I recently had the opportunity to stay in a boutique hotel during a visit to Washington, DC— an experience that offered a perfect illustration of the Unique Selling Proposition (USP) in action.
The USP is one of the most central ideas in marketing. At its essence, it is about differentiation. What does your business do better or differently than anyone else? What does your blog offer that other, similar blogs don’t? What kind of EXPERIENCE do you offer that cannot be replicated, copied or commoditized?
From companies to artists to employees and independent contractors, no one is immune to the law of the USP. As far as marketers are concerned, the USP is as fundamental as the law of gravity. There’s no getting around it.
The hotel industry is one example where the concept of the USP is a little more transparent than others. Most people, even those who don’t know anything about marketing, understand that staying at a Motel 6 is not the same as staying at a Holiday Inn, and neither of those is the same as a J.W. Marriot. Each of these brands is distinct, and caters to different markets and budgets.
But corporate hotel brands with locations all over the world, even the nicer ones, are commoditized. Each location is quite similar, if not identical. Just like Starbucks or McDonalds, consistency is the core principle guiding this kind of operation. Your Holiday Inn experience will be pretty much the same whether it is in New York, London or Seoul.
Boutique hotels take the opposite approach. They are usually small, independently owned business with less than 100 rooms— much less, in many cases. Instead of casting a wide net and appealing to the general public, a boutique hotel does not try to appeal to everyone. Each one is different, and aims to offer a unique experience to guests.
People who stay at boutique hotels are not just looking for accommodations; they’re looking for an experience they can tell their friends and family about when they get home. If you’re just looking for a place to crash and are indifferent to your surroundings, you stay at generic corporate hotel. If you want unique surroundings and an experience that is impossible to duplicate elsewhere, you stay at a boutique hotel.
The Baron Hotel is located near the Dupont Circle neighborhood of Washington, DC. By DC standards, this place was a fantastic deal— I managed to snag a room for $75 by booking my room the same day. Even if you were to book in advance, it’s still very inexpensive. The rooms were not exactly luxurious, but they were certainly comfortable.
This location is actually much more well known for The Bier Baron, the tavern located in the hotel’s ground floor. I had been to the tavern once before when I lived in DC, but I had never stayed at the hotel— in fact, I had forgotten there even was a hotel there until I needed to search for a room at the last minute. Indeed, like most boutique hotels, they don’t seem to put a lot effort into marketing themselves.
So how is it that they stay in business? There are many budget hotels in DC— what makes this this place any better or different?
The hotel and the bar itself have a unique rustic decorum. The hotel feels like a large, 19th-century house that was converted into a hotel. There’s even an old-fashioned elevator with a door that must be pulled shut by hand.
The tavern itself has a unique look and vibe; it feels like walking into to a medieval tavern or cellar in a German castle. The beer selection is unrivaled; over 50 beers on tap and an astounding 500 varieties available in bottles or cans. I saw brands I hadn’t tasted in years, and many others I’d never even heard of. The food is not bad either; a good selection of burgers and various hearty pub-fare— that’s what you come to a place like this for.
This was all very impressive, but I still felt like I wasn’t getting the whole picture. I decided to ask the doorman that exact question. His responses were quite revealing:
“When you walk in here,” he told me, “there is a relaxed, friendly atmosphere. People remember your name, ask you how you’re doing. It’s like that show Cheers. You just feel welcome right away and enjoy yourself.” A few times a week, I was also told, this friendly vibe would be punctuated by stand-up comedy or trivia nights.
Now, there are many other hotels and bars that offer each of those things, but how many can offer such a unique combination:
These 5 factors combined make up the Baron Hotel’s USP: A memorable experience with great food, great beers and reasonably comfortable surroundings at a super-low price. Not a bad combination in one of the most expensive cities in North America.
This place probably won’t appeal to foreign dignitaries or highly-paid lobbyists, but that’s not who the Baron Hotel is aiming for. They know their target market; budget conscious-travelers and locals who love beer, an unpretentious atmosphere, and enjoy being within walking distance from the action. Their USP naturally attracts the customers they’re looking for.
