Lianna Patch is a conversion copywriter that specializes in humorous copy.
She works mostly with online stores and SaaS businesses to write funny product descriptions, landing pages, websites, and emails.
Why humor? Why not just be bland AF like every other company out there?
That, among other things, is what we discuss in this episode.
How Lianna Patch’s Mad Men years helped her fuse comedy and writing
Lianna cut her teeth writing Craigslist copy in college after seeing Mad Men.
No, not for the Casual Encounters section.
But for local companies charging a cool $15/hour.
However it wasn’t until a few years later, when she came across Joanna Wiebe, the OG conversion copywriter, that everything clicked.
Lianna had a deep affection for improv comedy. To this day she hits up Open Mic Nights for free.
And relaying this to Joanna one time helped bring the two worlds together.
“I think she and maybe somebody else were the people who said, I was like, “Oh, I just love doing improv comedy and I have done standup and I just love it so much. I wish there were a way I could do it for work.” And she was like, ‘Why can’t you?’ I was like, ‘Oh my God.’ I rebranded and started doing what I do now.”
The improv stuff started for a noble reason.
“I think my first open mic was in 2012. I just went to a comedy open mic because New Orleans has a ton of them and I was at one and I was like, ‘Wow, this person sucks. I could do better.’ And, you know, that’s a horrible way to start a thing, but that’s how I started.”
The unique thing about comedy is that you don’t necessarily need new material every single night. The audience always changes. You just need to refine killer material that you know works. (Kinda like a sales page that converts everything in site.)
“I thought you had to write an all-new set for every open mic because I was an idiot. So I did that for a couple of weeks. I was like, ‘I’m so tired.’ And other comics were like, ‘You just practice the jokes you have, that’s how you know they’re good.’ And you’re like, ‘Oh, okay.’ So I did that for a minute, then I got started doing improv, and I did improv and I still do improv for a few years, and then I just got back into stand-up this year.”
How to successfully pull off funny copy that can still convert
Being funny in a comedy setting is one thing. But trying to bring that into stodgy, technical, dry B2B environments is another.
Plus, ‘humor’ in text is incredibly difficult to pull off. That’s why most attempts by business people trying to be funny often end up as #TwitterFails (or worse).
There is no facial expressions or voice inflection. Zero nonverbal communication to help you out. So how do you inject humor into text that still walks the line for a B2B setting?
“Honestly, just by making it that much more personal. So you don’t have gestures or body language, but you can do, you know, an asterisk and then like hair flip, you know, asterisk, and then someone imagines you doing that or imagines the author doing that and just adds this moment of levity. So depending on who I’m writing for and what I’m writing, I try to be that much more personal and sometimes weird.”
Context also matters a ton. Each client or customer-type changes what (and how much) you can get away with.
“There’s different approaches that I take depending on what kind of client I’m writing for, or if writing for myself. If I’m doing something that’s super technical from writing, like how it works page for a SaaS, my goal there is to get this usually complex, often boring information across in a way that is more palatable. So that just involves, like, explaining it in lay person’s terms and adding moments of levity here and there. Whatever that is, it can be just an aside. It doesn’t have to be like a knock knock who’s there, laugh out loud joke, but it’s just, you know, making it more enjoyable to read.”
Exaggeration can also help to let the reader know that you’re purposefully being funny, annoying, or sarcastic.
“One of the things that I’m super interested in is parlaying like improv and stand-up principles that work on stage into copy. There’s this approach called ‘heightening’ in improv where you take a thing and then you take it a step further and then take a step further and eventually you end up like the president of the moon. And that’s what’s funny because it’s so absurd. And I think where people fail and they try to be funny but they don’t go far enough, you know, if you start with a thumbtack, you should end up with a laser canon, not like a nail.”
The fine line in using something like ‘heightening’ is to make sure it still aligns with the brand’s overall tone.
“I tend not to try to go too far. Like, if I’m writing an email sequence for an established brand, I don’t want them to come off as a totally different brand just because I felt like writing it that way. So I make sure that the voice is cohesive. But especially in email you can be a little bit weirder and a little more personal because you have that one-on-one relationship. So that’s where to push things.”
