These other people called Copywriters

I smell confusion. Its odour has been in the air for a couple of years, but now its stench is there every time I surf around and it’s time to reach for the copywriting air-freshener and dispel it.

Copywriters. We know what we are. We are people who write commercially oriented text to be used in corporate or marketing applications of one kind or another. We are likely to have commercial and marketing knowledge. We may be given more to an editorial approach, or may be intrinsically conceptual in our skills. We may be specialist in IT, financial services or pharmaceuticals, or we may be generalists, hoping that the next project will be fundamentally different from the last.

All of these criteria fairly describe a copywriter. We write for other people’s organisations and businesses, using our skills to convey information the business itself needs to get across.

That’s what we are.

What we are not is people who operate elaborate programs which involve setting up hundreds of websites to earn incremental incomes from affiliate programs, or parked domain advertising, or so-called ‘business opportunity’ DVD publishing. Nor are we people who stage five day conferences in concert arenas to explain to people who yearn to be rich how we, ourselves, make millions of dollars, pounds, euros or dinars every year from our websites. No, sir. Such people are not copywriters, and it’s just plain confusing of them to appropriate our name.

There is a name for what these people are. They are internet marketers. Some of them, the best of them, are quite brilliant people who have combined their understanding of internet traffic with their ability to manage lists of willing acolytes to devise niche marketing strategies which have indeed made them very wealthy, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

But they are not copywriters.

So where does the confusion come from?

From direct marketing, of course. The internet marketers are generally operators of direct marketing businesses of one kind or another. And direct marketing depends on the skills of a copywriter to persuade a surfer or recipient that the landing page he’s on, or letter he’s holding, offers the immediate opportunity to purchase the answer to his wildest dreams.

So internet marketers do use the services of copywriters. And some internet marketers are indeed, themselves, superb copywriters.

But they really have to rid themselves of their identity confusion.

When they write the copy to sell their stuff, they are copywriting, sure enough.

When they sell their stuff, cut their databases, hold their seminars, they are internet marketers.

But only if they regularly take on and solve the problems of third-party businesses in need of communications expertise are they what you or I should feel OK with calling a copywriter.

Ooh.

That feels so much better.

 

Who’s in software and who’s not?

I’ve been reclassifying the section of my website that shows which clients I’ve worked with in the past, and in which sectors they work.

Since we first configured the admin system for the site about five years ago, there has been a slightly unsatisfactory category named ‘Software Developers’. Into this have gone, to date, all companies whose output appeared to be software-centred. So that wrapped together both those companies that were in the business of developing solutions, to order, for other people; and those companies that were actually in the businesses of developing and marketing a product of their own, with a specific purpose in a specific industry sector, but which happened to be ‘software’.

It doesn’t work any more, does it? If we lump together everyone who makes something that is essentially software as being in the ‘software’ sector, fairly soon no-one will be in any other sector.

The world has changed and clearly a company which makes a specialist software product used across, say, the insurance industry, might be judged to be not so much in the software sector, as in the insurance sector.

So I’ve reclassified my sectors.

I now have a category named ‘IT – Solutions, Hardware and Infrastructure’, for everyone who develops commercial solutions for other people to order, manufactures hardware or provides technical infrastructure.

Everyone else joins the ranks of the industry for which their application or service is developed.

Cost or outlay – how to think about a sales letter

I quoted a sales letter task at the weekend for a man with a business that specifies and supplies high end commercial interiors solutions.

He had a sales letter that he’d written himself a long time ago and that wasn’t really, in truth, a sales letter at all. He wanted a new one.

So I sent him a modular quote, showing him what it might cost to do the letter, then what it might cost to produce a supporting leaflet to go with the letter. A la carte: see what you like, see what it costs, tell me what you’d like.

A few hours after receiving the quote, the man replied that he’d already spent most of his budget on printing folders and… and here’s the bit in which the thinking is totally beyond me… couldn’t justify the cost of copywriting.

