Everybody can write, right? Surely, then, finding a good freelance copywriter is about as hard as shooting fish in a barrel.
The truth is that finding a great copywriter is a tricky task. We all have different specialities and skills. We all have different personalities that you might gel with, or not, and we all have our own little writing quirks that you might learn to love or hate.
One big name client recently told me that finding a good writer was like finding a wife, which made me mildly uncomfortable. He’s much bigger than me, you see, and we’re both boys.
He had a point, though, it’s a relationship that can last for years and it’s important to find the right person.
10 Signs You Have a Great Copywriter
So if you’re on the market, you want to get hitched to a copywriter and you don’t want to hit the divorce court within a week, here are a few things you should look out for:
Sounds obvious doesn’t it? But you would be amazed by the amount of ‘copywriters’ that have done some dodgy online course, or less, and then launched themselves on the world with a few content mill articles to their name.
Others try to look down on journalists as somehow inferior before going on to list a number of essential skills that can be found in, yup, journalism.
Journalism is supremely competitive, so it has its own talent filter. It also teaches tone, style, structure, grammar, interview techniques that are essential to the copywriting cause and how talking about ‘dynamic solutions’ is just not cool. Content marketing, or brand journalism, obviously falls pretty neatly into our remit, too.
So journalism is good.
A heady cocktail of journalism and advertising copywriting is just about as good as it gets by the way, which is convenient in my case.
Does your freelance copywriter actually know about copywriting?
If you already have one, ask your copywriter right now about the Wall Street Journal direct mail, the most famous and successful sales letter of all time.
Ask them about A-B testing. Ask them about power words. Ask them about structuring social media messages and even SMS. Ask them about calls to action. Even ask them about keyword density and long-tail keywords for SEO, although I’ll debunk that one shortly.
Ask them about psychological advances like NLP and how they can be used to up your conversions.
If they look at you blankly, or go quiet on the phone, you may have a competent writer. You do not have a copywriter.
You get what you pay for in any walk of life. You don’t get Porsche performance and quality for Kia money in this world. It just doesn’t happen.
So if someone is biting your hand off for minimum wage then something is rotten. Sadly, it’s going to be your copy.
Good copywriters don’t come cheap. We have spent a long time amassing our skills and we don’t like to give them up for next to nothing. If you want super cheap then go to the bargain bin at Elance or Copify. But as the saying goes: “Buy cheap, buy twice.”
Some copywriters will inevitably be more expensive. I am, but then this piece of writing could stay on your website for years. It could also be a mission critical piece that decides if you win or lose a client. It is not the place to save a few bucks.
If you really believe you’re going to be lucky then take your chances. Don’t forget to buy a lottery ticket while you’re at it, because you really could win that too.
When your copy lies, torn up, in the same pile of frustration as your losing ticket, check out a sensibly priced writer.
4. Interview Time
What happens in the first big conversation? After the flirting and foreplay over rates I mean.
In the first real work chat do they talk endlessly about their own skills or ask some searching questions about you and your company. Are they asking the main questions:
What is the product/offer/service?
Who is the customer?
What’s important to you about the way your company is portrayed?
What’s your goal from this particular piece?
What’s your tone?
There are lots of other smaller questions, but these are the main points. If they’re not asking these questions, the copy just cannot be right for you and you might as well pull a cookie cutter sales letter off the web.
It’s perfectly reasonable for us copywriters to ask our questions and then come back at a later time or even date with a few rough concepts and ideas.
Good ones don’t always want to blurt out the first thing that comes into our head. Why? Because it might be rubbish, you might like it and we end up cornering ourselves in a bad campaign.
But if the copywriter has no ideas, or cannot find a way to improve upon the structure and content you’ve asked for, or if they don’t have ideas for your website or other material, then they’re not the right person for the job.
Not everybody likes my branding, I know this. It’s a bit boyish and over the top for some and I occasionally have to allay some fears. But copywriting is all about building an image, your image to be precise.
So why do 80% of copywriters think the right way to go is to have a vaguely serious looking portrait shot and literally no brand at all?
