6 Mistakes Clients Make that Screw the Client / Copywriter Relationship

avoid frustration with these tips for working with a freelance copywriterPost 2008 recession, I find that more and more I am contacted by companies that either don’t have a marketing person or department, or that have a marketing person isn’t very well qualified to do their job. Although this makes sense, since marketing departments and jobs are often the first to go when economic times turn tough and companies are doing more with less when it comes to marketing departments, it has made my job as a freelance copywriter harder to do.

Pre-recession, I used to work primarily with people who knew what they were doing. They were marketers, and they would have a clear understanding of their target audiences, their goals for each project, the pain points they could solve for their customers, their brand, and so on. This information is imperative in order for a freelance copywriter to do a good job. In addition, these experienced marketers knew (and know!) how copywriting works, the give and take of it, the feedback and revision cycles required to get copy “right.” (Read four tips for working with a freelance copywriter for examples of how it should work.)

But many of the people reaching out to me as a freelance copywriter these days lack any of this knowledge, which is making my job hard to do and leading to unhappy clients.

So I thought I’d put together a little primer since the aftershocks of 2008 seem as if they might never go away and my world—and that of other freelancers—is likely going to continue to offer up its share of folks who don’t know marketing or how to work with a freelance copywriter.

Below are the mistakes prospects and clients are making, that are making for bad feelings on both sides. Why should you as a client want to know this information? Because you hate wasting time as much as a freelance copywriter hates having her time wasted. If you can avoid making these mistakes and have a better understanding of how copywriting works, you are much more likely to either skip the professional copywriter altogether—saving both of you from headaches—or learn how the process works so you can get the results you want…and still like your copywriter when you’re done.

Mistake 1: Not knowing what a freelance copywriter does
A freelance copywriter does not work in a vacuum. He or she does not come up with fabulous sounding Madison Avenue copy or sensational sound bites out of thin air. A freelance copywriter takes the client’s needs, goals and audiences into account to carefully craft copy that has a purpose, usually to get a prospect to take some kind of action. And that takes some client input, some brains and some time to do. I like to joke that the actual copywriting is only 10% of what I do. The other 90% is wrapping my head around audiences, customer needs, competitive advantages, voice, tone, purpose, goals, calls to action, and much more. It’s important to understand all that goes into good copy before you hire someone to do it!

Mistake 2: Going for the cheapest copywriter
It’s not a cliché. It’s true: You really do get what you pay for, even when you’re hiring a copywriter. A few weeks ago I had a conversation with a prospect who said his company had been through 10 to 12 copywriters over the past several years, and they had yet to find one that was willing to do any research, meet deadlines or submit clean copy. At first I was aghast, but then I found out they were looking for these copywriters at all of the cheapest places and paying bottom dollar for them. Folks, for good copy, pay good money, okay? Those websites offering you cheap freelance copywriters aren’t vetted to offer you the cream of the crop. The copywriters who charge more money do so because they have a proven track record and years of experience. If you like gambling, go cheap. If you want good copy, go real.

Mistake 3: Not understanding the process
Continuing on with the story started above, this prospect decided to do a trial run project with me to see if I could finally be the reliable freelance copywriter they’d been looking for. They gave me five pages of existing (and really bad) web content and asked me to weave in some additional messages. I agreed to do it for an editing rate, since I figured it would be like editing, and it was a tiny project, only 3 hours or so, and a “trial run” that I thought would lead to more work. I did what was requested and quite honestly more because the content I was given was horrendous. I then submitted it—clean and on time—and asked if that was what they wanted, fully expecting to hear either yes or no, and if no, learning what else they wanted. No reply. The next day, I asked again. No reply. The third day I got an email saying it wasn’t what they wanted, they wanted more, and good bye.

Now, this is supposed to be a marketing agency I am working with, and they had no clue of the process of working with a freelance copywriter. First off, they gave directions that I followed to a tee. I thought they needed more, so I did more without being asked to do so, but I didn’t do a lot because I wasn’t instructed to. Secondly, they knew nothing about marketing. They couldn’t answer any of my questions about the existing copy. Third, they obviously had no clue about the back and forth, give and take of the copywriting process. Not that one always needs that revision cycle. Once a copywriter knows a client well, revisions become tiny word changes here and there. But in the beginning, getting-to-know-you stages, there is some back and forth. If you think a copywriter is going to give you perfect copy the first time when you’re a brand new client, you’re probably wrong—especially if you didn’t really tell her what you wanted in the first place.

Mistake 4: Not being clear on what you want and expect
The story I just told is sadly not an isolated incident. I have had this happen three times now in the past year, and each time it has happened when I did work for a non-marketer, and each time the client wasn’t clear. To avoid being disappointed in your freelance copywriter, you have to be crystal clear in your expectations of her and what you’re trying to accomplish. Even with all of the questions I try to ask of new clients—and about new projects—I still wasn’t able to figure out what people wanted in all three situations. I thought I knew. But I got the sense all three times that it was a test, and that if I was a reeeeeally good copywriter, I’d figure out what they wanted without them having to explain what that was.

Mistake 5: Rushing the copywriter
Freelance copywriters like me usually make a living by juggling lots of clients, not one or two (as much as we would like that!). That makes rush projects really hard to do, because it’s not as if the copywriter is busy with something else and can drop everything to do the project that has suddenly become a fire drill for you. To have success with a freelance copywriter, take into account that he or she has other clients and projects ahead of yours.

Mistake 6: Not realizing due dates exist for a reason
In the 15 years I’ve been a freelancer copywriter, I’ve probably missed a deadline maybe half a dozen times, and usually for good reason, like illness. Yet the inexperienced marketers don’t seem to realize that the onus is on them to meet their deadlines too. When I start on a project, I assign due dates for both me and the client, so the client knows when I need feedback by in order to stay on schedule. Ignoring those due dates means that project will suddenly become a rush, and that’s no good. (See Mistake 5.) I always ask the clients to review the schedule and make sure it will work for them. They usually say yes. But then the non-marketers act as if they never saw it.

Now, don’t think all I have is these kinds of difficult situations. I am blessed by many wonderful, wonderful clients whom I just adore and I love working for. I thank God every day that I can work with such professional, smart people who make my job challenging in a very fun and rewarding way. And I am not against the non-marketing folks who need copy. Quite the opposite: I want them to learn how to work with a freelance copywriter so they get what they need and everyone is happy.

But today’s latest slap in the face from a non-marketer who committed the mistakes above but put the blame on me had me in tears of frustration, and I thought it was time someone said something. It’s in that spirit that I write this post, to bridge the gap between client and copywriter, so everyone wins.

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