Okay, Misguided Client, It’s Your Funeral

“First, do no harm,” is a phrase commonly associated with a physician’s commitment to the patient. Copywriters, too, should stick by this rule.

So here’s an ethical dilemma for you: As a copywriter, what do you do when a client requests or, worse yet, insists that you do something not in her interest?

Here’s a good example: A few years ago, I had a client who was convinced that the key to SEO success was to jam each page with a lot of words. At least 700 words per page (~12 paragraphs), to be exact. That’s two to three times the amount of copy we generally aim for.

When she set that target, I immediately pushed back: “It’s overkill. It makes for a crappy user experience. There’s no way people will read to the bottom of the page. And what about mobile users? All this copy will be a nightmare for them. Besides, this doesn’t even help with SEO!”

But the client was undeterred. She had read somewhere that 700 words was the magic number for SEO nirvana. End of story.

So I gritted my teeth and started writing. It was painful. For most pages, I struggled mightily to come up with 700 words to say about the topic. As a result, I had to ignore everything I had learned about copywriting simply to fill space. Short sentences became long. Meaningless phrases stayed in. Points were repeated mercilessly.

In the end, the client got what she unwittingly wanted: a terrible website that probably hasn’t closed one sale in three years.

Yes, I’m still bitter about this.

But really, what else could I have done? I could have quit the project, but that wouldn’t have been fair to the client. I could have spent even more time pleading my case, but I didn’t have the time or energy to do that.

Instead I sucked it up. Because once I sign a contract, I’m at the client’s bidding. True, it’s my Hippocratic duty to do no harm — and to try to steer the client in the right direction when she’s about to head off a cliff. And most of the time, clients do heed my advice.

If, however, a future client chooses to override my professional judgment? I’ll just suck it up once again and pray the project ends as quickly and painlessly as possible.

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3 replies
  1. Jeremy Kriegel says:

    That’s all you can do, offer your advice. If a client chooses not to take it, well, that’s their problem. It’s not like you’re sawing of a leg… 

  2. Genevieve says:

    That’s a hard one, Dan. My feeling is, if the money is THAT good, then suck it up (as you did) and just never put the work in your portfolio. If the money is meh, I tend to walk away. It’s sometimes not worth the aggro, and I find these kinds of clients tend to never be happy.

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