Marketing a boutique hotel is an exercise identifying USPs. Since no two are alike, it requires a marketer to really take note of the smaller pieces that make up the whole, and contribute to a guest experience that can’t be copied or commoditized. For your next trip, consider staying at a boutique hotel to get a first-hand lesson in differentiation, the most fundamental aspect of marketing.
This past summer, I decided to experiment with the “digital nomad” lifestyle. As I researched different locations to post up for a month or two, one place kept popping up over and over again: Chiang Mai, Thailand. After spending some time there and talking to other remote workers and long-time expats, I feel like I can offer a pretty informed opinon of what this place is all about. So, is Chiang Mai a good place for freelance writers? Or should you set up shop somewhere else?
This city of around 500,000 inhabitants located in northern Thailand, surrounded by a breathtaking landscape of rain forests and mistcapped moutains dotted with golden Bhuddist temples. For many years this city was relatively unkown to the outside world, but in the past decade it has became famous as the preimer location for location-independent entrepreneurs and freelancers.
Why Chiang Mai? A big part of the draw is the fantasic value you get for your money here. It is possible to live comfortably on $1000/month, and that includes housing, utlities, transportation, eating out, getting drinks, tourist attractions— everything. If you’re bringing in $2000/month or more here, you can ball out here. Personally, I spent around $2500, because I didn’t feel like pinching pennies, and since I also had an unexpected medical issue and had to pay for treatment with cash (also cheap). It is quite possible to live here on as little as $600/month, but you might not want to try (more on that later).
Understandably, this insanely low cost of living has attracted so many location-independent workers and entrepreneurs from around the world that Chiang Mai is now considered the mecca of the digital nomad movement. This includes not only freelance writers, but programmers, drop-shippers, designers and almost any other type of work that can be done remotely. I honestly do not understand why the city has remained so cheap considering how many foreigners are pouring in here and how often it gets mentioned online, but it shows no signs of changing.
This concentration of people working remotely makes it great for networking. Coworking spaces like Punspace put on happy hours pretty often, and all these startups people are launching will certainly need sales copy, blog posts and other content written for them. If you’re a freelance writer who is proactive about connecting with people, you’ll probably be able to find some business.
There is also just a cool, friendly atmosphere here. If you came here to work online, there are a lot of other people here doing the same thing, and you can get plugged into a social circle very easily. It’s kind of like freshmen orientation in college where everyone just kind of makes friends with and chats with everyone. You really can just show up and very shortly, you’ll have healthy social circle hang out with. This is another reason why Chiang Mai has become a popular spot for people working remotely.
No place is perfect and Chiang Mai is no exception to that rule. There are many articles and videos creating the impression that this city is some sort of paradise, but it’s important to balance that with a dose of reality, because there are 3 issues here that made me rethink whether I could ever set up shop here permenantly.
1) First of all— we need to talk about driving in Thailand. The method of choice for getting around in Chiang Mai is a motorbike, and, well…people in Thailand drive like homicidal maniacs. This is true of any city in Thailand, but more people are inclined to try driving a motorbike in Chiang Mai because it is a relatively small city and people think it’s “safer” compared to driving in Bangkok.
This is true…up to a point. People still drive really fast, constantly cut each other off, and don’t ever seem to signal. The concept of “right of way” doesn’t seem to exist here at all. Have you ever watched a flock of birds or school of fish, and seen them all suddenly change direction simulatenously? You think to yourself, “how the f— did they all know to change direction at the same time?” That’s kind of what driving in Thailand is like. They also drive on the left side of the road here, so that may through you off depending on what country you’re from.
Oh yeah— driving drunk is also a popular passtime here.
If you get out into the countryside, there will be much less traffic, so you’ll probably be fine out there, but driving in any Thai city can be a nerve-wracking experience, and that unfortunately goes for Chiang Mai too.
2) Simply put, if you came to Thailand to party, Chiang Mai is not the best place to be. After the military coup in 2014, the government imposed a strict midnight closing time for bars all over the county. That rule was eventually lifted nationwide, but for some reason, Chiang Mai has not lifted that rule. Bars close promptly at 12:00, though there are a few after-hours clubs like Spicy which will keep going past midnight after the doors close.
