Have you ever been cruising the internet’s virtual streets and run smack into…
It’s eerie, isn’t it?
You read it again and again.
Where have you seen this before…?
The tone, the structure, the pacing, the conversation… even maybe the OFFER sounds similar.
And you’re wondering if you’re seeing double.
You recognize that stream of words and cadence.
Is this… is this… yours?
But like… a little worse?
Chances are – you haven’t accidentally entered another digital dimension.
But you HAVE run headfirst into one of the biggest problems on the internet: copy cattery.
Now, before we start sharpening our pitchforks, I want to be transparent with you — this episode is NOT solely dedicated exclusively to trashing copycats, or the people who take “inspiration” from you so hard that they accidentally become your clone.
Do we share some annoyance? Yes.
Is plagiarism some white hot nonsense? Heck yes, and feel free to summon your lawyers if it happens to you.
BUT – in this episode, we wanted to dig under the layers past the low-hanging fruit, and talk about why there’s so much mimicry in the online space.
What’s My Motivation?
What makes people do it?
What do they accidentally rob themselves as they do?
What cues could influencers and leaders unintentionally be giving the industry that are causing so many people (especially newbies) to rely on other people’s creative ideas as a foundation for their own?
And what’s the line between actually being ripped off, and just spotting similarities in language that could be purely coincidental – or, as Margo’s girl crush Liz Gilbert puts it, “parallel thinking”?
Here’s Some Inspo, but Don’t Copy, M’kay?
We get into all of that and more on today’s #HAMYAW episode, “Copycats and Getting Ripped Off”, where we discuss stuff like:
- 1:25 – The difference between being “inspired by” someone’s work, and straight – up copying.
- 6:50 – When to “cease and desist” and when to “let it goooooooo”
- 7:30 – The hilarious time someone stole Margo’s (really bad) copy thinking it was awesome
- 12:20 – Is it plagiarism, copy-cattery, or parallel thinking?
- 18:49 – Where copy-cattery comes from
- 22:42 – Why the answer to everything is Turning Pro (which you can also watch here.)
Spill the Beans on Your Stolen Content Stories!
And while you’re over there, tell us in the comments:
What’s YOUR copycat horror story?
Or was there a period in your business where you were taking a bit too much inspiration from someone else? (Hey, it happens!)
Check out the episode and join the conversation over on YouTube — and we’ll see you in a minute. >>
Right now, I look very homely, I don’t know what’s happening.
I wasn’t fishing for a compliment, I just don’t… What is happening? It looks like I’m wearing no makeup. It’s just tiredness.
Welcome back, marketing nerds of the world. It’s time for another episode of HAMYAW, and today we are talking about copycats, people who steal your stuff, are inspired by your stuff, plagiarize your stuff, whatever category you wanna put them in, copycattery is rampant on the internet.
We actually want to spend a little bit of time today, not just talking about what copycat is, when it’s okay, and when it’s not, but really get into philosophical discussion about why people steal ideas on the internet, why people will copy paste a website into a Google doc and change a few words, what that means, and how to sort of respond.
I think Margo and I have fairly similar stances on it, but may have some different perspectives to share with you today. I think at the end of the day, is copycattery is something you should be worried about, something you should be defending against. Let’s find out. Margo, talk to me a little bit about your copycat experiences.
Yeah, listen, if you publish on the internet, somebody is stealing your stuff. And where it gets really slippery is you’ll have people be like, “I was just inspired by you.” That’s what happens to me a lot. People will literally reach out and be like, “I was inspired!” Then they’ll send me something like, this is drowning in me.
I think there’s a difference between plagiarism and copying in a way where that person is truly trying to find their voice,
And hasn’t quite gotten there, yet. It’s a thin line, so for me, the line is usually if you’re stealing sales copy, or if you’re stealing a product that I’m selling, or stealing an idea I had, then that’s a pretty clear line. If it’s approached stylistically, I’ll see when my voice starts to come out in others. I don’t stress too much about that, because the truth is, and we know this from our own voice. I have a product called Voice Lessons.
