There are blog posts, articles, and banner ads all over the Internet about copywriting, and how anyone can do it, or how you can become one after taking one six-week course or downloading one white paper or reading one book.
Not everyone can do it. There aren’t a whole lot of people who can even pull off doing a mediocre job at it. A good copywriter must:
- Have an intuitive grasp of the intricacies of his native language
- Understand grammar (you don’t always have to follow the rules, but you have to know the rules before you can effectively break them)
- Be a natural writer (e.g., always received good grades on papers in English class)
- Understand marketing strategy, and how to apply its principles in writing copy
- Know how to distinguish features from benefits
- Be able to mentally become the target audience, putting herself in their shoes so as to understand their wants, needs, and objections
- Be able to think visually while writing, taking into consideration how the copy will unfold within a layout (e.g., knowing if a particular copy point should be part of the body copy versus making it a visual element or callout; or how to effectively make a message unfold within the structure of a barrel-fold self-mailer)
- Stay up to date on technology so as to understand how the target will be receiving the message (because the medium often dictates the message in today’s mobile-obsessed marketplace), and to be able to recommend different delivery strategies that might be more effective
- Be intensely detail oriented to the point that he can function as his own proofreader.
It should be pretty clear from this list that there is far more to writing copy than just being able to put together a coherent paragraph. But if you need hard evidence, keep reading.
So why not go the cheap route? If someone’s literate and willing to do it on the cheap, why even consider paying an experienced, professional copywriter to handle your project?
1. We can make you look good, and keep you from hurting your image.
With the help of an experienced copywriter, you have the chance to create something that presents your company as competent and trustworthy. Rely on a hack, and you put your company’s credibility at risk and throw your money down the toilet.
Take the following example—a headline from the home page of a self-described “connected solutions” company that claims to comprise “the brightest minds in the technology and construction industries”:
This is a headline that may sound okay to the ear, and it does seem to be factually correct based on other statements I see on the website. But from a marketing standpoint, it gets a gigantic F.
20,000 users is not a number worth touting. 20,000 users could all work for one company, which translates to one actual client. You don’t really want to blast out to the world that you may have only one client (or that your “brightest minds” think 20,000 users is an impressive number). If you can’t truthfully claim that you have users numbering in at least in the high-hundred-thousands (something over 500,000), a good marketing writer will advise you to stay away from the topic completely, and focus on something else.
Something like this: Hidden on the company’s “About Us” page is an explanation that the 20,000 users represent 500 companies. That’s a far more impressive figure to tout, and makes the company’s claim of a global presence sound far more plausible.
2. We’ll save you time and money.
Another crucial difference between an actual copywriter and someone who just writes copy is that the copywriter can spot the holes in your input (e.g., missing facts or background information, important details about your brand, etc.) and ask the right questions and/or conduct research to fill them in. The inexperienced writer will simply write something using the incomplete information you’ve provided, without seeing the gaping holes. The result will be copy that either doesn’t make sense at all, or barely performs.
SIDEBAR: I see copy ALL THE TIME that doesn’t make sense. Copy that is nothing more than a string of buzzwords that sounds great if you’re not fully paying attention, but which is pure nonsense. The subtext, however, comes across loud and clear:
- We don’t pay attention to details.
- We don’t care about quality.
- We’re hoping to distract you with buzzwords so you won’t notice that we haven’t said anything.
- If you think we don’t care now, just wait until we already have your money.
Back to our hypothetical project. When your non-writer sends a first draft to you, it’s going to be up to you to catch whatever is wrong with it. If you don’t (or have mistakenly trusted the writer to have done his job well), you’ll send it on down the approval chain, where you’d better hope at least one person catches that the piece is off strategy, off brand, or otherwise “off.”
That lucky person will spend a lot of time marking up the copy to try to get it on track (which will be annoying and difficult for them because they aren’t a writer). And if that person is your superior, you’ll probably get chewed out for having passed along something substandard for them to review.
When the writer gets your feedback, he’ll have to try to rework it to make it flow correctly while incorporating all the asks from all the reviewers (assuming he can decipher their comments). In order for him to get it right this time, either you will have to backtrack and gather all the information he really needed to have in the first place, or he’ll have to care enough this time around to do the research himself. However it plays out, you are both going to have to figure out why the first round of copy didn’t go over well, what all those markups are getting at, and what really needs to change in order to get the copy approved the next time around.
