Joanna Wiebe: “Without Email, We’d Have No Business”

Author: Corina Leslie

September 16, 2019

Ever wanted to sit down with Joanna Wiebe and ask her about copywriting? You don’t have to, because we did.

We started with the question she always asks her new subscribers and went on to talk about her craft, about email marketing, the Oxford comma and how she walks her cats on a leash.

Plus, we asked Joanna to take a look at our website and tell us what stinks. With full honesty and generosity, she gave us some great feedback – go read and see! There’s so much you can take from this conversation and apply to your own business.

Here she is: Joanna Wiebe, the original conversion copywriter and creator of Copyhackers.

What was going on in your life when you decided to do this interview?

Haha – good question. 🙂 I was in my inbox, and there these questions were! 

What’s the misconception about copywriters that gets on your nerves the most?

That we’re wordsmiths.

The worst is not when clients think that – clients are allowed to misunderstand what we do and be brought on board with what we actually do / the value we actually provide.

I only get annoyed when marketers and copywriters – the people who should absolutely positively know that copywriters are scaleable online salespeople – think our job is to wordsmith, tweak, make things sound good, etc. They devalue the work actual copywriters do. 

copywriting tips
Joanna, during her speech at HubSpot’s Learn Inbound conference, in 2016

What has given you self-confidence as a copywriter, and what reinforces your belief in yourself every day?

Results!

It’s taken a decade and a half, but I’ve got a whole ton of results under my belt – most of them mine, but some from others who’ve walked me through what they did.

If you don’t measure your copy, it didn’t really happen. 

My belief in what I do and what other conversion copywriters who give a damn (that’s an exclusive category btw) do is what reinforces my belief in this work.

Copywriters who give a damn are always trying to learn more, do more, experiment more.

And just like any artist, scientist, mathematician at the top of their game, a copywriter should always be challenging expectations and so-called best practices.

When I accept meh work, I lose passion for the work; when I push the people around me AND MYSELF to do work that tries harder, I’m filled with passion. 

What are the best ways for copywriters who work independently to generate revenue?

Any copywriter should start by working in-house, so I’ll just put that out there. 

Once you go out on your own, you should start by generating revenue with client projects and productized services. Client projects give you big influxes of money, and productized services give you more dependable income.

So if you want to avoid feast and famine when you first start out, a combination of projects and productized services is the best way to go. 

What makes you say “no” to a client?

K, so we start from a place of no with every new lead.

If we get through the first 15-minute call and decide to work together, from that point on, it’s basically always about yes. But in the beginning, I find it useful to approach conversations with leads with _no_ in mind. That way we can be sure that, if we get to yes, we actually really want to work together. 

If we don’t get to a place of yes by the end of that first call, it’s normally because the lead’s company isn’t doing anything that feels particularly different.

We do our best work with clients that have big visions and want to change things.

Leads with small visions and timid ideas are unlikely to enjoy working with us and getting on board with our “breakthrough or bust” approach. 

email marketing tips
“Without email, we’d have no business,” Joanna says.

How important has email marketing been in growing your business?

I say it all the time: our business is an email business. Everything we do comes down to lead-generation and driving subscribers to sales pages. Without email, we’d have no business. 

Do you use an email validation service? How do you make sure your emails reach the inbox?

We’ve used ZeroBounce to clean up our list.

Also, we annually send emails to get disengaged folks officially off our list. And our lead developer does quarterly reviews of our list to make sense of who’s who. I can’t say I’m thrilled with the process though – lots of gaps in there!

What’s the biggest mistake you see email marketers making? And what can they do to stand out?

Oh my – I could write three books on this.

Perhaps the biggest mistake I see email marketers making is being terrrrrrrrified of their lists. They’re so protective of their lists that they fear even sending an email. If they do send an email, it’s extremely safe… which few people actually pay attention to.

I’m not saying you have to take big risks as an email marketer. I’ve just seen that, when you do what everyone else is doing in email marketing, no big shock: nobody cares.

Try something different, email marketers!

If everyone else is doing over-designed emails, strip yours down to bare text. Then, if everyone else is doing super-long emails, shorten yours to nine words. And when others start doing what you do, switch again.

email list
Joanna Wiebe: “When you do what everyone else is doing in email marketing, no big shock: nobody cares.”

For small business owners who can’t afford a copywriter, what advice do you have?

Write your own copy!

Even if you CAN afford a copywriter, write your own copy until you can afford to hire the best possible copywriters. You will never be sorry you spent time becoming a master of persuasion.

Copy is your online salesperson. If you’re a small business owner, you’d normally start as your own head of sales. You know your product better than anyone. You know the whys, whens and hows. So write it yourself.

But be sure to train yourself. You don’t want to unleash an unskilled salesperson on the world, across all your digital assets. Learn the essentials, and have swipe files to reference between you write anything. 

You’re a proponent of “risky copy” and you’re not afraid to use daring words. Has this tactic ever backfired?

I’m a proponent of saying something different because no one ever ever, ever steps up to the plate and actually does it. But yes, I like daring copy. 😀 

I can’t say I’ve experienced risky copy backfiring… mostly because we’re so rarely able to try it with our clients. With our own list, we try it all the time, and I have no idea – maybe we’d be 10x the size or half the size without taking those risks. 

