What To Ask (& Avoid) When Hiring A Copywriter

by on 01/08/2010 • 41 Comments | Online Marketing

As if being a blogger wasn’t thankless enough, I carry the double burden of also being in charge of content writing services for Outspoken Media.  And while, I really enjoy getting to work with our clients to create content for their Web sites and giving them material that attracts visitors, engages them and helps with search rankings, there is an annoying downside. It means that after I finish doing really cool stuff for them, I open my email and it inevitably looks like this, every day.  And I assure you, I’m only just barely exaggerating…

Hi, Lisa!

Happy Monday! Let me just say, I follow you on Twitter and I think you’re great. I’m also a fan of the Outspoken Media blog. Wow…you really gave it to that Scoble, huh? Anyway, I have a project that I’d love to work with you on. Because, again, love your writing!! I need 850 articles written by Thursday morning – 700 words each. My budget is $1.75, but I could maybe stretch that to $2.00 if you think we could get some social media traction on Digg. Looking forward to chatting and hearing what you think!

Sincerely, Prospective Client

Here’s what I think: I think you just wasted the 30 seconds it took for me to read that. And that I hate you.

Truthfully, I don’t blame the people who send me these emails daily. It’s not their fault. It’s Google’s fault. It’s Google’s fault for spreading around the lie that good content is dirt cheap or, that if you can’t get it for free, you should just rape and pillage it from others. That works for Google. It doesn’t work for you.

Site owners need to take pride in their content because it’s your face and voice on the Web. Your Web site is often the first interaction people will have with your brand. And they’re judging you based on the words on your site. Shouldn’t they be words you’re proud of? Content that has been carefully put together to tell people who you are, to explain your product or services, and to engage people to the point where they’re contacting you for services? Anyone can throw words on a page. However, a good copywriter knows how to catch the reader’s eye while dropping call-to-actions so carefully that Gretel will be following them to your contact form like torn up pieces of bread.

Creating good content means getting paired up with the best copywriter for what you’re looking for. And that takes some interviewing. Here are some questions to ask, and to avoid asking, to help you find the best writer for you, without accidentally insulting the writer in the process.

  • Don’t Ask: I have a site about paper supplies, how much for 500 articles?
  • Do: Say nothing. Let them interview you first. A good copywriter won’t even attempt to price you until they know what the content will be used for, how much you really need (as opposed to how much you think you need, the research involved, the subject matter, the targeted audience, approximate length, etc. Copywriting isn’t like going to McDonalds. We don’t offer value meals. We actually need to know a little something about your site first. It’s like asking someone how much it will cost to remodel your house. Well, it depends, what do you want it to look like and are you against it falling down in the winter?
  • Don’t ask: Can you write about dogs? [props @ViperChill]
  • Do: Tell us who you are, what you do, who your audience is and what you need the content to accomplish. Because yes, I can write about dogs. I can write a lot of things about dogs. But just giving me a subject or a title doesn’t help me to give you the content you need most for your site. We don’t want to give you useless content. We want to provide content that’s going to help you achieve whatever you’re after. We need some information from you first.
  • Don’t Ask: Can you give me a blog?
  • Mmm, mono

    Do: Tell us what your goals for the blog are. Someone can’t ‘give’ you a blog the way they can give you, say, an infectious disease, but they can help you get what you’re after if you tell them. For example, how involved do you want us in this blog? Do you need simple content ideas to run with, a 6 month editorial calendar, for us to write the content ourselves, or maybe even for us to run the entire thing with ghostblogging, comment moderation and community building? We can do that, but we need you to break down exactly what you want.

