It’s with great pleasure that we’ve caught up with copywriting top gun Ben Opsahl for a ‘quick’ interview. Ben gave us the brass tacks on the art of words and how they benefit your sales copy, marketing tactics… and above all, sales!
He’s a man of words, to put it mildly, started as an aspiring storyteller that embraced the power of copywriting. A lot of great info was dropped, golden nuggets on persuasive copy, problem finding and solving, and great resource scouting.
Let’s hear it from the “upsell” man himself.
<< You’re originally from Portland, Oregon, and now residing in Amsterdam. What initiated your relocation to Europe?
Yeah. It’s a long story, but I’ll try to keep it short. I grew up in the U.S. and spent most of my life in Portland, and really love the city. Before I came to Amsterdam, I was bartending and doing freelance journalism and writing projects. I had never done any sort of sales writing. I had done a lot of writing in the past.
I was 25 and kind of looking for something new and different to do. I had an extended family in Amsterdam, so I came to visit, I was thinking, for two months or so, and then go back to Portland and figure out what I wanted to do. But when I got here, I landed a job. My first copywriting job which was something I had been looking for quite a while. I had done some writing assignments but really wanted to focus on it full time. So, when I came here, I ended up finding a job as a copywriter, and it really opened my mind to the whole world of possibilities with writing. And so, at the same time, I was lucky to meet a girl, and that was about five years ago, and we had just bought a house a couple of weeks ago.
I absolutely fell in love with Amsterdam. The fact that my friends… at any point, if I’m going out and having a drink, one’s going to be German, and another’s Croatian, you know, a couple of Romanians, a Dutch guy… that, for me, is the reason I stayed.
<< Did you just come back from Affiliate Summit Europe?
I went to the first day, the first evening, actually. It’s here in Amsterdam, which is really cool to have one of these big conferences here in my hometown. The first major conference I went to was Barcelona last year, and at the same time I was speaking at a GeekOut event with James Van Elswyk, so that was kind of an explosion of all these different people and ideas. I already love this industry, but I really got addicted to Barcelona.
So, yeah, having everyone here in Amsterdam now is great. I don’t do a lot of business at the conference itself. I tend to set up a lot of meetings with people, you know, go out and have coffee. And I was really lucky to meet a number of my friends’ kind of all at once. I’m in this transition period, so I’m just looking to meet people. I want the strongest understanding of how the industry works that I can possibly get, so these conferences are amazing for that.
<<You’re a man of words, to say the least. Why writing to begin with?
That’s a great question. There are really two types of copywriters, content writers… If writing is your profession in a kind of business capacity, there are two types of people who enter it, and there are those who start from a writing background where they are really natural writers interested in literature, and they decide to make some money with this or maybe make this their career, and then you have salespeople who understand the power of written words and they transition into copywriting.
I grew up planning to write the great American novel. I was thinking to do it by 23-24 years old, so I can be this young superstar. I thought maybe I’d write one book and get royalties on that for the rest of my life. It can be difficult. So, I remember one time I turned in a short story to someone that I really trusted their opinion, and they basically said “Ben, you’re a good writer, but you’re not a good storyteller yet. You know, you need experiences…” I went from thinking that writing was all about the composition of the words. Sure, you can evoke emotion with the right combination of words, but it kind of has to land somewhere, it has to build up, and that’s the story.
So, I started off as a writer. I’ve always taken to writing; I read a lot of fiction as a child. I really liked Hemingway, you know, and I liked the idea that there could be such thing as one book is better than the other and that I can be so capable as to write the better book. Once it hit me at the moment that everyone has their own experiences, everyone enjoys different things; there’s no single standard for the best in the writing world, I said, ok. that makes sense, but where can I actually get tracked, and obviously, who am I competing against? So that’s why I really like the world of copywriting and sales writing and content writing. I do plan to write fiction again at some point, but I’m getting so many valuable life experiences from living life instead of trying to find stories and everything. Just living it and looking back to see what kind of stories have popped out.
So, I love both sides of it, but for my creative expression, I turn to my guitar. I do more strategic thinking with my writing. At some point, I want to take a step back and go back to that fiction writing, but for now, copywriting and content writing are too exciting. Also, to watch yourself grow, you can measure how much you grow throughout your career, so I think that’s really cool and that’s what really drove me to focus on it professionally.
<< With every content, comes research. Can you give us a look inside the ‘Ben Opsahl’ research process?
This is kind of the whole rabbit hole, you know? I think there are really two sides – if I’m writing content or if I’m writing an advertisement or a sales message of some sort. And then there’s also corporate communication. And each one of these has a goal and introduces some problems.
It’s always a problem you’re solving in some way.
If I’m writing for a corporate blog, the first thing you have to understand is the audience and your goals for that blog. And it’s usually about establishing authority. Then you break it down into the different problems that people have. For example, in affiliate marketing, there’s a lot of good content out there, but not all of it is necessarily authoritative. A lot of it is just stuff written off the cuff.