That won’t last very long.
One of the tools that we use, that I use, to help people find their own voices is I tell them to copy other people. Austin Kleon says the same thing. What will happen when you try and write like someone else, is your voice comes out, kind of like your parents being like, “you can’t wear that shirt,” and all of a sudden you really want to wear that shirt.
It’s your favorite shirt, now! Yeah.
The difference is you don’t necessarily want to publish those things. If I’m reading someone for a while, I’ve gone through this, I’m looking at my bookshelf. I’ve done this with Ogilvy, I’ve done this Virginia Woolf. If I’m reading too much of her books, I start writing like a 19th-century person…
And I’m using a lot of passive voice and words that are antiquated, and I’m like, where did that come from? ’cause it’s like her sneaking into my copy.
It’s like your emails open, “Have you ever gazed whimsically across the moors? Mournfully, perhaps?”
You pull from all of your influences, but sometimes there’s a dominant one that you’ve been reading for a while. It’s what makes us good at copy for our clients.
You immerse yourself in their voice, and then you can start to just sort of take it on and then it’s hard to turn it off, so I don’t worry too much about that. It stings a little, sometimes, when I see it, or when I’m like, ugh. But usually, I know that they’re gonna find their way.
Early in my business, I think when I saw something that looked remotely like mine, my hackles would immediately raise and be like, my IP! Mine!
I also remember back in the days when I was a beginner, and my mentor, Sara Ashwood, talks about this a lot.
As you say, as you’re starting out, you try on a lot of hats to figure out who you are. Of course, you’re getting inspired by the brands whose communities you’re a part of, and whose content you love, of course, you are, that’s a human being thing to do. It’s like when you were in high school and you start dressing like your favorite musician, you know? It’s not necessarily you, but it’s not a phase, mom!
I think it’s so important, first of all, to have compassion in that respect, but I also think that there is a little bit of a challenge, especially when it comes to sales when it comes to marketing around parallel thinking, and I know you’re a Liz Gilbert fan, she talks about this in her book, Big Magic, where sometimes when you are in a similar set of circumstances looking at, in the case of business and marketing, similar strategies, sometimes it’s not totally out of the question that somebody comes up with a similar idea or a similar message.
I know I’ve had moments in my career, even later in my career, for example, in 2016, 2017, I did a blog challenge that I called Blog Party, because block party, blog party, it’s a really straightforward guess, and I had a client message me, being like, “Blog Party is my thing.”
And I was like, oh fuck.
It was totally accidental and not intentional, I’d never seen her do it, but of course I respectfully… I was like, yup, nope, never calling it that again. That’s another thing. Responding when you’re being called out well, and understanding and reaching a point of compassion, both for the person who’s being copied and in the person who’s doing the copying.
It’s never malicious, I find. But it is to people trying to find their identity and almost trying to take a shortcut on to being heard.
Which I get. But I think that is so important to mark because I see a lot of people getting up in arms about getting their content stolen, and all of this when in reality, it was more of a similar idea.
Well, it’s kind of like the NDA thing.
I remember when I used to consult with start-ups, and they are so protective of their ideas, and within a year, they were all dead.
The people or the idea?
No, no, the idea!
I was like, what?
It’s the persons’ ideas that are all gone.
What NDAs are these?
The ones that are so protective. And then I got to the point where I’d work with people, and I was like share the idea, it’s hard to execute, guys. It’s really hard to execute.
Yeah, that’s the thing.
Yeah, and that’s the other thing when you’re getting concerned, I think there are of course people who steal, there are bad people on the internet, newsflash.
Lots of them. I’m not trying to discount or say that plagiarism wouldn’t happen, or that copycattery’s not annoying or frustrating, but I do want to emphasize that it is just part of the game.
If you are making a splash, if you are making an impact, somebody’s gonna snatch your shit. Or somebody’s gonna be inspired by it, or somebody’s gonna want to put their own spin on it. But I think where we can get lost, is that we obsess over our ideas and forget the fact that it is us behind our ideas that is what makes them special.