Now lets put aside the question of why, then, he was looking for a copywriter to begin with.

What I don’t get is this.

Let’s say the man mailed 1000 companies with a new sales letter. And let’s say we got just a 2% response. That’s 20 responses expressing interest.

Now let’s say he was able to convert just 10% of these qualified enquiries. That’s 2 new customers.

Now I didn’t get as far as discovering what the value of a typical order is in his business, but I’m willing to bet it’s not low. So let’s be fair and imagine that one of these two imaginary orders were then to have a modest value of, say, £5,000, but that the other turned out to be a very decent contract with a value of £50,000.

These are just the first orders as well, mind. Who knows what these two customers may go on to be worth to this business in the future?

So let’s guess that the guy does £55,000 worth of business now, and a further … oooh… let’s see.. let’s just say as much again in the months ahead.

So in total, the sales letter he couldn’t justify the cost of might have pulled him £110,000 worth of sales.

Given that the fee for writing it would have been significantly less than 1% of this, how on earth can he have reached the view he did?

The answer lies in his choice of the word ‘cost‘. “We can’t justify the cost of the copywriting.”

To think of this, up-front, as a cost, he must be expecting zero return! In which case… why bother?

But sales letters are an investment, generally quite an effective one, producing handsome return on the outlay.

In this case, even my conservative calculation suggests he might have expected an almost fifteen thousand per cent return (that’s about 150 times) on the fee.

I don’t see how he could afford not to!

The edge of copywriting

When I used to work in ad agencies and write TV commercials, people outside of the business would often ask, “So what part do you do? Do you write the words?”

I would then explain patiently to them that though I might have described myself as a copywriter, the remit of my job extended from understanding the client’s marketing objective, or on occasion problem, through helping my strategic planning colleagues to find an appropriate and inventive way to tackle this problem; and from there through taking responsibility for translating the ensuing strategy into an impactful, clear and arresting creative strategy and then executing that into powerful commercials whose plot, action, characters, situations, images, music, titles et al were all my responsibility (in partnership with whichever art directors I was collaborating with at that time).

Not only was that responsibility ours at the start, in our office, while nothing existed save for a blank script page. It was ours in pre-production, once an idea existed, but that idea needed to be found a director and a production company; it was ours on the shoot, where we were guardians not only of the integrity of our creative idea, but also of ensuring the delivery of those elements necessary to ensure the client of proper communication of not only his message, but also of his brand. Finally, it remained our responsibility in Soho’s cutting rooms and post-production suites, where a commercial is so often lost or made.

So my view is that ‘copywriting’ describes, at it’s broadest but yet most useful definition, the business of thinking through, organising and then presenting any information at all required to place a case before the world. It’s an advocacy skill, none too distant from that of a barrister. (I spoke recently to a provincial circuit barrister who told me that he frequently receives the file containing the details of the case he is to represent in court only the evening before appearing. Now if that isn’t the same as copywriting…what is?)

Why do I raise this now? Because I’ve been thinking a lot recently about where the edges of copywriting actually lie for each of us. Not just in our lives as marketing folk, but in our everyday and private lives, too.

In an age where everyone is an accomplished disseminator of communication messaging, all of us now need to ‘be’ copywriters, taking control of and responsibility for the messages we put out into the world.

But what are the limits of those messages? Do they, indeed, have limits? Let’s try out a few based on things I’ve done myself, or known friends to have done, over the last few weeks.

Was a recent financial restructuring that I wanted to organise, and which required me to present my intentions clearly and positively to several different organisations, a copywriting task? Yes. I believe it was. The same case, put together less carefully and presented less persuasively might well have had an outcome less in line with my objectives than was achieved.

Was a friend placing his profile on an online dating site (answering their questions, selecting a photo of himself to upload to their server) engaged in a copywriting task? Too right he was. He has a clear message to put across to a tightly defined audience, and every word he wrote, and each nuance of the photo he selected, would be picked apart by that audience in making a decision as to whether to ‘buy’ his offer or not.

