by Michael Burns
Startups, small business owners, and even some Fortune 500 marketing executives struggle with what to look for in a Freelance Copywriter. This article is designed to take some of the guess-work out of the process.
First, what is a Copywriter? A Copywriter is what some would term a "creative consultant" or writer/strategist of sorts by today's standards. They develop concepts, content, ideas and strategies for consumer and business-to-business marketing initiatives. They are often hired by ad agencies and Interactive marketing firms. Other times they are hired by startups, small businesses, professional service firms, non-profits, and Fortune 500 companies who are seeking new ways to break through the clutter of current messaging.
Some copywriters specialize in traditional media (print and broadcast) and write print ads, brochures, direct mail, press releases, slogans, and naming. More experienced pros may double as Interactive copywriters, developing content for web sites, blogs, online banner campaigns, Pay-Per-Click campaigns, scripts for web video, and can also write for search engine optimized content (SEO), social media campaigns, case studies, white papers, and sales letters. Here's a few ideas of what to consider when evaluating freelance copywriters:
1. BUDGET. Money talks. Calculate how much you have to work with in order to determine your price range, as pricing for freelance copywriters can vary according to their range of expertise. Hiring someone based on a lower rate (a less experienced Copywriter) will almost always provide lower quality and multiple re-writes that extend completion time. Moreover, when clients think that they can get expert talent at bargain basement prices during a recession, it provides a quick way to get themselves branded as unserious.
Skilled freelance copywriters will provide you with lots of relevant questions, expert advice, and a solid conceptual framework, starting with a very in-depth discussion about your objectives, audience, and competition. Some may even include a Creative Brief in order to put everyone on the same page from the get-go, or suggest a SWOT analysis if they know anything about marketing–unless you have material to share with them in advance. Good copywriters also have a nose for research, and can interpret, analyze and develop big picture strategy and concepts. So if they ask for relevant marketing data or wish to interview key personnel, let them. The more tools and information they have at their disposal, the better.
Skilled copywriters will also be good at interfacing with art directors, account executives, web designers, project managers, C-level professionals and others, and won't be shy to challenge erroneous data or assumptions that lack clarity. The key is for you to make it Ok for them to give you candid feedback, and not create barriers to new thinking or imply that you’re interested in limiting their effectiveness in order to protect the status quo. Undoubtedly, a more skilled copywriter will come at a higher cost. Hence the saying, "you get what you pay for." If budget really is an issue, consider hiring a Freelance Copywriter as your first priority, rather than giving preference to a web designer, developer or art director. Good copywriters excel at developing the big picture, so nailing that first can help save time and money later, especially if they are also skilled in consulting and visual thinking, and can direct others to fill in the blanks.
2. SEARCH AND COMPARE. You'll find greater peace of mind if you take the time to compare, rather than going with the first few listings that you find on Google or your local Yellowpages. Local talent can help fulfill an emotional need of dealing with someone in your own community, but with the current trends of outsourcing with providers in other cities, don't be afraid to look elsewhere if the type of talent that you're looking for isn't showing itself. Secondly, know that there is a difference between short-form (conceptual) copywriters, and long-form (editorial) copywriters. In some cases, you'll find freelance copywriters who can manage both.
3. EVALUATE. A hint at what to look for: demonstrated conceptual ability on their web site or portfolio, for starters. That means impactful value propositions that use an effective one-two punch with relevant headlines, body copy, images, and call-to-action statements that appeal to your needs.
Secondly, versatility, and a tendency for producing ideas and content that flows well and pulls eye movement downward.
If they provide you with samples (as they should) and you find yourself struggling to read through it quickly and remain interested, chances are that you'll want to look elsewhere. Consider tone, style, direction, and their ability to take you from the headline and visuals into the main body of content. If you find content that is appealing but visuals that are not, ask them about their involvement in the visual aspects of the work to avoid inferring that they did both.
Naturally, you'll want to match with someone with experience writing for your industry, if possible. Someone with a specialization in the consumer packaged goods or beauty industry, for example, might not be a good match for a sophisticated B2B technology campaign. Also keep in mind that while some copywriters are good writers and editors, they are not all cut for the task of proofreading long content, so ask about their attention to detail, and if hiring a proofreader for large assignments may be necessary.
4. TEST. If you're still unsure about a particular copywriter at the evaluation phase, put them on the spot and give them a sample scenario of a complex marketing challenge that you're trying to solve or have solved in an earlier project, and ask them how they would address it. They should originate relevant questions to reflect their problem-solving ability. This is where facile thinkers really show up. You should get an immediate idea as to their analytical and strategic prowess, and gain insight into the kinds of questions that they will likely ask once you hire them for a real project. If they leave you guessing, move on to the next candidate. Writing tests can produce some insights concerning their general ability and style, but using that as a standard by itself should be avoided.