If somebody’s ripping you off, chances are, they’re not gonna get very far, because A, people will recognize that it’s your stuff, originally, and go and find you, and two, it’s gonna be harder for them to follow on their promise, it’s harder for them to succeed with their clients, because they don’t come to the same table and have the discussions that you’re having, with your knowledge base and all that, so basically, if somebody’s copycatting you, don’t sweat it too much, because they’re probably not gonna steal your bang.
Listen, if someone is plagiarizing your stuff, especially if it’s your products or services or sales materials, cease and desist. Don’t mess around with that stuff, but when we’re in the domain of content and branding, it’s a very, very thin line.
I always think back on my direct response routes, because Eugene Schwartz has a line that tells you never actually should use someone else’s copy because it won’t work. He has a whole chapter in breakthrough advertising about this and how part of what a breakthrough is, according to the book, is that every single time you encounter your product and your market at the specific awareness and sophistication level that they’re at, it changes, it’s different. It’s a new opportunity for you to be creative.
You can’t actually swipe someone else’s stuff, and this is what’s so funny to me when people swipe, and why I don’t get defensive about it, is I have seen Margo-inspired copy on people’s banners, or my favorite is when they steal my opt-ins because, two reasons, one, I know it won’t work, because they don’t have my market, they don’t have me behind the thing, and they don’t know what I’m actually trying to do and what my strategies are, but my favorite is that they don’t have my numbers. So often, they’ll steal the shit that doesn’t work.
I’ve literally seen opt-ins where they’re like, well, Margo wrote it, so it must be working. I was like, I was testing that, and it failed.
Yeah, that’s the other thing.
It totally failed.
That’s the other thing, it’s like, you can take it if you want, but this didn’t go super well. So, god bless, godspeed.
What’s interesting is that, and we were talking about this before the call, is so many of the direct response writers that I know are about why would you try to write something totally original from scratch, when there are proven templates and approaches to this?
Let’s talk about that.
Basically, proven templates and formulas, and it’s like, ooh, that’s a good question, because in one camp it’s total originality or bust. In the other, it’s why try to reinvent the wheel? Build on something that works.
Build on the emotional journey that’s been proven to work to generate x million dollars amount of revenue. Why would you mess with that? And that’s where we get into interesting territory, here, which is about that there are actual, you know, so many businesses online that sell templates.
There are so many people who are selling the plug and play, but the difference is, of course, they’re telling you, hopefully, when they give you the template, why it works, what to look for, all of this good stuff.
But where it gets confusing, I think, for people, especially beginners, is that once you figure out how to read a template, you figure out how to read and reverse engineer everything else.
If you’re wondering, “Am I being a copycat, am I being inspired by this, am I plagiarizing?” It’s a matter of do you understand how the bones of the page actually work? And are you tweaking them just to your audience? Or are you just changing words because you don’t want to touch the formula?
Yes, Oh my God.
Okay, if you follow me, you’ve heard my rant on formulas and templates. I am very, very anti.
But I think what you said about bones is really important because there is absolutely a difference between writing a piece that’s like a piece of creative expression, and a piece that needs to sell. When it comes to something that needs to sell, you can be a little more templated because if you have a sales page, you need testimonials.
This isn’t a negotiable thing.
So, there’s certain pieces like that that are a must-have. Now, within that, though, I think having plug-and-play approaches can be very dangerous if you don’t understand the strategy behind why.
Just putting testimonials in the format that someone says, and treating it like a mad lib isn’t going to solve the problem, because you don’t know why the testimonials are there.
They are there to underscore things that you can’t say in your copy. They’re there to address barriers and resistance to purchase or doubts. There’s a lot of strategy that goes into why you pick certain testimonials over others. How you even ask for those testimonials.
It’s not just the fact that they exist, and that’s what drives me crazy about templates that are like plug and play, this section does this, this section does that, and part of what you have to learn and why you need to understand the psychology and like you said, the bones.
