Introducing Manchester freelance copywriter Cain Smith, survivor of content mills, analyser of the human mind, writer of unpublished novels, and lover of croissants and streaky bacon on the same plate.
So you ran the gauntlet of content mills. They don’t have a great rep on here. What was your experience like?
At the time, I didn’t know any better. I was so naïve. I thought ‘I’m getting paid to write stuff. It’s not much, but at least I’m getting paid!’
I just kept churning stuff out. The upside is that I wrote a lot of different stuff for loads of different clients – I crammed a lot of experience into a couple of years. The downside was that each project barely made me enough money to buy a steak dinner!
You qualified as a lawyer but haven’t been one. What was behind that?
Well, I almost got there – but not quite. I got a law degree, and I was at a crossroads – enrol on the Legal Practice Course and embark a two-year solicitor training contract, or walk away. I chose to walk away.
I didn’t enjoy my degree, and I would have made a lousy, half-arsed lawyer because my heart wasn’t in it. I studied law because I was drifting, I was lost, and it seemed like a good idea at the time. If I could hop into one of those time machines that Elon Musk probably has somewhere, I’d go back and do English Lit. Just for the joy of it.
Did you always secretly want to write?
Yes! But not as a copywriter. Honestly, I thought I would become a novelist. As in – someone who could make a full-time living writing novels that people would take down from the shelves in Waterstone’s and buy as Christmas gifts. If an image of a really confused, naïve guy is emerging – you’d be absolutely spot-on.
Your writing’s rooted in psychology, right? Can you tell us a bit more?
All purchase decisions are emotional. To write copy that spurs your clients’ audience into action, you’ve got to nudge them into feeling something. I love that element of it – I love the emotions.
My fiancée is studying a criminology and psychology degree and there are academic textbooks all over the house – we’re both just fully immersed in it. There’s a lot of psychoanalysis that goes on in my house!
I study copy from the past, too. Old stuff – the principles still work, and the masters did it with very limited media at their fingertips. If you can’t learn from the greats of 60, 70, 80 years ago – you won’t learn anything.
What happened with the unpublished novel? What did you learn from that?
It’s decomposing on an old laptop hard drive somewhere! I wrote it in sporadic bursts over a six-year period, from when I was 21 up to when I was around 27, I think. I kept it a secret – no one knew I was writing it except my fiancée and my mam. It got rejected by god knows how many literary agencies.
I got some positive comments but overall my writing lacked maturity – it was just too raw. What have I learned? Don’t spend six years of your life writing a crap novel – write a good one!
Do you gravitate towards a particular type of client?
Not especially. There are clients I definitely stay away from, though. Anyone who just wants ‘content’ for the sake of having ‘content’…those are nightmare clients I stay away from.
Does the thought of being a niche law copywriter grab you? Or some other niche?
I’d happily work on some law projects, but I wouldn’t want to be a niche law copywriter. I don’t want to niche down by industry. I tried that briefly this year, when the lockdown first hit.
I targeted the facilities-management industry, because I had experience working in it and I had contacts and the FM industry was one of the few that was still trucking during the lockdown. That was like pulling teeth.
I’d rather niche by specialism than by industry. I want to specialise in a few disciplines – landing page copy and email sequences being the main two. They tie nicely together, and they have the potential to make clients lots of money!
Where do you see your business going?
I have big plans for it. I’ve done some training on writing lead-gen funnels, and I can see myself writing and optimising those.
There’s a lot of competition out there and it’s only getting busier. How do you stand out?
I try to give my audience what they want. Businesses want to make money. If they can see that you’re committed to making them money, you can stand out. I’m not shy about it. There are a lot of fluffy copywriters out there, treating it like a glorified hobby. You can differentiate yourself by having a strong commercial mindset.
How do you drum up work?
A few different channels – cold email pitching, content marketing, asking for referrals. I haven’t bagged one of those ‘a friend hooked me up’ jobs yet – I really want one of those! They sound nice and easy!
What’s been your career highlight so far?
I wrote a case study that made the front cover of a national trade publication. It gave me a huge shot in the arm at a time when I was a little low on confidence. It seems to carry a lot of weight with clients as well, because the case study was for a huge company. It’s quite a strong portfolio piece for me.
Any copywriting heroes?
Joanna Wiebe is the modern-day great…anything she says about copy is worth listening to. I’ve done some of her courses and they’ve upped my game – she’s a genius.
Chris Haddad is a writer I admire a lot – his psychology game is so strong; he writes copy that’s scarily empathic. And of course I love the past masters – guys like Halbert and Collier and Caples. They set the templates.
I think the market’s about to get flooded with newbie copywriters. Any tips for them?
I’d say learn to understand what you can do with copy, learn how it works to make our clients’ businesses more profitable.
If you’re a writer who thinks a blog post is solely to ‘educate’, I encourage you to get a bit more ruthless because that kind of stuff doesn’t make you valuable to your clients.
What do you think your client wants more? A blog post that ‘educates’ their prospects? Or a blog post that drives opt-ins to their email list? Always be converting.
And what do you do for breakfast?
I don’t eat it these days! I eat a lot in the evenings, so swerving breakfast helps keep me from being the size of a house. If I’m on holiday though…Jesus. I eat croissants, streaky bacon and mandarin slices off the same plate – I eat like a pregnant woman.