‘Voice’ is another common buzzword that comes up in content creation. Except, most people don’t do it well.
Lianna, on the other hand, is a stone-cold pro at it. Every tweet, blog post, or speech sounds exactly the same. There’s no wavering or mystery.
“I think for my own voice, it’s just very much who I am in person. But over the years of writing and looking at my own writing, I’ve noticed a few things that I tend to do and obviously ways that my voice has evolved. I think that there are some expressions that I find myself using. I recently noticed that I don’t say, ‘Oh my God,’ anymore. I say something like, ‘Oh, my glob,’ or, ‘Oh, my blob.’
There’s an intentional awareness and shift, then, to write exactly like she speaks (and vice versa).
But being funny or writing funny is just one side of the coin. If often takes careful editing to make sure it comes across effectively.
Why you should dispassionately “kill your darlings”
There’s an old saying often attributed to Michelangelo. (Which, like most famous sayings, probably never actually said.)
But someone asks how he was able to sculpt something as magnificent as Michelangelo out of a block of granite.
To which he (didn’t actually) reply:
“It is easy. You just chip away the stone that doesn’t look like David.”
Writing is kinda like that. And most people miss this.
You’re not so much painting a masterpiece on a blank canvas like some master Impressionist.
You do need to put up a bunch of stuff, But then it’s more like sculpting where you’re largely getting rid of all the crap around the good stuff.
“I would say the very first time that I started writing funny was when I was doing these things called Fashion Friday for a website that doesn’t exist anymore. And for the first time, I was able to like be a weirdo on the Internet. And I look back now at that writing and I see, ‘Oh, you were still kind of stilted even when you were making a joke, or like this sentence is making too many points.’ And now, I spent years as an editor, I’ll be like, ‘Oh, I’ll fix that,’ you know, from a dispassionate point of view, which ends up creating something funnier and easier to read.”
Transitioning from a writer to an editor sounds easy on paper. But it’s not.
The skill sets are often opposite, where the writer thrives on spontaneity like a jazz musician, while the editor needs to be consistent like a classical pianist.
That’s why you often see so many bad editors who started as ‘good’ writers. They start rewriting stuff to sound more like them, when that almost never works.
The trick for the writer-turned-editor is to distance themselves from their own bias and coldly chip away at stuff.
“You know, I’m better at killing my own darlings, I think, than a lot of writers because I’m just ruthless. If it’s not adding to the piece and it’s just something where I like it, then I’ll kill it or cut it. I’m really good at it and that’s why I did it. I ended up with almost an entire, like, my whole business was editing before I rebranded it and I looked at my work one day and I was like, ‘I hate doing this because I’m just surrounded by bad writing all day.’ But yeah, it made me much more critical of writing us a craft.
Here’s the editing process Lianna takes to methodically move through a piece of content like diamond on, well, granite.
“I use this research base conversion copywriting approach where everything starts with talking to the customers and seeing what the problems are and how they express those. And then you get that messaging structure. So this is a very like editorial, very cut and dry, here’s what everyone needs to hear. And then my sort of layer that I think a lot of people overlook or just skip is going back through and saying, ‘Okay, readers are gonna be a little bit anxious right here. Maybe we need a bit of lightness or a joke to relieve anxiety or like, maybe here this is a little boring. So let’s add an aside.’ It’s like if you’re still reading, get yourself a cookie or something like that, going back in and adding that sort of adding humor where it would make the most sense instead of just writing from the ground up, this is what I think people might wanna hear and unfunny. So here’s a joke.”
A big part of editing is not so much changing what’s there. It’s about being good at spotting what isn’t there but should be.
“Yeah. And you have to look for places where you’ve missed a transition. This is a weakness of actually. Like, if I’m writing a blog, I’ll be so excited to make my point or I’m working from my own outline and I’m like, ‘Oh, this is good enough to explain this section. Let’s move on.’ And then I read through it later and I’m like, ‘You don’t really make it clear how and why we should move from point A to point B.’
The differences (and similarities) of B2B vs. B2C writing
We’re often taught that there’s this massive difference between B2B consumers and B2C.
But is there? Really?
