Identifying the type of copywriter will determine where and how you look for one.
Do you need an entire website? Just your homepage (see below)? A brochure? Table talkers? White paper? Press releases?
Everything? An experienced copywriter can probably write all of these, but probably enjoys some types of writing over
others (e.g., conversational web pages vs. technical white papers). I
confess that includes me -- I mostly enjoy writing conversationally, but somehow I grew up writing very formally,
and I retain that ability when it's called for. (Although these days, even
in a formal business tone, I take time not to waste words. Or, as editors say, even in long-form writing I work to "say it shorter." In fact,
over time, this page will probably become a bit shorter!)
Can they learn your business?
There used to be an industry joke:
"We need someone to write about our sedans. You'd be perfect, except you have no
experience with green, four-door Fords."
What a relief that agencies and major marketers no longer think that way. Smart managers take a broader view.
We have another saying in the advertising business:
"Nobody knows the client's business like the client does."
substitute the word "product" or "service" for business. The point is this: Successful clients have lived their businesses
for many years. They may not be thriving, but they are in business because they know everything from the original game plan,
through what has and has not worked, how they make it, how they sell it ... everything. No ad agency or independent copywriter
or business consultant can possibly know that.
The outsider's function is to see it all from a different perspective, to add experience
and capabilities that the client does not have, and to combine their own experience and knowledge to examine or further fresh
approaches. But they do have to learn relevant aspects of the particular client's business. Some people, and some companies,
are better at adapting than others, often depending on the type of industry at hand.
Here's a case in point. I rarely take copy tests, but this one was thoughtfully prepared,
and was a paid, real-world website assignment.
I had two competitors. One was a professor specializing in the client's industry. The other person was a public relations writer.
And I am a generalist B2B marketing-communications copywriter. To the surprise of my prospective client,
I got the job, and we began a productive relationship of many years. I was able to hit the ground running, but over time, I learned a lot
more about the marketer's business(es), their
products, and their customers. At least, enough to ask managers and customers intelligent questions, and to write copy that
intelligently addressed their needs.
What kind of business are you in?
Nobody can quickly write equally well about every topic.
But by nature, good marketing copywriters are curious creatures. Our interests are often eclectic and, like a good journalist,
we've "learned how to learn." Allow us to get up to speed, and we're ready to run with your ball. (That much would be the case with a full-fledged ad agency.)
On the other hand, a fashion reporter (no matter how well dressed) doesn't necessarily
make a great financial reporter. A hosiery manufacturer probably can't run a foundry.
And a youth-market branding copywriter might not be so comfortable with industrial business-to-business.
Actually, I've written about both, but I'm more comfortable selling shoemaking equipment
and devising shoe advertisements than I am at orchestrating a branded flash mob.
Can they write in your readers' language?
In some businesses, the client's customers like to be in on the "good talk." We want your customer to identify with you.
But the job of a b-to-b copywriter isn't just to flatter the reader. It's to inform and persuade them. Often your reader is not
as comfortable with your terminology and slang as you are. The point is to speak in ways that speak to them.
As I say, "The language of your prospect, and not a bit more technical than that." And, as one of my full-time employers used to remind,
even engineers use plain language with friends over the backyard barbeque.
Do you have confidence in the writer?
In addition to the foregoing concerns, you should choose someone who seems a good match for you personally.
A good ongoing relationship with your copywriter is built on mutual respect. We don't have to become buddy-buddy. Whatever your business,
your corporate culture, or your own personality, an experienced copywriter should be able to adapt to your style and act in a businesslike manner.
I've dealt with virtually all kinds of clients, in all
kinds of business environments. Several have become more than clients; they've also become loyal, trustworthy, enjoyable friends.
But that's not necessary. What is necessary is that you have confidence in your writer, that you respect their judgment and
trust in their capabilities.
When you two might disagree, don't keep it a secret, and don't just call it quits. Do be secure enough to say specifically
what concerns you. For example:
"The takeaway should be ..."
