do tend to work. What is the reasoning behind it?

Brian: Well, number one starts with the headline. Specificity is a big thing in headlines. The more specific you can be, generally, you will see that your click-through rates go up, your readership goes up because again it is a promise that you are making to the reader. The more specific that promise, the more information they have to determine, “Is this worth my time?” The specificity of having a number of ways or things or whatever, it is just very brain-friendly. Also, that number gives them criteria by which they can evaluate what they are going to have to invest in the post. If it’s “7 Ways to Improve Your Writing Today,” you would be like, “Yeah, that sounds like is a specific promise I really want to take them up on, and it is not going to take all day to get through those seven things.”

So it starts with the headline. Then you get down into the content itself, and again, it’s just, especially for offline and online, it is easy to digest, but especially online, because we don’t read on screens the way we read paper, magazines, whatever. It is scannable. You can go through the list really quickly and determine whether or not you want to go back and read every item. That’s the way people really operate. Think of yourself online. You don’t generally read every word unless it’s really something that is a home run that you need to pay attention to. That is why list posts work. I know they are called trite and cliche, but they have been working for over 100 years, and they are not going to stop because people haven’t changed.

David: Right.

Brian: It is the way our brains work.

David: Exactly.

Brian: There is all this fascinating in neuroscience now, where all these things we have known from observation, whether it be in sales or content or whatever, and now we can look inside the brain and see the part of the brain that fires. It is amazing stuff. I think sometimes people get a little idealistic and they’re like, “Well, I shouldn’t have to do that.” Basically, what you’re saying is, “I don’t feel like doing what is good for my audience,” when you think about it. It’s just not a healthy way to market anything.

David: So is that in the future for Copyblogger, going into neuro-marketing?

Brian: No. I have got friends that are on the science side, and we are actually doing a South by Southwest panel, we hope so, it is proposed, on a very pragmatic look at neuro-marketing, is what they are calling it, but it is the intersection of neuroscience with stuff we have known since the days of Aristotle. We just couldn’t prove it, and now we can with MRI technology.

David: Awesome. In another one of your posts, talking about how this has been around forever and the same tactics work, you talk about in the “Cheater’s Guide to Writing Great Headlines,” keeping a swipe file. A company should always keep a swipe file. Every time they see an eye-catching headline, just drop it in there. How do you use a swipe file? What process do you go through? Do you just keep it in a Word doc, or what do you use?

Brian: I don’t do it as much as I used to. People of all experience levels keep swipe files, but mainly, the great thing about seeing what has worked in the past and making sure you understand why they work. At some point, you don’t need it quite as much because you have learned. The message that is going to work with your specific audience is unique. So swipe files are great as a learning tool, and they give inspiration. Like, I’ll see a great headline today, and I have enough experience to know, hey, that would also work, a different language, but that general concept structure would work with my audience. Again, you have to have good judgment about these things. The bad side about swipe files is when people just take something and stick it into an inappropriate situation and it bombs, and they don’t know why. They are like, “Well, that is a great headline.” Well, not for your audience, not for what you are selling, not for that content.

So, almost everyone keeps swipe files. You can keep them in a Word doc. In the old days, they had clipping files, all that kind of stuff. The important thing is to go to that magnetic headlines tutorial, and there are a lot of ways you can write great headlines just by focusing on the important aspects of it.

David: Right.

Brian: At that point, then you can use a swipe file intelligently and say, “Yes, that’s a good match for my audience” or “That one, that’s a good headline for them, but it’s not quite so good for me and that’s why I’m not going to use it.”

David: Right. The magnetic headline tutorial, I use it all the time. There are a bunch of formulas there that you tweak and adjust. Again, not everyone will be appropriate for whatever your audience is, but you have a huge list there that is a great resource. So it will be linked down below.

Where do you keep up-to-date on copywriting and other blogs that you might read to keep up on the space, in terms of SEO and copywriting?

Brian: I read you guys. There are some pretty dependable sources of information out there. There is also a lot of stuff that is not quite so dependable. So I am pretty strict about sticking with, basically, pretty much everyone in the space that I pay attention to is also a friend, which is nice. You have got the guys at BlueGlass, SEOmoz, Aaron Wall of SEOBook, you guys, Brogan, Darren Rowse. They are always teaching me new things, and it is cool that I can call them up on the phone too. “Can you elaborate on that for me?”

I don’t read a ton of blogs. A lot of what I go back to time and again are classic copywriting books, philosophy, even Aristotle’s “Rhetoric.” It sounds bizarre, but all those foundational aspects of persuasion date back thousands of years. Now, of course, times change, technology changes and context changes, but people are fundamentally the same. So you just have to adapt to this new environment.

David: Gotcha, cool. So what would be one of those copywriting books?

Brian: If you just absolutely are starting out with copywriting, there is a book by Joe Sugarman, who is a direct marketing genius, called “Advertising Secrets of the Written Words.” It is really easy to understand. It covers everything, but it does it without going way over your head. On the other end of the spectrum is a book I reread at least once a year and get something new out of. It’s called “Breakthrough Advertising” by Eugene Schwartz. It was written in the ’60s, so people think it’s irrelevant, but trust me, it’s not. It is probably the highest level theoretical combined with pragmatic application copywriting book. It is like a Bible to a lot of people who are serious about copywriting. The interesting thing here is that Sugarman was a disciple of Eugene Schwartz. So he wrote “Advertising Secrets of the Written Word” as an easy-to-read version of “Breakthrough Advertising.” So that’s why I recommend those two together. Read this one, and then go for the advanced course of Eugene Schwartz.

David: Awesome. So Brian, where can people find you online?

Brian: We have got as the main hub of our enterprise here. We have our WordPress themes at StudioPress. Scribe is our SEO software. Premise is our new landing page software for WordPress. But you can’t go wrong going to Copyblogger, because that is where all the free content is, all those resources and tutorials that we talked about earlier. Start there, dig in, and after that, if you want to do business, I will be happy to.

David: Awesome. Well, thanks for coming on the show Brian. You shared some awesome copywriting tips and headline tricks with the audience, and I learned a ton too. I definitely want to get you back on the show.

Brian: Cool man. Thanks for having me. I appreciate it.

David: No problem.