Hailing all the way from South Africa, Justin Zehmke is a familiar face on the Estonian marketing scene. Justin, once part of the content department at Pipedrive, has now moved on to fill the position of head of content at EstateGuru, a leading European marketplace for short-term property-backed loans. EstateGuru has facilitated almost 3,000 loans from 100,000 investors in 100+ countries. Justin shares his thoughts on all things copy and content, brakes down the nitty-gritty of getting your content out there, finding the right people and finally, tackling the onslaught of Google. You can listen to the interview here.
What do you think are the most common mistakes other content writers are making?
Not serving the reader, but serving the business. It’s a very hard urge to overcome. You should always ask yourself: does my content add value to this person’s day? This person’s life? Are they feeling more informed or do they feel like I just tried to sell them something? That is the biggest mistake. The writer’s job is to serve the reader, not the subject.
Why is this happening?
Because it’s natural. You are under pressure from whoever you are working for to tell the stories in a certain way. It’s sometimes easier to just go with the flow and go against your natural instincts.
There is also the problem of people coming from institutions where they learn to write in a very specific style. Older guys, like me, are the last of a generation, who started as journalists and later migrated to marketing. Nowadays, young people go to college, learn to write according to a specific formula and forget about creativity.
What’s the main difference between news journalism and content marketing?
They’re very different. Classic news journalism is fact-based, impartial and is not trying to influence the opinion of the reader, whereas with content marketing, it’s the complete opposite. You are encouraged to be creative, to influence rather than inform.
If you do it too explicitly, the readers will surely notice that they are being influenced.
Certainly, there is a very fine balance. Sometimes the content marketer has to step in and hold business leaders back. The readers are not idiots, they are going to see through this. I’m very much advocating for the idea of reportage, because our readers are much more interested in facts. Newsworthy business occurrences get much higher engagement. And the way to get that across is to be a bit dispassionate. I’m not a big fan of extreme flowery language and being too salesy in my content.
On the other hand, it’s difficult to measure the ROI of neutral content.
That is why you have different types of content, a couple of pillars you need to focus on. Firstly, there is brand building, which you can’t really measure. Then there is direct marketing content, which can be email-driven or sometimes off-platform. Yes, you can be more salesy here. Finally, there are moments when you are speaking directly to the customer and this type of content is very measurable. It is specifically designed to influence the decision of the user.
What’s your take on buyer personas?
In the business-to-business sector there is a very clear picture of the persona you’re targeting. This person has a name, age, certain habits, etc. In other instances, these things can be counterproductive, because you are narrowing down too much. It limits your scope for creativity and you miss a lot of possible angles.
EstateGuru has a very clear persona. How do you empathise with that person? Do you know any people who fit to that category?
Conveniently, all our senior management are former real estate developers. We are generally targeting newish businesses that don’t have a long history, hence, they struggle to get credit from banks. Unfortunately, they are overwhelmingly men, entrepreneurial, very much the classical alfa male personality, go-getters, health-conscious, status-conscious (not in a bad way). It’s very easy to empathise when you’re working with these guys.
Do you test your copy prior to publishing?
Oh yes! It’s not just the question of testing. We are bound by legal frameworks, we are regulated in many countries. There is a very stringent process the copy goes through. First, we send it to the risk department to make sure we’re not making inaccurate statements. Then it would go to legal and eventually to the sales team.
Your content is published across several markets. Are there major differences in terms of the writing style?
Definitely, because there are cultural differences between Estonians, and lets say, Spaniards. It makes it quite difficult. You have to be aware of not using colloquialisms or colourful language, which is incredibly limiting for some who loves words. We have come up with a system where we write very concise English copy first. That copy is then sent to translators and reviewed by a native speaker in the staff. I have my favourite people who have an affinity for language, even though they might work in accounting or wherever. They give great feedback. We are currently doing six languages and are about to add Dutch as well. It’s difficult to get that right. Sometimes we get readers pointing out our mistakes. And we learn. Often, you have to go through several translators before you find a guy who really gets it.
What should we look for in a translator? Which qualities? What type of background?
Find someone, who is first and foremost, a writer in the language that they are translating. I was lucky to find a German journalist whose English is perfect. It’s not a problem in Estonia. My manager, Piret Reinson, writes extremely well and can oversee our copy. I’d advise you to stay away from agencies, especially if you are small. Find a specific person.
Have you had any luck finding people on Fiverr or other similar portals?
Only for videos and voiceover, but never for writing. We mostly go word-of-mouth. When you are trying to go cheap – you get what you pay for.
How much do you deal with the distribution part?
It’s all centralised. We have a central team in Estonia producing the group content, which is then translated and distributed across all platforms. We have partners in several countries, who help us place external content, but again, everything starts from me writing it. I’m a bit of a control freak because of the legalities around it.
Producing the content is relatively easy compared to distribution. What’s your main experience in regards to distribution?
Distribution is tricky. Unfortunately, sometimes you have to pay. This is just how it works these days. Almost any modern newspaper or publication allows the placement of advertorial style content. When you are just starting a business – go smaller, don’t expect to be published in the Financial Times. There are many content hungry bloggers with a big following. You are often doing these guys a favour by supplying them with content. Over months and years it will come to a point when people will be coming to you instead. It’s also a question of expertise. Is your opinion valid?
EstateGuru is 50% B2C, 50% B2B. What’s the main difference between writing to a B2C audience as opposed to writing to a B2B audience?
