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For this episode of E Coffee with Experts, Matt Fraser interviewed Tom Tholen, the president of InQuest Marketing and an award-winning Copywriter.
Tom discusses several powerful strategies and tips to create high quality copy that increases conversions. Watch now for some profound insights.
It’s always better to outsmart than it is to outspend. If somebody outranks you it doesn’t necessarily mean they outspend your campaign often times they just outsmarted you.
Thrilled to be here. Happy to share some thoughts with you.
I was an ambitious, busy, curious, competitive, minimalist of five, and oh, I’m the youngest of five, so I had to fight for my spot. Yeah, I was always that way. And it’s funny because that hasn’t changed now that we’ve all aged and are well into our adulthood; the sibling rivalries, the competitiveness, all that kind of thing still exists. So I was reminded of that just yesterday, and we got a big chuckle out of it.
You know, I think that’s a really good question. I’ve never really thought about that before. It is something that does form how you go about your back, about your life. I think it made me a better listener, to tell you the truth. I think you get to experience what your siblings are experiencing before it’s your turn to do that. And you see things, and you observe things and you kind of formulate your ideas, okay when it’s my turn to do that, I’m going to do it this way, or I want to do the types of things that this person did, but I want to put my fingerprints on it. So it’s going to be this way, not that way. And I think that translates very well into business. I think, you know, there’s an old saying that God gave us two ears and one mouth, and we’re supposed to swim in that proportion. And being the youngest family member, I think you kind of have to be that way. And you know, it has impacted my life. Somebody once said in meetings. It’s that you’re very contemplated in meetings and that when you say things in meetings, it’s kind of an E.F. Hutton moment. People kind of sit up and say, he’s been thinking about this. Yeah, you know what you got, and I thought that was a nice compliment. But that’s your question. I think that probably generated from being the youngest and needing to wait my turn, and so yeah. You know, it is always a good idea to think things through.
Probably. And I would, you know, I would say their answer to the question is that we didn’t make mistakes. So there was nothing to learn from there, which is obviously not true. But yeah, I think for sure, you know, we all chose different paths for our formal training and skills. It’s funny that I’m the only one in a creative business, and I’ve always been in a creative business. And I had one relative whom I love talking about, that was in the creative business. I got a lot of guidance. And yeah, he was the most interesting man. He had a really interesting story from day one until his final days. But he had a period he was an engineer, and he had appeared in his life where he just wanted to step away and took a ten-year sabbatical and wrote and wrote cartoons and was one of the writers for Woody Woodpecker and then worked at the Walter Land Studios doing all these cool things. And so when I initially got into the creative business as a broadcast copywriter, and then in my tenure at Hallmark, he was extremely interested. While I was at Hallmark, he used to call me a few times a month and just say, What are you working on today? And we’d talk about how he solved creative challenges and some of the things he faced in his career. The funny thing about him is that he went from an engineer. He was a war hero, literally.
His perspective on life and his perspective on everything was just phenomenal.
I greatly enjoyed the conversations with him. And he was a real guiding influence. My siblings were as well. It was not just me who lost my father when I was young, my siblings did as well. But Uncle Frank gets a lot of credit for developing my creative side.
No, very much. I think that’s another good point. You know, I worked for Jack Welch at G.E. and then Jack had a certain reputation from the outside, but he was an intelligent man. And I think one of his greatest strengths was he knew what he didn’t know. And he trusted experts to step in and be the experts on things that he wasn’t skilled at. He was decisive, and he was courageous, and he was a good listener. Also, he made really good decisions regarding the business. And a big thing he taught us was to hire people smarter than you and allow them to be smart, you know, get out of their way and be smart. And throughout my career, I’ve always known that I was a pretty decent copywriter and could work together well. But I knew that analytics were important. So I’ve surrounded myself with good analytics people, and I knew people that were good with good technicians were good. We hired a kid at GE. This was the craziest thing. We were doing a big hiring thing and trying to staff. In less than six months, I had a staff of about 100 people in an area. Oh, wow. And so we were recruiting from all these great universities, and you’d see these kids come in with these amazing resumes. And we had this young man come in, that had social anxiety issues and didn’t have a great resumé and came wearing wrinkly khakis and a wrinkly shirt and oh, you know, he’d gotten the interview because he lived next door to what we call one of our heavy breathers, one of the, you know, people way north on the orchard. And through the conversation with him, I quickly realized he was an SEO expert and didn’t use the terminology we were looking for. But this kid was amazing at building an audience and generating traffic via a website he and his brother built. And so when I went into HR and said, I want to hire this kid, they all looked at me like I was insane. I said, did anybody bother to talk to him? I said this kid is a savant. This is the smartest kid that’s walked in that door in months. And we need to hire him right away. And we did. Two months later, I was invited to Croton, a training facility that the G.E. Owns.
