The Value of Good Copywriting

I received this email a couple of weeks ago (I’m not editing it):

Hi,

I am looking for someone to write web content for some of my clients and I would like to know what do you charge to write a 300-400 page. I have ongoing projects so this will be a long term project.

Thanks

– Don

What’s the problem with this request? The problem is that the prospect is thinking in rates rather than the value of good copywriting.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I understand money talks and people need to be mindful of budgets and bottom lines (hell, I’m a small business owner, too). And I understand we’re in a tough economy. But when a web or marketing guy says to me, “How much do you charge to write 300 words of website copy,” he’s doing a major disservice to his client because he’s devalued what content can do: content can convert people into leads/sales or it can cause people to click away. This guy’s query smacks of “This is short copy, so it shouldn’t cost a lot.”

I was much more forgiving of this five years ago (even two years ago). But not today, at least not from a web/marketing guy who should have some understanding (if he’s serious about what he does) of the direct link between kick-ass content and conversions. This guy is stuck in ’90s Rateville instead of today’s Value City, at least according to this email.

Please know that I’m incredibly diplomatic when it comes to responding to people like this. Heck, we all need to learn about the wonders of Value City at some point (I did), and I’m always happy to share my knowledge and experience with a fellow freelancer. Here’s my response.

Hi Don,

Thanks so much for your email and for your interest in my copywriting services. I quote per project since every project is a little different.

Here’s what my quotes cover:

  • Talking to the client to get to the heart of what the company does…and figuring out how to engage the company’s core customers and prospects.
  • Providing input on design and the site map
  • Reviewing competitors’ websites to see what they do well (and what they don’t do well)
  • Reviewing all collateral materials (including, ideally, any messaging research that’s been conducted by the marketing people)
  • Crafting engaging copy for each page and following SEO best practices. This includes writing compelling, keyword-rich headlines; writing persuasive meta descriptions; and writing compelling calls-to-action (in addition to weaving keywords into the copy).
  • Brainstorming ideas for compelling offers (e.g. white papers). I’d charge separately for any writing that’s involved with these offers (i.e. I’d charge a separate fee to write the white paper).
  • One round of revisions

Note: I don’t typically focus on word counts per page (my main goal is converting site visitors into customers…sometimes this requires more copy and sometimes it requires less).

To give you an idea of my project quotes, I’m working on a 20-page site right now and charging $price redacted. I require 1/3 of the project fee up front and the balance is due within 30 days of the client receiving the first draft.

I write b2b and b2c copy. My style is conversational (which I believe is effective, regardless of the industry). However, some industries are a bit more “corporate” and prefer a more formal tone (think financial, insurance, etc). I refer these projects to colleagues who specialize in these areas (their rates are comparable with mine). I’d be happy to share their info.

Let me know your thoughts. I’d love to learn more about your business as well: are you a web developer, marketer, or…? Feel free to send me a link to your website or to send me portfolio samples. Also, how did you hear about me? If you’d prefer chatting on the phone, I’d welcome it. (I’m around during the holidays.)

Thanks again for your interest. Oh, one more thing: I’m booking into February at this point.

Best,
Robyn

Note: I used the word “rates” in my response to him. Why? Because this guy is my audience, and I need to talk in his language. I’m not going to convince him to go from caring about rates to value overnight, but it’s my hope that my email planted the seed.

I never heard back from the guy (even after sending a polite follow up that said “Just wanted to make sure you got my email to see if you have any questions), and I’m sure there’s more than one reader out there going, “Well, duh. You’re kind of blunt. And the guy was only talking about 300 words, and you overwhelmed him by talking about full-blown sites. This is overkill. And your price was probably sticker shock. Not to mention your closing line ‘I’m booking into February.'”

It’s true. I am blunt. For a reason. The person who responds to this email saying, “Yeah, let’s talk some more,” is someone I’d probably want to work with because he’s showing me that he’s seen the lights of Value City and would like to get closer. (Or that his email didn’t tell me the whole story, like maybe he really is a resident of Value City, but that this fact just didn’t translate in his query.)

Is it overkill? I don’t think so. Even if I’m writing only one page of copy (and I can’t for the life of me remember when I’ve been hired to do just that), I want that copy to work (i.e. convert), and that involves much more than simply sitting at a keyboard and banging out 300-400 words (why 300-400? Search engines don’t require specific word counts anymore, if they ever did).

Sticker shock? I’d be willing to bet that’s what this guy experienced when he saw my quote on the 20-page site, but that’s because he’s not thinking value.

