If you’re a copywriter, the customer’s NOT always right

May 14, 2015 •
Hamster image for copywriting clients are usually wrong post

If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my 13 years as a copywriter, it’s that you should never assume the customer’s right.

In fact, when it comes to what their copy needs to say, I usually assume they’re wrong!

I don’t mean to sound rude or arrogant. I’ve had some amazingly smart clients, over the years. People who know their business, their offering, their market and their competitors, inside-out. People with strategy and insight. And I listen to everything they tell me (as well as what they don’t).

But they’re paying me for a very good reason: they can’t write copy and I can.

And in my experience, this is particularly telling when it comes to the message they want to convey. Usually what they want to say in their copywriting is way off the mark. It may even be counter-productive. Here’s an example…

Julie sells hamster cardigans. (That’s cardigans made for hamsters, not cardigans made from hamsters 😉

She asks me to rewrite her sales page to sell more of them. She’s written the whole page already – she spent weeks on it – she just needs me to rewrite it in a more “salesy” fashion…

“It says everything I need it to say, I just want you to polish it up and make it sound more professional.”

If you’ve never used a copywriter before, you might think that sounds like a reasonable request. After all, doesn’t a copywriter simply write what you want to say, but with prettier words?


No, no, NO!

You see, Julie hand-makes her hamster cardigans. It’s hard work, and requires incredible skill and an eye for detail. And hers are bloody good! They even have a thread count of 300. 300! Don’t you know how amazing that is? No competing hamster cardigan even approaches 300!

So when Julie sends me the copy she’s spent the last month sweating over, the very first thing I see is the headline:

“The only hamster cardigan in the world with a 300 thread count!”

And again, at first glance, that might sound reasonable. Being a world leader in anything is certainly a differentiator! But will hamster owners read that and think, “300 thread count?! What the?! My Chopper simply can’t live without one of those!”

I don’t think so. I don’t think they’ll even know what ‘thread count’ actually means. And even if they do, how will it help Chopper? How will it help them as a hamster owner?

So the very first – and most important – element in Julie’s copy is inappropriate. When she told me, “It says everything I need it to say”, she was wrong.

And this sort of thing happens all the time. Here’s another example of how copywriting clients get it wrong (I recorded this back in 2008):

Most copywriting clients are so close to their products and services that they don’t have the perspective required to judge what their customers really want to hear. (Unless, of course, they’ve performed some actual market research.) They tend to assume everyone will value the same qualities they do, but that’s not necessarily – or even usually – true.

A copywriter, on the other hand, does have that perspective. They’re much more able to put themselves in the customer’s shoes. Especially if they’ve been copywriting for a while.

Sure, we first have to familiarise ourselves with the client’s business domain, subject matter and market. But that’s just a matter of asking the client the right questions, then doing some thinking and research.

For example, I’d ask Julie a barrage of questions about her customers, their hamsters, why their hamsters might need cardigans, whether they know their hamsters need cardigans, whether they know such a product exists (and if they do, whether I need to convince them they need cardigans, generally, or her cardigans specifically), and, indeed, whether hamsters are known to prefer hoodies over cardies. And so on…

Of course, assuming the client is wrong isn’t the same as refusing to believe they’re right. It’s more like playing devil’s advocate. Seeing what comes of challenging their assumptions. It’s very possible they’re right, and after asking all the right questions and thinking everything through, you’ll come to the very same conclusions they have.

But in my experience, that’s not how it happens. Indeed, I’ve lost count of how many times my clients have said things like:

“It’s been great having you look at this. You asked a lot of questions I’d never thought about, and really made me see things from the customer’s perspective.”

Now if only I get my wife to value my point of view so highly…

Feel free to comment...
comment avatar
Peter wrote on May 14th, 2015

I'm having this framed! But you're a tease: I'm dying to know what the hamster cardigan copy looks like?

comment avatar
Glenn Murray wrote on May 15th, 2015

Haha! I'd like to see that copy too. (It was a hypothetical scenario. That said, I was imagining my sister-in-law, Julie.)

comment avatar
Peter wrote on May 15th, 2015

Perhaps the PM has the answer? Stop the coats: have a cardigan.

comment avatar
Glenn Murray wrote on May 15th, 2015

Lock the little bastards up! ;-\

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *