The #1 Mistake Copywriters Make — Especially the Really Great Copywriters

Photo Credit: Pascal

Photo Credit: Pascal

What’s the biggest, most common, most job-eliminating mistake copywriters make? It’s not bad writing. In fact, the better the copywriter, the more likely he or she is to make this mistake.

Answer: It’s not getting to know the audience.

But wait, you’re thinking: In this age of content marketing, doesn’t everyone know how critical it is to spend time understanding the psychology of the target consumer? Creating personas and all that? Of course. Or they should anyway. And in my next blog I’ll get into this, including some shortcuts for getting to know your audience when the timetable and budget for research are crunched.

But in all this talk about “audience,” it’s easy to forget that the no. 1 audience you have to make happy is the one paying your invoice. I’m talking about the client. Your client.

The good news is that getting to know this audience doesn’t require extensive research or expensive focus groups. You don’t need to create a single “buyer persona.” Think of it more like dating. If your date were paying you. (Wait a second …)

Here are three tips to live by:

Tip #1: Your job is not to write great copy. Your job is to write great copy, in your client’s opinion.

Here’s the harsh reality: You are not an artist free to answer to your own creative muse. You are a hired pen. (Hey! That would be a great name for a company!) And you can create the most astonishingly inspired copy — copy you just know is going to make those performance shoes/productivity app/locally sourced coffee fly off the shelves. But unless your client agrees, it won’t see the light of day.

In good relationships, the client trusts you to do your job and takes a more or less hand’s-off approach. But you know how all good relationships start? By getting to know each other. And that builds trust. So when you come to them and say, “Hey, you know what guys? I understand you want your customers to be excited, but I’m not sure adding an exclamation mark at the end of every sentence is the right way to make that happen. How about we XYZ instead?” They’ll actually listen to you. And if they don’t agree? Well, this brings us to tip #2.

Tip #2: Get to know them before you start writing (and before you sign the contract).

In a previous blog, I mentioned a branding worksheet we use with new clients. While it was designed as a way for us to quickly get up to speed on their business and their target customer, it’s turned into a great bellwether for our relationship with them.

In a perfect world, clients will be interested in the process and give thoughtful, intelligent answers in a timely manner. If this is the case, your chances of having a happy working relationship with them are high. But here are some red flags we see — and how to adjust expectations and contracts accordingly.

Do they take forever to fill out your simple, 10-question worksheet? Better build a few more days (or weeks) into the project timeline.

Does each stakeholder give completely different answers to the same question? Sounds like you’ll need to do some upfront work to get everyone on the same page before you start writing. Or if there is a clear “alpha dog,” just tune everyone else out.

Do they act put out that they have to do any work at all? This is a tricky one. It could mean they’re slammed and trust you to do your thing. Or they could be like my four-year-old at bedtime: a giant grouch bomb who is impossible to please. You need to do a little more digging here. If it’s the latter, you might want to walk away now.

Tip #3: Seriously, remember: Your job is not to write great copy. Your job is to write great copy, in your client’s opinion.

Here’s a recent conversation I had with one of our writers:

HP WRITER, clearly frustrated: Got my draft back from the client. She didn’t make any changes … except to put about every other word in ALL CAPS.

ME, laughing: Okay, well, let’s try to talk her out of that.

I’ll quickly interject here and say that 99.9% of our clients would NEVER do this. (Yes, I see what I just did there.) And we probably should have paid more attention to some aforementioned red flags early on and realized this client just wasn’t a good match. But we didn’t. So now what?

Here’s the rule I use: If a client wants to do something that I think is a really bad idea, I feel I owe it to them — as the professional writer in the relationship — to give some respectful pushback. If I really disagree, I push back two or even three times.

ME, to client: I know it SEEMS like putting words in all caps makes them stand out and get noticed, but your audience is going to just feel like you’re shouting at them.

CLIENT: But you just did it right there with SEEMS.

ME: It’s different when I do it.

CLIENT: Hypocrite.

This isn’t the real conversation, and luckily with some gentle persuasion we convinced the client to see things our way. But if she continued to insist you know what I would have done? KEEP THE CAPS. Because you know what? It’s ultimately the client’s call. And once you’ve said your peace, you have to just give them what they want. It’s the right thing to do.

Because I’m not kidding about this: Your job is not to write great copy. Your job is to write great copy, in your client’s opinion.

If you’re really unhappy with the final product, just don’t use it in your portfolio. And if you’re really unhappy with the client? Don’t work with them again.

But it’s also important not to be arrogant. Consider that you might be wrong. That they might know what their audience will respond to better than you. Even if it’s not true, it will help you sleep better at night.

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