"There's too much copy."
"Many of our customers don't read English well."
"It needs more pizzazz." (Yes, I've actually heard that, albeit long ago.)
Do you want conceptual work, even strategic insight, or just efficient, on-target writing?
Beyond the media environment, audience, and personality issues, is the question of creativity. Depending on your situation,
either need is valid. Some assignments just call for words well written.
Many freelance writers are great at that. You tell them what to write, and they say it better. I'm pleased to include jobs
like that among my repertoire.
But overall, sales copy isn't something you order by the quarter-pound.
It calls for more than mere composition skills. It requires helpful thought – sometimes even critical thought.
Your advertising, your website – almost all your marketing
– works more efficiently, more effectively if it has a viable marketing or advertising concept. If it positions you memorably in
the mind of your prospect, and against your competitors. If the headlines and visuals play together
synergistically. At that point, your freelance copywriter is no longer just a supplier, but a valuable creative consultant.
They make themselves worth far more than their hourly fee or project price.
Do they understand the concept of an advertising concept?
Incidentally, if someone shows you a great ad idea but can't extend it to at least a couple other ads in the same vein, it's probably
not a concept. It's an execution. Think again, and further, even if a full-blown campaign isn't in your budget. Usually, a strong advertising concept is easily extended.
The ability to do that suggests that the idea is truly rooted in your product and competitive situation.
Do they write "by the numbers," or do they address your particular needs in fresh, distinctive ways?
In recent years, the rolls of freelance copywriters have swelled. Some newbies are experienced people coming off full-time jobs.
Others are very talented writers who just naturally take to it, and happen to be insightful salespeople. Just allow a little more
time for them to get up to speed.
But some others write by rote. They've learned a formula, and they write copy as if they
were filling out a form. To an extent, this sometimes works, especially in direct response
(where certain selling and readability principles are measurable), and it's a valuable approach for any writer to know.
But those are more matters of format, not message.
Few marketing situations or audiences fit perfectly into a format. And whatever the formula, dull copy seldom
"beats the control." Rigid reliance on a formula may instead result in copy that's very hackneyed or stale.
At the other extreme, there are those of us who have been doing this long enough to work almost intuitively.
We like to carry the ball, and want to score a touchdown, whatever it takes, no matter how broken
the field or how far the goal. Often the most spectacular results begin with a broken play.
Is their writing clear and quick?
Above, I speak of concepts. This applies to that. Don't confuse concept with wit, fancy wordplay and other
artful tricks we writers enjoy. They have their place, but maybe not in your headlines.
A tricky headline is not a concept. Concept is the gut message. Often, a cute headline works
against conveying your message quickly and clearly.
As I've said many times, don't make the reader think. Or rather, focus their attention on what you want them to
think about, not on the mechancis of your presentation.
If they have to think about the pun, or (worse) don't get it or misunderstand it, their thought
process requires an extra step before they get your point. For example, suppose when the first Polaroid camera
came out, the copywriter had written "There's a darkroom in the camera." That's cute, true, and creative. But
for someone who never heard of the product before, it would be quicker to say, "It prints your photo in 60 seconds."
Bingo. No extra step required to think about "What do they mean by 'darkroom'?" It's not so creative, but it
gets right to the benefit.
Another example: I wrote some headlines for
a diet dog foot. Other creative people were divided on which one they liked better:
How to avoid the dog pound. vs. How do you explain a diet to a dog?
I probed. More of the people who preferred the second one had actually owned a dog.
There's nothing wrong with a "creative" headline. In
fact, the best headlines are the ones that – along with the visual – are both creative and immediately
clear. And if you're selling a fun product, or fun itself, then a fun headline is right on target.
Do they understand salesmanship?
We are at an interesting time in the evolution of Marketing Communications. The emergence of Social Media provides
new options for media, content and tone. In some markets, it has affected the tone of advertising messages in other
media. In fact, it's not a media revolution, it's a shift in attitude throughout our society.
