Should You Be Worried About This? I’m Not…

Got this email from a reader in Canada a few weeks back:

Writers in my market are noticing a trend towards clients hiring low-cost writers, mostly journalism students from the local college. Journalism has been pretty much wiped out here so there’s been a huge increase in these writers. We’ve also noticed several big clients are now offering minimum wage for copywriting positions. So there’s pressure.

A few of us “senior” writers have been talking about collaborating on some sort of marketing strategy based on selling a higher-quality writing service. The general idea is not to compete directly against the will-write-for-food crowd, but to become the go-to writers for clients by offering a consistent, professional and accountable service.

I’ve partnered with another writer to offer this service to a client whose reputation may have suffered some by hiring cheap writers. What we’re seeing with these cases are things like websites with glaring typos, businesses with poor Google results, etc. Are the clients noticing this? Maybe. Is it damaging their reputation in the marketplace? Probably.

While this idea of ours looks positive, the question is this: Do you know of anyone else who has tried this strategy, and have you seen what works and what doesn’t?

At first blush, a little disturbing, but I’m not at all sure we’re comparing apples to apples. Here’s my thinking on this…

I haven’t been seeing this trend personally, but I’m sure it’s happening. The key question: What sorts of copywriting projects are these writers being asked to do?

I ask this because a journalism student from a local college will, in no way shape or form, know their way around good, effective marketing copywriting.

And hiring cheap writers will reliably yield the unreliability he mentions. I can certainly see cheaper freelancers being able to write passable-looking “content” like white papers, case studies, blog posts, etc.—given their more “article” nature.

Commercial Writers Do It Better
Needless to say, a copywriting pro would render those content projects far better, while their versions of ads, direct mail, brochures, landing pages, etc., will be infinitely better, more effective, and far more likely to pay for themselves many times over, than anything a cheaper writer might deliver.

It’d be interesting to get into the heads of these writing buyers. Maybe they know they’ll be trading off some quality for the lower wages paid. But they’d only do that if they truly believed that what these bargain-basement scribes deliver is all they really need.

Don’t Know Good Writing (or Writers)
After all, these clients have already proven they don’t understand the value professional writers bring, so they’re just as unlikely to be able to recognize good writing when they see it, and be happier with inferior stuff.

In the long run, I suspect those same clients, if they start seeing that they’re losing out to companies who are investing more money in writers better equipped to deliver effective content—and general marketing copywriting—may end up doing the same themselves.

In answer to his specific question, I wrote:

If you feel you and your compadres ARE stronger marketing copywriters, that’s probably your best pitch. Yes, I’d also play the reliability, accountability and detailed-oriented (i.e., clean, error-free copy) cards, but I wouldn’t lead with those: Even though they’re exceptionally important, they sound a bit thin, compared to the effective marketing-copy angle.

That should have them thinking that they’re potentially losing far more money in sales, than they’re saving by hiring cheaper writers. And heck, why not make that part of your pitch?

Back to School?
Bottom line, If your prospecting hasn’t turned up enough “good” clients (i.e., those who understand the value people like us bring, and are willing to pay well for it)—and they’re certainly out there—you might need to do more educating of those clients who think, “Anyone can write.”

In many cases, clients don’t even realize there are writers like us (i.e., marketing copywriters). They just need a writer, and if they don’t have success with lower-budget ones, they’ll find a “better writer”—i.e., a more experienced journalist-type writer.

Let ‘Em Know Our Kind Exists
So, the marketing we do for our practices not only lets the world know that we—in particular—are out there, but just as importantly, that marketing copywriters like us, very different from the typical “freelance writer”—are out there.

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Have you noticed this trend in your market?

In your experience, do clients realize there are marketing copywriters out there, not just journalist-style “freelance writers”?

In your experience, do the prospects and clients you cross paths with know the difference a good marketing copywriter, and know what quality marketing writing looks like?

Ever had a client who just didn’t get what a good writer could offer, and your amazing copy rocked their world, and gave them a new appreciation for folks like us?

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13 replies
  1. Lori
    Lori says:

    In my market? Not a trend at all. In fact, the opposite is true. People who might previously balk at the price are realizing that price comes with the skill set they need to get the job done right.