Really understand the bones, is that once you master that and you know okay, these are the foundations that I can’t violate.
These are the first principles, and then this is where I can mess around, and this is what I can kind of just say hey, let’s have some fun, let’s bring my brand, let’s bring my personality, let’s move this, let’s play with the form.
I mean, think about it. A lot of y’all watching are avid readers and writers, yourselves, so think about what… I’m trying to think of an example of a novelist’s style. Mark Twain is a perfect example, he was the first person to use vernacular inside of dialogue.
That wasn’t a thing, but he understood the form enough to say this works for you to understand the character better. And then you could hear it audibly, you could hear it while you were reading, so it changed the form. Kurt Vonnegut’s famous for similar things. Then you had people who changed narration again, by putting stream of consciousness writing, which was considered kind of sloppy. People elevated that form.
Faulkner. (both laughing)
Dent is a different word. But same idea, here, of there are certain rules you have to understand about how people are receiving that content, why it works and why it doesn’t. And then there’s parts where you’re allowed to go off script, and I think that’s what’s really hard about the templates. They should be treated as training wheels and not verbatim.
Yeah, I love that, too, ’cause it’s like thinking about them as training wheels as opposed to the end all, be all.
I would classify myself as somebody who comes out and tries to come on things from an original angle, but templates and formulas, especially running as emails, are so useful. Holy smokes.
It’s been super fun to have those in my business when I invested in them and paid for them, but I have people that I have worked with and all of that stuff, and I think this is where we get into the gray area, though, between is it copycattery, is it plagiarism, or is it parallel thinking?
Is that there are only so many sales formulas in the world. You’re looking at if you are using a sales formula if you are applying copy and ideas to that sales formula, and somebody spots it and they are using it, a similar formula, it’s easy for them to feel like their content has been jacked.
But if you look at the content, it’s like okay, wait, this is the AIDA. This is facing the three big objections, which are time, money, and energy. This is okay, I get where you’re coming from in terms of feeling uncomfortable, but the reality is there are very specific ways to grab attention and take the customer on the emotional journey.
We’re talking about this in the context of sales copy, by the way. It’s a lot easier to spot plagiarism in books and all of this, but when it comes to sales and marketing, I think that is where it gets tricky.
I think if they’re swiping it for sales, it’s dangerous. They’ll burn out and they’ll go broke, or they ruin it for the rest of us, because I know that I’ll start to see pitches where I’m like, you cut and paste.
This isn’t a good pitch.
I also have such a big issue.
Again, that’s why you have to understand the strategies that go into things. Actually, if you guys are familiar with MemberVault, Erin, who runs it, she’s fantastic. She and I have had this discussion ’cause they provide amazing templates, and I hate templates and I don’t agree.
I’ve never seen useful ones through email, but I see what you’re saying about frameworks, ’cause I know about AIDA and all that, but Erin will tell you otherwise, and she’s really helped her clients, and she’s done it in a really ethical way where they can use it and amend it in the right ways for their business.
I think that’s the power, is that you have to understand why this approach works, and then you need to trust yourself as a business owner, ’cause this is what’s really going on here. What’s really going on is that in the beginning, you don’t trust yourself, and when you’re afraid, there’s no bad people doing bad things.
Well, okay maybe there are on the internet, but most of the time, it’s fear. It’s fear that I don’t know what I’m doing, I’m not good enough, yet, and I don’t trust myself, so I need the structures and I don’t feel like I’m allowed to do it the way I wanna do it, and I’m nervous.
So, that’s usually what’s happening behind the behavior. It makes you totally blind and deaf and ignorant to the feedback that’s coming back at you from those things. Part of the thing, if you want to do a cold pitch, for example, you can use a template, but it also helps to remember that there’s a human being on the other side, and you could just ask yourself how might a human being want to be spoken to in this moment?
The secret that people don’t realize when it comes to sales, and I’ve said this before on HAMYAW, but great copy is invisible. No one should ever see your writing and be like, “Wow, that was such a well-written pitch”. You know you’ve done a good pitch when the person’s response is “Ooh, ” would love to do that.”