Increasingly, people don't want to be "sold." (Witness the number of commercials that overtly acknowledge that they are commercials: "Here's the
jingle" ... "Over to you, Logo" ... etc.) If you're selling to jaded people who look askance at "advertising," your copywriter
needs to work with that. On the other hand, there is plenty of call for traditional media plans and a traditional voice.
The common thread? Plain, honest communication, person-to-person. Avoid puffery. Have some style in your presentation. (Neither of those
criteria is new!) Quickly show that you deserve the reader's trust. Then sell them, without making them feel like they're being "sold."
As I said, that's always been true. Consider: When you've shopped for a car, you didn't want to feel played by the salesperson.
We prefer to buy from sellers who truly understand us, or at least from vendors we trust. What's different now is that you can't
get away with less anymore.
Do they have samples?
Look at examples of their work. A writer might show a lot, or show a little. If just a few examples, it could mean
the writer has limited practical experience. On the other hand, the writer might have chosen to show only the best of their
On the other other hand, they might display all sorts of work (as I do). This could indicate a lack of confidence, or inability
to tell good from bad (neither is the case with me, I hope), or it could be because many prospective clients nevertheless want
to see something close to their own type of product or service. I show a large number of samples simply to supply that confidence,
and maybe to have something to talk about. (Furthermore, I hope some samples are simply fun or interesting to see.
For example, if you search for "humor.")
A significant portion of the writer's portfolio should be produced work (not speculative or school
assignments). However, realize also that even the best copywriters create ads and campaigns that the client didn't choose.
There are many possible reasons why they were not produced, none of which necessarily reflect badly on the client or writer).
If you have any doubt or question, ask. An experienced writer should not be embarrassed by good unproduced work,
and will give you a straightforward answer.
Don't be too influenced by "glamor."
Here's another joke from radio and TV advertising's Olden Tymes:
If you have nothing to say, sing it.
The print version of that would be to print the cover of your brochure in silver (at extra cost). Or to use a fancy
Flash visual or photo carousel on your website.
Don't be distracted by the sparkling do-dads. (In fact, Flash software is rarely used these days, for various reasons.) And
And bear in mind what I've said above about distracting wordplay.
Instead, consider the copy points.
Do they convey a Unique Selling Proposition (or "position," etc.)?
Is the copy fresh, clear, efficient, and effective?
This extends to your view of the clients and products the copywriter worked for. If the writer is showing, say, an exciting automobile video, is it
actually an effective message that the copywriter (and presumably an art director) conjured up? Or is it ordinary
copy over existing "running footage" supplied by the manufacturer?
This also applies to the reputation of your copywriter. Some of us are famous (and good for that),
some of us are not famous.
Just remember: You're paying for distinctive, on-target, persuasive work.
And that's it. Your readers and viewers won't be influenced by the writer's "reputation."
What's your budget?
There are two schools of thought regarding this: Should you discuss your budget, or not?
Some people hold that if you disclose it, your prospective writer will simply quote that as their price.
So, can you trust anyone who asks about it?
Balderdash! I've received inquiries from many prospects who had no idea what goes into a certain project, or had no budget
to speak of. If that seems to be the case, I'm not embarrassed to ask their budget. It's usually
realistic, but if not, we may be wasting each other's time.
BUT ... sometimes there are alternative ways to make the budget work. (As I've noted
elsewhere on my site, there's usually more than one way to accomplish anything.) And if the budget just isn't realistic at all,
maybe the prospective client has learned something useful.
Furthermore, it's not in my interest to quote an oddly high price simply because you mentioned that number. A knowledgeable
client would rightly suspect either my understanding or my professionalism. If that's the case with someone you're talking to,
asking them to break down their quote. There might be more involved than you realized.
Are they a moonlighter, or a "full-time freelancer"?
Some people freelancers also have a full-time job. They may moonlight during the day, after-hours, or mix it up.