  • Don’t Ask: Can you take out all the ‘sales talk’? [props: @derekhalpern]
  • Do: Trust that without  properly constructed call-to-actions in your copy, you’re not enticing anyone to actually do anything. And while that may be fine if you’re running a resource site or you’re just trying to provide information, it’s unacceptable if you’re actually trying to sell a product. If that’s the case, you need those calls to entice someone. We will absolutely make it sound natural and in a way that put customers on an assigned conversion path, but you need to let it stay there. There’s a reason for it.
  • Don’t Ask: Can I get the first dozen pages for free so I can figure out if I like it? If it works I’ll pay you for the next dozen. Pinky swear. [Equally bad: Why do you charge so much?]
  • Do: Jump off a cliff. I’m happy to send you samples, to give you a link to blogs I write for, etc. However, no, I will not give your Web site free content. Why not? Because this is my profession. Do feel free to ask for my rate sheet.
  • Don’t Ask: Can I have it tomorrow?
  • Do: Hit yourself in the head. Thanks.
  • Don’t Ask: Are you a good writer?
  • Do: Ask for samples. You’ll get some assurance that this person can write, but more than that, you see their writing style and personality. That’s how you’ll be able to determine whether or not that their style matches what you’re after. It doesn’t matter how technically great a writer is if they can’t pull off the attitude and style that your customers respond to. Just because I’m really good at writing about real estate doesn’t mean I can carry my weight writing a dating blog. [Which I’ve actually done in the past. It was teh awesome!]
  • Don’t Ask: Can you just write whatever you think we need? We trust your expertise.
  • Do: Work with me so we can create a plan together. I may know content but you know your Web site and your audience. You know the natural questions they have, what they’re searching for, the sales funnel you’re trying to put them on. Giving me the full reign to write whatever I want sounds like a writer’s dream…and it is, until I give it to you and you decide it’s not what you were after. Then we start resenting one another.
  • Don’t Ask: Can you make it ‘pop’ more? [props: @Mr603]
  • Do: Go read about Web designer hell. It’s the same for writers who have clients who try and “punch up” their copy.

The investment you make in your site’s copy is one that you will continually benefit from down the road.  And the first step towards rocking that investment is to find a writer who understands both your site and your customers. The better the fit, the better the investment.  Hopefully the Dos and the Don’ts listed above will help you keep the courting conversation on track.  And I mean it, you really shouldn’t ask to get your whole Web site for free, regardless of what Google does.

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About the Author

Lisa Barone

Lisa Barone co-founded Outspoken Media in 2009 and served as Chief Branding Officer until April 2012.

Get social with Lisa at Twitter

41 thoughts on “What To Ask (& Avoid) When Hiring A Copywriter

  1. We run into a lot of these same things with our contract coders. Everyone wants top notch work at pennies on the dollar, tomorrow. Lately I have been thinking that this is a down side to having a strong public brand – you attract anyone passing by. However, if you are known with in several circles as someone that can deliver, your work comes from trusted recommendations, and thus most of the time/money wasters are filtered out…..its a catch 22.

  2. These are issues I deal with every single day, for everything from web design to PPC campaigns to editing to whatever else we can convince people to pay us to do.

    One of my partners likens it to asking how much it costs to build a house.

    • I think the ‘building a house’ is actually a fairly good analogy. Cause you can get a house for pretty cheap, it just may fall down when the wind blows and end up giving you nothing. Content runs pretty much the same way. I need a client to tell us what we’re building here.

  3. You can picture me standing up and applauding.

    Also, dear SEOs who are asking writers to create content — give me the keywords and let me work them in. Don’t go in after and try to shoehorn them in. I’m the writer. You’re the SEO. Let’s work together.

    • Freakin’ word. I had originally mentioned that but I think it came out ranty even for me and I took it out. :) So thanks for bringing it back in. I love the clients who don’t even give you the keywords and expect you to figure it out. Hi, this is your Web site. You know what traffic converts and where you should be showing up. Oh, you don’t? Well then here, let’s get you an audit…

      • NONE of my clients has ever provided so much as a keyword. I start over from scratch (including the initial audit) with every single one. Which is why I charge what I do, and why I severely limit how many I take on. Basically one has to die before I can take over another.

        Actually, most of the people who send or call me with inquiries such as you mention end up going away, either really scared or really pissed.

        • @netmeg, which one of your clients would you like me to shoot first?

          Owning a creative agency, among others, I have definitely seen all the excuses here… and then some… In defense of clients, in December alone, I got 57 pitches (yes, we counted and December was a slow month) from SEO’s saying that they could write articles for us for $1, $2, $5, “mere pennies a day…” (Granted, it’s easier to get my e-mail address than using @streko’s SCRIM thing.)

          I don’t need the drama of outing any of these characters on this blog (as people actually read it) but not all of the guys who wrote us were complete chumps. In fact, many of them have some of the better reputations in the industry.