Don’t get me wrong— there are some good bars and lounges here. While everything is open, Chiang Mai is a lot of fun at night. The best places to go out are the Nimmanhaemin neighborhood where most digital nomands choose to live, and the area of bars centered around Zoe in Yellow in the Old City.
As far as dating goes— it’s no secret that Thailand is a fun place to be if you’re a single guy. I used Tinder during my stay in Chiang Mai, and ended up meeting a nice girl who I hung out with for most of the month I spent there (side note: be sure to carefully examine each profile before swiping right. Some of these “ladies” are, uh, not what they appear to be…)
Now I was happy with this, but I can tell you right now that if you’re a guy who is trying to party and date a lot of different girls, Chiang Mai is not the place to do it. This is a small city and it is very common to run into people you recognize in public. If you are trying to be a player here you WILL get caught. You’re better off posting up in Bangkok if that’s what you’re in to.
Oh, and as far as the seedier elements of nightlife that Thailand is known for…you won’t see much of that in Chiang Mai, thankfully. The combination of this small-city atmosphere and the early closing times keeps most of the hookers, sex tourists and pervs far away from here. It does exist, but it’s not all sleazy and in-your-face like it is in other parts of the country.
I can’t speak on what it’s like for women who are trying to date here, but there are plenty of local fellas to choose from, as well as dreadlocked hippie backpacker types if that fits your niche, so pick your posion. Most of the “falang” (foreigner) women I met here were either backpackers passing though, or digital nomads who were in a relationship with someone who also worked remotely. Chiang Mai a popular place for location-independent couples looking to enjoy a chilled-out lifestyle.
Now, in the grand scheme of things, none of these problems I mentioned above are that big of a deal, but there is one more issue we need to talk about. It’s a classic example of just a little too much of a good thing.
4) Life here is easy…a little bit too easy. Everything here is cheap, the pace of life is pretty releaxed, and almost all the amenities you could want are availible.
The problem— at least in my opinion— is that it is very easy to become complacent in a place like this. The tranquil atmosphere and very low cost of living allows people to just kind of check out of life, and settle for making the minimum amount of money necessary to maintin their lifestyle. It’s already happened to hundreds of foreginers who came here, were seduced by the low prices and just contented themselves with making a few hundred dollars a month. Many of them overstay their tourist visas illegally, and this eventually became such an issue that the Thai government started cracking down on it, though it is still very widespread.
Many will just get a job teaching English— not because they enjoy teaching, but because it seems “easy” and will allow them to remain in the country on a work visa.
It’s a very easy trap to fall into. Look, I’m not knocking those who live here. I made some good friends during my stay, and I actually do plan to come back at some point. Here’s the thing, though: if someone wants to take some time off and chill out in a beautiful, tropical locale, I think that’s great….but there is a difference between that and moving to a cheap city in a developing country, doing the minimum necessary to get by, and not living up to your full potential.
There are, unfortunately, more than a few (most younger) foreigners in Chiang Mai who have chosen that path. It’s okay to mingle with these people and make friendly chit chat, but if you’re a freelance writer (or any other kind of freelancer or entrepreneur) who wants to be successful, you can’t allow that kind of complacent thinking to affect your mindset or work ethic.
Surround yourself with people who will push you to be better. You can find them in Chaing Mai too, you just have to look a little harder (I guess that’s true anywhere).
So, is Chiang Mai a good choice for freelance writers? I would say YES, it is, especially if you’re just getting started out and you’re on a tighter budget. If the problems I mentioned above are not a deal breaker for you, then the pros do outweigh the cons.
Overall, Chiang Mai is a good choice for freelance writers, and an especially good choice for people working abroad for the first time.
Of the best books I’ve ever read on self-improvement or business wasn’t written by a marketing guru, sales expert, or a Fortune 500 CEO. Not even close.
How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big: Kind of the Story of My Life was written by Scott Adams, a corporate guy-turned-cartoonist/entrepreneur. One of the things I love about his book is that Scott has such a contrarian way of looking at work and life. There are multiple examples of this in his book, and it would be worth it to write a whole post covering these ideas. But today we’re going to focus on only one idea in the book— one that is perhaps the toughest pill for some readers to swallow: His philosophy on setting goals:
Let’s face it— we live in a very results-driven, goal-oriented culture. From the time we can walk, most of us are taught at least on some minimal level about the value of setting and achieving goals. It’s not surprising then that many people find this kind of talk about goal-setting to be not simply wrong, but almost heretical.