How do you know when a piece of copy is too risky? 

I’d say anything offensive or potentially harmful to anyone is too risky. So do some user validation before putting it out there. Head over to Usability Hub and get some reactions on a five-second test. If you’re using language your actual audience uses, then you’re not being risky (unless of course you are being harmful, etc).

The bigger risk is in oversimplifying and watering great copy down just to please a boardroom of terrified people watching out for their quarterly bonus, which is based not on building something long term but on keeping things pretty consistent for three months at a time. 

ZeroBounce
Joanna started her own copywriting business in 2011.

Take a look at our website. What’s the one thing that’s hurting us the most right now, copy-wise? At a first glance, what would you change?

(I focused on the home page.) 

Well, I don’t know what credits are. I don’t know any email marketers that think in terms of credits. We think list size, subscribers, unsubscribers, bounces, spam filters – not credits. 

I’d also test changing the button colors, which everyone scoffs at. But the yellow button is a brand color, which is by nature designed to sort of blend into a single unified look. A CTA shouldn’t blend into the brand. A CTA should stand out. I’d test the helsinki outta some orange and blue buttons on there. 

And finally, I’d add in a stronger outcome. What’s the reason to use this? It’s unclear to me. The reader has to connect the dots between email validation and whatever it is they want (which doesn’t appear on the home page).

Like, why is it important to do this??

Do you have a favorite time and place to write? Any rituals, anything you can’t do without? 

I’ve written on demand so much with this job that I guess what I most need – if we can call it a ritual – are two things:

  1. 1. a deadline and
  2. 2. someone to disappoint if I miss that deadline.

But I’ll write any time of day, anywhere quiet. 

What would you change about your job and business right now?

Well, I run two businesses today: our online content business (Copyhackers) and our conversion copywriting agency (CH Agency).

I love it, but it’s definitely tough to be spread across two businesses. I need to hire another copy chief to do more at the agency. But I want to stay involved in both businesses, so it’s tough.

What I’d change is… gosh, I dunno. I’d change there only being one of me. 😀 

What are the top 3 things you recommend marketers who want to improve their copy?

1. Stop sitting around boardroom tables or at your desk trying to figure out what to say. Go listen to customers and use exactly what they say. 

2. Make your customers’ words do more by planting them in argument / persuasion frameworks and sharpening them with formulas for headlines, buttons, bullet lists, etc. 

3. Actually do the two previous things. When you try to find some other way, go back to the first and then the second. Actually do them. 

What do you most like to do when you don’t work? Apart from walking your cats on a leash.

Hahaha, well, spending time with my goofball cats is my greatest pleasure, which sounds weird to everyone but those humans ruled by our furry overlords.

I also love a good book, but I tend to re-read the same ones.

Gardening is starting to chill me out. And hanging with my husband, probably cruising town looking for something for dessert.

joanna wiebe copyhackers
Joanna Wiebe: “There IS a time for an Oxford comma. But it’s not all the time.”

Wait, there’s more!

The books that have made you a better copywriter:

Great Leads

Habit

Influence

Breakthrough Advertising

The call-to-action tweak that made the biggest difference:

Putting button copy in the first person. 

The words and phrases a business should never use in its copy: 

Your brand name. Rewrite any sentences that lead with your brand name or have your brand as the subject; make them instead lead with the word “you,” and see how quickly that improves your copy. 

Your number one writing pet peeve:

Unnecessary Oxford commas. People get so insane over Oxford commas. Like, calm down – the comma’s a placeholder for a conjunction, so why would you put a comma before the word “and” or “or”? Isn’t that, effectively, like doubling up on “and” or “or”? The answer is yes, yes that’s exactly right, Joanna. 😉

That said, there IS a time for an Oxford comma. But it’s not all the time. Strip out unnecessary marks instead of being an indentured servant to a mark a typist made an eternity ago. 

Your favorite power-words to use in conversion copy:  

You

Should

Here’s the thing

The fact is

The truth is

Even if

_____________ <– the words your customer uses the most

The best way to grow your email list:

Make something valuable enough that subscribers don’t just download it – they pass it around and share it. 

The biggest social media no-no for brands:

Thinking like the fisherman when you should think like the fish. AKA sharing for yourself not for your audience. 

A brand email you always open:

Sticker Mule.

The perfect writer’s block cure:

Research.

The most surprising thing that’s ever happened to you: 

Sleeping through my sister kissing Bono. I was supposed to go with her to track him down. I decided to go to bed instead. I’ll never forget it. I was only seventeen – who needs sleep when they’re seventeen!?!?!?!?!!!!!!

freelance copywriter
Jo sends some of the best emails around. Go subscribe!

More on Joanna Wiebe

Joanna Wiebe has been a copywriter since 2004. She worked at Intuit, Conversion Rate Experts and other companies before starting her own business, Copyhackers, in 2011. In 2016, she launched Airstory, a drag-and-drop document builder that helps writers work better.

Joanna offers many valuable resources for free, so get on her email list today. You’ll learn so much just by reading her emails! Also, she teaches awesome courses that thousands of people love:

Related: Copywriter Chanteuse Marie talks about writing emails that convert