          So, yes, in a lot of cases folks say stupid things but often times they were trained to ask for them by lazy/lame-ass marketers who over promise and under deliver.

      • I can respect if the client doesn’t know. Like you said, that’s site review territory right there. But if an SEO won’t give them to me or tells me that “they’ll work them in later”? That’s not going to fly.

        • I can respect it but too often I hear this kind of crap from VPs of marketing, SEOs, PR pros and other ‘gurus’. It’s maddening, and I can’t understand how they get and keep their jobs, except that maybe they’re the only ones the bosses can understand.

  4. I love this, and the rules can be applied to so many other industries and not just a copywriter. When is the last time you freaked out when you had to pay a plumber to fix a leaky faucet? Everyone gets paid to do things that you can’t – and it ain’t cheap either!

  5. Oh lordy this hit home. In my previous life I once had a marketing professional say she needed “edgy and hip” for a car dealership print ad. Ummm, how about the cars for sale, hun? It happens all over marketing, which is why your advice applies on- and offline.

  6. I love this Lisa – can I add that I wrote a post that wasn’t nearly as straightforward and a client called me up afterwards and said “you might want to take that down…. ”
    Bravo for suggesting that perhaps writing / plan creating / anything worth doing takes not only time but also, we should be paid for it.

  7. The sad part is that you can get copywriting for next to nothing.(eLance.com) Not to say that it will be any good. This is the day and age where everyone wants to have an online business. First I have to disagree with you Lisa that it is Google’s fault. Google is just doing there job (and they do it well). In my opinion it is the online marketers and spammers…usually the same people. All these people trying to make it online have probably had contact with the ‘marketing gurus’ and their overpriced programs talking about the importance of having a blog without actually going into any detail about what is involved in running a blog. While at the same time convincing them they can get copywriting for dirt cheap. Failing to mention the $8000 price tag for the bit of copy these people read when they bought the program.
    When you work in the service industry, online or off, you will always have to deal with people that want something for next to nothing. On of the great things about an online business is the global reach you have in finding customers/clients. However this also works the other way. You just have to take the good with the bad.
    Great article by the way. I think most people with a serious budget looking for quality copy would not be asking any of the don’t questions anyways.

  8. Come on Lisa. What’s your problem? Anybody can peck away on a keyboard and write content for a website. People do it every single day. It’s easy. They could just hire the neighbor kid and he can do it after school. Why should people have to pay for something that anyone can do?

    Right …

    That’s why they came to you in the first place. Because they know they need help and you can offer it. And as you know, you and others in your profession are worth your weight in gold.

    But somehow it just kills most people to pay someone for something that they can do themselves.

    Right …

  9. I started out back in the day (weds.) as a copywriter, and I was surprised at just how little consideration there was for the process. I’m just typing some random words, anybody can do that. Should be able to crank out content like whoa.

    And I’m not talking about quick copy farms or dime-a-dozen blogs, either, but brand new, crisp company content sites going up with lofty expectations and painstaking designs. But while the designers were afforded days to wiggle pixels, I kept getting met with the attitude that, “nobody’s going to read it anyway – just get something up there so we can get it live.”

    Fortunately, that didn’t last very long.

  10. Oh, I love you for posting this.

    In my (too) many years of creating communications for everyone from Apple to my wacky local contractor, I have discovered that writing copy is like driving a car – most people think they’re very good at it, but the statistics (in both cases) show otherwise.

  11. Lisa … Thanks for the good article, I’m just at the stage where I want to hire someone to write for me … I’ll keep this in mind when searching and try not to offend any writers I’m trying to hire.

  12. Yes, I’m afraid it’s one of the downsides of being in demand, the more successful you are, the more bullshit you have to deal with and It’s the same in any business.

    We would probably all be as ignorant as the prospective clients you mention, if we were inquiring about something that we had no real concept of. I guess you can’t expect most people to appreciate how much time and effort goes into writing a quality piece, no more than you could be expected to know how much time, cost and man/woman power goes into fixing a leak in your roof.

    Some people will always try to get something for nothing and end up wasting your time which is really frustrating, but I would rather put up with that, than have no interest from anyone at all.