That’s the goal. The goal is not to write a good sales page, the goal is to sell something. It’s not a good sales page if it didn’t sell.
And that’s the other thing, if you are feeling the urge to… If you see a sales pitch that you like that resonates, that’s the thing, too, that you mentioned, you also don’t know if it’s converting well. You don’t know. If it looks well-written, if it feels cool, if it feels a little out there and fun, you don’t know if it’s working, so that’s another reason not to just grab stuff willy nilly.
I think yeah, we are definitely in an interesting era, especially in the online space, because the templates, formulas, plug and play, swipes, rips, there’s so much mimicry encouraged in the industry, because that’s the sort of M.O. of well, this works. This worked for me, this has worked for a bunch of my clients, use it, which I’m oddly in favor of, to be totally frank with you.
Where it gets muddy, again, is when you are using the templates as a crutch instead of coming up with your own angles, with your own approach, with your own ideas, and taking the time to understand your customers on a deeper level.
Then you lose, we lose, customers lose, everybody loses.
It’s an empathy failure.
Absolutely. Switching from sales over to content, a little, I do think it’s easy to get onerous about your ideas.
I like what you said about parallel thinking because I think there’s a difference. That’s when voice matters. That’s when tone and approach matter, there are lines and I think you know when you’ve broken the line. I can feel when I’ve written a piece and I was like this doesn’t sound like me.
For our viewers, a line I would establish for yourself if you’re worried about this, is if you are in a place where you’re not sure what your voice is, and you’re trying to figure it out, you’re trying on different hats, do that in your Evernote, do that in your Google docs, do it in the places where you practice in your journal, but do not publish things if you’re not sure.
I would be very careful about that because I think that it’s just not worth the slippery slope because what you do is you erode your chances of ever getting trust from your audiences because it’s not an authentic connection. You’re just typing ideas from someone else. Or just call it out! There are times where I’ve called out, you can tell who I’m reading a lot of, and I’ll just say I’ve been reading a lot of this person.
Yeah, in the early days, I sourced everything. I was like this email was inspired by such and such. This email, and then directing… Just send gratitude to the people you are taking inspiration from, and all of that. I would say that I would agree with you sticking an Evernote thing to a point, but I also don’t want to get our readers totally tied up, especially if they’re a beginner.
And never publish it.
In that paralysis and never publish anything that they’re not sure
Yeah, yeah, that’s true.
Is 100% original.
I want to send you grace, and to tell you to give yourself grace, because this is part of the learning process. Every single creative you know has gotten through this, and you have to keep testing, keep trying, keep finding new angles until you find your voice. That’s a practice thing, that’s a reps thing, so keep showing up, whether it’s in your Evernote, or whether it’s putting out small things you are really confident in, over and over. Keep the ball rolling, and you’re gonna need those templates, those formulas, those inspirations less and less.
Yes, and I’ll leave us on this note, ’cause I think we should talk a little bit about what it means to be original, and Hilary has talked about this before. I think we did it on our episode, How To Be Yourself Online?
I think a lot of people think I need to be unique, I need to be original.
Great episode, by the way.
Such a good episode. But think that it means that you have to be funny or outgoing, or clever, and you have to be something different than what you are, and that’s not what it means. And I think that’s the pressure people feel that makes them steal something.
Yes, 100%, yeah. I love that, I love that.
I’m stealing bits from Hillary. Leaning into your weird, your specific brand of weird, and that might be all of the things you’re uncomfortable with. Maybe you’re super introverted, maybe you’re really into gaming. Maybe you’re not funny at all. Maybe you’re the most boring person ever. Lean into that. As she says, dial it up to 11.
Again, I think it’s really easy, and this is probably part of where a lot of copycattery comes from, is that you feel like you need to be the loudest person in the room. You need to be sucking up all the air, you need to be the funniest, you have the brightest colors, you need to be the loudest, so it creates a bait and switch experience, when somebody lands on your site and are like, ah cool, loud and bold, and you meet them and you’re like hey, how are you? You know, just a very low-key, calm… It’s jarring. And same situation in the reverse.
