Lauren Van Mullem is a conversion copywriter who knows the rules and when to throw them out. She believes authenticity is the only way to market a business sustainably, because it feels good (and character wins in the end).
“So there I was, in a tent in the back-end of Rajasthan, armed with a bucket, chasing a six-inch bug (that looked more like a baby dragon) around the toilet.
“I finally cornered it against a canvas flap and it started vibrating at me. Do dragon-bugs explode? Was this a ticking time-bug? But I believe in humane relocation of even terrifying insects, so I went at it with the bucket, trying to trap it, and accidentally lopped off one of its legs.
“And then it flew off and disappeared. I went to bed knowing there was a giant, now very angry insect somewhere in my tent. I didn’t sleep the whole night.”
Lauren Van Mullem will tell you that she went to India before it was cool – before that whole ‘Eat, Pray, Love and leave your spouse thing.’ But she went for a similar reason, at least in terms of mental and emotional healing.
“I’d just left the first real job I’d had since graduating from college, and the boss was so abusive, and the environment was so toxic, I knew I couldn’t go straight into another job. I needed to clear my head. Stop having nightmares about emails with the subject line ‘See me.’”
She’d saved enough money for one straight shot around the world, touching down in England, India and Tokyo. England and Tokyo because she had friends there. India because, for lack of a perfectly logical reason, she felt called.
When you tell people you’re going to India, you’ll run into a few people who’ve been. They will tell you the same thing: it’s a life-altering experience. I didn’t buy the hype. I should have.
“It’s so completely different. Any sense of control you thought you had over your life, you have to let that go, or the very nature of India will beat it out of you. It’s elemental in that way. And it’s intense. I saw the most beautiful things I’ve ever seen in my life jammed up next to the most horrible things I’ve ever seen in my life. Temples with courtyards of blooming trees, green fields where dozens of women are working wearing bright pink, gold and blue saris. Then young men my age with no legs begging in the train station. Skeletal dogs walking the streets with gaping holes in their rib cages. It’s all there.”
Lauren is the first one to laugh at herself, saying “Yes, two weeks in India is enough to contract giardia and change your life.” But it’s also true. When she came back, she did have clarity.
She never wanted to work in an office again.
But more than that – she never wanted to play by anyone else’s rules again. The only path she wanted to follow was one she forged herself.
“It’s how freelancers are made,” she quips.
In this interview, Lauren talks about how to do marketing in a way that doesn’t play by established rules, how she applies her philosophy to her own website, and why “authentic marketing” is both dangerous jargon and the only way forward.
Building a website around your ideal client – while staying true to yourself
Lauren is one of the highly skilled, incredibly talented copywriters who fly under the radar. If you’ve read posts on CopyHackers, Moz, Conversioner, ConversionXL, Hubspot and Inbound.org, you’ve probably come across her work. But you wouldn’t know it. She won’t tell you that her specialty is ghostwriting. She has a much better turn of phrase for what she does.
My job is to bring good people together with good people who need them.
“Usually, that’s through the words you’ll find on a website – home pages, about pages, services, landing pages, sales pages and e-books. And, quite often, through really helpful, informative, deeply researched guest posts that act as ‘thought leadership’ content.”
As a conversion copywriter, Lauren also has serious skills when it comes to plotting the strategy behind every word. She has the uncanny ability to get inside the minds of a target audience, to the point where the reader feels like the story they’re reading is really their own story, and the business isn’t just a business, but a kindred spirit.
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The insights she uses to inform her copy come from a research process that is tight and targeted. She learns all about her clients’ businesses, products, personalities and ideal clients. She collects pages of testimonials, emails and reviews which she parses out (multi-colored highlighters in-hand) into categories of benefits, wishes and needs.
From there, she has the raw material to craft copy that speaks to those hopes, as well as a more holistic sense of the experience a page or post needs to create for that target audience. It’s all very left-brained.
The planning that went into her own website wasn’t that different. It’s entirely constructed around her ideal client.
“I’ve done a lot of work with SaaS and eCommerce companies in the past, but a year and a half ago, I was burnt out. I didn’t want to do this anymore. It stopped being fun. I was ready to throw in the towel and paint, or make hats, or wrangle camels. Anything but copywriting.”
Incidentally, she’s not kidding. Her hobbies include oil painting, hat-making and camel handling – none of which make it onto her About Me page because “they’re just too weird. You want About pages to be somewhat relatable.”
She didn’t quit. She made a list. A list of all of her favorite clients from the past 8 years, along with why she enjoyed them and what they had in common.
One common thread became clear: “They were all life coaches, business coaches, consultants – teachers in some capacity. They were out to make the world a better place, to help people. They were generous with their knowledge. And they were also a bit wooey, artistic and spiritual – while being down to earth and having a sense of humor about themselves.”
Coach. Altruistic. Generous. Wooey. Sense of humor.
“This was the type of client that energizes me, that makes me love what I do.”
Lauren also noticed that these were clients that she learned the most from, another criteria she can’t do without: “Great clients keep you sharp. Not only are you learning from them, you’re learning for them, because you want to be able to give them your best work. They force you to push your own limits.”