    Do clients realize there are marketing copywriters and not just journalistic ones out there? I like this question because it speaks to what we need to be doing to market ourselves better. I’m both a copywriter and a journalist. I’ve made a point of telling contacts, particularly those who knew me from my editor days, about the other projects I’m working on. Invariably, I get “I didn’t realize you did that!” which has done two things — it’s brought to their attention that my skills are deeper than they might think, and it’s pushed me to continue letting people know that.

    Do prospects and clients know the difference between good and not-so-good copywriting? Yes and no. If they’re basing their decision solely on price, then no. They don’t. And they’re not my clients, and that’s okay. There’s a writer for every price point, and if clients lead with price, they get what they pay for. That’s not to say they can’t get some modicum of quality, but they have to really know how to vet writers. I don’t think too many clients at these lower price ranges have that kind of knowledge.

    I’d love to think I’ve converted a few doubters. :) I know I’ve had a few clients I’ve dropped because they didn’t get it, but I’ve also had some of them come back because they didn’t get what they needed from the cheaper writers. And they paid my rate without question at that point.

    One more thought — the idea that we’re being influenced by the presence of “cheap” writers is a flawed idea, in my opinion. I’m targeting specific client groups with my specific skills. These clients already value and sweat every word they send out into the world. They’re not going to make the mistake of going cheap. If writers are feeling that cheaper writers are making it tough for them, I’d say raise your rates and go higher up the food chain. The clients you’re targeting aren’t your clients. Their goals and yours aren’t the same.

  2. Shari
    Shari says:

    In my market, it’s absolutely becoming an issue. The amount of jobs and prospective clients who are asking for writers willing to work for $2 an article or to write 2,000 word (well-researched) blog posts for $25 and $30 is growing. I know it is becoming an issue in parts of Canada as well, because one of my biggest clients was in Vancouver, and I’ve recently had to part ways with them because they kept demanding more and wanting to pay far less than my time and expertise were worth. This client is unique in that they originally hired me after using non-English-speaking writers to craft online content for them and finding that they got exactly what they paid for, which was poorly-written content filled with grammatical and spelling errors that did not rank well with search engines. So I was dismayed when I got them the results they wanted, only to have them then begin pressuring me to lower my rates to what they had paid their previous writers. Here is a case of a client that had bad results when trying to cut corners, then got great results with a skilled writer who charged more for her work, but it didn’t stop them from demanding lower pay for quality work. Some companies will never get it, unfortunately.

    I am unique in that my degree is in journalism, but a great portion of my work experience is in marketing and public relations. So I am not one of those “journalists” who only thinks they can write marketing materials. I am actually capable of writing the kind of copy that will help boost sales and website ranking, promote quality and help companies define their brand. Some journalism programs do include marketing and copy writing components, so I think we need to be careful in our disparagement of journalists as a whole when discussing this low-pay issue. That’s as unfair as saying that all companies are looking for quality writers at bargain basement prices.

    Yes, there are companies and client bases that do appreciate and understand the value in paying for a quality writer. But unfortunately, I do believe that the writers who are willing to work for pennies or just to see their byline in print somewhere are hurting this industry. I have seen it personally in my market, and so have some of my colleagues who also are in the copy writing business in my area. We have had numerous discussions about this growing trend among ourselves in recent months. One such colleague has been in the business for 22 years and said it is getting harder to for her to make a living because of this push toward cheap writers in our market. I cannot speak to what is happening in other markets, but I can firmly say that not only are these cheap writers tarnishing the reputation of all writers by producing sub-par work, they also are encouraging businesses in my market who are looking to cut costs anywhere they can to give cheap writers a try.

  3. Cathy Miller
    Cathy Miller says:

    I’m going to echo much of what Lori had to say. Perhaps the reason is because both Lori and I specialize in a specific niche. Sure, I still get those who flinch at my rates. I no longer feel guilty (which is saying something for this Catholic girl), 😉 nor do I feel the need to justify rates that reflect over 30 years of experience in our industry.

    Lori works a lot more than I do with editors from trade publications. I work behind the scenes for the businesses that make up our industry. So, I can’t remember ever bumping up against a client looking for a journalist versus a copywriter or niche specialist.

