The Zig-Zag Method for Catching Attention and Building Credibility


We give a lot of advice here on Copyblogger. Usually we try to stick to the fundamentals of solid writing and effective persuasion—the things that have been proven to work for decades and even centuries.

Beyond those fundamentals, there’s only one rule… the rule of change. Every technique du jour will inevitably lose effectiveness (at least for a while), and something else will come along that works better (at least for a while).

The problem for some content marketers and copywriters is that they’re always chasing what’s worked, instead of looking for what will work next. Sometimes that can be a safe and effective strategy, and that’s why we look to past winning tactics for guidance. But if you’re focusing on temporary tactics instead of winning fundamentals when browsing your swipe file, you may end up parroting something that no longer works.

Here’s my general rule of thumb:

When I see “everyone” doing something, I know it’s time to do something else. In other words, when everyone is zigging, it’s time to zag.

When zagging becomes fashionable, it’s time to zig.

Zig-Zag for Attention

Doing something that differs from what people expect always tends to catch attention. Part of why we tune things out is a lack of novelty, which makes even previously desirable subject matter mundane.

Taking an approach that differs from the crowd can help you stand out. But you can also mix things up with your own audience to keep things fresh and attract attention.

For example, Copyblogger Associate Editor Jon Morrow produced three great posts recently that did very well in terms of traffic, comments, and links. Here are the titles:

Jon’s idea was to deviate from the Copyblogger norm and write simple, general headlines for these posts, and I agreed. We usually write ultra-specific titles, so Jon was zigging against our own zag… and it worked like a charm.

We almost second-guessed ourselves on How to Be Interesting. The content of that post would have easily supported something like 21 Ways to Be an Interesting Blogger, which would have been a lock for Delicious Popular.

But guess what? It made Delicious Popular anyway, plus the general nature of the title got it picked up by mainstream media outlets as well.

I’m not telling you to stop writing ultra-specific headlines, because they work. What I’m saying is sometimes you’ve got to cutback against the very waves you’ve created to keep things fresh.

Zig-Zag for Credibility

When it comes to copy that sells, credibility with your prospects is key. And when you take the same old tired copywriting approach as everyone in your niche or industry, you come across as manufactured and insincere.

For example, competition in the Internet marketing product arena is fierce, and yet you often see the same copy approaches over and over. So, higher profile marketers have started zigging against the zag.

Frank Kern celebrates his unconventional personality, reveals the very marketing tactics he’s using on his followers, and often makes fun of those tactics. It’s a very endearing way to overcome cynicism and build credibility and trust.

For another example, check out this promotion for the new Mind Valley Labs membership site. The opening breaks two well-established rules of copywriting for information products, and then proceeds to tell you those rules are being broken. Not as clever and entertaining as Kern, but certainly disarming when you’re a prospect who feels like you’ve seen it all.

I did something similar when we released the Teaching Sells report 9 months ago. Conventional wisdom says I should have explicitly painted a rosy lifestyle picture for the reader, in essence selling the root “dream” behind the desire for an online business.

Instead, I turned that wisdom on its head:

Want to have a profitable online business?

Here’s the part where I tell you all about how fabulous it is to have a purely online business.

And then I tell you how you can have the lifestyle you want, live where you want, and have unlimited income potential—all from publishing online.

What’s that?

You mean you’ve already heard all that stuff?

Oh… You’ve already been sold the dream, over and over.

Now you’re looking for a way to make the dream come true that actually works?


Let’s just jump straight to that part.

“Selling the dream” to my existing audience (and to bloggers in general) would have been stupid and inauthentic. The report would be off to a terrible start from page one. But by acknowledging the skepticism that’s out out there, I caught attention and hopefully maintained credibility with the audience.

And guess what? By acknowledging the “dream” even in an unconventional way, it’s still firmly planted in the mind of the reader. Rather than expressly painting the picture, I let readers imagine their own version of the dream, which is 1,000 times more powerful than what I might come up with.

Zig-Zag Just to Be Different?

A word of warning.

There’s so much emphasis on being unique and remarkable these days. And for good reason, because being just like everyone else is a one-way ticket to obscurity.