There are positioning differences based on the market, and other unique characteristics for each brand (like luxury vs. commoditized, etc.). Otherwise, though, there are more similarities than you’d initially realize.
“[Marketers think that] there’s a harder layer [in B2B], like there’s a bigger amount of persuasion you have to do when someone thinks of themselves as B2B, like, ‘We need to be super straight-laced and we need more serious copy.'”
At the end of the day, though, you’re still talking to people.
“Actually you don’t [to be more formal in B2B] because the people reading it are still people, which is kind of why you see so many consumer brands getting really ridiculous and not so many B2B brands doing it. But, you know, it’s the same approach that I have with anything that I’m writing, which is, what do people need to hear first? Let’s make sure the messaging makes sense. Let’s make sure that the copy actually contains the information people need to hear. And then how can we wrap it in a package that’s irresistible or delightful or builds trust or all three?”
In B2B, you often need to bring it back to solid information. You can’t just wing it or make it up. However, that doesn’t mean the writer should know this information. It should come back to the customer’s insight that they are retelling and repackaging.
“One of the universal research things that I do is just send a customer survey, whether it’s a software or a services firm or a retail product. I’m just saying like, “Let’s talk to people who bought from you who have given their consent to be contacted in an un-bothersome way as possible, get some of that qualitative feedback from them. For example, ‘When was the moment that you decided you wanted to buy from us and what did that feel like?’ And then you can say, ‘This is the information I need to spark that feeling in someone new.’ And this is the question that Joanna always gives us an example which is what was going on in your life that helped you understand you need us or that brought you to us to get a sense of like people’s stage of awareness.”
Beyond direct customer interviews, online review sites can help you quickly gather some of these snippets, too.
‘Yeah, review sites like that. If it’s a consumer product, Amazon, if it’s a software G2 crowd, customer emails with people. If they have a big enough list, if people are writing in, customer support chat logs. You can do actual like 10-minute customer interviews with people if the client is willing to connect you with those people. Honestly, any place where people are like, I have an opinion, I ask for access to that and add it to my password manager. And people are like, ‘I don’t wanna give you all the things. I don’t wanna overload you.’ I’m like, ‘You won’t.’ All of a sudden what’s important, but I’d like to dig through it and see, because you start to see those patterns come out.”
It’s not just psychographic needs you’re analyzing here, either. It’s also the state of awareness for each person, which most writers miss completely.
“There was one landing page that we were rewriting and we looked at the survey data and we realized that the page was just built for the wrong stage of awareness. It wasn’t giving enough information for people to understand why they should sign up because they weren’t really aware that they’re having problem yet. And so we had to add that. We had to sort of front-load that education.”
How to get better customer insight (NOT information)
“Oh yeah. That Likert scale really helped the million-dollar secret for our company.”
Said no marketer, ever.
That’s because the Likert might be one of the worst question formats ever invented. A random number rating of “somewhat helpful” vs. “helpful” is virtually useless.
Companies might not run enough surveys. But the issue is that they need to run better ones, too.
Otherwise, writers are essentially forced to wing it.
“Honestly, it’s hard. At a certain point after I push and push, you know, a brand, a client is either not willing to send out a survey or we’ll send out one with their own questions which are super unhelpful after I’ve been like, ‘Here’s what I need to know.’ And they’ll be like, ‘Here’s what we got you.’ It’s like, ‘No, it’s not.’ At a certain point, and this is not a popular thing to say, but you’re just like, ‘Okay, I’ll write it as best I can,’ you know, putting myself in the shoes of the person who needs to read this without the research that I’d like to rely on, I’ll just write it.
There’s often a missing information gap where there’s no nuance or subtly that explains why someone does (or doesn’t) buy from you.
“Yeah. I mean, with those Likert scale emails that the missing piece is, if someone rates you, you know, four or below, what’s your followup is the next question that auto appears, ‘Oh, we’re sorry to hear that. Like, what happened?’ And then you send that to a real person and they reach out to the customer and say like, ‘Oh, how can we help you?’ And I feel like a lot of businesses are just out there like checking the box, being like, ‘Yeah, we send net promoter score surveys. We send, you know, ratings, we’re good.’ Or, they come back, you know, at like 70% approval and they’re like, ‘That’s good enough.’ And those 30% of people who are not happy just never come back.”