To do a presentation on web best practices on search engine optimization, and yeah, if they only knew it came from a kid that was getting it, who had a 2.3 GPA from an okay school. And his most relevant experience was stocking shelves at a general merchandise company and also working at second shift at Dairy Queen. But he and his brother cracked the code on SEO. And Guy’s a millionaire many times over now because that was the niche that needed to be filled.
You really do. In fact, I remember you’re causing a flashback, and I remember sitting across the desk from him, and I was interviewing him with our CTO. I was the global web development leader, capital’s largest division. And he literally kicked the guy and kicked the CTO under the table because he wasn’t paying any attention during this interview. And I jotted down SEO expert and circled it a couple of times. And, you know, I had a purchase order on my desk during that interview. Or half a million dollars to a large company that everybody would know. And I canceled it and said, I’m going to give it to this kid, and I’m going to give you this responsibility. And it was amazing. And, you know, it’s all credit to him because he was a genius. We just had the one moment where bars of shafted light shine upon you, and you figure out, hey, I’m sitting with an expert.
Yeah, it really was. That impact didn’t really strike me when it first happened, as it did many years later. I was in the first meeting with Jack about two weeks after it started, and I was supposed to go through my vision for the interface for all the capital sites and particularly on our insurance side. Insurance, reinsurance and medical malpractice. Those businesses really needed a new facing. So I was sitting with Jack and several other people, and he flipped to page three of the presentation. I just want to get right into it. They started asking all these questions; his approach really taught me a lot. But I think the one thing that, whenever I present, I usually bring this up and tell people, I said, stop what you’re doing, pick up your pen and write this down. One of the things I learned that was so important to what we did there was through Six Sigma and Six Sigma, the quality program. I wouldn’t say we were required but strongly encouraged to certify in Six Sigma, which I did. And one of the important aspects of Six Sigma is the concept of the voice of the customer. That translates into critical quality. So it was VOC to CTQ. And so VOC getting the voice of the customer is getting specifically what types of things your customer are looking for and in how that translates into something that’s critical to quality in your delivery. So how do you deliver on the most important aspects of what your customer is looking for? And a lot of companies don’t do that. Again, it was another article from years ago, but it was entitled Windows and Mirrors. And many companies prefer to look in a mirror and be reflective of themselves rather than look through a window and acknowledge who their customer is and then open that window. They can hear them too. I believe companies that are successful follow a Windows strategy and not a mirror strategy. But most companies are more comfortable following a mirror strategy. So. VOC Disagree with you is something I am passionate about. And literally, is it every day?
You know, I think the short answer is yes. I think there is value in that but maybe not what you think it is. There’s the Six Sigma certification. In my experience, it’s been a door opener. We used to have a lot of business with Toyota, and I was invited to a Toyota meeting because another large company was sending Six Sigma-certified people to a meeting. And they wanted me to go because they knew I was Six Sigma certified. So I went into this meeting and then listened and asked some questions. And I think they knew early on that I had been Six Sigma trained based on the questions I had asked. And when we left the meeting, they said, so they said that Tom, What do you think? And I said, Well, they’re claiming Six Sigma, but they’re not following Six Sigma. And what I mean by that is they came up with a solution. They came up with the solution to a problem you don’t have, they invented something they wanted to sell. And they came in here under duress, under the guise of Six Sigma and said, here’s what you need to do. And I ask a question about halfway through the meeting. And I asked, what was your VOC that led you to this particular solution? And they danced around to the question to the point, like, okay, you don’t have VOC, and you didn’t ask the customer. And they surely had not asked Toyota at that point, either. So it’s been a door opening. I think people know what it is, and they respect it. But I’m a bigger fan of lifetime learning. I am a big fan of taking the free courses at Harvard Business School online. And there are a lot of courses that you can take. These are short courses that give you really good background information and good foundational information. But I’m a big fan of lifelong learning and taking courses that are available to you. And as we started, we talked about it before you hit the record button. You know, there’s so much available online. And I think that people who don’t take advantage of that are really missing out on the type of things that they could be getting for free or at low cost.
