The Marketing Director’s Guide to Working With Freelance Copywriters

“When I meet successful people I ask 100 questions as to what they attribute their success to. It is usually the same: persistence, hard work, and hiring good people.” – Kiana Tom

Throughout my career, I have done thousands of direct-response marketing campaigns, incorporating all channels (i.e., media), including direct mail, e-mail, telesales, television, print ads, radio, Web, and inserts. Billions of consumers have read, heard, or seen these campaigns. And during the 21 years I have been doing them, I have seen new formats, tactics, and strategies. Virtually everything in this industry is continually changing.

Well, not everything. There is one thing and one thing only that has remained the same over the years – and that is “Copy Is King.”

Don’t get me wrong, the media you purchase is the most important element as far as your campaign’s ultimate success. But it is your sales message that is going to make the difference between good and great results.

Here’s an example of just how important your sales copy is…

We were very proud of a natural-resource investment service we had just created. We had found a top-notch editor with a five-year verifiable track record. We spent hours researching and working on the sales promotion for this service. But right before we were ready to send the sales letter out to our prospective subscribers, we all had a nagging feeling that something about the copy was off… but we couldn’t quite put our fingers on it. So we took the promotion down to Michael Masterson, who immediately saw the problem.

The copy was breaking a critical rule. Throughout the entire sales letter, we were telling the reader why this service was so great when we should have been showing him!

For example, we were saying “Dr. Russell McDougal has a very successful track record of investing in natural-resource companies” [telling], instead of saying something like this: “Dr. McDougal’s success speaks for itself. In fact, just last year five of the stocks he purchased shot up more than 200%” [showing].

Another example: We were saying “Dr. McDougal has excellent contacts in the natural-resources industry” [telling], instead of saying something like this: “Dr. McDougal is on a first-name basis with the CEOs of dozens of mining companies, and these inside contacts have paid off time and time again. In fact, after a recent conversation with the president of a gold-exploration company, he became so certain of the company’s success that he doubled his own position. Sure enough, just months later the company struck pay dirt and the stock soared in value” [showing].

The copywriter went back to work and changed some of the copy, making sure he was showing just how the service would benefit the reader.

Because we had a strong offer and had purchased the proper media, the original sales letter most likely would have done okay had we not made those changes. But by making sure that the sales copy was as strong as possible, we were able to exceed our expected results.

Having done thousands of direct-response campaigns, I have had the pleasure of working with some of the very best copywriters in the world. I have also had the pleasure of working with some of the very worst copywriters in the world. Yes, I said “pleasure” – because my experiences with the worst copywriters made me appreciate the best … and helped me learn how to work with all levels of copywriters.

There are three basic levels of copywriters: A, B, and C. Each of these levels has sub-levels of pluses and minuses. There are only about five A+ copywriters in the world, including Michael Masterson, Paul Hollingshead, and Bill Bonner. (I’ll keep you guessing on the others.) But you will most likely never get these gentlemen to write for you, for several reasons. Primarily, they don’t need to. Plus, they would rather spend their time teaching their proteges the art of copywriting, knowing that doing this will continue to build their own businesses.

Regardless of what level a copywriter is at, they all have one thing in common. They all believe that they are the most important and greatest asset to your bottom line. Sure, many times they are right. But just as often they are way off. However, once you have contracted with a freelance copywriter for a specific project, you need to follow some guidelines.

Here are my top nine rules for working with freelance copywriters:

  • Lack of experience isn’t a deal breaker. Working with an inexperienced copywriter is fine as long as she understands direct-response marketing fundamentals and how to sell, is smart, and is willing to really understand your niche market. Sometimes, hiring new copywriters works out to your advantage, because they are the ones who meet deadlines more consistently and will want to prove their value.
  • Before you hire your copywriter, ask for samples of his work. If he doesn’t have any samples in your specific niche, give him a test. (This is something I do regardless of the samples.) Testing a copywriter is easy. I pick a single product, show the copywriter past promotions, let him speak with the creator or editor of that product, and ask him for a headline and lead within 24 hours. You aren’t going to get something you can immediately use when you ask for a 24-hour turnaround, but this test will give you a good indication of a copywriter’s instincts. If he is not willing to take the test, go no further with him.
  • Before you hire a copywriter, ask for results of previous campaigns with past clients. If she tells you her client could not supply them “because their computer system could not track them” – go no further. Any copywriter who does not care about results is not worth working with.
  • If the copywriter asks only for an upfront fee and no royalties – go no further. If he doesn’t think his copy is worth royalties, it’s probably not. Now I’m not saying I would agree to pay royalties to a fairly inexperienced writer – but I certainly want to know that he thinks his copy is worthy of them. (And I can work out a royalty agreement with him later, once the campaign has met a certain benchmark.)
  • If the copywriter does not insist on working with your artist to provide graphic direction – go no further. Yes, copy is king – but readability is queen. And if you cannot read the sales letter, it doesn’t really matter how good the copy is.
  • Always put on your marketing director hat when dealing with copywriters. You may be the publisher, COO, and marketing director (not to mention product developer and janitor), but it is the marketing director who needs to provide vision and guidance to the copywriter.
  • Once you have hired a freelance copywriter, treat her like part of your internal team. This sounds easy, but it can actually be very difficult to work with outside copywriters. The marketing director needs to set the example for the entire internal team by making the copywriter feel like a member of the “family.” If you are developing a new product, for instance, ask the copywriter to be part of the product-development session. If you are brainstorming a new promotion, your copywriter should always be present.
  • Never let operational people talk to your copywriter. Years ago, I had a COO say that we should stop marketing altogether during a time when our sales copy just wasn’t working. Any savvy marketing person will tell you that this is a time when you need to continue marketing and testing, not stop. Operations people are usually the ones who have all the excuses for why things “can’t” be done. And such negative talk can destroy the copywriter’s enthusiasm and energy … which will make your advertising campaign suffer.
  • TEST, TEST, TEST. (Did I mention TEST?) Always hire copywriters who understand the value of testing. And you want someone who has ideas for tests that scream not whisper. This means you test ideas that will increase your response rates by 25 percent instead of a measly five percent. (If you want to test your price, for instance, you’d want to raise or lower it by 50 percent rather than by five percent, which would have a much smaller effect on response.) My favorite thing to test is the headline (especially with online copy). The headline is the key component to grabbing someone’s attention. The remainder of the promotion can stay the same. With very little additional work, you can expand the life of a promotion and add incremental dollars to your bottom line.Learning how to hire and work with freelance copywriters is crucial to making sure your customers sit up and take notice of the products and services your business has to offer.
[Ed. Note: MaryEllen Tribby, ETR’s Publisher and CEO, has over two decades of business, publishing, and marketing expertise. She’ll be sharing more of her strategies for building and growing a profitable business and staking your claim in “The Other Side of the Internet” this fall at ETR’s Info Marketing Bootcamp.]