Attention copywriting clients: Here’s what your copywriter needs from you…

September 16, 2009 •

When you have a pool built, you don’t simply point to your backyard and say, “Put a pool there!” (Believe me, I know!) You have to spend quite a bit of time telling your pool builder what shape you want, what style, what construction, what size. You have to discuss depth, lining, tiling, lighting, steps, ledges, chlorination, heating, cleaning, blankets, fencing, paving, levels, retaining, drainage, and so on.

How else will your pool builder know what you need?

It’s completely natural. You’re having something very complex and valuable created; of course you have to invest some time explaining it. My pool isn’t yet even a hole in the ground, and I’ve already spent 3 hours talking with the pool builder, and at least another 10 discussing the pool with my wife and my father-in-law.

Copywriting is like pool building. It’s complex, time-consuming and dependent on a myriad of factors. The more your copywriter knows about you, your goals, your site, your customers, their goals, their problems and your competition, the better your copy will be.

So why are people surprised when I ask them a lot of questions?

Mostly, I think, it’s because they haven’t engaged a professional copywriter before. So they haven’t really considered all the ins and outs. But sometimes, I think it’s because they underestimate the complexity of copy, and the depth of understanding required to make it effective. Worse still, there’s a small percentage of clients out there who think copywriters are merely glorified typists. (I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve heard a prospect say, “I’d write the copy myself, but I just don’t have the time.” Funny! Imagine if I said that to my pool builder: “I could dig a hole and fill it with water, but I just don’t have the time.”)

Anyway, I digress. My point is, if you want your copy written professionally, and you want it to be effective, your copywriter will need a little more from you than just a deposit and a deadline.

Below are the questions I typically ask my clients before writing their web copy. They take quite a bit of time to answer, but it’s unavoidable, I’m afraid.

Questions relevant to the entire site

  1. What is the objective of this copy?
  2. What do you do?
  3. Describe your brand. (e.g. Try to assign a personality to it.)
  4. What is the call to action (i.e. what do you want the reader to do immediately after reading? Call you? Email you? etc.)
  5. Who is your typical reader (e.g. brain surgeon, male, 30-45, professional, affluent, physically active)?
  6. What problem / need / situation has caused the reader to read this copy?
  7. What is the reader’s current opinion of your company / offering? (e.g. Unaware / suspicious / loyal customer / indifferent)
  8. Do you know of any barriers to sale / conversion ? (Reasons the reader might decide NOT to buy from you.)
  9. How would your reader achieve their objectives without your offering? (e.g. “Without our software, they’d be required to print all of their forms, hand-write on them, get the customer to sign them, then scan the document, and manually file on the network. Our software automates this entire process and saves $1 on every document.”)
  10. What are your overriding / strongest or most unique selling points?
  11. What makes your delivery of this product / service better than your competitors’?
  12. How long have you been in business?
  13. Why should readers trust you?
  14. Do you have a particular tone or style in mind for your copy (e.g. Informal, funny, conservative, formal)?
  15. Can you refer to anything in my portfolio (www.divinewrite.com/portfolio.htm) that is written in the style that you would like applied to your copy?
  16. Can you supply links to other copy that is written in the style you would like me to apply to your copy?
  17. What do you NOT want to see in your copy?

Questions my clients have to answer once for EACH PAGE

  1. What point / claims do you want to make on this page?
  2. Please provide detail and background information that validates this claim (you can type them here or link to or email them).
  3. Any other details you want to include?
  4. Do you have any relevant existing copy I can refer to?
  5. Primary Keyword Phrase for this page (for SEO)
  6. Secondary Keywords for this page (for SEO)

And, depending on the client’s offering, I’ll often ask questions 4 through 11 again for each page. (If I expect the answers will be different. E.g. The client offers a wide variety of complex services, and each service targets a different audience.)

Conclusion

It’s unfortunate, but if you want your copy to be effective, you have to invest some time. No one in the world is better qualified than you to answer the above questions. I’m certainly not. Sure, I have plenty of experience writing for just about every type of product and service out there. But that’s only enough to supplement your answers. It’s no substitute.

Feel free to comment...
comment avatar
Krissy wrote on September 16th, 2009

Great post as always! I'm constantly surprised by clients who get annoyed with the questions I ask prior to beginning a project - I like to be thorough but sometimes I feel like they just want me to write whatever!

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Dean at Pro Copy Tips wrote on September 16th, 2009

Good advice. I've been writing copy for a long time, and I've learned that if you're not specific about what the client wants, you can end up going round and round with revisions. The biggest problem I have is when a client wants me to hurry up and write the copy but then trickles information to me causing endless rewrites. Explaining this to clients can be tricky. Say too much, and you sound like a complainer. Say too little, and you're inviting trouble.

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Karri Flatla wrote on September 16th, 2009

You could always do what I do, Glenn ... put their head in a vice. (See my recent post as reference ) Also, thank you for sharing points #18-24. It would appear I've in fact been too easy on my clients, vice 'n all ;) @ Dean I feel your pain. Which is why I recently initiated the "flat fee including one round of revisions" rule. Momentum is an important part of the copywriting process and this is lost when the client thinks there should be 2 writers on the team instead of 1. Karri

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Rob McGuire wrote on September 16th, 2009

Good point. While I don't write copy for a living, I do build blogs and websites and I'm often taken back when a prospective client asks, "How much to build a website?" without providing any other information. There is a lot of information that is needed to do such a thing, just as there is a lot of information needed to write effective copy. Asking the above question is just like asking a contractor, "How much to build a house?" Without more information the question just can't be answered accurately.

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Charles Cuninghame wrote on September 17th, 2009

Hey Glenn, I'm curious about a couple of things: 1. How do you handle clients who think they can write the copy themselves? 2. How do you gather all this information? I usually interview the client because I've found they often need help answering questions like these.

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Glenn Murray wrote on September 17th, 2009

G'day Charles. Thanks for your questions. I'll do my best to answer: 1) Most of my clients don't, in fact, think they can write the copy themselves. I've had clients like that in the past, and I still do occasionally encounter them. Rarely (once, I think) have I encountered a client who wants to rewrite an entire piece. Usually they just want to rewrite certain sentences. When this happens, I review their change (I always have Word's Track Changes turned on), and if they're ok, I Accept them. If not, I Reject them, and discuss my reasons with the client. If they insist that their version is better, I've found the best way is to broach the issue firmly. I usually say something like, "You're paying me for my professional expertise here. This is my opinion / You should leave it like this because... However if you're adamant that it needs to be... it's your call." 2) I send a questionnaire to the client. I used to interview clients on the phone, but found that clients were never able to answer all the questions. With the questionnaire, they have the time to consider their answers, without the pressure of me breathing down the phone line! Some clients find the questionnaire a little daunting, but overall, it works well. It's also a good safeguard. On the rare occasion when you get a client who introduces a major change of scope, and claims that it's NOT a change of scope, you have the original questionnaire answers to prove it.

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Rab wrote on September 20th, 2009

This is an invaluable page for people who are about to engage a copywriter. I'm sometimes asked to write web copy and have just a few lines to go on. Clients sometimes don't understand that I need as much information as possible, in fact the more information a client can give me the better.

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Copywriter wrote on November 3rd, 2010

Hey....... Nice post, I have also writing copy form a long time by building blogs and articles for my website. You should spend quite a bit of time telling your copywriter what shape you want, what style, what construction, what size. It is necessary for client to know all the need of you, the more your copywriter knows about you, your goals, your site, your customers, their goals, their problems and your competition, the better your copy will be. So make sure to clear each and every thing intimated to copywriter.

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