But being different for the sake of it can backfire, too. That’s why I like the term “winning difference.” Yes, be unique and remarkable, but do so in a way that helps you accomplish your goals. Choose something that’s sincere and effective, instead of trying to emulate someone else’s winning difference and ending up a wannabe.

I guess you’d call it strategic zig-zagging. Anything else is just reckless driving.

About the Author: Brian Clark is founder of Copyblogger and CEO of Copyblogger Media. Get more from Brian on Twitter.

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Reader Comments (50)

  1. says

    Absolutely true. Brian, my wife has been a teacher for twenty years. She was awarded “teacher of the year” in Houston Unified, five separate years. For the last five years, I’ve been telling her that she needed to stream her knowledge onto the net. She kept saying that she needs to teach. I kept bouncing back that she would be teaching; it would just be different. Last night, we lay in bed together and went through the first three lessons in “Teaching Sells.”

    Thank you, thank you, thank you.

  2. says

    Great article Brian!

    The key to everything is standing out from the competition.

    This means that if you market to a place that is “not” used to great headlines, you can zag by following your traditional headline advice.


  3. says

    Fun post…reminds me of several pre-trend people I know. They move when the crowd starts running to catch up to where they they’ve already been, for a while. One friend helps set the trends in her industry, and watches the subtle and then obvious signs as the ideas disperse through the crowd.

    Thanks, again. Yours is always helpful and thought-provoking work.

  4. says

    This article conveys to me that effective copy is a science. It’s a war strategy, a chess game if you will…

    If I could devise a way to send subliminal messages to all my readers, brain washing them to return again and again and again – I would have already.

    So, I take up the second best course of action, and try to personify the “winning difference.”

  5. says

    Outstanding post, Brian. I like “The Winning Difference” concept too!

    Now, I need to find a niche…

    Oh crap I just stepped in trend

  6. says

    Another stellar piece. I attempt to stay ahead of the curve too, which is why I moved only to video/audio on my blog in the Spring.

    What’s next? You know what? Whatever I have passion for and is fun. Currently I’m embarrassing myself playing and singing on the ukulele.

  7. says

    This is the second time today I’ve read about the value of sincere and authentic expression in marketing.

    The first time I read it was in “The Cluetrain Manifesto”:

    “[Most corporations] only know how to talk in the soothing, humorless monotone of the mission statement, marketing brochure, and your-call-is-important-to-us busy signal. Same old tone, same old lies. No wonder networked markets have no respect for companies unable or unwilling to speak as they do.”

    Don’t worry, this was written several years ago, so there have surely been lots of zigs and zags since then.

  8. says

    “When I see “everyone” doing something, I know it’s time to do something else. In other words, when everyone is zigging, it’s time to zag.”

    There are rules to the universe, and your “zigging” comment may be one of them. When everyone buys stocks, the time may be here to sell; when everyone sells, the time may be here to buy.

    Trends gain momentum until something or someone reverses the trend with a greater or more subtle influence.

    Perhaps what matters is confidence that personal expression, within the scope of reasonable constraint,
    creates meaningful “zag”.

  9. says

    I don’t remember which sales letter it was, but you did something I really wish would catch one.

    In the first paragraph you said, “Already sold? Click here to sign-up”. Imagine that, not having to scroll all the way to the bottom just to buy.

    People probably spent a long time promoting whatever that sales page is going to sell. So some people are ready when they get there. Make it easy to buy. Unconvinced people can keep reading.


  10. says

    I am shaking my head. Unbelievable how much really good stuff you offer up for free. Seriously. But it comes from an incredibly deep well that is consistently, and constantly replenished… or tweaked, or turned on its head….

  11. says

    @ Brian – you really closed this article up nicely and that last paragraph is an entire article all on its own.

    You can create something unique and remarkable but is highly ineffective for accomplishing your goals – simply having those qualities does not create success.

    Our focus when creating that “zag” and standing out truly needs to be focused on not only what your customers are craving and solving the need they say they have, but actually solving what they actually mean.

    @ Michael Stelzner – sometimes it’s just easier to buy your competition 😉 hehe

  12. says

    Excellent post :)

    Reminds me a lot of my offline selling days, where the company I sold for did the opposite of convention and grew massive because of it…
    Once all the copycats had jumped aboard business slowed – so they changed again.

