What To Ask (& Avoid) When Hiring A Copywriter

January 8, 2010
By Lisa Barone in 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?
  • 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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