I remember being hired a few years ago by a company that wanted copy for their website and various landing pages.
The product was good, lots of enthusiasm behind the scenes and even though they were relatively new, the product and systems seemed pretty well-established.
I don’t normally work with new companies because I find most will change their messaging within a few months of operating and it’s really not worth hiring a copywriter in this instance.
Talking to the founding partners I outlined the copywriting process for each piece of copy I was assigned to write:
- Research phase
- Submission of an outline with approval
- First draft and feedback
- One round of light revisions
- Final copy submission
This was approved and I looked forward to researching the audience, and creating the copy.
The research went well.
The outline was approved.
The first draft and revisions were implemented.
Enter the (expensive) committee
The copy went to the design and development team to build the landing page around the story being told in the copy.
Now, for this project I was charging an hourly rate which I rarely do for copywriting unless there is a degree of complexity to the copy, or I’m working more closely with a client on a wider copywriting and content strategy.
Thankfully my gut instinct told me that even though the brief was a straight-forward copywriting project, there may be additional requests or questions that could easily zap the profit from a fixed-fee project.
And even though the copy had been signed-off, once the wider-company members saw the mock-up of the page, there was a deluge of feedback, input and ideas.
I remember sitting in on one conference call as several people from HR, sales, design and even finance made suggestions about how they would ‘word’ a sentence of copy.
Half an hour passed as they each took a turn:
“Or maybe you could say something like: how to be more effective in your.. or maybe, get more done without… I mean, I don’t really know, I’m not a copywriter, I just feel like the copy could be… doing more”
“What about if we change ‘structure’ to ‘process…” I mean, I don’t know, something more representative of the fact we’re a global system…”
Opinions poured in about the best narrative and whether or not writing copy to a specific target market would fall foul of Equal Opportunity and Diversity Guidelines:
“I mean really… we should be talking to everyone”.
Which of course you know is bananas, and goes against the first rule of copywriting.
As a good copywriter you should be able to justify every line you write. Which I did. I explained the psychology behind it, the studies that suggested why certain persuasive elements were included.
Still the opinions came. Many from people who were not involved in the early research sessions.
Finally I was asked to incorporate some of the opinions in changes.
I made it clear that these were my recommendations but if they wanted changes made I could do them (this was a few years back, it wouldn’t happen like this today.)
It went back and forth like this for months.
Months to get a handful of landing pages and web copy approved.
I thanked my gut instinct for charging hourly, but it was frustrating. It was an ineffective way of working not just for writing copy but for the business as a whole.
A good plan violently executed now is better than a perfect plan executed next week – George S. Patton
Exactly Mr. Patton.
This business could have had that copy released much sooner, tested and optimised for their audience in the same time it took to get a first run at it released.
Copywriters WANT input – at the right time
I’m a sponge when it comes to writing copy. I will read the textbooks my industry clients have written. I will use the product, I will pour over tech sheets, attend a customer’s workshops and events. I will talk to customers, to product development, sales, customer service… I want to know the business as if it’s my own.
But I want this information BEFORE I start writing.
There’s no point getting valuable input AFTER the copy has been signed off.
Otherwise you end up in a never-ending loop of infinite opinions and changes and a copy job that is a mush of different voices, styles and angles.
It’s mongrel copy. Which is nowhere near as cute as an actual mongrel.
Don’t ask for an extra room after the house is built
Builder: Here, I’ve built your house
Homeowner: Oh, wow, after 6 months I can’t wait to move in!
Builder: Great, here are the keys
Homeowner: Oh thanks. So, if you could just put in a couple more windows there, and then maybe tack on another room on the second floor, I think that would be really good!
Builder: Jog on love. What do you think this is, Subway? You can’t just sling pickle and sauce on once the sandwich is done.
If you are hiring a copywriter, don’t think that it is an eternally fluid service that can and will incorporate every whim and change as they crop up in a meeting room.
Well, it can be but you will get smushed together copy and (if your copywriter charges hourly) at a very high cost.
So, as a company, what can you do?
If you are a company with lots of moving parts, or a degree of uncertainty around future developments (releasing new products etc) you can still work effectively with a copywriter. Here is what I would recommend:
Assign ONE person to sign-off copy and and give feedback
I always ask for one key person to work alongside. This stops a copywriter having to defend, justify or turn down the opinions of many. It’s much more effective to have someone who understands the business and marketing to discuss requested changes and to consider any justification the copywriter has for why the copy is written in a particular way.
Publicise deadlines for feedback / input
If others in the company want to be involved in the copy process, there should be clear deadlines for them to either produce input (during the research phase) or feedback in the feedback phase. This encourages people to really think about what their opinion is, why, and make the effort to submit it by a set date.
It also stops people throwing a spanner in the works later on and saying “I don’t know, I just don’t like the word [insert any word from the dictionary, there will be someone who does not like that word]”.
Know that things can be changed and the biggest feedback should be from your audience
I once had a client ask me to rewrite a white-paper aimed at small business owners. The original wasn’t working or getting much interest. It was a very dry, data-driven piece without much analysis or insight aimed at business owners.