When I started, one of my first initiatives was our city guides. Because the problem I had seen there is that people were going to conferences all the time, they’re going to cities they didn’t necessarily know very well. If you would just Google for a guide to these events, a guide to the event wouldn’t give you anything about the city itself. So, if we write a guide specifically to our audience and we solve a problem for them and earn their favor, they remember the brand name as it’s associated with the value that they got from that. So, that’s always where I start.
I kind of have a background in SEO and the concept of writing, this is not the Grant Cardone thing but the concept of 10X in SEO, which is writing content 10 times better than anything that exists on the web. That’s always my standard as well. I don’t actually do a lot of thinking about SEO, but for me, this strategy is basically what is the best information available on the subject, and that comes through Google, it comes through going on forums and seeing what people are referring to, and again finding where people are discussing a problem and seeing their attempts at solving it gives you a lot of insight. And when you aggregate all that information… it becomes very apparent, and you can add some sort of value.
I am visualizing someone consuming the content and having actually to act on it. Taking the extra step of thinking for them and thinking about what problems they are going to run into.
When it comes to a thought-leadership article, it’s the same concept. If you’re writing about, for example, ‘How to Build a Funnel for an eCommerce Product,’ you look at all the information that’s available there, look into forums, influencers, and what they’re talking about… I build a bullet-list, just a simple bullet-list of aggregating all the interesting points I can find, and then at some point, a story will emerge sort of naturally. And one thing that I also find is that half the times I’m writing an article, I will revise something part-way through as I’m writing or researching it, and it completely changes the angle. So, I give myself a crappy headline and a basic goal and idea at first, but then, like a journalist, you discover that the story has a different angle, like if you’re writing about Facebook’s policies maybe you’ll discover one article that discusses a new policy that you haven’t seen a lot of information on and you think it’s very relevant to the audience.
So, for me, casting a wide net, aggregating all the information I can get, and then trying to find connections and missing points that I can then go do harder research and fill that gap. That for me is the moment in which value is created.
<< What if you do things differently and conduct research in-between writing, rather than in the beginning?
Actually, I talked to a LOT of writers in different fields, and I can tell you one thing that I’m almost positive on – there’s no best way to do it. Do you know? I see every other week in these copywriting forums that someone popups and says, ‘do you write an outline before you start writing?’ and it always split right down the middle. For me, certain things require more preparation, especially if it’s a subject I don’t know much about, I need to at least first kind of grasp it before I start to write. If you’re working within the same niche or for the same company, over time you build an arsenal with which you can take shortcuts. You don’t need to necessarily start from square one, which is where an outline helps cut through the clutter.
A lot of people ask me about my process, and I want to give them as best as I can, but at the end of the day it all comes down to what you feel comfortable with. Some days I’ll feel like I got this one and start writing, and, to be honest, it will impact the quality. It’s also a matter of how much time I want to invest. As someone who has to come up with content ideas, I want to make sure that what I’m writing about will resonate and worth the time I’m putting into it. And that’s really hard.
With content, you don’t necessarily track everything. There are so many facets to it. So, I’ll kind of do a hybrid of what we’re talking about.
<< What is the best advice you were ever given? It can be on a personal or a professional level.
I love this question. This is such a hard question to answer. I’m going to give a cheesy answer, and I’m going to be proud of it too. The way it was phrased to me was ‘be yourself because no one else will.’
To be honest, the best advice someone gave me was like ‘take a left turn up here, because if I had taken the right turn, the bus wouldn’t come’, so I can’t know exactly the very best advice in all my life has been, but I try to look back at what the people who I trust reinforced within me, and that’s to be myself completely. And this is something I heard from a very young age, at least in America. It’s great, and every child should hear this, but there’s also a moment in which it clicks. When you realize that being true to yourself requires real bravery and that is something, I’m learning a lot about myself. You’ll find the results are way better than you would’ve thought.
If you’re busy trying to be someone else and fit in with people or whatever, you’ll end up doing things that distance yourself further and further from what you enjoy every day. So, if you’re posturing and trying to act like you have a lot of money, but you don’t, you’re not successful yet, you’re going to attract other people who look like they have a lot of money but aren’t successful yet. And none of you are going to help each other. But if you are honest and true, you’ll naturally attract people that you get energy from, that really benefit your life, and you will naturally repel people who aren’t going to bring you value. That’s the side of it I think is very difficult for people.
I like to make friends, you know. I’m one of the most people-pleasing guys you’ll know. At the end of the day, if you give everybody the best of yourself all the time and you don’t stop to think “will I keep doing this every single day?” no! At a certain point, you’d have just to act the way you are. This message was hammered in from being on Ben Settle’s email list – He’s an email copywriter. He teaches it in the form of a mission; you need to have a mission that you follow.