Part of what you’re trying to uncover are those critical transitions from someone’s day-to-day responsibilities, to their goals and objectives, and what’s preventing them from achieving them. Then, asking this same line of questioning several ways until you get specific, concrete insight.
“Yeah. And phrasing the same question different ways, I think, can be helpful. Like, in a perfect world, what would solving this problem look like for you? Or how have you dreamed of solving this problem before? If you could invent anything to solve X problem and that’s assuming that they know they have X problem already, and if they don’t then they’re having a crisis and they’re just like, ‘Wait, you’re right. Oh, God, everything I thought was a lie.”
How to write compelling product descriptions for different types of buyers
Writing good product descriptions is deceptively difficult.
You’re probably talking to multiple different customer segments at a time (unless they’ve done a good job breaking out products or variations for each one).
If you’re dealing with large companies, you’re dealing with lots and lots of products. So that’s another problem because you’re trying to rewrite the same thing, but rewriting the same funny joke 100 times, it’s not funny anymore.
Where do you start when you’re first looking at a product catalog or planning the entire scope of it before you kind of dig into the actual writing portion?
“When I start with any product, it’s like, who is the perfect person for this product? And I’m thinking specifically the client that always comes to mind and I had a case study done on his manly bands which makes wedding rings, wedding bands. They have a bunch of different customer segments that all buy their rings, but I keep one particular one in mind for each ring, and it was easier with them because the rings themselves have kind of a personality. So it’s, like, this one is the cowboy and that’s for someone who kind of fancies himself an outdoorsman, and then there’s the one that’s the architect and it’s for the guy who has a chrome espresso machine and that kind of thing. So that was an easier way to just focus in on that one reader and not try to write for everyone. Because when you write for everyone, you write for no one, you know this. But in terms of crafting the description, I’m just looking for a way to make that person realize what this product is gonna add to their life (and not in a creepy-selly way). [You do that] sometimes in a roundabout way where you start with a little story and it’s, like, a campfire, wood smoke, funny bear. That’s what this ring will make you feel like.”
You’re blending that customer avatar with some of the more rational or logical points to help them rationalize the purchase.
Lianna walks this tight rope with storytelling about the product’s materials.
“I think one of the ways that I like to do it is by explaining the materials, especially if it’s a physical product. So making them think like, ‘Oh, this is a high quality durable thing that it’s not gonna break on me.’ For example, if there’s a ring that’s made with a special kind of hardwood, you might say like, ‘Oh, this is only found on this one island in Hawaii. And we went there and we cut this tree down ourselves to make sure that you could have this very rare thing.’
Lianna isn’t writing product descriptions from the hip, in other words. She’s going back to researching individual materials or ingrediants to pull up ideas that would resonate with each consumer type (based on her earlier research).
“I think what I ended up reading was it was cola wood and it was like, this is a tree from Hawaii. It’s the tree version of Jason Momoa. People were just like, that’s hot. I’d like to wear Aquaman on my finger. But, you know, that’s a sneaky way to add in things, like, exclusivity and limited quantities. It’s not enough to say that the material was titanium carbide or something like that because people are like, ‘Oh, that sounds cool, but why does that matter?’ And then you say it won’t scratch when you’re doing work around the house or the domed fit of the band will come off more easily and it will rip your finger off if you get stuck at work, somewhere that you work with heavy machinery.
Why Lianna relies more on databases than plug-and-play templates
“I think my system for evaluating my copy is a little bit simpler no matter what it is. It’s like, is this interesting enough to start reading? Is it interesting enough to keep reading and is there a reason to take the next action? I know I should say like, ‘Yes, I have approval in 5.0 or whatever,’ but it’s really just, like, ‘If I’m my own worst critic and I’m the most skeptical reader, is this sufficiently engaging? Does this contain the information I need?’ And that’s where, you know, that goes back to that research piece. And what I do with that research is pull it into what I call, I guess, I call it a messaging template.”
It’s less of a “template,” then, and more of a structure or framework that relies heavily on… yup, you guessed it: your customer research.