    We are comparing some apples and oranges. A great marketing copywriter may not be great at all forms of business writing. Perfect example. I recently acquired a new client whose one-year contract with a marketing agency was coming to an end. While she loved what they did for their website redesign and other aspects, she hated the articles they wrote for her clients’ newsletters. Her complaint? They wrote them like journalists and not like the technical resource her clients need. They simply did not understand her organization’s business. I do. Win for me. 😉

  4. Peter Bowerman
    Peter Bowerman says:

    Thanks much, Lori, Shari and Cathy! I sincerely appreciate your thoughtful and detailed responses…

    Good stuff and, not surprisingly, several different perspectives. Lori and Cathy, I echo your thinking, and it all comes down to the more specific, marketable and uncommon your skills are, the easier time you’ll have in getting your rates.

    Shari, I get completely where you’re coming from, and it definitely sounds frustrating. In your case, clients that have learned that they can’t get what they want from cheaper writers, but CAN get it from you who charge more are STILL pressuring you to drop your rates.

    Meanwhile, Lori’s experiences with a similar scenario are different – with clients coming back and paying her rates. So, clearly we’re talking about a difference in clients and project types.

    I suspect that in Shari’s case, she’s working with a lot of clients used to working with “commoditized” skills from writers and hence, beating up those writers to keep driving rates down. To the point where, even when they find that they don’t get the quality the want from cheaper writers, they’re so used to putting pressure on writers, that even when they find a writer like Shari who charges more AND delivers more, they can’t help themselves.

    As such, maybe Lori’s right when she says, “raise your rates and go higher up the food chain” where those skills will be valued, appreciated and compensated at higher levels. I know that’s never a fun adjustment to have to make, but what other choices do you have?

    I hear you when you say those cheaper writers are hurting the industry, but I’ve always felt that no writer is obligated to toe any particular line just to “help the industry.” Sure, it’d be great if they all did have that “All-for-one-and-one-for-all” mentality, but given the vast range of circumstances, there will always be those who are going cheaper to get established, get noticed and get more work. And you’ll never be able to control that.

    And when enough of them do that, yes, they end up—in certain areas of freelancing—training clients to expect everything for nothing. In those cases, as noted, all you can do is move yourself to greener pastures, and not get caught up in a situation where you’re dependent on how OTHERS choose to run their businesses.

    Thanks to all for the great input!

  5. Marcus Schaller
    Marcus Schaller says:

    This reminds me of similar conversations regarding Elance, Guru, etc etc etc. There will always be clients whose primary concern is spending as little as possible. I’m not worried about them. I’m much more interested in the primary concern of the clients who are willing to invest in assets that help them grow. While these clients certainly have budgets to consider, they’re often large enough to not only easily pay for high-end creative work, but are best positioned to financially benefit from that work as well.

    Go where the rest fear to tread. For every 1,000 freelancers hiding behind social media and job sites, there’s a small handful that pick up the phone and actively contact targeted prospects. Scary, uncomfortable, and sometimes depressing… but REALLY effective at connecting with the best clients.

  6. Sharon Hurley Hall
    Sharon Hurley Hall says:

    Yes, let’s not blast all the journalists. :) I come from a trade journalism background. The clients i work with appreciate my research skills and ability to interview people and turn out something readable and valuable at the end.

    Sure, there are people who try to lowball me. My response is always to politely decline; professional writing is worth a professional rate. I think writers who accept low pay don’t hurt the writers who refuse to settle for less than they are worth.

    Instead of sinking to that level, raise your rates instead – it’s certainly worked for me.

  7. Star
    Star says:

    Oh, man, I could write a BOOK here. I was in the biz 35 yrs–both commercial writing and reporting. To keep this short, I noticed this line: if they start seeing that they’re losing out to companies who are investing more money in writers

    The problem is most clients, at least in my memory, don’t have the checks and metrics to ever see this. Maybe this new venture could suggest this without trashing their fellow writers, however inexperienced and low-bidding. How about a couple of case studies?… “Sue worked on the collateral for XYZ’s big annual meeting. She was not the low bidder, but the client selected her for this all-important project based on her samples and references. She was worth every penny and even saved the client money because she had the experience in the industry, knew what others had tried that would not work, produced flawless copy, worked fast…etc etc”

    Or: Tom is one of the top direct response writers in the country. His rates are commensurate, but he produces great conversion numbers and his packages usually pull beyond expectations.