She invested in a new website and a new direction, because it wasn’t just the clients that needed to change. It was the type of copywriting and content marketing she’d been doing.
I learned all of the manipulative, psychological tricks to getting people to do things. I’m still learning them. They’re fascinating.
“But they don’t work on everyone. There is an increasingly large segment of people, like me, who are sensitized to ‘tactics’ and feel creeped out by them. We’ve been sold to all of our lives. We can sniff out manipulation a mile away. We’re sick of it.”
She says it took many deep conversations with other people who were exploring how to do marketing in more authentic ways to figure out her direction, people like content strategist Adrianne Munkacsy and Violeta Nedkova, business coach for “creative rebels.”
She also sought out the help of brand strategist Nick McArthur to help her with her website redesign.
“I couldn’t afford to have Nick do everything beautifully for me, but he offered a DIY option where he would tell me what to do, and I’d do the dirty work. Anything I was confused about or not confident enough to do, he helped me bridge those gaps and gave me so much clarity on what I have to offer. If you invest in anything, invest in a good brand strategist – yes, even if you do that kind of work for other people!”
Lauren’s website functions in a few ways. The slider outlines what visitors can do on the site while also speaking to her specific audience’s pain points and desires.
“A big pain point for my audience is when they hire a marketer or content strategist who tries to fit them into a cookie-cutter system or formula. That doesn’t work for personality-driven businesses. It feels icky for the client and for their audience. My approach is to see who your customers are and what they need, and then create something that feels true for them. One of the most frequent requests I get is for copy that doesn’t sound salesy.”
Another way her website is designed to attract her niche is through color. Lauren advocates using color thoughtfully in websites; for her, there’s no better way to create an immediate emotional response. She had one particular response in mind:
“I wanted my website to feel like a big, warm hug from Dear Sugar.”
The colors she chose were pale pink “for warmth,” white “for clarity,” gold “because it’s associated with wealth, worth and quality,” and black “because there’s nothing that says no-nonsense like black.” Her choice of fonts – “one that looks like a marker on a whiteboard and one that’s more whimsical” – also speaks to that balance of wooey and practical, right brain and left brain.
It’s all meticulously thought out to send a dog-whistle-like signal to a very specific set of people.
“It’s not perfect. There’s always room to improve. But I will say that I’ve gotten three times more leads from this website than my last one (which had no strategy behind it), and every single one of those leads was an ideal client. Come to think of it, each of those leads has referred at least two other clients to me, so this website really is doing its job!”
Writing the About Page – AKA the hardest part of DIYing your website
DIYing your website isn’t for the faint of heart, especially in WordPress. But it wasn’t the code that gave Lauren the most trouble. It was her About Page.
“Ugh, the About Page is the worst! Talking about yourself is the hardest thing any of us have to do, and every business owner has to do it and do it well. I’m still not happy with mine. I will probably never be happy with mine.”
Fortunately, Nick McArthur was there to help…
“And by ‘help,’ I mean throw out the first draft.
I went into writing my About Page like a dating profile – putting my best foot forward, thinking of all the reasons I’m great. Which is really hard to do if you have a normal-sized ego. So I thought I was doing a spectacular job of talking myself up. What I was really doing was alienating my audience.
Nick gave me the best advice: ‘Talk about your flaws. Share your struggles. Be self-deprecating and laugh at yourself.’
Before tackling the next draft of my About Page, I spent a very odd week thinking of all of my flaws. I dismissed the ones I was truly ashamed of, the ones that felt too common or uninteresting, and picked what I could bare to share – one that was relatable.
I can’t load the dishwasher in any rational way.
That’s what I went with.”
Since then, Lauren has improved her About Page technique considerably, and the clients she’s writing them for are seeing leads from them.
“I got the best feedback recently – my client had a prospect email her out of the blue after reading her new about page saying ‘I could copy and paste your bio into my bio and insert different locations.’
She related to it so well that she felt compelled to write to my client. That’s what I’m going for. About Pages that make the reader feel like they MUST reach out and say hello to a kindred spirit.”
Lauren’s personal un-strategy for blogging – and why it works
When writing is your full-time job, it’s not easy to find the time to write for your own website. Lauren doesn’t blog often, certainly not as often as she’d recommend to anyone looking to increase website traffic. But when she does blog, she has three rules:
Rule #1: It must contain insights your audience can immediately use.
Rule #2: It must be true to your values.
Rule #3: It must be heart-felt, funny, and personal.
“And no fluff. I don’t write long if I can say it short and clear. Time is precious.”
Each post begins as a personal story before launching into closely-related, immediately actionable advice on how to do marketing more authentically and effectively.
“One of my favorite pieces is titled ‘F*it – A Holiday Missive.’ I gave up on writing holiday cards last year and turned it into a lesson on streamlining your life for more joy and less stress by letting go of the things you don’t like doing. Like networking, using traditional marketing or hustling. All those things people say you should do if you want to grow your business. If you don’t like doing them, then just don’t do them. It opens up so much time and energy to do things you like doing, in the ways you like doing them.
