Most businesses recognise that to get the best results you need to employ the best people, yet some still won’t employ a copywriter. That’s despite everyone including Google consistently telling us all the time how important great content is.
Instead, they rely on their own abilities or ask their staff, usually those already committed to other tasks within the business, to create their copy for them.
In my experience, this is true particularly of small businesses. Most medium to large organisations now recognise how essential content marketing is. They either employ in-house writers or use external resources like a copywriting agency or freelancers.
All have their merits. For some though the rationale is this:
Everyone can write, so why pay a professional copywriter?
I get it.
You’ve already spent a fortune on a new website and it’s easy to see the value of what you’ve got.
Your developer has done lots of stuff you may not understand to make the site work properly.
Your designer has created a beautiful look and feel that makes the site look lovely.
You can see the expertise and skill that’s gone into it. You appreciate the talent backed up with years of experience that has enabled them to build something beautiful for you.
At this point, the under-appreciated designers and developers out there are now banging their heads against the wall shouting: “If only, Derryck. If only that were true.”
But when it comes down to it, most businesses people aren’t able to build websites or design logos and so on. They don’t know how to code, how to customise a WordPress theme or use Photoshop or Illustrator. For all the software services and WYSIWYG editors out there, there are still some big barriers to entry.
Hang on though? What about the words? Everyone can write, can’t they? You don’t have to use fancy software for that, or learn complicated computer stuff.
You could do it yourself. Or maybe the web designer can do it for you. Maybe they’ve got a friend who could do it as part of the cost. Maybe you’ve got a friend that’s done a bit of blogging who could do it.
And what happens once you’ve launched the site?
When budgets are tight, blog posting, long tail web pages or regular emails are the last thing you want to be spending money on. Get the intern to do it. Get your sales person to do it.
Don’t do it at all (Seriously? And how are people going to find your site?)
Unless you know and understand what a copywriter does then you may think that, because everyone can write, you can pretty much get anyone to write your content.
And that could be a terrible mistake.
The plumber analogy
If you think of your copywriter as you would your plumber then it’s easier to recognise the value of using someone with the right skill set.
You wouldn’t pay someone with no experience of plumbing to fix your boiler, even though everyone (pretty much) can hold a wrench or a screwdriver.
The results would almost certainly be disastrous.
Like a plumber, as a copywriter, you have to develop the skills that allow you to not only respond to problems that your clients have but also to give advice and carry out work that will save them money and improve their lives (businesses).
Richard Bandler, founder of NLP and patron saint of sales people (and perhaps even plumbers) everywhere has a good analogy in his book, The Structure Of Magic (a must-read for anyone interested in the art of persuasion) which I’ve paraphrased here:
“A ship owner was having trouble with the boiler on one of his cruise ships so he called in a specialist ship plumber. This ship owner was incredibly mean and he told one of his managers to watch what the plumber did to make sure he got his money’s worth. The plumber arrived and spent about half an hour looking around the boiler before tapping in a single rivet and presenting a bill for £500. When the ship owner heard the manager’s report of what the boiler repairman had done he was furious and demanded to know why he was paying £500 for a single rivet. The plumber sent back an itemised invoice, which read: Cost of 1 rivet- 50 pence Knowing where to tap- £499.50”.
OK, I’m laying it on with a trowel… or perhaps a wrench… but you get the idea.
If you want to avoid disasters, you need to employ someone with the right knowledge and skills.
So what skills does a copywriter have that distinguishes them from everyone else who can hold a pen or tap away at a keyboard?
1. Writing ability.
Obvious? Perhaps. But since Big Star was founded in 2005 I have worked with hundreds of freelance copywriters and I have seen well over 1000 CVs. Most of those writers could place words together to form sentences and communicate things reasonably well. (NB: A surprisingly large percentage could not.)
But only a small number could really write.
What do I mean by that?
Good writing has flow. Good writing is readable. Good writing conveys the essence of an idea simply and confidently. Good writing has style (and the best writing has a style so idiosyncratic that it is immediately identifiable with its author.)
They can get you so far.
However, when I look for a new freelance copywriter to join our team I look for those who are born writers. The ones who have kept a diary since they were five years old, who were voracious readers as kids, who started their first novel at thirteen and wrote embarrassing poetry on the back of till receipts when they were working at the checkout of Marks & Spencer’s.
Education in something like English or journalism is often a good indicator but it’s not a given that someone with the right academic qualifications is a good writer.
It’s difficult to quantify exactly what I look for – I’ve got a good eye for the “naturals”. Some common factors include:
- word economy
- logical structure
- lack of repetition
- clear and understandable
The best test is to read their work. How does it feel when you read it? Does it make sense? Are you compelled to read more? Does it have life to it?
Speed is important primarily because it affects cost – just as it does with a plumber.
Given a similar level of experience and ability, a writer who can create a compelling product description in fifteen minutes is a far better proposition than one who takes a whole day.
It’s not just about cost though. A writer who understands that work needs to be delivered quickly and accurately understands the commercial pressures that anyone in business faces.
That makes it more likely that they will understand your business and the specific commercial pressures you face.
3. Technical understanding – SEO and content marketing
Just like our plumber, any copywriter worth their salt needs to understand the technical skills involved in their trade and the innovations and trends that can lead to better results.
Knowledge of SEO is an essential part of web copywriting. In 2015, all copywriters must understand the technical demands of their craft and grasp that the days of keyword stuffed content, rehashed material or just plain waffle is not going to cut it.
There are tools and research available to assist in developing content that people want to read and to measure the efficacy of the content you produce.
Your copywriter needs to understand what works and what doesn’t. Right now, for example, the most shared content is useful content – content that helps you make a decision or solve a specific problem.
Writers should also understand the context in which their writing is being used – and how it can be shared and reused for maximum value.
4. An understanding of business and the needs of your client
A good copywriter should be able to extract the key benefits from your product or service and present those to your customers in a way that persuades them to part with their hard-earned cash – and feel happy about it.
They should be able to understand your business objectives and advise on how to use written content to support, and even improve, your goals.
Not all writers are able to do this and I’ll let you into a little secret:
Lots of writers don’t know or care much about business.
They would much rather be writing their screenplay, scribbling poetry or finishing their novel.
That’s OK. None of those things are bad in themselves. There are probably plenty of plumbers who aren’t that passionate about plumbing, who get through the day job so they can indulge their hobby of ballroom dancing or wicker basket weaving.
It’s just that those writers who understand (and are excited about) your business and have an entrepreneurial instinct are worth a lot to you.
Not only will they get the wider context of your writing project and the direction you want to take with your brand, they will give you advice on how good writing can make your business better.
If we go back to our plumber example, then he’s the kind of person who will look at your water tank and tell you that you need a replacement as it’s just about to fall through the roof. Or he’ll advise you that if you just go out and buy a 5p washer and replace it yourself, then you won’t have to get a new set of £200 taps. Or he’ll put you in touch with an electrician that can sort out the bathroom light that’s been broken for years.
Ultimately, the type of copywriter who will write enough words to just finish the brief is a cost to your business. Whereas a good copywriter is an investment and their work will repay that investment many times over.
By now, even if you haven’t got my plumber analogy, you’ll have some understanding of the state of my house. But then I’m not a plumber. I’m a copywriter.