Table of Contents

Pop culture loves broke writers.

If you see one on screen, chances are she’ll eat cereal for dinner and sleep in a basement apartment. So when Joanna Wiebe, co-founder of Copy Hackers, first realized that she wanted to write, she didn’t really think it was a viable career option.

“I thought writing had to be a hobby, which sucked — it really sucked — because that’s what I wanted to do,” she says.

But today, Wiebe is anything but a hobbyist. From her home office on Vancouver Island in British Columbia, Wiebe oversees Copy Hackers, one of the most respected copywriting resources on the web.

Trials and tribulations

Since its launch in 2011, Copy Hackers has offered regular advice and workshops to writers ready to improve their craft, as well as copywriting services to marketers looking for messaging experts. Wiebe has also emerged as an industry leader in recent years, spending a good portion of her work life guesting on podcasts, speaking at conferences, and kindly submitting to interviews like this one.

How does a kid grow up to be a nationally recognized master of digital copywriting?

“A lot of trial and error,” Wiebe laughs. “I wasn’t sure how to make a living, but writing was the only thing I was ever very good at in school. At university I studied English and creative writing, and that was enough to get my first agency job.”

Wiebe’s first copywriting job didn’t pay much, but it offered a valuable opportunity: the chance to fail. A lot.

“I wasted years just stumbling through,” Wiebe says. “When I started, it was very hard to know what worked — A/B testing just wasn’t a thing. I didn’t have anyone in real life to help coach me. I eventually landed on some blogs and books I trusted for guidance, and those helped shape me as a copywriter.”

The student becomes the teacher

After cutting her teeth in the agency world, Wiebe landed a copywriting gig with the financial software giant Intuit. She also worked as a consultant for Conversion Rate Experts and began to see real potential for a sustainable — and perhaps even well-paying — career in writing.

“For a while, my colleagues and I were very active in the Hacker News community, and a lot of tech startups were asking if we could write copy for them. As startups, though, they didn’t usually have money,” Wiebe says. “We realized that even if they couldn’t hire us to write their copy, we could still teach them how to do it themselves.”

Copy Hackers was launched shortly thereafter based on a simple idea: Joanna and her team would focus on publishing advice they had personally implemented and tested.

Joanna Wiebe at her office in Victoria, British Columbia, Canada.

Cutting through the BS

“You can find a billion blogs about how to write headlines, but they’re usually kind of bullshit,” Wiebe says. “Busy people who want to write great copy don’t want to mess around with ‘6 Ways to Write a Headline.’ Our approach is to say, ‘OK, if there are 6 ways to write this headline then let’s test them and see what we learn.’”

Wiebe’s skepticism is part of what makes her voice so unique on the web. She doesn’t accept conventional wisdom at face value, and she doesn’t mince words about what she finds to be true.

“Email continues to be the most killer way to get someone to buy something from you,” she explains. “Every failed startup that tried to turn social media into a selling tool has learned that the hard way. It’s that simple. If businesses want to sell, they use email. Period.”

"Emails function more like a letter than a landing page. They need to be written that way."

Consulting the old masters

Of course, email only closes a sale if people read it. So how do you make that connection with your audience? Wiebe suggests a couple of places for businesses to start. First and foremost: Trust the copywriter.

“If you’re a copywriter, everybody thinks they can do your job, so everybody’s got a critique,” Wiebe says. “Even if they can’t tell you exactly what the copy should say, they’ll tell you when they don’t like it.”

But this is exactly when a good creative director or client should recognize that a copywriter’s decisions are made intentionally, and be willing to engage with her as a professional.

“This is a skill. Your copywriter was hired for what they can do. Don’t minimize it,” Wiebe says. “And if you’re a copywriter, you need to be educated, too. If you want your team to respect what you do, you need to put yourself through courses, and training, and understand copywriting’s history in our industry.”

For Wiebe, that meant reading old-school masters like Gene Schwartz and David Ogilvy, who defined print advertising as we know it today. Although it’s easy to think that digital marketing is a new frontier, the framework of modern web advertising can be traced back to the days of newspaper ads and direct mailings — and they’re more relevant than you might think.

“It’s when you get away from those frameworks that things get scattered and crazy. You get things like overdesigned emails that lose your audience because you’ve forgotten your history. Emails function more like a letter than a landing page. They need to be written that way.”

"Email continues to be the most killer way to get someone to buy something from you. If businesses want to sell, they use email. Period."

Voice is a big deal

Wiebe’s other big piece of advice for email marketers won’t surprise anyone familiar with her newsletter. Slang, light swearing, creative punctuation: all present and accounted for. It’s entertaining, but that’s only half the point. A personable, idiosyncratic voice is one of the best tools in a writer’s arsenal.

“Companies rarely get feedback saying, ‘Hey, I like your voice.’ But people do write to complain if they think you sound unprofessional,” Wiebe says. “Negative feedback is scary. And companies get scared, too, that writing with voice means creating this caricature of their brand. But I absolutely think you have to use it, and you have to be consistent for a long time to establish it as yours.”

3 tips for developing your voice

“Voice” is a tough thing to pin down. But as Wiebe explains it, it’s about establishing trust with your audience and treating email like the 1-to-1 channel that it is. If you feel like your emails lack a strong, compelling voice, following these 3 rules can help.

1. Start with clarity. Trying to come out of the gate with a big personality can risk obscuring your message. So start by writing in the simplest, clearest way possible. No matter what else you do with your writing, don’t lose your basic message.

2. Layer in the personality. Can you add a casual aside to the end of that sentence? Can you relax the formal language so that a sentence sounds more conversational? (Pro tip: Read your work aloud. If it sounds unnatural, it is.) Play with small elements of your message to see where you can add interest. Eventually you’ll develop instincts to see those opportunities as you write your first draft.

3. Practice your typing. If you’re feeling stuck, find an author, public speaker, or even another brand that writes in a way you admire. Type out their work to see how it feels, and notice how the language is used. Engaging with a voice you admire as a writer instead of a reader will give you new perspective on how it’s done.