Our B2C audience is essentially every person in Europe. The target market is incredibly broad. You are throwing the net very wide, which makes it much easier in terms of targeting and advertising. The business-side is a very narrow market. The hardest part is finding these people. The first is a shotgun, the other a sniper rifle.
Let’s say your target is a real estate developer in Frankfurt, Germany. How do you reach him?
One of the first things I would do is try and get an interview with a German client. Our local sales team know these people. Write an in-depth case study on their experience with us. Then I would look for real estate magazines and pay to place the case study there. Add targeted advertising to the mix. LinkedIn, which is expensive, but clearly the best social media tool for B2B targeting.
How do you convince them to share their experience? You are literally asking them to promote your company.
Remember, they develop real estate. The case study covers the whole process and at the end of the day, they have a product to sell. We have 100,000 investors, people who buy property. Your final product is going to be advertised to this massive market through doing the case study. It also appeals to people's sense of achievement. We often place these case studies in places like kv.ee in Estonia (a real estate portal) or we put adverts on these portals that lead back to the case study. They see it as a bit of marketing for themselves as well.
Business case studies are often quite dull. How do you write an interesting case study?
You can’t always find spicy details, although you obviously try your best. It can be boring to people who are not involved in that business. There are many challenges in real estate and this is going to sound terrible, but we have been sort of lucky with the pandemic in that sense, because developers have faced unprecedented challenges. Getting staff on site, a shortage in materials and so forth. The case study is as much about people as about business. I will always interview a specific person. I also love video because real estate is a visual business.
How complex should the video production process be? There are so many options on different price levels.
We choose the simple way for most case studies. Not quite a phone, but one freelance cameraman should suffice. We try and make it location-based as well. If you are doing it in a static area - it becomes boring very quickly. If you are on site, you can cut to different areas and that brings a certain dynamism, even if you’ve only got a single camera angle. The advent of drones has certainly helped a lot. It is so cheap to hire a drone guy to take a fly over the development area and make it look fantastic. Sometimes, it also depends on what your purpose is, we do higher complete video crews as well. I think go cheap in the beginning. You can get away with it.
Video production involves interviews with the CEO or other senior management people. They are, in most cases, not very experienced in front of the camera. Honestly, most corporate videos are painful to watch.
Yes, it sometimes feels like a hostage video. I prefer the interview format. You don’t write the script too tightly, because these guys are not actors. Try not to bring strangers in. On the contrary, get the sales person who has established a relationship with them. They will feel more comfortable. CEOs are unfortunately often control freaks, a lot of them want to know what’s going to happen before they start talking. Do good preparation, but try and make it as spontaneous as possible. You tell a couple of jokes and then you slip in the real question.
Let’s talk about your days in Pipedrive as well. Their product is meant for small companies and the buying process is very simple. What’s the difference between addressing SMEs and real estate developers?
The tone is very different. Because it’s not a big buy decision. The hard sell is not going to work in a place like Pipedrive, you need to differentiate yourself from the competition. We did this by being more humorous, by showing that we understand the challenges, by producing an awful amount of educational content. Our tool is meant to help you in becoming a better salesman.
Pipedrive has kept their humorous tone. How do you maintain the style in the midst of changes like writers coming and going?
You need to document what you are doing and there needs to be a very strong style guide. The latter is not just about glamour, but also about tone, what sort of jokes are acceptable etc. Pipedrive was lucky in a way for the first 6-7 years, they had one marketing manager who drove the business. It took me about six months until I felt my copy was at the point that I would publish it without him reading it first. It’s easy to develop a style guide. It takes time, but it’s not difficult. Every business should have it.
Do you have a style guide at EstateGuru?
It is a work in progress at the moment. I hope to have it finished by mid 2022. Up to now, I was producing all the content myself, I didn’t feel the need for that. Recently, I hired my first writer, so now I’m going to start doing it.
Writing for Google is another challenge. How much do you think of keywords when you write?
One has to. Again, it’s important to separate the content that you are doing for SEO, from the content, that you are doing for your clients. Often, our search engine, optimised pages – the pillar content, is never even marketed to readers. It’s there to bring SEO traffic. I am not a big fan of SEO writing. It kills any beauty in language.
If you think of your future as a copywriter, what’s the biggest challenge in this line of work?
Being replaced by machines is a fear we all have at the moment. Automation of content is the thing that scares me the most. There is going to be a time when a computer is going to churn out a fairly readable marketing piece.
There is also the proliferation of online platforms like Fiverr, where people can get really cheap content. It has driven down the value of what people see as writers.
How can you defend yourself against computers?
Computers will struggle with creativity. A good copywriter is also a psychologist. You need to have an understanding of human nature. What drives people to make decisions? That part is going to save us for a while longer. I do think that copywriters’ job will get narrower in that sense. Especially when it comes to SEO. It’s meant to be read by machines in any case, so who cares. Any young copywriter, I would say focus on the creative part of your job, rather than the churn part of your job. If you have a unique style of writing – you will always be in demand.
I recently had a chat with Tim Soulo from Ahrefs and he said that one of the main problems with copywriters is that they are thinking too much about Google. Just write good copy and Google will recognise it.
I hope that with political developments in the world, we might see some changes in these big monopolies. Facebook, for instance, has killed journalism globally. That needs to be fixed. I hope that we will move away from hardcore SEO writing. I want some other ways for people to discover my content and that is the trick.