Was my last line a “show-off” line. Nope. I’m booking web projects a month out (at least the completion of said projects). If this guy was looking for a 48-hour turnaround, it would be a waste of time to continue talking, so I think it’s only fair to say what my booking schedule is like (And yes, dear readers, it’s true: saying I’m booking a month out DOES sound like I’m selling myself by showing I’m “in demand.” The Copy Bitch has to don her pretty little sales hat from time to time. She is a working girl, after all.)

By the way, value won’t ravage your bottom line. It will improve it. And value won’t hurt your budget, if you base your budget on value. But if your budget is based on cheap rates, well, remember what your mama used to tell you about getting what you paid for.

Poor Website Strategy: Watch Out for Poop Proliferation

Dear Copy Bitch: What’s the most challenging thing in your industry today?

–Alex, Local High School Senior

Answer: Lately, the most challenging thing has been poop proliferation via websites (I’d use a much more earthy term, but you’re still a babe, Alex <sigh>). In the last month alone, I’ve had three websites dropped on my lap that stunk to high heaven.

On the first PP (poop proliferation), the owner had spent a boatload of cash but hadn’t experienced any returns, basically because SEO (search engine optimization) practices circa 1999 were being used and the copy was oatmeal without the raisins and brown sugar. The second one involved a website that had just been “re-launched.” Sadly, I saw some pics of the old design, and it was better. Also, I think the new navigation hid Jimmy Hoffa’s whereabouts (look it up, Alex), the copy was more twisted than Tiger Woods’s love life, and there were links to sites that had nothing–and I mean NOTHING–to do with the person’s company. The third PP came to me by way of a prospect who emailed me saying her site was just about ready and that she just needed the copy to be “tweaked.” (My Redflaggalator always pings “danger” when such emails land in my inbox.) To me, “tweaked” means “spit and polish.” This site needed a bulldozer.

So what gives? Who’s to blame? Glad you asked. I have plenty o’blame to dole out:

First, web developers: Prospects often start with you (even though they shouldn’t) because they think “web developer” right after they think “I need a website” or “I need to re-launch a website.” You’re doing them a disservice in this day and age if you don’t bring up 1) SEO and 2) copywriting right away. You’re the front line, guys, so you need to battle hard for the likes of me and the SEOs out there. But get this–you do that, and if you have the right resources to refer to–YOU WILL LOOK LIKE A HERO IN THE END (which means having clients who’ll sing your praises and salaam before you).

Second, prospects: I realize your specialty is not web development, copywriting, or SEO. But neither is medicine or cars, and I bet you do a little research before shopping for both of those things, right? Do the same for your website. There’s a ton of information out there (and yes, some of it is poop), but enough of the cream rises to the top in Google searches. You’re going to be investing good money in your site. Do a little homework on what to look for, what the heck SEO means, and why you should care what your copy says.

Third, marketing folks: Make sure your stable is loaded with thoroughbreds (i.e. quality developers, designers, writers, and SEOs).

Fourth, copywriters: Professional, dry copy won’t cut it these days. Your copy needs to tell a story. It needs to engage. And trust me when I say this: you can be creative and professional at the same time.

Fifth, SEOs: Please don’t claim to know SEO unless you really do. That means having built sites  that increased conversions (not traffic per se. Anyone can increase traffic to a site. You need to deliver the right traffic that converts into leads/sales). I should probably make this #2, since there are some scam artists out there but even more well-meaning folks who think it’s not hurting anyone to add “SEO” to the list of their services. Confession: I used to do keyword phrase research for clients until I realized it–and all that goes with “it”–is a specialized skill. I refer people to the pros now so that I can focus on the copy.

Aren’t you glad you asked, Alex? (There’ll be a quiz.)

Web Marketing Strategy Done Right

Dear Copy Bitch: I really liked reading about your “Rent My Noggin” promotion. But your post on “Why I hate writing websites” really made me stop and reconsider my web strategy. My company has been in business for 15 years. We’ve finally decided to get a website. (Up until now, we’ve gotten business through word of mouth and referrals.) Can you point me to some sites, articles, etc. that will ensure we do this web development/strategizing thing just right?

—LB, Lexington, Mass.

Answer: It warms the Copy Bitch’s heart to hear you say you’re going to develop a strategy before developing a site. Smart, smart, SMART move. There’s one GREAT resource that I share with my clients and prospects. It’s Stoney deGuyter’s “The Best Damn Web Marketing Checklist, Period.” Download the PDF. Print it. Study it. Make it your web bible. (Stoney is an SEO god and writer for Search Engine Guide. He owns Pole Position Marketing.)

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Contact Forms R Us: Broken Forms & Content No-No’s

I was referred to a business the other day, so I popped on over to its website. The home page was professional looking with clear navigation. It had three boxes for three separate audiences, along with hyperlinked bullet points in each box. So far so good. I appreciate sites that effectively “talk” to multiple audiences and direct said audiences accordingly.