“It’s more authentic to do what you love, rather than try to be like the successful business next door. And that speaks to people.”
Titling a blog post with a swear word is a calculated risk, a tip she picked up from a clever client.
“Yes, the swear words are strategic. When you’re going for uplifting and spiritual, you can start to attract people with a more evangelical bent. I’ve got nothing against them, but that’s not my target audience. I’m more of a hippy at heart. Swearing is a marvelous sieve.”
If asked for one tip for better blogging, Lauren says this is what most businesses miss:
Open yourself up. Literally. Share personal stories. Share triumphs and failures. Don’t be perfect. And don’t be afraid to give your very best advice and most original insights.
“Many entrepreneurs are afraid to do this.
“They think sharing failures shows weakness. They think that if they tell their best insights that someone will steal the recipe for their secret sauce. It’s an outdated yet persistent mindset that if you get the milk for free, you’re not going to start cattle ranching anytime soon. But when you’re asking people to trust you enough to invest in you, you have to be open and generous with them. It doesn’t work otherwise.”
Subvert the dominant paradigm
“My high school English teacher used to tell us to ‘subvert the dominant paradigm.’ I always liked that.”
If the dominant paradigm of marketing is using strategy, psychology and manipulation to get people to sign-up, click and buy, Lauren goes the opposite way – towards heart-felt truths. And if the dominant paradigm is that you have to hustle to succeed in business, well…
“I’m currently co-authoring a book called ‘The Non-Hustler’s Manifesto.’ I follow a lot of successful copywriters, entrepreneurs and business coaches, and the overwhelming trend is to hustle, hustle, hustle! Hustling is glorified as this life skill you must possess to be a successful entrepreneur. If you enjoy hustling – and I have friends who do – go for it.
“But I think it’s awfully tiring.
“I don’t do it. At all. I’m not trying to ‘scale’ my business either because I realized that, in order to do so, I’d have to adopt a lifestyle I wouldn’t enjoy. To me, success is about quality of life. And that’s why I’m writing this book with my fellow-non-hustler Samantha Landa to show new copywriters that there is another way to find success. You don’t have to do all the things. You can enjoy life and take naps.
“Forget ‘Lean in.’ Lean back.”
Lauren is not suffering for work. There is no ‘feast or famine’ rise and fall to her schedule. Her work is remarkably steady thanks to a select few long-term clients and a consistent flow of referrals from past clients and other writers. She says her personal marketing strategy is “good karma. Do right by people. Help them whenever you can, as much as you can. It all comes back.”
It takes time to build a referral list though, not to mention the professional reputation that makes it tick. For writers just starting out, she has this advice:
“Start by saying ‘yes’ to as much work as you can handle. Ask for referrals from friends, family members, other writers, strangers on the street. Try Upwork. But don’t stay there. Have an exit strategy for low-paying gigs, but use them to find what you love and to recognize what you don’t like. You’ll find out what kind of writer you are and what you value, and then it’s all about pursuing the direction that brings you the most joy. This isn’t wooey self-help-section material. This is how to prevent burnout and always love what you do.”
She also says that one of the best resources for new writers is getting to know other writers. She’s part of two copywriting Facebook groups, The Copywriter Club, and the one she founded, Copy Muse Collective.
“I was talking to a friend from Minnesota the other day and she said, ‘You know why Minnesotans are so nice, right? It’s because we go through a terrible winter together, every year. Being helpful is a matter of survival.’
“It’s a lot like that in the freelance writer community. Freelancing is hard. We have to help each other. These Facebook groups are incredibly helpful, incredibly generous. Genuinely good people.”
Why authenticity is the up and coming trend
When businesses, corporations and startups are ‘outed’ for sketchy practices and the news is littered with stories of politicians behaving badly, a little honesty goes a long way. A little transparency goes even further. Trust is a precious commodity, and in an environment that confirms the worst suspicions of the most jaded, being able to win trust and keep it can be a strong and enduring differentiator.
For brands who aren’t honest and transparent about their values and practices, it’s only a matter of time before they get caught. Which is why Lauren says authenticity – acting in a way that is consistent with your values, putting people before profit – is the only way to build a sustainable business, large or small.
Of course, marketing is, by nature, less than authentic. As one Forbes writer put it in early 2017, marketing is “an all-out arms race as brands compete to showcase their products and services in the most attractive, clever and appealing light possible while simultaneously downgrading their competitors and sweeping any negative commentary under the rug.”
Lauren predicts that marketers will soon catch on to the idea of authenticity “and horribly corrupt it.”
“The word ‘authenticity’ is going to be over-used and abused pretty soon, because it’s a valuable idea. If you can sell authenticity, you can sell anything. But you can’t paint over a business who doesn’t care about people with the ‘authentic’ brush and have it stick. Character will always win out in the end.”
As consumers, we have power to tell the world what we want and what we will not put up with. We vote with our dollars. Every time we support a business that does well by doing good, we’re changing the world.