I rewrote it and they were unhappy with the draft.
“We tested it on people in the company and they said they preferred the original version”
I asked them who they had sent it to.
Our team of academics and lecturers
Can you see the problem?
People LOVE giving feedback, and if you ask for it, you will get it. But remember, the sooner you can get copy out to your audience and test actual behaviour and feedback from people who might actually buy your service or product, the better.
Don’t get sucked into the never-ending loop of feedback tweaks.
I once dated someone for 3 years who had been writing a book for 7 years. That was 12 years ago. I can pretty much guarantee he is still working on that book.
Don’t be the company with a perfect manuscript constantly being tweaked. Get the best from your copywriter, respect the reason you hired them in the first place and get your copy out there into the big wide world.
Got questions? Want to swap war-stories? Let me know in the comments below!
Jaqui Lane says
Amy, your post had me laughing. As as business historian/writer I’ve been in and seen this before. It’s interesting that it’s often the shorter pieces that are the most problematic. I’ve just written a whole book with hardly any changes from the client (good brief of course helps). The I was asked to do a short piece of around 80 words. NIGHTMARE. Standing back, and laughing with the client about it later we realised the issue. He wasn’t clear on his thoughts and the process actually got him there…that’s not a writing project, that’s thought-management! Hey, there’s a new angle. Thanks for sharing. One thing I’d add is make sure you have a style guide for words, titles, company references etc. Copywriters can waste hours on this…and everyone in the company suddenly becomes an instant expert on what is acceptable,
Amy Harrison says
I completely understand the difficulty of getting a shorter piece – less words to review which means each one gets more than it’s fair share of scrutiny (and opinion).
Funnily enough, I have worked with business owners in the past where the writing process was needed for them to actually realise what it was they wanted to offer and who it was for. They hadn’t got that far down the process, they just figured they needed ‘great copy.’ I’ve changed my boarding process since then to make sure people are clear about what they want at the start.
And yes to the style guide – am currently helping another client develop one to help with their internal copywriting process.
Thanks for commenting!
How do you avoid “writing by committee” with clients
Amy Harrison says
Hey Saqwan – I firmly believe in the points under “So as a company what can you do” – encourage your clients to use those processes and it will definitely help.
Sounds familiar to me. I once had a client from the publishing industry. The marketing manager liked my landing page, but he had to ask for the permission of the product manager, the Head of Marketing and the CEO. And of course they all had something to say, which made the whole process really painful. The problem with executive managers is that they think just saying “That’s okay for me” is a sign of weakness and a lack of expertise. But actually it is the opposite: It would be a sign of excellence to say: “You are the copy writer, you know much more about copy than me, so I trust you”.
Amy Harrison says
I definitely understand the weakness point of view. Usually the person with the most to say is the one that feels most threatened within the committee. And it’s easier to voice an objection than to sign something off and put your name to it.
My favourite clients to work with are the ones who trust I’m not just sitting their writing on a whim and whatever takes my fancy. They know I’m picking a specific structure, narrative and selling points for a reason. That’s why they hired me.
For some reason writing is subjected to more input. I would love to say to my accountant “I don’t think I like that number, maybe we could have something better?” But I’m pretty sure she’d look at me as though I were nuts. 🙂
Jessie Kwak says
I’m going through this *right now.* I’ve been freelancing for a few years, but I just started working with a local agency who was asked to help “clean up” a white paper another company started. I’ve probably done six drafts in the past two weeks, each followed by a committee review call…. and each followed by another list of requests that easily could have been addressed in the previous review call.
Today a member of the client’s team admitted she hadn’t read yesterday’s changes before the call, and proceeded to read them while we waited, giving her notes as she went along. (This is not the first time they haven’t actually read the new draft before the call.) I understand that the client’s team are all super busy, but I wonder if that’s mostly because of how inefficiently they use their time….
Like you, I’m very happy I’m charging by the hour here — but very frustrated that I’m not in a position to put my foot down! When I’m working one-on-one with clients I’m much more clear about expectations ahead of time.
Anyway, thanks for the opportunity to share a war story — I obviously needed to vent. 🙂
Amy Harrison says
Ahhh – Jessie. I feel for you!
I have on the rare occasion have someone come to a meeting without reading the copy, and to give feedback as they see it for the first time. It’s a terrible idea! And usually the points they bring up aren’t taken in context of seeing the copy as a whole piece, but rather line-by-line and you end up saying:
“Yes, that’s included in the next page / line / paragraph etc” a lot
Writing copy by committee is very inefficient, but I understand why people do it – there’s safety in numbers. Asking for one point of contact and sign-off will generate much better results, but not everyone wants that role of being the person who approved the copy.
Unfortunately, this is just one of the reasons why a lot of marketing copy is bland, vanilla and safe (I’m not suggesting your work will be – they’re lucky to have you fighting their copy corner)!
Keep your chin up, stand by your recommendations and if all else fails, keep an eye on that timer for your hours 😉