5. REFERENCES. Getting input from others can be helpful, but not nearly as indicative as a quick test as illustrated above. Anyone can give references of people who will say nice things about them. Good freelancers should be able to provide you with references, but always ask for them rather than seeking to contact their clients directly for the sake of privacy and relevance.
6. AGREEMENTS. A sound working relationship should always start with an agreement in writing. Start with a Mutual Non-disclosure Agreement (NDA). This is standard industry practice, and keeps them from sharing any proprietary information with your competitors. Secondly, a written agreement about the terms of the engagement, including the parameters of the project, desired deadlines for completion, payment and delivery terms, and content ownership. Freelance copywriters often require a 50% deposit on all work, with full payment due upon project completion in order to release copyright ownership of the content or creative concepts that they develop for you. After signing the agreement, it is VERY IMPORTANT to ask for sample pages to be written AT THE BEGINNING OF THE PROJECT. It's important to do this early in order to come to a consensus about the tone, style and direction that they are taking for your project. Reviewing content toward the middle or end is asking for an expensive re-write if everyone is not in agreement at the beginning.
7. MANAGEMENT. Hiring a Freelance Copywriter versus managing one when you do not have the requisite marketing or creative skills can be a recipe for trouble. It's like trying to direct the development of Mount Rushmore when you've just graduated from building sandcastles. Most freelance copywriters will be willing to take some amateur motivations at first, but over the long haul you may kill the creative process, and the relationship to boot, if you inject yourself too far into the process or become unrelenting in your demands beyond the initial consensus on tone and direction. The quickest way around this is to stick to a Creative Brief, and back off. Realize that the person you've hired is much like an artist who has been commissioned to paint a picture, so there can be tremendous pressure on their end. Your focus should be on results, and not for chiming-in three times daily to hear yourself talk. In other words, too much direction and micro-managing on the front end may create an unnecessary distraction which can thwart their ambition and creativity, and may ultimately give you an incomplete pile of rubbish, throwing you back to square one in no time flat when you realize that you've mangled a perfectly good assignment.
GETTING TO THE WHY.
Some who are reading this undoubtedly have a dilemma regarding a creative project that needs to be completed. Some have short-term needs that may only last a few hours to a few days, while others are looking for long-term commitments or full-time hires who will be around for a year or more. Probably the best motivator for hiring a freelance copywriter revolves around the issue of getting specialized talent for your industry coupled with a working relationship that does a better job of maximizing creativity and inspiration for otherwise stale roles or industries that are lacking nuances in marketing which otherwise makes it difficult or next to impossible to hire a copywriter on a full-time basis. If you're having difficulty finding a copywriter who will commit to a full-time role, there's a good chance that they find your company or your industry to be lacking in growth or inspiration.
Many of the best copywriters in the business are only available on a freelance basis because they prefer unrestrained environments that give them the utmost in flexibility to help nurture and enhance their creativity and where they can find more variety in working with multiple clients. That means no boss, no commute, and a daily structure that is self-defined. Secondly, some companies lack adequate talent because it contains an organizational culture or industry that doesn't enable them to strut their stuff and do amazing work. Examples of such industries include: Legal, Finance, Technology, Science, Engineering, Health care, Real Estate, Furniture, Retail Automotive, Event Promotions, and even eCommerce all have issues that keep many copywriters from making long-term commitments without significant perks attached. The best and easiest way around this is to hire a freelance copywriter.
As our economy continues to become more global, many companies are also hiring freelance copywriters from outside their geographical area. As many copywriters prefer to work remotely as a way to maintain continuity of their environment, the change of attitudes toward off-site work and tele-commuting, especially for long-term engagements, is growing by leaps and bounds, and is beneficial to both parties.
Clients who insist that freelance copywriters work on-site are asking for a higher invoice based on a day or weekly rate, rather than by the hour or project. It's erroneous to ask for on-site help when meetings and communication can be handled by phone, e-mail, Skype video chat, GotoMeeting, and with project management programs such as BaseCamp to help manage the ongoing details of projects. Popularity of higher resolution USB-compatible video cameras is also contributing to the growing trend of video conferencing for national and international clients.
Bottom line: Unless you're known for a stellar culture, offer compelling perks, and exist in a visible, high-growth industry, AND that you're involving them in continuous on-site sales routines and new business development, it's best to hire a freelance copywriter, and leave them to choose their desired work arrangements, leaving you to focus on your core business and the results of their work, not on their presence.
Following these steps should help you make the most of every project when working with a Freelance Copywriter. To learn more, visit my web site at: http://www.freelancecopywriter.us