I've been studying copywriting and writing for clients for 25 years. In that time, I've seen some bad things I want to share with you...and I've evolved in my point of view about the subject. You should see that evolution in thinking, too. It'll save you a lot of frustration and probably some money.
The Main Thing Wrong With Copywriting
The main problem with copywriting is caused by two factors: the buyer and the seller. You ought to laugh because those are the key factors that cause problems in all poorly-accomplished sales, but I'm deadly serious here. Both parties come into the arrangement with utter misunderstandings of what's going to happen.
The buyer (usually a business owner or marketing manager) believes they are getting a magic bullet that will "get me more customers."
The seller (the writer) believes they are hot stuff and will "get you more customers."
That's where I was, from my start in 1995 through some time in 2012.
And I wasn't wrong. Not exactly. I mean, my copy is a heck of a lot better than what's typically on somebody's sales page or in their letter. So its performance is sure to be superior.
"What do you think of a person who only does the bare minimum?" Office Space, 1999: Fair Use
So Where's The Problem?
Just one problem: Traffic.
See, copy is about Conversion. That's the second piece of the money equation. And without Traffic, ie. eyeballs sent to view the conversion tool, the copy doesn't have much of a chance of accomplishing anything.
In the early days I would take on a job because somebody asked, I liked the topic, and they waved money in my direction. This is where most writers are at and what the market is used to.
On the buying side, the business owners and marketing managers are accustomed to this arrangement. "I need to get more customers," they say to themselves, and hire a writer. But they miss the fact that a good, steady, pre-qualified traffic source needs to be hooked up to that shiny new conversion tool...or there's no chance of success. And the writer, happy to be paid for their work, doesn't ask.
What Does This Misunderstanding Lead To?
This state of mutual mystification leads to what I call the "Throw The Copy Over The Wall And Run" approach to copywriting.
The buyer, believing copywriting is a commodity service, makes a low investment in the new conversion tool.
The seller, despite supposedly being an expert on positioning and persuasion, doesn't know what else to do when selling their services and accepts.
Can you read between the lines here and get a feel for the level of commitment to the project from both sides?
The buyer is expecting a magic return on a low investment: they're playing the lottery.
The seller has no motivation to stick around and work that project into something powerful: sure, they'll put their best effort into the draft they submit, but why should they continue to work on a project they haven't been paid much for?
Thus the writer does a little Q&A, some research, cranks out the copy in the fastest possible time, and throws it over the wall to the buyer.
"So long! Good luck!" comes their over-the-shoulder call as they run away in search of the next client.
And why shouldn't they?
What Needs To Change With Copywriting
The buyer hasn't made much of a commitment. As a result, neither has the seller. (I'm reminded of the quote from Office Space: "What do you think of a person who only does the bare minimum?" This applies to both parties.)
This right here is what's wrong with copywriting. Lack of commitment to a specific, measurable outcome.
I was conducting an audio interview of a fellow writer who was doing better than I was—he was getting into better business arrangements than I was, and works in niches I don't touch, too; maybe I should learn from that heh heh—some years back when I heard him say something that confirmed a concept that I'd understood for awhile but hadn't clearly articulated:
The buyer must demonstrate commitment to solving the problem and getting to a specific outcome.
In doing so, a good writer will recognize this commitment, and match it with their own effort.
In plain terms, what I already knew was that the first effort of a writer is likely to either fail or not be the best achievable result. That if the writer could stick around for just one, two, or three more iterations of the copy, the performance could be increased dramatically.
But What's Really Happening With Copywriting?
But what was happening? In reality, you know what has been going on. The buyer tries to hire for the lowest possible price; the seller, having little commitment, gives their best effort within the short period they can afford to give the project their attention, then moves on.
Over the wall and run.
Both get ONE chance to get it right.
And, if you've been reading carefully, you'll have noticed neither understands the nature of the money equation. That you need both Traffic AND Conversion to make it work. Writing alone doesn't accomplish anything.