    I’m also finding it’s working well on my own latest membership site… with the headline –
    “No Free Membership, No Begging You to Join a List & Claim A Freebie, No OTO’s, Upsells or Downsells, AND NO High Prices!”….

    And I mean that – so it’s not collecting emails – totally against convesntional wisdom… but it is converting well and building a very close small community.

    I won’t spam you by quoting the site…
    But it was nice to read that zagging is considered good by some people other than myself…lol


  13. says

    I’ve seen so much “reckless driving” from people who think it’s a great idea to ignore simple marketing fundamentals that I’m reluctant to agree with this post.

    There are just too many people with lame marketing strategies saying things like “yes that sales letter thing is a good idea but I don’t need one.”

    Or “I don’t need to build trust with my prospects because I’m in this niche…which is different because…”.

    Ignoring the successful strategies of the past and trying to reinvent the wheel is just plain dumb.

    But what you’re saying is true.

    The real key though is genuine mastery.

    When you’ve mastered and truly understand the fundamentals of copywriting and marketing you’ll also have much better intuition about how you can “break the rules” and come out better for it.

    I liked the post.

    Kindest regards,
    Andrew Cavanagh

  14. says

    Andrew, I hear what you’re saying. I touched on the fundamentals at the beginning, and that’s usually what we focus on, because as you say, you’ve got to know the rules before you can break them.

    And often, we’re not really breaking the “rules” when we zig or zag… because catching attention and building credibility in order to sell are two of the most important “rules” there are.

    Glad you latched on the “reckless driving” analogy… I also see way too much of it!

  15. Ben says

    Hmmm, zigging & zagging?

    Is that like cloaking old tried and true methods of marketing making zagging sound like different or unconventional marketing?

    Good trick marketing maybe but most people know when theyré been sold to.


  16. says

    The topic you have discussed has got relevant insights on how to market and bring more creditbility. Thanks for sharing this

  17. says

    I have found it very effective to become unique and win the audience through your uniqueness. Yes, sometimes we have to break the ice and turn the tide the other way. Becoming a great writer needs experience and dynamic style which mean you have to be capable of changing your style while not hurting your readers wants and likes.

  18. says

    Damn. Late to the party and I wish I wasn’t.

    Yes. We tend to do things a little differently at our blog and ride against the currents. We test the theories and we push the limits. We do so because we don’t want to be doing what everyone else is – and it works.

    But it does take careful thought. I zig-zag enough in general as it is, and being cautious about how I zag and when is very critical to the zag being accepted (and followed).

    Otherwise a zigzagger comes off as just plain loopy with no direction, period.

  19. says

    Great advice – Seth Godin comes to mind, always seems to be ahead of other thinkers in the area of marketing and business branding, everyone else catches up a few weeks or months after.

    I do have a bone to pick with you though – there is a second VERY important part to why the 3 blog postings you mention win, you know your market extremely well. Now that blogging and social networking is reaching larger numbers – the MOST desparate desire everyone wants to know is how to stand out from the crowd – just like you are able to do. So, your topic is at least half the reason for the success of your blog postings.


  20. says

    Great looking, waves.

    Seriously, I appreciate posts of this quality,
    for voicing, confirming, and contextualizing
    the dynamic energy we need to be intelligent
    and alive enough to be worth following.

    Also, I believe your comment #25
    fully multiplies the clarity of the post itself;
    putting guard rails on the zig-zagging highway.

    Thanks once again,

  21. says

    It’s interesting isnt it, that people are so resistant to change, when the only constant in life is change?

  22. says

    Very interesting post, Brian. Borrowing your zig-zag concept, which is such a great way of thinking about it, zagging is the key to a lot of business success – what it boils down to is innovation. If you’re going to stand out from the crowd, you need to innovate. Constantly. Set the trend, rather than follow it. And yes, Frank Kern is a case in point.

  23. says

    Haha… This is so true. I even do this with the clothes I wear. When I see most people wearing the same thing, I try to wear something else entirely.

  24. says

    Great article Brian!

    The key to everything is standing out from the competition.

    This means that if you market to a place that is “not” used to great headlines, you can zag by following your traditional headline advice.

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