In the end, your company will spend more time internally messing with the copy (which they should never, ever have to do), a bunch of people will get irritated, your project will take longer to complete than you planned on, and your writer will bill you for a lot of additional hours spent making revisions. And you’’ll still end up with a final piece that isn’t nearly as effective as it could have been.
3. We think of things you never will.
An experienced marketing writer has developed the ability to see things from a perspective shared by no one else involved in the project. There are things we look for no one else thinks to look for; information we examine and evaluate that others will gloss over; details that catch our attention and ours alone; and it’s all done reflexively. This is part of what you’re paying for when you pay an experienced writer.
In a past role, I was a member of a relatively new in-house creative department. Before there was a creative team, the company’s standard new-business pitch involved a salesperson grabbing a Microsoft PowerPoint® deck from a previous pitch and changing the prospect name and logo.
With a creative team in place, the sales team began involving us in preparing the presentation decks for new business pitches. So instead of just doing a search-and-replace to drop in the prospect’s name and logo, we customized each slide, looking for ways to personalize it to that particular prospect’s concerns. Part of our process included creating mockups of web pages and collateral pieces to illustrate our company’s various capabilities.
For one particular pitch to a company in the travel and tourism industry, we were asked to create a mockup of one of our standard collateral pieces. The sales team provided us with a sample of one of the actual collateral pieces we had created for an existing client in the same industry, and asked us to simply switch out the name, logo, and basic brand elements.
Since the two clients happened to serve the exact same niche (both were cruise ship companies), we could have easily gotten away with doing that, and it would have served the sales team’s purpose. Easy-breezy.
But that’s not how professional creatives operate.
For my part, I started at the potential client’s website. There, I noticed a tagline I’d never seen before, as well as heavy promotion of a brand-new tv spot. In watching the ad, I gleaned that the company was going for a whole new tone—not just a new tone for them, but for the entire cruise industry.
Curious as to what was behind this bold change in positioning, I conducted a quick search that yielded a press release from the company from just seven days prior announcing the launch of a new ad campaign and rebrand for the company. (At this point in the process, I got excited because I could see huge potential.)
According to the press release, this company was focusing on a whole new target market, and the change was based on their own consumer research. They were attempting a pretty radical departure from the typical positioning they and their competitors had historically relied on.
The release had all the information I needed to craft copy for our mock collateral piece that was aimed squarely at this new target, incorporating their new tagline and capturing the essence of the new brand positioning. I had struck copywriting gold.
During a new business pitch, this kind of attention to detail and strategic insight is what tips the scales in your favor. In that moment, I knew the mock collateral piece we were creating would accomplish far more in terms of building our credibility as a strategic partner than if we simply plopped a new logo into an existing presentation.
I spent about an hour and 15 minutes doing the necessary research and writing the copy for that collateral piece, versus spending about 10 minutes going the lazy route.
How’s that for an effective use of time and money?
The wrap-up: Cost considerations
When I was working in bridal, brides would ask my advice about what to spend on things like the dress, veil, shoes, jewelry. I always told brides that there are lots of ways to keep expenses down when planning a wedding, and if they can afford to pick just one thing to splurge on, it should be their photography. A truly gifted wedding photographer knows the real beauty lies in the emotions present, not in the venue or the flowers, and how to capture those emotions on film. A good photographer has an instinct that has always been part of who they are, but over time, they’ve honed it and refined it and made it something they have to offer that no one else has. Find a photographer of that caliber, and pay whatever they are charging. They are going to provide you with the memories you will have for the rest of your life. There are plenty of corners to be cut everywhere else that no one will care about or remember.
With marketing, it’s not quite that simple. You need to have good people on all fronts. Pair a good copywriter with a really lousy art director, and you’re going to get a piece of garbage with good copy on it. But if I were to advise a CEO or business owner in the same way I advised those brides, I would say, hire people who excel at what they do, whatever the role. These people will make your goals their goals. They will care about the work they produce because that work is part of who they are. There are plenty of other areas where you can trim costs.
It takes years to develop a solid brand, but only one stupid headline to start chipping away at it.
When it comes to hiring writers, hire people who are good at it. And usually that means not looking for a writer/designer/event planner/data analyst/project manager. You need one person for each of those roles. It takes time and focus to develop expertise in anything.