The buyer believes that new copy alone will do the job.
The seller has tunnel vision and the cocksure belief that their copy is a moneymaker.
But where is the traffic?
Whether You're Hiring or Writing, Start Asking This Question
This is why my first question to prospective clients is: "Do you have a solid pre-qualified traffic source ready to go?"
If the answer is "Uh, I haven't thought about that..." or "My Facebook ads guy will figure that out," or "I'll be hiring a launch manager and they'll do that," it's an instant No from me.
I will not risk my reputation on an unproven idea.
I will not risk my reputation on a project without a good traffic source.
I will not risk my reputation on a client who can't afford traffic.
These issues appear frequently. Too frequently.
The business owner gets frustrated. I'm sure they go hire some low-priced writer after I tell them No, and are happy with the copy they get. After all, it's like having a template writer redo your resume: you get that "new car smell" for awhile. But not long after, when you don't have any traffic and nobody sees the thing, you discover it isn't worth very much.
The Dumb Arrangement That Makes Buyers and Writers Mad At Each Other
Buyers will get mad at writers at this point. And the writers may respond by getting mad back at them. But the outcome of the copy is not the writer's doing. Both bear responsibility for getting into a dumb arrangement: frankly, the copy didn't get enough views to determine whether it's any good or not.
What buyers and sellers need to do in the world of copywriting is to commit to a longer term relationship. Longer than the first draft the writer throws over the wall.
I have seen so many newbies over the years set up a funnel, put all the pieces in place, and then be shocked when something doesn't work.
The funnel breaks at every turn! The ads don't convert and you have to fix them. Then the opt-in page doesn't work well and you have to fix that. Then the email sequence doesn't persuade the readers to visit the sales page. You have to fix those. Then the sales page doesn't turn visitors into buyers...and you have to fix that.
The funnel falls down at every stage. Success requires both the buyer and the seller to stick around: for the business owner and the writer to commit to an outcome. Agree at the start what the statistics will be for a successful result, and commit getting there. This means the buyer has to invest in the seller so that the seller can invest in the iterative work.
The Change That Needs To Be Made In Copywriting
The writer can no longer throw the copy over the wall and run. They have to stick around. And the owner has to make it worth their while.
As a writer, this is the very reason you must get out of the scrape-and-chase mode. If you're always on the hunt for the next low budget client because you have to survive, you can never make this kind of commitment (buyers, are you paying attention?).
Up front fees are not the only solution. Royalties or a percentage of gross are other options—but, business owners, the writer has to TRUST YOU. Work on that.
This is what's wrong with copywriting. A basic misunderstanding of the nature of the work, what outcome will result, and what is required to succeed.
Needed and typically missing: a pre-qualified traffic source with sufficient quantity to reach the revenue goal.
Needed and typically missing: commitment by both sides to adjustment of the process until the goal is reached.
Let's get rid of the "Throw the copy over the wall and run" approach and fix what's wrong with copywriting. Please. Writers, will you commit to ensuring both factors above that have been missing are present in projects going forward? Those hiring writers, will you commit to the straightforward changes to hiring and making use of copywriters so that we can all work together on making the money you desire?
Update To The Original 2017 Post
In the five years since this post was first written my perception is that things have gotten better for those with experience, and worse for the newbies.
Experienced product creators and writers who have been the online marketing field for this period have in general figured out what's wrong with copywriting. Most know they need to proceed with a commitment to targeted results. The days of "shoot your shot, copywriter, and let's hope for the best" are gone for them.
But those lacking experience seem to be in an even worse position than newbies of a half-decade ago. The marketplace is much more crowded as internet marketing has moved from a weird thing a relatively small number of people engage in to a more mainstream, heavily marketed "make money online" opportunity. As more writers and more product creators move into the marketplace, both lack discernment and do not look for or learn the lessons of the past. As a reality check I recommend you share this post with those you know.
>> Jason Kanigan is a business strategist and copywriter. Book a call with Jason to discuss your project. <<