    Don’t say you won’t get the same results using your secretary’s out of work brother in law…Just say how great you are.

    Also–remember the 80/20 rule–you probably get most of your money and the least hassles from a select group of clients. We used to think of it this way: The time you spend explaining that your mail package will NOT pull 20% is time you can spend finding a better client.

    Comparably, when I made short film some years ago, we used members of the Screen Actors Guild for the two principals. We got the shots faster, saved time, and it was well worth the $3000 or so we had to pay them, not to mention their demands to be paid for every outfit they brought in and for lunch to be called on the dot of noon.

  8. Peter Bowerman
    Peter Bowerman says:

    Thanks Marcus, Sharon and Star for weighing in! You’re so right, Marcus. Far too many writers hanging out where SO many others are, and wondering why they can’t make any money.

    I always say the same thing: If you think your skills are better than average, then go look for work where the clients AREN’T simply looking for skills they can get from any number of thousands of other writers. And yes, as you point out, that takes effort to find them, but YOU pick how you’ll struggle: To pay your bills or to find those who’ll pay what you’re worth (and they’re most assuredly out there).

    Thanks for the reminder, Sharon! Didn’t mean to blast journalists. I know good journalists are excellent writers, understand how to draw an audience in, are good researchers, and know how to work under deadlines (among other things). Just addressing my letter-writer’s concerns about the perceived competition from that segment. And fact is, if you DO know your way around marketing copywriting fundamentals, you’ll have an advantage.

    Thanks, Star – and good advice! Real-world testimonials/success stories are compelling tools, and our writers above should make the strongest possible use of them. And you’re right: They’re far more powerful than just telling them NOT to do x, y or z. That doesn’t underscore the advantages that’ll accrue to them by going with better resources – advantage they’ll easily grasp!

  9. Jake Poinier
    Jake Poinier says:

    A financial blogger who I really admire (Random Roger) captures my feelings about this topic in yoga terms: Keep your mind on your own mat. He’s talking about portfolios and worrying about things you can’t control (i.e., the stock market), and the same principle applies to pricing. I don’t worry about low-rate freelancers, because the clients they’re getting most likely wouldn’t be clients I’d want. Just because there’s a market for it doesn’t mean I have to play! Like Lori, I’ve had people come crawling back to me after having a cheap freelancer (or in-house staffer) make a hash of something, and I think long and hard before saying yes. I prefer clients that “get it” without a whole lot of convincing on my part.

    When I saw your phrase “cheaper freelancers being able to write passable-looking ‘content,'” I was reminded of the joke among graphic designers in my magazine days: They called it “layout grout.”

  10. Lori
    Lori says:

    “Keep your mind on your own mat.”

    That’s great advice. If you worry about your business, you aren’t influenced by outside forces.

  11. Joe Mullich
    Joe Mullich says:

    The first problem of the person who sent this email is they define their market by geography. If your market is just your local area, you have a limited client base and are likely selling general writing services, which are highly susceptible to pricing pressure.

    Nowadays, it’s easy for companies and publications to work with writers anywhere in the world; I’ve worked for a decade for clients who live thousands of miles from me that I have never met in person.

    Beyond that, if journalism students are poising a true competitive threat to you, it means you’re selling the wrong services or selling to the wrong clients. The answer isn’t to try to convince those clients that they need you. It’s finding clients who already appreciate the value of what you offer.

  12. William Reynolds
    William Reynolds says:

    I tried to get one of my regulars to hire me for blogging services. his response that he already received free blog content as part of his web provider’s package. Well, that free content turned out to be worth every penny — and he then called me in a panic, asking me if I could rewrite the gibberish he’d received. I said sure, but pointed out that hiring me and getting good articles that required no fixes would cost him less — both financially and anxiety-wise — in the long run.

    One thing we professionals can always sell to clients is that total package of writing skill, industry experience, direct access and trusted counsel. They’re not just getting words — they’re getting the person writing them!

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