Seriously have another look, there is nothing going on there. There are no lights on, nobody is home. Just a guy in a suit, or a woman with a smile, and 250 pretty shameful words that roughly translate as: “I like writing so I do yessiree…”
There is no brand and no cohesive voice behind a site that is promising to give you, well, a brand and a cohesive voice.
Do they have a slogan? Do they have a call to action? Do they have any of the marketing basics on their own page? If not then run, don’t walk, the other way.
If the brander cannot brand themselves, they’re middle of the road, elevator music trying to cater for everyone. And that is plain bad marketing.
7. Ask them for an audit
Copywriters are painfully bad accountants, so forget that bit. But ask about your current website and send over a couple of press releases. Pay them for that, too. It will be worth it.
If the copywriter comes back with a list of complaints and says everything is terrible and a pox on the writer who came up with it, then they’re probably not the right person for this job.
They’re either lying, or they don’t know good copy from bad. Nothing is 100% terrible, especially if it has been produced by someone that can hold a pen the right way and doesn’t type with their feet. There must be some good points.
8. SEO is No Biggie
This is just my take and it might make people angry. But if SEO is a copywriter’s main weapon then they don’t have much else to offer.
There are massive exceptions to this rule, is a caveat I will add right now to appease the crowd that is gathering outside my house with flaming torches as I type. But a lot of the ‘SEO specialists’ are actually peddling outdated techniques and, in some cases, good old-fashioned BS.
Keyword density and H1 and H2 headers still have a place, but their importance has been decimated by the hungry Google Panda, Penguin and Hummingbird. Now the emphasis is on organic, interesting content that people want to share.
So write interesting copy and the SEO will follow. It doesn’t work the other way round so much anymore.
9. Is English their mother tongue?
You might get sold on a price point and the immaculate answers of a third-world service provider and I have nothing but respect for the way some nations seem to manage our language. But that’s it, they’re managing it.
Good copywriting requires a subtle understanding of English that you cannot learn. It’s beyond the mechanics, it’s beyond the technicalities. Good copywriters can chew up the rules of English and spit them in your face, yet somehow it comes out perfect. Replace their words with a technically correct phrase and it dies on its ass.
Again there are some exceptions to this rule and bizarrely I have found German language students that have really got to grips with English. But 99.9% of the time, you want an English native speaker writing your copy.
10. Do they want to test, improve and refine?
No campaign, no press release, nothing can be perfect. It’s an evolutionary process of tweaking, testing and analysis. A bad copywriter will not have the confidence to tell you this for fear of looking inadequate, a good one will embrace the tests.
Of course if it’s a one-off job then we can only do our best. But a good copywriter knows there’s probably no such thing as a one-off and we’ll want to know the results. How many people opened the email? What was the response rate? Did this one do better than the control?
These are questions we might ask. It’s partly because we are nuzzling your leg like a lovesick puppy and we want some more work, but then a good copywriter likes to build a relationship too.
But not like that, even if you’re bigger than me.
So now, with all that in mind, you might have a better idea of what goes in to quality copywriting. So if you’re ready to step up to the top of the class, get in touch.
About the author: Nick Hall
Words have a hidden power, control that and you have unlocked the secret of sales. I spent 15 years learning the ropes as a journalist and copywriter. Then came the magic ingredient, Neuro Linguistic Programming, which turned me in to a copywriting animal. Now I subtly convert casual prospects into loyal customers for Virgin Finance, Accor Hotels, media companies in the Middle East and more. I’m a journalist, too, and write supercar reviews for The Sunday Times, Motor Trend, Wheels Dubai, Gulf News, Business Standard India and luxury and lifestyle titles round the world.
Great post Nick. I agree that we need to have those interviewing skills and know the rules so we can beat, bend or break them. Besides being bad accountants we are also incredibly talented procrastinators. So I would add that a good copywriter can clean out a closet and may miss a deadline but a great copywriter can rearrange their furniture, chase their cats around the house and always meet their deadlines. I’ve met other writers who can’t manage their time well… and that’s one way to lose a client or their faith in you.