Getting the right copywriter is one of the trickier aspects of putting together a direct mail campaign. Your copywriter is a “creative” with whom you’ll be working closely.
Copywriters need to understand your thoughts and be able to express them in your voice. They must get your “style.” How aggressive do you want to be? Are there certain words or images you do or don’t like to use? If your personal story is a big part of your sales pitch, your copywriter must get that right. And if the sales piece is written in the first person, it will seem to be coming from YOU! You have to be comfortable with that.
While you have this more “personal” relationship with your copywriter, it’s still a business arrangement, so you have to take practical steps to get an agreement you both can live with. Here’s a list of 10 keys to help you find the best copywriter:
1. Ask candidates to provide samples of previous projects they’ve worked on.
No two projects are the same, but you can tell a lot about the kind of work copywriters do by looking at samples of their previous work. Does the copy look fresh, or is it filled with clichés and stock phrases? Is it easy to read, or is it dense and confusing? Does it have an engaging tone, or is it flippant, condescending, aloof, or put you off in any way? Are the headlines appealing and do the subheads lead the reader along? Is there a clear call to action?
Several samples for different clients can reveal consistent qualities you like or don’t like. If you don’t like what the copywriter did for someone else, chances are you won’t like what you get either.
2. Ask candidates to list niches they prefer to write copy for. If they say ALL niches, then I’ll pass, since 95% of writers can’t write for all niches.
Most copywriters have a specialty. Common niches include writing offers for opportunity seekers, medical products or supplements, or Business to Business applications. Some copywriters write long, magalog-type sales pieces while other specialize in display-type ads.
In the process of making a living over many years, a copywriter may have prepared many different types of assignments, and that’s good. It indicates flexibility. Still, there’s probably one type of writing each copywriter feels most adept at, and that’s what you want to find out – especially if your product is highly specialized.
3. Ask candidates to provide an accurate estimate of price and timeline for delivery.
Never give anyone a blank check. Before hiring a copywriter, you always want an estimate of how much it will cost and how long it will take.
The copywriter may not know ahead of time exactly how much work something will require. But experienced copywriters should have a feel for how long it will take. Maybe they think it will take between 15 and 20 hours, so they give you a range of possible prices and delivery dates. At least you have an idea of the most it will cost and the most time it will take.
The best copywriters will be busy, with jobs backed up. They may have to finish some of those before getting to yours. If you need something right away, you may have to find another copywriter.
Keep in mind, may of the best writers may need 3 to 6 weeks to complete a small project and 2 to 4 months for a larger project. I’ve found that most of the time, it’s worth the time to wait for the best writer to be available.
Some copywriters are efficient, easy to work with, and always meet their deadlines. Others may never meet a deadline. You won’t know what type you’re dealing with until you work with them (or get honest references from other clients). If you’re happy with a writer’s work, you may give more leeway in scheduling. But if the writer drives you crazy, find another one.
4. Make sure that candidates understand that they must communicate the client’s voice in the sales copy – and give examples of that in pieces they’ve written.
Look at some of the direct mail pieces you receive at home. (In fact, you should be keeping a file of them for reference.) As you read through them, you’ll notice that each one has a different voice. For example, look at sales pieces selling investment programs. One piece is from an older man who comes off as authoritative and a bit curmudgeonly. A middle-aged woman trade advisor presents herself as knowledgeable and successful, but a little motherly. A young, hotshot trader comes across as brash, ambitious, and impatient to make more money.
You have a voice you want to project in your sales pieces, and copywriters should know how to create that voice for you. To see if they can, look at several jobs they’ve produced for different clients. Do all the pieces sound the same, or are they recognizably different? Do they sound like they were written by different people? That’s what you want.
5. Listen to questions candidates ask YOU
Just as you want to find out about the copywriter, the copywriter should be trying to find out about you. To do a good job for you the copywriter must understand your business, who your prospects are (this is very important), and what your offer is. Great copywriters don’t assume they already know everything about your business. They ask questions. And in my experience, the best writers almost always start by asking, “What lists are you going to mail?”
6. Must have a reasonable turn around time for edits and changes to the sales copy. Is their turn around time 24 hours? 48 Hours? Etc.
Once you’re deep into preparing your direct mail campaign, you’re on a schedule and things have to move quickly. Most copywriters understand this, but make sure your copywriter will accommodate you by giving you a quick turnaround time for changes.
7. Must be professional in all correspondence.
You can tell a lot about the care copywriters will take in preparing your sales piece by looking at the care taken in replying to you, whether by phone, fax, or email. If their correspondence is slapdash, filled with errors, and incomprehensible, that doesn’t bode well for the final product. And if they don’t get back to you at all, watch out!
8. Knows the difference between “referencing” existing content and “stealing” existing content.
Clever copywriters have been known to borrow ideas from others and then give them a new twist so you’d hardly know. That’s to be expected. But out and out stealing from other writers shows a lack of creativity and ethics. Or, if they’re stealing from some of your old sales pieces, it might be sheer laziness. You’re getting a new copywriter because you want new ideas. That’s what you’re paying for.
9. Able to provide final content that is easy for the client to edit and the designer to lay out.
Copywriters don’t live in their own world. They are part of a team, and good copywriters will make it easy for other team members. You should receive clean copy that’s easy for you to read and edit. And it should be in a format that makes it clear to your graphic designer what the writer had in mind as far as headlines, subheads, bulleted lists, and the general structure of the piece.
10. Must be able to give a list of great copywriters they study (Kennedy, Halbert, Bencivenga, Carlton, Collier, Ogilvy, Hopkins, Clayton Makepeace, etc.)
In my experience, good copywriters have developed their craft by studying the work of other copywriters who are known for their effectiveness. Ask perspective copywriters whose work they admire and see if they can mention anybody. Or can they give examples of sales pieces that influenced them?
The Final Test
Of course, the final test of your copywriter’s skill is how effective the piece is at getting a response. If you don’t get a response, don’t blame the copywriter yet. Tweaking the offer or trying a new list could make the difference. But if nothing works, it may be time to interview another group of copywriters.