If you’re putting out a brand out there that’s all greens and soothing blues, and you’re like, welcome, would you like to live your best life? And then they get on the phone and you’re like, what up, motherfucker! It’s a totally different thing.
This is where trying on the hats and testing things comes through, is you have to really have to continue the journey, and it’s gonna be uncomfortable. If you’re not sure, if you feel like you’re heavily inspired by something, if you’re worried you’re stealing, sit with it, give the person credit if an idea of theirs inspired you, and all that stuff, so that they can at least know and be acknowledged, and send the people to their sites, as well, so folks will know the original sources that your ideas come from.
But I would also like to say on that note about the turning it up to 11, is turning it up to 11, as I said on the episode, is not always being louder.
It’s not about loud.
It’s not about volume, it’s about amping up your personality traits.
If you’re not funny, maybe you’re a little snarky. If you’re more introverted and calm, people are hungry for that.
If you think about your favorite brands, not 100% of them, I’m assuming, are brands who have a megaphone in your face and are throwing confetti at you, right? There’s a variety of brands that resonate with you for different reasons, so being able to identify what parts of your personality you really want to amplify online, may not be the loudness, may not be the humor, may not be the brashness, but there are so many wonderful, beautiful qualities people are seeking online, like that sense of calm, that really deep thought and analysis, that focus, and encouragement, and kindness.
People are just as hungry for that.
Stay the course, test it out, sort it out, and before we wrap, I do wanna say one thing to people who feel like if you come to be a victim of copycattery or plagiarism,
Yes, talk to us.
Plagiarism, call that person out, send them a cease and desist letter, call your lawyer, whatever you have to do. If it’s copycattery, feel free to take it up with them, but in my experience, the best thing to do is let it go. That person’s going to evolve past that, by the by, and unless it’s really egregious, and unless they’re making a ton of money from an idea that was yours, I encourage you live and let live, if that’s your bag.
If you’re somebody who really wants to have the conversation and take somebody to task, and hold them accountable, hell yes. But as you continue to grow, it’s going to happen more and more, so making your peace with it and understanding where it comes from a philosophical level, can be helpful.
Yes, and remember, execution’s the name of the game. It’s really hard to follow through, guys.
I’ve had people steal literally my exact products and send them to me and be like, “I was inspired by you, and “I’m gonna provide a community that does exactly what you do but for a different market,” and I’m like, uhhh. So, there’s been times where I called it out, and times where I’m like, let’s see where this goes. It’s different enough, let’s see. And it almost always dies, ’cause I know what goes into it, it’s hard.
It’s really hard.
That’s the thing. People who are building a version of the car aren’t building the engine, you know? They’re just building the shell. There’s not that motivation behind it, yeah. I’ve had my websites literally copy-pasted into Google docs and had some words changed, and I remember being like, ugh, mine! Mine! But at the same time, I was like, I don’t know who this person is, I don’t know if they’re doing well enough. They’re clearly a beginner, so I’m gonna let this go. It does feel like a violation, and we’re not here to downplay that.
Also, we’re making mental notes. It’s not like I don’t know. You’re gonna get introduced to me at a conference, and I’m gonna see it.
Exactly, exactly. So, call it out when you need to, but otherwise, sometimes that other person’s just on a journey, and they will move on, soon, from stealing your stuff,
Yeah, I really don’t. All right, and the solution to a lot of this, if you’re feeling the pull, turn pro, baby.
Check out our episode on turning pro.
Another great episode. (both laughing)
All right, well, we would love to hear your stories on copycattery, on plagiarism. What do you think the difference is? Do you have a different view? Tell us about it all in the comments. If you liked this episode, please like it below, subscribe to our channel, and I am Margo Aaron.
I’m Hillary Weiss.
We will see you in two weeks!
Ciao, guys! (drum pounding)
Photo by Juliet Clare Warren