Is a sixth form student engaged in a copywriting task when he fills out the ‘personal statement’ section of his university application? Yes again. Within an imposed limit of 500 words, his job is to convince admissions officers at the educational establishments of his choice that he is the kind of student they are looking for. All his achievements to date, interests and thoughts will count in his favour if presented cogently, or count for nought if hastily listed without any sense of purpose.

You need to complain to the council about services? Isn’t it a copywriting task to come across as a reasonable and responsible citizen with a fair-minded approach yet with, too, an intelligent insistence on what one knows to be one’s due?

You want to negotiate a pay rise, insist on a refund, explain away an indiscretion, explain to a child, mediate in a dispute, advance a cause, project a wholesome image on your Facebook profile or do any of the pile of other things we all need to do every day in the course of living our lives?

Well then, you need to be able to pull apart the facts, select the most salient (and sometimes, of course, only those beneficial to one’s case), and then present them with impact, guile, energy, seductiveness, persuasiveness or any of the other weapons of war we copywriters wear on our belts.

Copywriting Courses

Every few weeks I receive an enquiry from someone considering taking a copywriting course with something called ‘The Institute of Copywriters’. The enquiry will usually ask simply whether I can recommend this course.

Now ‘The Institute of Copywriting’ is worthy of some scrutiny, not least as an exercise in copywriting! The use of the word ‘Institute’ suggests that this is some kind of ‘industry body’, and the ‘Institute’s’ website states that “The Institute is wholly financed by its members, from its courses and subscriptions, from lectures and published material.”

Note the use of the word ‘members’, if you will.

An innocent reader is thus very likely to feel they are entrusting their training to an association of copywriting peers and elders.

Innocent reader, beware!

Knowing for a fact that there is no such assembly of copywriting yeomen (not in the UK, at least), I wrote to the Institute of Copywriting to verify that they are, in fact, actually just a distance learning company, whose business is selling distance learning courses. To claim to have members, rather than customers or students, is again, I’d suggest, calculated to imbue the ‘Institute’ with some unwarranted gravitas.

Well, I’m pleased to say that the Institute of Copywriting was 100% honest and straightforward in its reply. “Yes”, its Customer Service Coordinator wrote, “You are quite right in your assumption.”

So. Not an industry body, but actually a company in Somerset, called The Learning Institute, selling distance learning courses. (The same company also sells ‘Diploma’ courses on ‘Garden Design’, ‘Personal Training’ and being an ‘Image Consultant’).

So then I asked about the Diploma and Accreditation which the Institute of Copywriters awards to those completing its course.

“Is this ratified by any UK organisation authorised for the issue of academic qualifications”, I enquired. “Or is this simply a qualification ‘of your own’?”

Again, with commendable clarity, the Institute confirmed that “The diploma is ours.”

So. Now I am able to offer an informed view on The Institute of Copywriting and its Copywriting Diploma course.

1) This isn’t an industry body. It’s a distance learning business. The Learning Institute (the company behind The Institute of Copywriting) is, however, properly accredited by the ODLQC, the UK body which monitors distance learning organisations.

2) The Diploma issued by the Institute has absolutely no academic or professional validity recognised by any UK authority licensed to regulate qualifications. Writing Dip C (Inst CW) after your name, as the Institute tells you you will be entitled to do, is about as meaningful as appending your starsign.

3) But…the ‘Institute of Copywriting’ course does offer what appears to be a reasonable introduction to copywriting, on a distance learning basis. There’s no knowing how good the ‘professional copywriters’ reviewing your assignments will be, but that’s pretty much the same in any educational situation. There appears to be a reasonable raft of course material (though some of it looks a bit like padding to me) but, in the end, the cost of the course seems quite modest.

Would I recommend it to you? Well…if you have some commercial experience of your own, particularly marketing experience, and have done some copywriting already, then maybe not. I suspect that you probably know enough to be going on with, and what you really need is more real experience. Having said that, you may find the Institute’s course’s exercises of some use as practice. On balance, I’d probably buy 2 or 3 good books and save my money.

