If you tuned into last week’s episode of What’s Wrong With Revenue?, you heard our CMO, Eric Keiles, offer up a shining pearl of wisdom. When asked what role he would hire first if starting a digital marketing department, Eric’s response was immediate, unequivocal and brilliant: a good copywriter.
This is not a victory lap. OK, fine, it’s a victory lap. But it’s also an opportunity to explore why a good copywriter is so valuable to small marketing teams and provide some context around that oh-so-important qualifier – good.
Because not every copywriter has the same skills or will deliver equal value to your team, you need to know what to consider before hiring one. As an experienced copywriter myself and someone who oversees other copywriters, I can provide some insight.
Successful digital marketing teams require many different skills. But because there’s not enough budget to hire an extensive team of specialists, you have to prioritize, weighing which roles will have the biggest impact on your efforts.
Because they touch so much of what is core to digital marketing, copywriters are a natural choice. Think about the channels that have the highest potential to influence and convert customers – your website, content, emails. All require copywriting. Today, you can find affordable, easy-to-use platforms to create attractive websites and effective email campaigns. However, the words, that all-important message that persuades prospects to buy – that’s still on you.
To illustrate the many ways in which a copywriter can impact your marketing efforts, consider the case of…me. My first role as a marketing copywriter was with a business trying to get its digital marketing off the ground. I was hired because the marketing specialist that was hired first said he couldn’t do anything without a legitimate writer. Enter me. A partial list of my responsibilities included:
Can you see the value that one hire made to our team? That doesn’t even touch on skills such as keyword research or SEO optimization, which aren’t writer skills but were tasks I performed. While I’d love to think that my ability to do everything listed above makes me unique, it doesn’t. They’re all tasks copywriters routinely do. It’s the ability to do all of those things well that separates good copywriters from the rest.
So what makes a good copywriter? As a copywriter myself, I have one perspective. As content director at Square 2, one of the people charged with evaluating and hiring writers, I have another.
The me that’s a copywriter has always maintained that a strong writer can write anything. And it’s true. But what the content director part of me knows is that copywriting is an umbrella term that includes a wide range of skills. Most writers can lay claim to some of those skills, but not every writer can do them all.
When hiring a copywriter, here are some things to consider as you vet candidates.
You know how everyone says they’re funny but really nobody is? It’s kind of the same with writing.
First, let me applaud those of you who recognize writing is not a strength and admit it. There’s no shame there, friend – you’re saving yourself and others a lot of heartache and frustration.
That out of the way, far more people claim to be good writers than there is good writing in the world. Compared to the average person, these people do write well. But it’s kind of like the time a coworker was talking about running ultramarathons and I mentioned that I also run – 5Ks. It’s just not at the same level.
Writing professionally takes practiced skill that a casual writer doesn’t have. And marketing copywriting requires a specific grasp and approach that even those with creative writing degrees may not have. Don’t be fooled when we say marketing is all about storytelling; it’s not the same as crafting a short story. They are different mediums, and while some writers can do both, being able to do one does not predict success with the other.
When you’re thinking of hiring a copywriter, look for one with experience writing marketing copy and the portfolio to back it up. Unless you’re in the restaurant business, their foodie blog isn’t relevant. Nor are their poems, social media musings or the family holiday newsletter everyone says is great.
Even within marketing copywriting, there are important distinctions. While the term copywriter is used loosely to describe anyone who writes copy, marketing writing falls into two main categories.
Content Writing – This is what people often think of when hiring a marketing writer. Someone who can write blogs, whitepapers and e-books. Their skill is in creating content, usually long-form content. They can probably also write emails, but they may not be able to do everything you want.
Copywriting – I often refer to this as the ability to write in small spaces. Copywriting has its roots in ad writing, which requires the ability to pack big ideas into very few words. Unlike content writing, where the writer may have thousands of words to develop big ideas, copywriters often only have a few lines or even just a few words. Copywriters are usually the ones who craft brand messaging, ads and website copy.
Sometimes writers can do both well, but not always. Many writers aren’t even aware of the distinction (I wasn’t), so I have that discussion with candidates to identify where their skills and experience lie. You may not need both, so know what you’re looking for and make sure the writer you hire has the appropriate skills.
There’s not much more that needs to be said. Writing that stops you in your tracks or pulls you in deeper stands out for a reason: it’s special. It’s hard to find writers who craft creative messaging, let alone find one who can flip a switch, access the other side of their brain and write an intelligent in-depth guide.
If you can find that unicorn, grab them. But don’t pass on strong writers who do everything else well just because they’re not ace creatives. We don’t. It’s usually a nice-to-have skill rather than a must-have for our writers.
When evaluating writers, I barely look at their education (and the reason I do is simple curiosity) and casually glance over their work history. A copywriter’s resume isn’t nearly as important as their portfolio. I won’t even consider a writer who doesn’t have a professional portfolio, and neither should you.
A portfolio showcases a writer’s abilities. They curate it, selecting the pieces they want you to see (presumably their best work). A portfolio gives you a sense of the quality of writing you might expect from this person if they’re hired. When a writer doesn’t have a portfolio, it means one of two things:
In your job posting, specify that all candidates must have a portfolio to be considered for the role and be sure to list the types of writing the job entails. This will allow candidates to include samples that are specific to your needs. Here are a handful of helpful tips for reviewing portfolios:
Portfolios are a good gauge of a writer’s ability, but they can be misleading. Writers often work with editors whose responsibility is to clean up errors and ensure everything reads well. Not surprisingly, these edited versions are what make their way into most writers’ portfolios. But you want to see what the writing looked like before the editor touched it, especially if you don’t employ an editor.
One way to do that is through a writing test. Writing tests should be reserved for your finalists and only be given to candidates whose experience and portfolio already meet your requirements. It’s an investment of time and effort for the writer, which shouldn’t be taken for granted.
Writing tests should be just long enough to give you an idea of how the candidate writes and be something that’s part of the job. At Square 2, it’s a blog post. At my previous company, it was a product description.
A few things to consider with copy tests:
In a perfect world, you’d have the ability to build out your marketing dream team with an array of specialists. Reality and budgets dictate that your initial hires be the ones that can bring the biggest bang for the buck. A talented, well-rounded copywriter does just that, at a minimum giving you the ability to continually update your website story, create consistent content, launch email campaigns and be active on social media.
If you can pair those abilities with another team member’s skills (maybe you’re a marketing strategist with some design skills), you’ll have the engine foundation for an effective digital marketing machine. For highly specialized skills you need to expand, accelerate or scale your marketing, you can lean on an agency partner that staffs specialized experts so you don’t have to.