On the surface, it appears to make no sense, and it’s tempting to just write it off as B.S. But it would be a mistake to dismiss this notion. It’s not quitter talk; Scott Adams is one of the most successful cartoonists in history, with a net worth in the high 8-figures, in case you’re wondering. It’s worked for him, and it has worked for many other successful people too.
In fact, you choose to adopt this approach, you may not even need to change your actions that much. Rather, it’s about adopting a different mindset— one that could produce much better results for your business.
Scott Adams’ basic argument is that following a system of behaviors is a more effective way to get what you want than setting a goal. Here’s how Scott describes it:
“For our purposes, let’s say a goal is a specific objective that you either achieve or don’t sometime in the future. A system is something you do on a regular basis that increases your odds of happiness in the long run. If you do something every day, it’s a system. If you’re waiting to achieve it someday in the future, it’s a goal.” [emphasis mine]
For example, let’s say Dave currently has a “dad bod” and he sets a goal of “Get a ripped beach body before summer”. This is how most people approach getting in shape.
What happens all too often is that people start going to the gym, don’t see the results they want very quickly, and become discouraged. Dave is no exception.
Each day as Dave looks at where he is now physically, and then thinks of the idealized future body he wants, one thought is continually reinforced in his mind: “I’m not seeing much progress. I’m not there yet.” It’s easy to see how this can lead to “this is too hard, why bother?”
Now let’s say his friend Jim approaches the same challenge by adopting a System: committing to eliminating sugars from his diet and doing 100 push ups, sit ups and bodyweight squats a day.
Each day as Jim follows these steps, a different thought is reinforced in his head: “I did my exercises today. I ate right. I’m winning.“
The shift is one in perspective. In both examples, Dave and Jim might be following the same exercise routine, but Dave is discouraged because he is fixating on a distant future he has not reached yet, while Jim is focused on that one box he needs to check off every day.
The Goals Mindset constantly reinfores the idea in Dave’s mind that he has not succeeded yet, while the Systems Mindset is continually reinforcing the idea in Jim’s mind that he has “won” for the day.
This can be applied to anything. You may say “I want $10,000 in my savings by the end of the year”. Why do you want that? For financial security. That’s a goal.
Let’s try a Systems Mindset instead. Instead of focusing on that 10k goal, you can commit to automatically transferring a percentage of your income into savings each month. The money just goes there, automatically. No sacrifice or willpower required. Stick with it, and it is inevitable that you will reach that 10k, perhaps sooner than you expected. That’s a system.
In the video above, Scott himself correctly describes the act of going to college as a system and not a goal. Why? Because the majority of us who attend college are not 100% sure what kind of job we want when we begin our studies, but we do know that attending college, generally speaking, improves one’s odds of landing a lot of desirable jobs. Similarly, landing one of those jobs is a goal, but dressing well and researching the company before getting an interview is a system that will increase your odds of getting hired.
The Systems Mindset is especially useful for business activities where you do not necessarilly control the outcome, such as cold calling. If you’re making cold calls, the fact is that each call is going to end one of three ways: a Yes, a Maybe, or a No — and more often than not, it’s going to be No.
So rather than thinking “I need to close 10 deals by the end of month”, try adopting a Systems Mindset: Just commit to making 25 cold calls a day, and don’t get attached to the outcome of any one conversation. Remember that the Law of Averages is ironclad and that (assuming your list is intelligently designed) if you keep following your system you will, eventually, get a “Yes”.
Each day that you make your 25 calls, you feel like you’re winning — regardless of the outcome. This creates a cycle of positive reinforcement; you grow more confident when you feel like you’re winning, and you start winning more when you feel more confident.
Conversely, what kind of cycle do you think obsessing over the outcome of a phone call is going to create? You’ll feel discouraged because you didn’t make the sale, and you won’t make sales because you feel discouraged.
Now some of you are probably thinking that this is all bullshit, because the only reason you even adopt a system in the first place is to achieve a goal.