If, however, you have no experience, and no marketing background, and the few hundred pounds charged for the course isn’t a big deal to you, then my guess is that you might find it a useful ‘first taste’ of copywriting, with at least some infrastructure to get you into the swing.

Just be aware, though, that you are buying books and distance learning tutoring. You are NOT buying a professional qualification, nor the learning of some august professional body of copywriters; which entity does not, as I have said, exist.

And your specialist subject is?

At a time when Radio 4 is rich with variations on the phrases ‘recession’, ‘economic downturn’ and ‘the FTSE ended the day down 631 at half of **** all…’, email blasts look increasingly attractive as a tactical way of getting out your message without incurring too great a cost.

In the rush to write and hit ‘Send’, however, it’s far too easy to forget that the ‘Subject’ line is a critical element in the success or failure of your mail. More detailed information you can find here.
It’s more important than the headline on an ad or a sales letter. (At least if those are weak, there’s a chance of something else on the page catching the eye.) Not so with a ‘Subject’ line.

If any element in the entire exercise is deserving of your copywriting attention, it is this, which is why it’s worth becoming a bit of a specialist on the subject of ‘Subject’ lines.

– Don’t be elliptical.
– Don’t assume that the way you have your mail client set out is the same as everyone else. Just because you can read 12 words in a subject line does not mean that I can. Make the first 3 or 4 words stand alone to deliver your message.
– Keep your wits about you. You may only have 4 words you can depend on… but you can use them in the most surprising way.
– Don’t forget that most people misunderstand anything which is not literal unless they are really concentrating.
– Don’t include words which are likely to hit everyone’s spam filters.
– Try to offer something.
– Make it searchable by mail client search features which search ‘Subject’ alone
– Split test. Split a section of your database and send your mail out with variations to the Subject line. See which does best and use that when mailing the rest of your list.

Getting your mails opened is exactly the same as getting customers through the door of your shop. If it doesn’t happen, it doesn’t matter how well you’ve set out the goods on offer inside.

Freelance copywriter? Great ways to think about what we do.

I’ve always thought being a freelance copywriter is a bit of privilege. You get something new and challenging to pit your wits against every few days. You get all the satisfaction of growing and managing a business of your own and it holds out the promise of a very decent living. Plus… its great and shining attraction for so many people… you can do it just about anywhere you’re able to organise your thinking and find the space to write. Including, of course, at home. But if you look a little harder, there are other, less prosaic benefits and opportunities that make the business of being a freelance copywriter rewarding, satisfying… and worth getting up to do again tomorrow. Don’t tell everyone though: they’ll all want to do it. If you want to get additional information, you should click this link.

As a freelance copywriter, your pen is, indeed, mighty.

Sometimes clients will show up who really do have a problem. Sometimes they’ll need sales badly, and be uncertain of what to do to get them. Sometimes they’ll be so close to their business that they can’t see the wood for the trees and so are stumbling around lost. Other times they might be speaking too softly. They may even have fallen out of love with their own business and be letting this come across to their customers. You can save them though. You and your freelance copywriting pen. With a well constructed argument. Or a truly original insight. Or some redefining humour. Or just some clarity and understanding.

You can make rain.

When things go quiet for your clients, when leads dry up, when heads go down, you have the power to turn them around. Hell. You’re a freelance copywriter! Through almost any channel of communication, you can retell a business’s story, re-present its offer, make a loud noise about it, win it some attention, make it seem attractive and, quite genuinely, transform its outlook and its fortunes. Sometimes, you can do it faster than its own best salespeople, simply through the power of what you write.

You can be your client’s best ever investment.