But then everything went to hell.

Those clickable bullet points? Yes, you could click on them, but they brought you to EMPTY pages that simply said {Content}. Ugh. It wasn’t one or two pages. It was ALL of them. At first, I thought it might be a glitch–perhaps the whole site was having an issue–but the home page was fine, and the two bio pages for the two principals were fine as well.

And then I went to the Contact page.

There was a form. And this line was above the form:

“This contact form is not yet active. Please call 555-555-5555 to contact Great-Biz-With-Crappy-Website at this time.” (And no, there was no email address anywhere on the site.)

Listen, if your contact form doesn’t work, then do this: Take. It. Down. Consider how much business you’re losing. Think of the people who don’t even see your disclaimer line and they go ahead and fill out the form, hit submit, get an error message, and don’t come back. How many people are going to think, “If these guys can’t make their forms work or put content on their pages, how the heck are they going to do the job I hire them to do?” (Not to mention what the search engines are going to “think.”)

And why on George Clooney’s good green earth would you prominently display links on your home page that lead to nowhere? Why? Why in 2009 am I looking at a site like this? Why, why, why, why?

I understand that writing effective, compelling content ain’t easy (trust me, I really do feel your pain). Have a smaller site. Don’t mention every single one of your services. Focus on three to four core services, and on each one of those pages you can list some of the other related services (without links), for now. You can write 3-4 pages, right? Or hire someone to do it? Kick your web person in the butt and get him or her to fix the darn form or remove it completely. Include your email address.

Your website is your marketplace. It’s your virtual mortar and bricks. If you went to a store, and all its shelves were empty and no one was manning the register and you kept hitting the little bell thingy to get someone’s attention, but it didn’t work, what would you do?

Right. You’d walk out.

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Why I Hate Writing Websites

This might sound weird coming from a copywriter, especially since I have a whole page devoted to my website copywriting clients. Especially since I’m knowledgeable about SEO copywriting (not all copywriters are). Especially since website writing tends to bring in the big bucks.

The reason why I hate doing them is because the projects are seldom done right. Let me explain.

Please know that this isn’t ego talking, but an SEO copywriter should be involved in the project from the very start. Yeah, even before you find a web developer. Why?

Simple.

Many web designers and developers don’t know the ins and outs of SEO. Designers are focused on creating engaging designs. Developers are often excellent programmers and coders. Both probably know something about SEO (it’s hard not to, at least today). But do either stop and think deeply about marketing? About messaging? About who the audiences are? About the keyword phrases people will use to get to the site? A good SEO copywriter will likely have strong marketing chops and think about these things and talk about these things first. And guess what? The answers to the messaging and audience questions will affect both design and site architecture (if you want the site developed correctly, that is).

Most of my website clients come to me as an afterthought. They think, “Oh, we need a website, so let’s find a web developer.” It’s usually the web developer who makes the referral to me, but by then, too much has happened. While it might seem logical to start with the web developer, it’s not an effective strategy.

If you’re building a new site, start with an SEO copywriter first.

Buy her expertise for 2-3 hours and have her work as a consultant. She’ll pick your brain on marketing messages, goals, expectations, competitors, keyword phrases, audiences–in other words, ALL the things you need to know before you can really do anything else.

Once all this info has been researched and digested, you should hire someone to do the keyword phrase research based on your keyword seed list (some SEO copywriters do this; others will refer you to search engine optimizers). Your keyword phrases will influence site architecture, the site map, and the design. At the same time this research is being conducted, you can begin talks with web designer/developers.

There are many good SEO copywriters out there. One of the best is Karon Thackston of Marketing Words.

If you’re re-launching or revising your existing site, start with an SEO copywriter or SEO first.

Same thing. Buy the copywriter’s expertise or the SEO’s expertise FIRST. In fact, I’d say you should start with the SEO first, in this situation, even before turning to the writer (SEOs will review technical stuff; not all writers–even the good ones–are well-versed in that).

There are some great SEOs out there who do affordable web assessments. Jill Whalen of High Rankings comes to mind. She’ll review your existing site from an SEO standpoint and point out the good, the bad, and the ugly. You can take her assessment and work with your copywriter and developer to make changes, fixes, and tweaks. But you need to start with the SEO or and SEO copywriter first.

Note: there are web developers who really know SEO and tout this as one of their offerings. Still, most of these will involve a writer from the start, or close to it. There are also developers who say they know SEO, but it’s more cursory knowledge (which isn’t necessarily bad or misleading…after all, they’re developers, not SEOs). And there are a lot of indy developers who rely on writers and SEOs for the optimization part. Do your homework. Good developers will welcome working with writers from the get-go and/or respect the fact you’ve started your website project with a writer. Beware of the ones who don’t “get” this.

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