The real takeway from Scott Adams’ book is to just try looking at acheivement differently by focusing on smaller, doable tasks performed on a regular basis which take you in the right general direction, as opposed to single-minded focus on a desired end-state. It is much less psychologically taxing, and the regular mental reinforcement that you “won” for the day will give you the confidence to keep at it until you inevitably get what you want.
I’m not saying goal setting is pointless. I still belive there is a lot of value in it, particularly SMART goal-setting, since it helps you measure your progress. But I have to say that adopting a more Systems-oriented approach to my work has drastically increased my productivity. Devoting 1 hour a day to a project and just putting in my time each day helps me get it done a lot faster than thinking “I need to finish this ASAP”.
Another example: I recently began training Brazilian jiujitsu, a discipline which kind of forces you to adopt a Systems Mindset. I showed up to each class and put in the work, month after month, without focusing on getting promoted to a higher rank. Sure enough, I just got stripes added to my belt last week, and was taken by surprise when it happend. I was too busy just enjoying the process and improving my skills to even think about rank advacement.
I’m not trying to settle the Systems VS Goals debate with one blog post, and I know not everyone is going to be convinced given how deeply ingrained goal-setting is in our culture. But even if goal-setting has served you well in life, try out the Systems Mindset and see how it works. Don’t be surprised if it allows you to now only meet, but surpass whatever desires you originally had.
Scott Adam’s Blog
There are so many books, videos and courses claiming to be the be-all-end-all authority on good writing, it’s hard to know what is worth your time and what’s not. That’s why I’ve put together this list of some of the best books for new copywriters and content marketers. These books will give you an excellent foundation and provide the the highest ROI time-wise on effective and persuasive writing.
While some of these books were written in the pre-internet era, the general principles they contain are true for online writing as well, and remain as applicable today as they’ve always been.
The Boron Letters, by Gary C. Halbert. Written by one of the most successful direct-response copywriters in history. The book consists of a series of letters Halbert wrote to his son while serving a brief prison sentence. In each letter, he outlines principles that led to his enormous success in marketing and just life in general. The explanation of learning how to be “student of markets” is worth the price alone. One of the reviews for this book claimed that it offers the kind of information “you’d normally only get if you were born into a wealthy family”. I couldn’t agree more— fantastic read.
Triggers, by Joseph Sugarman. This is a fascinating list of 30 psychological “triggers” that are proven to make prospects more receptive to your offer. You’ve probably read about some of these principles before, and if you’ve ever bought a car, it is almost guaranteed that they have been used on you. Absolutely mandatory for anyone working in persuasive writing or sales.
Web Copy That Sells, by Maria Veloso. Excellent book copywriting specifically for the internet. Does a great job of highlighting the key differences between effective offline and online writing, and outlines strategies for success with everything from website copy, landing pages, email campaigns, script writing for YouTube videos, social media and more.
Persuasion, by Robert Cialdini, PhD. Robert Cialdini was a college professor and psychologist who was sick of being duped and manipulated by salesman, and wanted to find out why they were so successful at making a chump out of him. He spent years researching the tactics of business and interpersonal persuasion and outline his findings in this book, where he describes how people can put the tools of persuasion to use, and you can protect yourself from others who are using them in unethical ways.
This book, is not written specifically about content marketing or copywriting. Rather, it provides a macro-level overview of what makes all forms of marketing effective. Cialdini outlines 6 principles that form the foundation of any effective marketing campaign or sales pitch. Must read.
The Ultimate Sales Letter, by Dan Kennedy. Considered one of the definitive texts on writing effective sales letters. Old school, long-form sales letters were traditionally the domain of the offline, direct-mail world, but much of the principles here are also applicable for writing good landing page and email copy.
The Elements of Style, by William Stunk, Jr. Sometimes less is more, and this is doubly true when it comes to writing. This book will teach how to communicate most effectively in written form, and prevent yourself from falling into the trap of being excessively verbose and losing the reader’s interest.
Copyblogger free eBooks. (various authors)
One the quickest ways to learn how to write good content is to go through Copyblogger’s extensive library of free ebooks. Each PDF covers a specific topic like headlines, content marketing, SEO and more. You’ll just need to create a free MyCopyblogger account in order to access them.