Whatever you charge, it’s not that much. I’ve found that most of the jobs I have done in years of being a freelance copywriter have taken a few days to do. So for your client, the outlay to have you do something is probably just two or three days of your fee. In return for that, you can say thank you by delivering a huge upswing in sales. You can make people think about your client’s business differently. Make them like it more. You can write out blockages in understanding that are stopping people buying. You can make staff feel proud of their employer and so work harder and happier. In short, you can repay the investment in using you a hundred fold, or a thousand fold,  without even trying, and a business has very few ways of getting that kind of return on any investment it makes.

You can right wrongs.

You are a voice. You can speak soft or speak loud, but sometimes the opportunity will come to speak for good or against wrong. And when it does you can make a difference. Use your writer’s power to aid the underdog, fight the bully and beat the odds. Going over the heads of wrongdoers or ogres, private or corporate, is no less the responsibility of freelance copywriters than it is of crusading journalists or zealous libertarians.

What you write can be, simply, beautiful.

Few copywriters are poets. (We should try not to forget this!) But in the same way that a piece of mathematics can be beautiful in its inarguability and self-evidence, so sometimes what you write will be such a clear, lucid and definitive solution to a problem, that you’ll know it as such as soon as it’s written. And so will your client. And so will the people he or she wants to influence. When you do that, when that happens, the feeling of being a freelance copywriter is every bit as good as that experienced by any other craftsperson on a day when everything just clicks.

Nine tools to make your business rock

We all work differently. Your mind and method may be in stark contrast to mine.

However, I’ve just sent this list over to a friend who has recently set up her own business and had mailed to ask what tools I use to keep things running professionally.

The actual packages you choose will depend on whether you work on Mac OS (as I do) or on PC, and on whether you trust Microsoft Outlook to organise everything in your life (which I don’t), but these are the ‘slots’ in which I think you need things, anyway:

1. Mail program. Easy. Whichever one suits you, but get good at using its folders, setting up rules to file stuff, and get used to searching your mail as specifically as it is able. If you are on Mac, you have platform-wide Spotlight search which searches your mail for you anyway.

Switch your mail server from POP3 to IMAP so that all your mail-receiving devices stay in sync.

Use the Notes (or similar) function on your Mail package to save bits of copy that you need to include over and over in emails. I have about a dozen saved chunks of copy that save me a couple of hours every week.

2. Calendar. Crucial. Schedule both meetings and durations of tasks. Always set alarms for the appropriate time before something needs to happen. People do notice if you say you’ll call them on Wednesday at 3pm and then actually do.

3. To-Do app. So brilliant you can’t imagine it until you use it. I use Things on MacOS. A To-Do app is totally different to a calendar. This is your CRM buddy, managing your new business enquiries and keeping track of where you are up to and what order you plan or need to do things day by day.

4. Accounting package. Sage has the ubiquity, though I don’t use it myself. Great thing about learning to use an accounting package yourself is that it will integrate all your estimating, quoting, invoicing, buying etc, generate all the paperwork and also keep your accounts up to date. I enter my own sales and receipts, and also my purchases of services from other people or companies. I just leave ad hoc expenses to be entered by my book keeper. With this package, I need have the book keeper for just one day each quarter to tidy up and do the VAT. Even at year end, the package generates everything my accountant needs to prepare accounts.

5. Microsoft Word or other word processing package for keeping templates stored for all your key stationery items, (including 4-to-a-page Avery labels!) Learn how to save a file as a template for future use.

6. Some or all of MSN Messenger, Skype and Facebook Chat. Easy, quick and day-long contact with clients, colleagues and chums.

7. Google. ’nuff said.

8. LinkedIn. May or may not apply to you, depending on the type of business you run, but I find it good for gaining an understanding of clients’ backgrounds.

9. A blog. Store your thoughts on what you are doing whenever you have a second, and it rapidly it builds a very valuable marketing resource.

There you go.

Those 9 packages and web apps used smartly give you a very supportive virtual operation that I think is equivalent to having a staff of 3 or 4 people.

Simple B2B direct marketing for small business

B2B direct marketing.