Well, that story I told about the young man at G.E. That’s exactly what that was, he didn’t have a degree, but his whole thing was when I asked him how he got the kind of traffic he had. He said he figured out an anomaly on the search engines, on rankings and how to boost his rankings. And he built an app that goes in and continually does that. And yet I sat back and said, I don’t care if you got A’s and B’s from the best school in the country. You know what you’re doing, and you’re brilliant.
Well, you know, I’d always, I guess I’d always been a writer. You know, I wrote for the high school newspaper, and I had a column, and people used to stop me in the hallways, so they really enjoyed it and that sort of thing. So, you know, I got some good feedback back then. I had a teacher that really saw it, and really he just kept exposing me to other types of copywriting. He showed me a billboard series from Phelan Mcgilligan. It was a great agency in Minneapolis back when I was younger. And they did everything very well, but they were good at outdoor boards.
Yeah. So the school teacher had told me, you know, brevity is important, and there’s, and there’s nothing briefer than a medium of outdoor billboards. So I want you to read a little bit about this guy. And he gave me the Leo Burnett books and started getting involved in those. And I thought, wow, I really enjoy this. This is something I love to see. And then, when I got to college and sort of took my first advertising courses, I got lucky. And one of the courses, one of the early copywriting courses, was taught by a guy who’d just come from an agency in Chicago. And he pulled me aside, and he said, I don’t tell many kids this, but because you’re really good at this, he said, you should think about doing this as a profession. I think you could do very well with this. And that was that kind of encouragement that really got me going.
And I did a couple of ads on the side for people when I was in college, and I was good at doing fliers for the parties and things like that. Yeah. And it just kind of turned into, you know, my first copywriting job at an agency. It was fortunate for me and unfortunate for somebody else. There was an agency that was kind of downsizing because the economy was a little rough in Denver, and they let go of a veteran and brought me in as a 22-year-old kid to be a writer and broadcast producer. And because the person that had gotten the job, you know, his spot, he did a lot of radio and TV. And then all my professors were saying, “hey, you know, you’re not going to be able to do TV for the first few years because that’s really the prime stuff” and I’m sitting in on my first day, very first day at this agency writing a TV commercial, and I thought, Holy smokes, know, this is not what I thought, but it was terrific exposure. I think when I left that agency after two years, I left with a couple of Clio Gold Awards and 180 radio spots and some TV spots.
And a couple of different pieces.
Yeah, it was a busy place. But, you know, you get that kind of exposure, you get a little bit of reinforcement and figure out that, hey, this is something I enjoy and something I’m good at, and more importantly, something that creates an effect. I’ll tell you a real quick story about a real milestone moment for me. We had done an ad for a client. And when we got the job jacket for it, I looked at it and thought, man, this is a great opportunity. And I came up with this really creative idea on how to advertise this particular sale. It was a high fashion retailer in Denver.
So we rotoscope the spot, which is the old video take on me by the band Heart goes back, all these comedy live action. So we rotoscope the spot, and I did two all-nighters in a row overseeing the editing on that. I wasn’t the editor, but I oversaw and approved every drawing, so I wanted to be perfect.
So we get the spot completed, and it’s just unbelievable. And the client, a couple of weeks after this, the client called us into the office, the creative director, then me. And we go over there, and I’m thinking in the car right over, and he’s going to throw rose petals, and they’re gonna throw a parade for us because this ad was good. We got in there, and the guy closed the door and screamed at us.
It was unbelievable. And he said I should fire you on the spot. We should pull our account from your agency. You have no idea what your job is. This didn’t generate a single bump in traffic at all. And he said you did this because you knew you’d win awards. And he was pointing at me, and he was right. And so we left the meeting, and we got on the elevator as soon as the elevator doors closed. The creative director looks at me and says, ” Man, what a jerk. And I said, No, he’s right. He’s absolutely right. We have forgotten what the purpose of what we do is. We were selfish about this, and wow, it was a sort of milestone moment for me.