There are many great resources out there about how to become a more effective writer, but this little list represents of some of the best books for new copywriters and bloggers. Starting with these will give you a solid foundation of knowledge to build on, but the most important thing is to START WRITING. Just as you can’t learn to ski by reading a book about it, you can’t really learn how to write well just by reading books. You’ve got to put it into practice and find your own voice. Whether you’re trying to write attention-grabbing copy to make a sale, or trust-building content for an Inbound campaign, these books will help put you in the right direction.
I recently read through The Boron Letters by copywriting legend Gary Halbert. This book is pure, refined wisdom about both marketing and life, presented in the form of letters Halbert wrote to his son Bond while serving time in prison. Hardly the format a traditional business book would follow, but maybe that’s why it’s so effective. It’s raw, emotional, and packed with advice from a father that no only wants to teach his son to match his own success, but to avoid his mistakes as well. To this day, it’s considered madatory reading for not only copywriters, but those working in any field of marketing.
There are many good points made in this book, each worthy of their own blog post or even a book to examine them further. But I think the most important takeaway comes from letter 5, where Halbert advises his son to become a “student of markets”. What he means by this is that in order to run a successful marketing campaign (or run any successful business for that matter), you have to be aware of what it is that people want.
It sounds so obvious, doesn’t it? But it’s a simple, inescapable truth that goes completely ignored by too many entrepreneurs and marketers alike.
I’ll give you an example; a friend of mine’s brother, who I’ll call Chris to protect his identity. I like Chris. He’s a good guy with a good heart. But he made some disastrous mistakes when launching his business that caused him great financial and emotional turmoil — and it was primarily because he failed to become a student of markets first.
He had developed a product that he truly believed was going to succeed. He was passionate about it, talked about it every chance he had, and put years of work into it, even if he frequently allowed himself to become distracted with trips, parties, etc. Those were also mistakes, but it would have been relatively easy to solve that problem by just showing some discipline.
The real problem was that he had invested tons of money and emotional energy into developing a product with a whole brand behind it without ever bothering to study his target market and ask himself “Does anyone want this?”
Now Chris comes from a wealthy family and had a lot of resources to invest. He also had a lot of connections to influential people. But neither of these were enough to save his business from failure.
He was so caught up in his own vision of the product’s success and how people would embrace it (because, after all, it just so awesome, how could they notlove it?) that he didn’t notice how people were reacting to it until it was too late.
It wasn’t selling. His marketing campaigns were ineffective, and if that wasn’t bad enough, some developers he had hired stole his money and attempted to skip town (they were eventually caught, but it took years to get his money back).
When all was said and done, Chris had invested 5+ years and blown nearly his entire trust fund on this startup. All because he never bothered to make himself a student of markets.
If he had, he would have realized much earlier that there just wasn’t enough interest in what he was selling. This can be a painful realization, especially for those with a lot of emotional investment in a project— but it’s not as painful as investing all that time and money into something only to find out that nobody cares.
If you’re an entrepreneur, the lesson is obvious. But if you’re a fellow marketer reading this, you might be thinking “Sure, I get it, but I’m not launching a startup. What does this have to do with me?”
It has everything to do with you, because if you don’t become a student of markets yourself, you’ll fall into the same trap as Chris, but in a different way.
How do you avoid these mistakes? Study what sells. Study what people are buying, and by that I mean what they really buy, not what they say they buy. Sales figures are the truth, while consumer surveys often take detours from it.
This information will form a core part of the Buyer Persona. If you’re a copywriter, your persona IS your market. You have to understand not only what they buy, but their problems, hopes, fears, and more.
Study your market, and you will save yourself the frustration of writing copy that doesn’t connect and doesn’t convert.
Never write without a clear understanding of who your audience is and what they actually want. Just as it’s a damn shame for an entrepreneur to invest all that time, energy and money in a product no one wants, it would be a damn shame for you to spend all that time writing copy or devising a strategy that was flawed from the start.
Follow this advice, and you won’t end up like Chris.
And don’t worry about Chris, by the way — last I heard, he landed a nice job through his network and is doing just fine now. But most people who fail to become a student of markets are not so lucky.
Don’t be one of them.