    Rifki

  13. Yes, I’m afraid it’s one of the downsides of being in demand, the more successful you are, the more bullshit you have to deal with, It’s the same in any business and is to be expected.

    We would probably all be as ignorant as the prospective clients you mention, if we were inquiring about something that we had no real concept of. I guess you can’t expect people to appreciate how much time and effort goes into writing a quality piece, no more than you can be expected to know how much time, cost and man/woman power goes into fixing a leak in your roof.

    People will always try to get something for nothing, but I would rather put up with that, than have no interest from anyone at all

    Rifki

  14. Now I’m really starting to like to you…

    Google is not helping to create quality content, and they are encouraging people to create more crap everyday. The Internet is already full of crap and they more that is added the harded is it becoming to find good content. That being said, finding good original content is in short supply and therefore its price should be increasing. Good copywriters should be able to increase their prices.

    That being said, there are always going to be lots of people looking for something for nothing, but they are not profitable customers. Just like Google dumps its non-profitable customers from Adsense, copywriters need to dump non-profitable customers and build there business only on profitable customers.

  15. GREAT article. Hat tip to Ian Lurie for directing me to it.

    This, in a nutshell, is why I remain a Corporate Slave (in-house e-commerce copywriter) rather than venturing out into Full-Time Freelance World. I don’t have the guts to stand up to the nickel-and-dimers who want 800 700-word articles for $2 total. From what I’ve seen, the pay scale for content / SEO copywriting is beyond pathetic. It’s an insult. It also makes it nigh impossible to make a living (if you’re a gutless wonder like me).

    This is one of my pet peeves: the undervaluing of writers.

    I really admire copywriters who can stand up for themselves and demand what they’re really worth. Brava, Lisa Barone.

  16. Love this article! Great tips on what not to ask. I will definitely keep them in mind as I continue the never ending battle to find great writers. Thanks!

  17. Great article, Lisa. I’ve had some clients, who did think they had “serious budgets” ask some of these questions, or have some of these assumptions.

    I do think we can blame Google and Craigslist for some of this. They are listing “jobs for writers” such as the one you described, and unfortunately, there are writers who *will* work for these ridiculously low rates because they think they think it will help their career and give them more “exposure”. Well, as my friend Suzanne says, “You can die from exposure.”

    Thank you for giving us all a boost.

  18. But while the designers were afforded days to wiggle pixels, I kept getting met with the attitude that, “nobody’s going to read it anyway – just get something up there so we can get it live.”

    Oh my gosh. You must have worked where I work.

    I was once told that “copy doesn’t sell products; product, price, and promotion sell products.”

    I didn’t have the guts to ask, “How are customers supposed to learn about product, price, and promotion, without copy?”

    ack, ack, ack (banging head against cubicle wall)

  19. Lisa, I’ve read through most of these comments and I could tie my web copywriting experiences into many of them. I totally feel the the sting of being offered less than the cost of a Starbuck’s latte for a page of “high-quality key-word-optimized” content times 50 or 100 or 1000. I’m glad I’m not the only web copywriter who’s “launched” a verbal smackdown over it. However, because I’ve spent so much time writing for clients in the Internet Marketing realm I am deeply aware of the fact that many marketers are convincing anyone with a laptop and an Internet connection that they can earn a living online. Not sure this is all going away anytime soon, either. Someone on NPR put it most cleanly last week in a discussion about the web — he described the 21st century web as a “populist” technology. Yes. That’s it. For almost no investment the Everyman can build an online business– whatever form that may take. And how easily lessons on gaming the search engines can be had! It’s not really about high quality or engaging or compelling–it’s about traffic, volume and ultimately cash flow…ASAP. Bravo on your attempt to really provide guidance– unfortunately those who most need to hear it have “deaf ears.”

  20. One potential client told me he would need the names and numbers of at least five people I have worked with in the past, so he could call and get personal references. This, despite the fact that I have over a dozen glowing testimonials on my web site, along with exhaustive work samples.

    Was I going to let this guy call and bug my clients at work? I don’t think so. I wished him luck in finding a copywriter who could meet his needs.

    PS: Wanted to pass along this web site, which I find refreshing even though it’s from a graphic designer’s perspective: http://clientsfromhell.tumblr.com. You might too.

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