To focus on what your job was and how to do your job best.
No, it didn’t and conversely, I don’t even know what one silver lion from the Cannes Film Festival is up on the shelf for an ad I absolutely hate it. And I just. I thought it was trite and awful but others didn’t. They told me they were entering it in the console. I’m like, it’s a waste of money that they hated that ad. But yeah, turn that script in. I hated it. And but it was.
We must have.
The ones that I think are better. I’m not sure the Mobius and the FE have got a handful of those two and those ones take into account sales effect, which I really appreciate. The Clios and film festivals, things like that, are really just based on artistic value.
Absolutely. Yeah. And that’s my thing: the one for the fashion merchandiser that didn’t sell and the one from the Cannes Film Festival apparently did. But yeah, I think that’s the job. I mean, if you want to do something different than write poetry, but, the job of copywriting is to encourage new behavior and to create some sort of positive financial impact.
I don’t think they’re copywriters, to tell you the truth. You know, I have become a huge fan of Simon Sinek because I think Simon Sinek has done a very good job of refocusing on what’s important in the structure of copywriting. It’s very much that way, is this whole notion of the what, the why and the know it.
Yeah. Start with why. Yeah, it’s fantastic. I was in a meeting. I’d never heard of them before, actually, before about six months ago with one of our clients, and we were talking about this, a software company. We’re talking about some new enhancements that they had. And I was listening. And towards the end of the meeting, I said, I think we’re being too transactional and not transformational with our thinking. And they said, What do you mean? And I said, Well, we’re focusing on the transaction, and somebody can knock off our widgets. Their R&D will start the day we introduce this and knock off our widgets. They can take it to imitate us. But they can’t imitate our ability to transform the industry we’re focused on. And kind of got up on my soapbox about that. And after the meeting, somebody said, you must be a big Simon Sinek fan. And I said I have no idea who you’re talking about. So I went and did a little bit of research and did some little bit of YouTube and actually looked at a couple of those talks, and they’re amazing, I think. He’s not a trainer of copywriters, but he is. He would be a fantastic trainer of copywriters because his messaging strategy is spot on. And you know what? What are the things that resonate with both the consumer and, you know, his whole thing is why is in the middle? You know, why are you doing something? And then how was the next concentric circle out? And that’s kind of the technical capacity of how something comes together. And in what is specifically what you do. And he uses Apple computer Latin as his example.
Yeah, I really like him. And I think, you know, in Apple’s advertising throughout the years in fact, years ago, that was a piece that I worked on. It was a final at the Emmy Awards and the first time advertising had been allowed at the Emmys. We were up against a good commercial. I really loved the commercial that we had up for that after the Emmys and was very passionate about it. But I found out that we were up against the level of blinds. They had a commercial and then Apple Computer did. And I said, Which commercial is it? And they said It’s the Einstein commercial. Richard Dreyfuss did the voiceover for it. And it’s an amazing commercial. And I thought we were toast. There’s no way this was a hallmark. There’s no way we’re going to win that. And then when I got the news that Apple had won, I said, well. That’s a better commercial.
The concept was amazing. It was well-written. It went well. It was well composed. The thing about it was great. So just awesome. Sometimes you have to tip your hat. So yeah.
It was a really good one.
Then again, I’ll go back to the VLC thing. One of the short articles I wrote was entitled Think like a Customer. Act like a brand.