If you have a good
writer who manages their time well, any of these arrangements can be fine. But ask about it before you hire.
As you'd expect, a full-time employee owes their first allegiance to their full-time employer. If things get busy
there, will the writer have time for you? Can they
take your calls during the day? Can they come to meetings? Do they have
a client conflict? Will they remain available over the long term? Do they have to hide you from their employer?
(Some employers have no objection to outside work, others do.)
This isn't to say that a full-time freelancer won't have scheduling conflicts, too. I have other clients,
and we have meetings, rush jobs, and such. As in any business, I must manage my time. But my employer (me!) is
fine with it. There's no skulking required. I can expand my schedule for a rush or really big job.
And I expect to remain available for an ongoing relationship (if you want), well into the future.
Talk on the phone.
It's much more efficient and informative than emailing back and forth, and should make you comfortable with each other
much more quickly. Having good, effective copy is worth the investment of your time.
For a substantial project, you should be able to get answers to all important questions without charge. Even if
it's a very small project, a writer may be happy to help you as much as they can, short of actually performing their
service over the phone for free.
One topic of discussion should be what type of input you will provide. You might have a lot of input, or a little.
The nature of the project will be a good guide as to how much and what sort of input to provide. The
writer should tell you if they have what they need. Personally, I'd rather have too much than too little. Perspective
is important to the communication process.
You may or may not also want to discuss the writer's work method, but definitely discuss the writer's policy regarding revisions.
An experienced writer will probably hit very close to the mark on the first draft they give you (which may not be the first
draft they wrote). If they are working on a project-price basis, does that include at least one round of revisions? Will they
revise until you're happy at no extra charge?. (My policy is "it depends.") In any case, if you ask for revision, be specific about
what needs changing and why. And be timely. Revisions long after the job was submitted should almost always incur an extra charge.
Understand that the copywriting "start-up" process is
a substantial part of the job.
Sometimes I'll get a call, "We just need a paragraph for our home page, so it shouldn't cost much." Uh-huh. That paragraph, if
correctly written, is the visitor's first impression of your company. It's a distillation of your entire sales strategy,
you're company's market position and marketing message. It has to be effective within the mere
7 seconds that visitors typically take to decide to leave your site or stay.
So, you see, it's more than "just a paragraph." A professional copywriter understands the value of their work, and works to
deliver value. You should value that attitude, yourself.
Do you need a contract? A Non-Disclosure Agreement?
Marketing Communications projects sometimes move very swiftly. A simple contract of some sort is sensible,
but try not to get bogged down at the outset by introducing a complex, even scary
contract that needs careful review and maybe negotiation. It might even lose you a good prospective partner. Same for an NDA.
Almost all the contracts I've been offered were written to protect the client's interests, with little
regard for mine. (Nevertheless, I've signed almost all of them, and have never heard nor had a subsequent contractual complaint.)
It's important that both parties understand the nature of the assignment, its extent and limits, and ditto
for the details of compensation. But (although I'll leave legal advice to your attorney), usually a simple email and acknowledgment
is sufficient. It's when a client won't do even that, that I become concerned. A new client once told me, after many drafts of a simple
agreement (which I wanted mainly to protect the art director I had recommended), "The best contract is the one that stays in the drawer."
Well, we never did arrive at even a bad contract, and he stiffed us for a substantial part of our very good work. Don't be like that.
I have a draft contract here on my site. I've never needed to get it signed, but most of my clients and I hold to its
general principles. It reflects the way a healthy creative relationship works in the real world,
and it speaks to the interests of both sides. But generally I start work on the basis of an initial minimum payment, the balance due on delivery or in
stages, and a simple description of the project, acknowledged by email.
Have you read this far?
Great!Contact me now and let's get down to brass tacks, the nitty-gritty, ... and forget that I just used those cliches.
After all, the point is to develop fresh copy based on fresh ideas that are special and correct for you.