“I was just doing this exercise with a client that helps broker high value online website deals and there’s a bunch of those out there, some successful, some not, some specializing in seven and eight-figure businesses and some just, like, nothing, like, hobby sites and every single one of them, after going through all of their unique value propositions on their homepage, almost every single one is, like, ‘We sell websites.’ You’re like, ‘Cool. Try harder,’ you know.”
“So with the client I was like, ‘We’ll stand out just, like, bar is so low, we’ll stand out just by not making the headlight about us and super vague, but like, let’s go a step further and explain why we’re special in that whole thing.’ But it’s just a good place, like, a good exercise to know what people are saying, where you stand in the market, and then that informs the copy more than any plug and play copy template itself.”
Checklists and processes and structures and frameworks all help to deliver consistency. But there’s also a fair amount of intuitive skill and experience to determine what should work on the fly.
“For sure. I mean, I think if you write a lot of the same kind of copy asset, having sort of a checklist for yourself, like, ‘Did I make sure to include a link?’ or, you know, ‘Do I have a call to action?’ is helpful. What was I gonna say? Oh, a swipe file is really helpful for me. Honestly, I’m screenshotting things all the time. I have a bunch of backup folders in my email for different types of businesses, different stages of a transactions and customer journey stages and things like that. And so if I’m ever tasked to write something that I haven’t written in a while, I’ll just go in and see what I have and what I liked. And usually I’ll leave myself a little note with why I liked this thing, and then I have inspiration to draw from.”
Instead of searching for the elusive silver-bullet template, Lianna takes a broader view of looking for good resources or ideas that can potentially apply to some future project or client.
“Oh yeah, I have subfolders. Yeah. So like, I’m bad at organizing things in the subfolders, but I do, I know what I kind of want to keep an eye out for. A lot of it is email opt-ins that pop up, especially if their exit intent because you rarely see a good one. The ones you see, you know, at first, when people started doing it, it was all, like, 10% off or sign up now, and then that stopped working and then people started doing, wait, before you go… And that’s prevailing now. And whenever I see one that’s really unusual, I’m like, I’ll take that and use that later.”
How Lianna creates the right environment to allow her to focus
Lianna usually starts writing only after she knows exactly what she’s going to be writing about.
“Usually when it’s time to write, I’m excited because I’ve done that messaging and I know what needs to be said. And so once I have those insights I’m, like, super excited to start and I usually start on paper because it helps me avoid the internet as a distraction. And so, like, map out the structure of the copy, whatever it is, and then I’ll start just sort of brainstorming and obviously, like, the first stuff is shit forever. I am able to suspend my editor brain a lot of the time to get out the shitty first draft. Eventually, I’ll throw it into Google docs. If it’s a landing page or something like that, and this is something I’ve discussed with the client, I’ll knock it up in Balsamiq so that they can really see what it’s supposed to look like.”
Days of the week are organized based on priority to help make room for the important, critical stuff.
“I only take calls on Mondays and Tuesdays usually, unless I offer somebody special times. I time block. So if I know I’m gonna get started on this project, Wednesday, I’ll block off, like, 10:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. I use SelfControl to block Twitter, Facebook, Jezebel and other distractions. I work on paper whenever I can. And then there’s this website called Brain.fm. It’s sort of, like, soft EDM, piano, whatever stuff.”
Lianna uses a few other apps to help her no only block distracting apps, but also become more aware of what she’s focusing on each day.
“I have two apps on my Mac. One’s called RescueTime and it tracks how much time I spent in various apps. It’s not super useful because it’s not set up as granularly as it could be, but the other one is called Escape and every morning it says, ‘Good morning, sunshine. Yesterday you got distracted 181 times roughly every 2.8 minutes.’ And I was like, ‘Ah, fuck.’ Like, that’s my sort of metric for be better. Like, get that to 15 minutes, you know.
Writing sales copy or in-depth articles isn’t like answering emails.
You can do the latter while watching TV or multi-tasking on five other tasks.
The former? Not so much.
The hard, data-backed writing only can happen if you first create the right environment and space.
It means you prep everything ahead of time, taking completely responsibility to control every potential distraction. You know exactly what you’re going to be working on at least a day or two before you get to it.
Then, you just sit down and write.