Yeah, it’s. It’s a good article. The. It came from back in my days at Hallmark. And we used to, and I used to send my stuff out to card shops and to mass general card departments. So car departments inside of grocery stores, inside of mass channel distributors like Walmart and Kmart. And I said, I want you to, I want you to dress like your customer dresses. I don’t want you to take notepads. I don’t want you to look like you’re doing research. Yeah, but I want you to hang out in the car department, and I want you to listen to people. That’s why I wanted to listen to how they find cars because we were trying to determine a new merchandising strategy at that time. And what we were doing was we were creating these lines of greeting cards that were highly targeted. And we’d give them these fancy names. And then I noticed that we were putting a tagline on every one of these names. And so I did the presentation after we got that informal research. I did a March three presentation on Hallmark entitled A Tagline is an Apology for a Bad Name. And it was because what we learned in the shops was that people were looking. They’d say I’m looking for a card with poetry and nice pictures. And I’m thinking to myself, Oh, yeah, we call that line Windows. What? They don’t know that. So what we did is, you know, the name would be like Windows, and it would say cards featuring poetry and beautiful photography. And we flipped it. We said, okay, let’s emphasize what this is and deemphasize what we call it. Let’s give an occasion to the moniker to give it a collection feel. But let’s help them find what they’re looking for. Don’t try to get caught up on ourselves, you know, it’s the mirror and window thing, not get caught up in ourselves on our own opinion. But let’s, let’s, let’s see if we can’t grab words that consumers are using and reuse them and use them so that they can look at them and find what they need very quickly. And it changed our merchandising strategy very quickly. And we found that people were not leaving the card department frustrated because they couldn’t find what they were looking for.
Right. So that is, they just couldn’t find it. So we looked at things like average purchase time in the car department and things like that. That gave us an indication of whether or not people were finding what they needed because we knew they needed a greeting card. We had research on that. But we didn’t know a whole lot about why they were leaving without one. It’s simple blocking and tackling. I mean, it’s just. It’s very basic stuff, but people don’t bother to do it because they often say, Yeah, I know that. We already know that part. Yeah, well, maybe you don’t. I mean, and if you can at least go to the field and do that, that observational research. We did another big project for a pet food company. What we were looking for was what is the value of the recommendation coming from a veterinarian. And what we found was that people were kind of on to the fact that the veterinarians might be getting some sort of financial incentive to recommend a particular product. And so what they would do was literally when they were checking out and setting the next appointment or paying their bill, they leaned over and said to the receptionist, Do you have a dog? And the receptionist, if they’d say yes, and then they’d say, What do you feed your dog? The veterinarian was just recommending this, but I think that’s expensive food. And the recommendation was coming from the reception area, not so much the right one they were paying attention to. And we had a research director that I just loved. And she nodded her head and said, you need this. You need to subscribe to the Edelman trust barometer. And so I wrote that down, and I have followed that study now for about 20 years. It’s Edelman Trust Barometer. And what that is, a study they do every year about who people trust. And several years ago, they came up with this principle around I trust people like me. So it shifted from people in positions of authority, educators, and people who were advanced in business physicians to politicians. It shifted from that into being more comfortable taking advice from people who feel like me and seem more like me, and where you can really see that working is web-based versus e-commerce. So how many times does a consumer check the ratings or the reviews, the consumer reviews before making a purchase? Most of the time, those reviews and stars are given by people like me. And so Edelman recognized that they’ve since shifted that a little bit, knowing that many CPGs and companies are selling a lot through e-commerce is now pushing more comments and providing some of those comments themselves, so it’s not as trustworthy as it was at the very beginning of this. But it’s essentially a strategy that was used years and years ago. Dell used to have the customers do that customer service. They had customer forums and groups that would answer questions about Dell computers that came from consumers.
Because they knew them. Consumers were much more trustworthy than anybody else.
Yeah. And I think too, you know, we’ve just had this conversation with one of our clients about the power of influencers, and I said, Just like other things I think that’s beginning to start to get into. People are reading overrated. I think a lot of those folks are so well compensated that, you know, at the beginning where they were a credible source for advice. A lot of influencers are so motivated by the financial impact.
One of the questions that you sent me ahead of time, It kept me up all night. I was thinking about it so much. Good Job.
I’m an insomniac now, so thank you very much. Actually, I’ve always been an insomniac. My mind. I have a hard time getting my mind to stop. But your question was about A.I. and then the rise of artificial intelligence and copywriting. And I coached my son’s Little League baseball team, and we used a tool to help manage our practices and manage the games called game changer. And Game Changer has this feature after a game that it writes this recap on your game? Yeah, it says Precision out duals mavericks 8 to 7 in a battle of pitchers. And it goes through and mentions kid’s names, and wow, it’s a very well-constructed, very well-written piece of copy. And it’s A.I. Find because it’s pulling information from the play-by-play and, you know, it’s hitting certain algorithms that say pick this paragraph and fill in these blanks with this information. They’re extremely well-constructed and very readable. And my son and I cannot wait to read these things after the games. They usually pop up about 10 to 15 minutes after a game ends. And they’re amazing. The question you would ask was, does A.I. ever replace copywriting at some point?