In the copywriting industry, if you want to learn to copy-write, you’re going to deal with a lot of bs. And he’s one of the most ‘no b.s.’ straightforward people, and when I first joined his list I thought this doesn’t make sense, and I don’t like it, but after a month or so I realized that this guy is the most ‘himself’ of any marketer I’ve seen. And so, it really builds this extremely strong trust and relationship.
So, I think that’s given to me various people in different situations, and it finally clicked relatively recently. You don’t have to figure out who you are, just don’t do things you don’t want to do.
<< So, the best tip or tactic you would give marketers for 2019 is to be themselves?
I have a couple more was thinking about, or things that I’ve heard. I guess the no. 1 tip I would give marketers in general, and this is going to remain true forever and be more and more important… The great copywriter, Gary Bencivenga mentioned that these days there is more clutter in advertising. People are inundated with more and more marketing messages every day. He said this about 15 years ago before the internet was necessarily even a medium. And he said that the way you cut through the clutter is to make your advertising itself valuable. So that really resonated with me, and you do that by creating proof or by somehow telling a story that gives a positive impact. That is what I’m looking forward to, especially as I go more freely into the industry is how I can take the principles and engagement levels of content writing and apply them in a sales environment that increases sales and increases trust and all that, but still gives me loads of conversions. I think if you’re a marketer right now, find ways to make your ads themselves valuable, and of course, creatives are going to continue to be important as media buying, Facebook is going to make CBO mandatory soon, and algorithms are only going to get better. Focusing on strong creatives and cycling them very quickly. Testing angles, but then refreshing when you have a winner to find different ways in which you can creatively keep that campaign from burning out and getting saturated.
I think there are interesting partnerships between creative types and entrepreneurial types that will come out this year that’ll be very interesting.
<< You’re a copywriter, so you’re in charge of the writing and the creatives, how do you find the balance between the two?
It’s interesting because the role of a copywriter is not clearly defined. There is no standard definition for it. It’s similar to ‘how do you start writing.’ You’ll find arguments all day over what a copywriter is and isn’t and what the responsibilities are. I’m always looking at how the team is working and how I can best fit into that and provide the best value for that situation. In my position I needed to really define what a copywriter brings to the organization and figure out how to make the best use of my time and writing production while also architecting the content management and the whole pipeline, negotiating with teams, you know, because at the end of the day you produce words, but you’re really producing ideas.
As a copywriter, your end value is how many problems you can solve for how many different people. That’s going to change depending on the environment you’re in. If I’m working directly with an independent affiliate and he’s running a campaign that I know that as a copywriter I probably have more experience with conceptualizing, researching audiences and identifying objections… these are the things that media buyers and affiliates know about but maybe aren’t thinking deeply, so I know I have to bring more to the table on that side. So, I’m going to spend more effort on researching and thinking about the bigger picture, and then I’ll talk with that person and say ‘ok, how capable are you of targeting this concept?’
Another case is, they’ll come to you and say ‘hey, I’ve got everything, this is working really well, but we just need variations. In that case, you’re using less of your skills, but it also takes less time and energy. So, it really is situational. But the copywriter’s world can really be pumped up with words to coming up with an entire idea and providing visuals, etc.
<< What would you consider the main don’ts of Copywriting?
I’ve got a few.
Don’t get too excited. I think if you’re new to copywriting, it’s very easy to believe that copywriting is the most powerful thing in the world. It is extremely powerful, but… some people will come in thinking that selling tea to China is a great epitome of a salesperson, but it’s just stupid. Like, it’s a total waste of your time. Don’t get too excited thinking you’re going to be able to do miracles; you know? Be realistic with your expectations.
Don’t get your information from one source. There are many copywriters, many of them do things differently, and they’ll tell each other ‘no, you’re wrong.’ If you step back and learn from all of them a little bit, eventually, you’re either going to find one that you resonate with and you want to learn from them almost in a remote mentor way, or you’re going to get a ‘big picture’ understanding, and both of those are viable.
<< What is your favorite word in English?
This is a really good question, and again, I have more than one answer. Technically, I know from psychology that my favorite word in the English language has to be ‘Ben,’ right? Like, it’s my name. subconsciously, ‘you’ or ‘Ben’ are the ones I react to most. I would also say ‘because’ is a favorite word of mine, just because of its functionality. It also prompts proof. I use it a lot. It’s one of those powerful words. And ‘Pasta’ gets a rise out of me.
Honestly, I love all words.
I’ve got a favorite Dutch word – Verschrikkelijke. I’ll have to send it to you. I can’t even pronounce it. When I first moved here the movie “Despicable Me” just came out, and the Dutch translation to that is Verschrikkelijke Ikke.
I love all the words in English, so it’s hard for me to pick favorites, but in Dutch, that one stood out.