This same request, and its solution, come up time after time from clients. Thus, simple as it is, I figure there have to be people for whom it would be of value to see it set down in type.

A business needs to make sales contact with target businesses. It wishes to send out some communication, but is uncertain of what to send, and by what method.

Well, assuming that this is to be a low cost exercise, there are two ways to go. You either go digital, or you go print.

If you go digital, saving on print and postage (always good where you have a large data list or wish to update regularly), you need an email in which to set out your basic story and a .pdf brochure, a short powerpoint deck(.ppt) or a web landing page created specifically for the purpose with which to provide deeper information.

The choice of which of these to use is generally best made by trying to anticipate the working environment of your recipients. Some people in corporate settings use powerpoint all day and are used to viewing presentations in this format. There are more useful information on this website. Others, in smaller or less corporate settings, may rarely use it and find a .pdf far more familiar. A landing page works for everyone, but there’s a sense of it ‘disappearing on close’, as opposed to being locally saveable on the recipient’s PC

If you go ink on paper, then it’s a single page A4 cover letter with some sort of supporting leaflet or brochure. This second item will often need be nothing fancier than a 1/3 A4 rollfold or z-fold leaflet.

In either case, telephoning the recipients (assuming you have numbers) a few days after your mailing will significantly lift response and conversion. You don’t have to do this yourself, and can safely outsource follow up calling to people who will confirm targets showing interest and feedback details so you can then call them yourself.

SEO. Do yourself a Google favour

Getting your site ranked high on Google has become an obsession.

Although there are plenty of people around who do understand the principles behind achieving this, there are lots more who don’t. The problem is that some who don’t are people who actually claim to be Search Engine Optimisation specialists.

This is an area in which, if you’re running your own business and have even cursory web skills, you can give your marketing a real boost by yourself, without spending a penny. It’s a good investment of an evening of your time, and on top of boosting your ranking on Google, you’ll learn useful stuff that will put you in the camp of those who have at least some idea of what they’re talking about.

The best possible start you can make is to read Google’s own advice for Webmasters. As I’ve just revisited this myself, I’ll save you an hour and summarise the key points.

1) By far the most important principle is to devote your time and energy to creating original, valuable content. In the end, this will serve you far better than trying to trick the Google crawlers.

2) Google’s much discussed ‘algorithm’ rewards a balance of 2 factors: the first is the ‘importance’ of your site on the web, which is assessed largely by who and how many sites link to you; the second is the relevance of your site to the specific query being searched by the user. You have to have them both.

3) You need as many inward links from other, relevant sites as you can get. You can check how many you have by typing link:www.yourdomainname.co.uk into Google. Try to direct inward links to different places within your site, rather than only to your homepage.

4) You need to ensure that all pages of your site are linked to from some other pages of your site.

5) Place a robots.txt file in the root folder of your site. It helps the Google robot. If you search for ‘robot.txt’, you should be able to find free tools online to generate this file.

6) Have a look and see how many of your site’s pages are actually being visited by Google’s crawler. Type site:www.yourdomainname.co.uk into Google.

7) Make sure that your site is properly meta-tagged. On every page. That means not just getting the ‘keywords’ tag properly loaded with terms likely to be searched by your potential visitors, but also writing the ‘Title’ and ‘Description’ tag content carefully. ‘Title’ will dictate what heading appears on your listing, and will have some influence on your rank. ‘Description’ will supply the copy which appears under your title when your listing is served.

8) Make and submit a ‘sitemap’ file to Google. There are online tools available to do it for free.

9) Don’t ‘cloak’ or hide text on your site to try to fool the Google crawler. Google like the page you show their crawler to be the one a user sees.

10) Take some time to list yourself on Yahoo, or on the Open Directory Project. The resulting directory listings will help build your inward links.

There you are. I’m not trying to dissuade you from talking to a good SEO company if you feel you need one (if, for example, SEO is absolutely key to your business success).

But for lots of people, working through these 10 points will start to move you up the list, and save you some money.