Exactly. Yeah, that’s paraphrased. But see, I would have phrased that better than I just did. But no, I think the answer’s no because, you know, it’s there are certain things that artificial intelligence can handle. But I don’t think that artificial intelligence is capable of creating a creative idea. And one of the things I speak to the college classes often, and one of the themes that I always bring up with them, don’t underestimate the power of the idea and don’t ever let technology or technique overshadow it because there are so many whiz-bang things we can do to to make something jump out and to look and sound great. But they all have to be based on a good and a big idea. And I think artificial intelligence isn’t there yet. I don’t know if it’ll. I don’t know if we’ll ever have artificial creativity.
Yeah. I had a funny experience at hallmark. We had an opportunity to meet incredible people at that place and work with incredible people first. I worked there for ten years and the first four years as a writer. Greeting card writers and merchandising and other things. And then, I moved into promotions as the national advertising manager. But when I was a writer, it was a really fun experience. I was walking across this square in front of Hallmark that opens up to a retail place on the other side of it. And I was looking at this man walking towards me. Yeah, I was walking with the president of the company. And I recognized him, but I couldn’t put my finger on who it was. I kept staring at him, thinking I knew who that was, but I couldn’t think of his name. And as soon as we got to within two or three feet of each other, he knew I was staring at him and just out the door spilled out of my mouth. I said, Well, hello, Mr. Rogers. And it was Fred Rogers from Mr. Rogers Town.
And he stopped, and he shook my hand, and he said, I’m glad you know my name, but I don’t know your name. And I said, Well, I think it’s Tom. And he said, What are you doing here? And I said I’m a writer. And he said I think that’s fantastic. He said, Don Hall, the founder’s son, could you please schedule a time to visit with Tom sometime this afternoon? And Don said, Sure. Fred will climb and carve out some time. And so he came over to my office, and I was working on some writing assignments and had the stack of all their needs. And he asked me, Tom, what do you think of your ideas? And I said, I really don’t know. I shoot a couple of Nerf hoop shots, and I spend my dictionary on my figure every so often. Sometimes I sit like this, you know, and then they just kind of happen. So I don’t know that there’s a science to creativity. And I think it’s kind of a miraculous gift. And I agree. I think that miraculous gift gets its beginnings from observation and from and from, context, and a common language, and from presenting that back to the people who provided.
Well, of course, the VRC thing, I think that’s a good takeaway. But the other thing is that I say a lot to our clients as well, and I hope that many small businesses will listen to this podcast because I think this is important. It’s always better to outsmart than it is to outspend. And if you have a huge budget and can and can flood the market with noise, then sure, you’re going to get some attention. But the ones that really do get through, cut through the clutter and gather attention are those that outsmarted somebody who didn’t necessarily outspend. And the way I believe that you consistently outsmart your competitor is by getting down there in the trenches and really understanding your target, using their language, allowing them to feel like you’ve heard them, and you’re honoring them and building your creative presentation around them. And copywriting has a voice to it that if you close your eyes, you could hear somebody speaking to you and somebody that you could easily be friends with. I know that sounds kind of flowery and, frankly, kind of hallmark.
It is true.
Yeah. I’ve applied that to every consumer product you can even think of. Sometimes you’re over, sometimes compassionate, sometimes scientific, sometimes you’ve got some humor involved, and sometimes you’ve framed for that dog food company we frame. They’re the voice of their brand. We talked to the friendly veterinarian that lives next door. And so, it wasn’t overly scientific. It was friendly and approachable. So I think when you focus on trying to outsmart rather than outspend, I think you’re on the right path.
LinkedIn is a great way to do that. I ignored LinkedIn for the longest time, and I’ve become a little more active over the last couple of years. Happy to connect that way and happy to answer questions people have. Happy to learn from you.
I enjoyed it very much, too. Thank you for having me.
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